Godapitiya Sri Sudarshanaramaya ancient temple : Murals in danger | Sunday Observer

Godapitiya Sri Sudarshanaramaya ancient temple : Murals in danger

16 October, 2016
Ancient image house of Godapitiya Sri Sudarshanaramaya temple

 A one hour drive from Weligama along the picturesque Akuressa road brings you to the heart of the rustic countryside of Akuressa town. Lush vegetation greets you everywhere, with a stretch of paddy-fields, rivers meandering through the green landscape and the road for many a kilometre, dotted with small boutiques

The comfortable drive to Akuressa, through the Weligama - Thelijjawila road is indeed spectacular. There was hardly any traffic on the road. We approached the busy junction of Amalagoda, turned left and proceeded a few kilometres further to reach Akuressa town.

Today, Akuressa is known as an important trade and agricultural centre in the Southern Province. There was a Portuguese Fort in Akuressa in the area known as ‘Kotuwegoda’. This Fort would have been temporary. The present Akuressa town itself is divided into two parts, by the Nilwala Ganga. The town was built on the banks of the river during the 20th century and was later expanded across the river.

The Vesak stamps over the years have carried paintings from temples in various parts of Sri Lanka. Some of them were from better known temples. The stamps help create awareness of temples with beautiful works of art by unknown painters. Since the names of painters and the period they were done were not mentioned anywhere, the stamps indicated the name of the temple and their locations.

While visiting Weligama, we decided to visit an important ancient temple in the Southern Province, the Godapitiya Raja MahaViharaya in Akuressa. Among the paintings at this Vihara depicting the popular Jataka story, the Daham Sonda Jataka, painted on an old wooden casket has been used in the series of Vesak stamps issued in 1984.

However, our destination was the village of Godapitiya in search of the Godapitiya Raja Maha Viharaya, some four kilometres from Akuressa on the Akuressa - Pitabeddara road. A wayside vendor informed us that the Viharaya was originally known as the Godapitiya Raja Maha Viharaya, which was later divided into two sections and established under a different Buddhist sect as Godapitiya Jetavanaramaya Raja Maha Viharaya and Godapitiya Sri Sudarshanaramaya ancient temple, following a dispute. Hence, we visited the Godapitiya Sri Sudarshanaramaya temple first, because it was easy to reach from the main road.

Since the temple gate was closed, we stopped near the gate and walked to the temple premises passing through modern buildings, and at the far corner, buildings have been fully utilized to home the present day temple (Avasa Ge) where the chief priest and some young Samaneras lived.

The hospitable and kind chief incumbent, Ven. Thalahagama Indrarathana Thera welcomed us and was happy to talk of the history surrounding his temple. The soft-spoken chief priest, on inquiry pointed out, that the painting on the stamp was in the adjoining temple, Godapitiya Jetavanarama Rajamaha Vihara, and not in his temple.

The original Godapitiya Raja Maha Vihara was built on the banks of the Nilwala Ganga and originally had not been on elevated land. The temple had been built filling the land with earth and the name was derived from ‘Goda’ (filling) of the ‘Pitiya’ (flat land). According to the stone plaque at the Godapitiya Raja Maha Vihara, this temple was constructed around 1788 by Ven. Agalakada Sri Dammarakkitha Thera, who had received Royal patronage and who had also constructed the image house. The image house contains wall paintings belonging to the traditional Kandyan period.

A three-storeyed structure was constructed by the popular ‘Saram Mudali’ (De Saram) who was also Chief Patron of the Ganga Rohana festival held in the temple. This building originally housed the library and the preaching hall. This Vihara retains several articles donated to it by patrons. Among them is the lock of hair of Saram Siriwardena Mudliyar who was a benefactor of the Vihara.

Going back to Godapitiya Sri Sudarshanarama ancient Vihara, located adjacent to Jetavanaramaya, the Vihara and the ancient image house had been constructed in 1840. The then chief incumbent of the temple, Ven. Nalagama Piyarathana Thera and his pupil Ven. Walpita Jinasara Thera, with the assistance of Buddhist philanthropists in the area were instrumental in constructing this temple.

The most fascinating feature of the temple is its ancient image house. The present chief incumbent of the temple, Ven. Thalahagama Indrarathana Thera believes, the ancient Watadage type image house in the temple is said to have been the one and only type of structure in the Southern Province, which can be found in the temple.

The Watadage type image house inside the main image house

There is a central square pillar constructed at the centre of the image house and there are 10 niches around this pillar accommodating Buddha statues. There is a high platform constructed around the pillar, which serves as the flower altar. Four small Dagobas can be seen on the four corners of this platform.

On top of this central square pillar is a Dagoba, somewhat bigger than the ones inside the image house. Access to the image house is through the three entrances having altogether 12 doors and eight windows. There are splendid wall paintings within this Vihara, done in the typical style of the Kandyan period.

The ‘Suvisi Vivarana’ paintings (24 Buddhas who had existed in the world so far) and stories related to Buddha’s early life are depicted in the paintings of the image house in traditional Kandyan style. The colonial influence seemed to have been received by the artists of some paintings which can be seen from some figures and floral motifs in the image. Considering the antiquity and historical significance, the Department of Archaeology has conserved the place as a heritage monument.

The ceiling of the image house and ancient paintings have been severely damaged due to seeping from the roof and are now, in a dilapidated condition, but there are a few sections remaining intact.

“The murals had been painted on a fine paste of sand and lime. As far as the original temple is concerned, the paintings on the walls and ceiling belonging to the Kandyan period were considered ancient. Today, the murals are fast vanishing due to their antiquity and the seeping water from the roof in the image house severely damaging the ceiling and its beautiful paintings. I have made several requests for preserving the murals by covering them with wood and tiles,” said the chief incumbent.

In addition to this priceless ancient image house, a new image house also had been constructed about 88 years ago. The architectural style of the new image house portrays the colonial influence in its construction. A preaching hall, Chityagaraya and Uposathaggara among the many structures found in the temple dated back to 1920, and residence of the monks also dates from this period.

Furthermore, the chief incumbent said, the numerous religious activities were conducted by the temple for the benefit of the masses. Among them are, adult Damma Schools conducted several days a week, and Shramadana campaigns at needy temples in the area.

Centuries ago Godapitiya Sri Sudarshanaramaya was supposed to have been constructed by pious Buddhist monks and philanthropists in the area. It is a place the country could be proud of, although the main image house now lay neglected.

Our exploration did not stop here; paying homage at the image house, we went outside pausing a moment to look at the surrounding vista. Numerous glistering buildings are dotted in the temple premises. After visiting Sri Sudarshanaramaya temple, we stepped into the nearby Jetawanaramaya temple, eagerly anticipating to see the ancient painting of Godapitiya Raja Maha Vihara which had been used for the Vesak stamp in 1984. Alas, the chief incumbent of the Jetawanaramaya temple didn’t allow us to photograph it.

Although we were not allowed to photograph the temple, we were happy to see the ancient Watadage of Godapitiya Sri Sudarshanaramaya Vihara which is part of the Godapitiya Jetawanaramaya Viharaya in a bygone era.

Some of the ancient murals belonging to the Kandyan period in the image house