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Matara historically belongs to the area that was called the Kingdom of Ruhuna, which was one of the three kingdoms in Sri Lanka . Matara was previously called Mahathota. The Nilwala River runs through Matara and there was a wide area where ferries used to cross. Hence, the town was called Maha Thota which was derived from the Sanskrit word Maha Theertha, which means "the great ferry". According to Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thera's Paravi Sndesaya King Weerabamapanam made Matara as his capital and named it "Mapatuna". The temple in the middle of the town is also built by ancient kings, and now it is a very popular sacred place among the Buddhists in the area.
In the 16th and 18th centuries, Matara was ruled by the Portuguese and the Dutch respectively.
In 1672 the Portuguese called the town "Maturai", which means a great fortress. This may have been a mispronunciation of Thurai, which is the Tamil word for "Ferry". The present name of "Matara," however, has been in used for the last three centuries, relating to the town's connection with the Nilwala River.
In 1756 the Dutch captured the Maritime Province and divided it into four administrative areas — Sabaragamuwa, Sath Korle, Sathara Korele and Matara. Out of these, Matara District covered the largest area (essentially the whole of the Southern Province up to the Kaluganga River). In the deed given by King Dharmapala to the Dutch, it mentioned that the area of Matara District extended from Kotte to Walawe Ganga Rive
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