Padikemgala Raja Maha Vihara: A relic of ancient glory | Sunday Observer

Padikemgala Raja Maha Vihara: A relic of ancient glory

22 January, 2017
The partly restored image house of the Padikemgala Vihara which was carried out by Central Cultural Fund recently.

Enjoy the comfortable drive down the picturesque, newly carpeted road from Suriyawewa to Mahagal Wewa, in the Northern part of the Hambantota District, and although it was not yet nine in the morning, the sun was hot and beating down upon the vast stretch of green paddy-fields and chenas stretched in all directions. A little beyond the quaint village of Migahajandura was our destination, Maha Gal Wewa, where the historic Padikemgala Raja Maha Vihara rose majestically against a backdrop of lush greenery.

We passed the iconic landmarks of the area, such as, the Suriyawewa International Cricket Stadium, once a venue of international cricket matches, now neglected, and a historic tamarind tree at Migahajandura, where Leonard Woolf, an Assistant Government Agent in the Southern Province in 1908, had administrated the Hambantota District, holding a mobile court under this huge tamarind tree.

I once visited this area 16 years ago, and found mud filled gravel roads with huge potholes and houses built of mud along the road. The area had been completely neglected. At the time of my recent visit, it was curious to see the transformation of the lives of the farming community, their infrastructure facilities vividly showing the development of the region.

Having parked the vehicle under a shady tree, we entered the present chief incumbent’s newly built modern two-storied Avasage. Through the windows of the Avasage, i saw huge trees, such as, tamarind, wood apple, Kambokka, Palu and Weera in the temple premises, intermingled with the ruins.

My first visit to the Padikemgala temple was in early 2000, when it was in poor condition. At that time, the chief incumbent of Raja Maha vihara was the late Ven. Lunama Gnanaloka Thera. During his incumbency, he had taken manifold steps to restore the temple. During my first visit, the late chief incumbent invited me to have breakfast at the temple, and served Kurahan Talapa with curd. It was indeed delicious, which I partook for the first time.

The chief incumbent’s Avasage was built with bricks, mud and cadjan thatched roof, and a mixture made from cow-dung and clay applied to the floor. The place was cool due to the cadjan roof. Looking at all the changes, I sensed a new development in the area and in the lives of the inhabitants.

Around seven decades ago, the whole Mahgal Wewa area was a thick jungle and if anyone ventured there it was for hunting. In 1958, the late chief incumbent came upon an enchanting monastery buried in the thick jungle of Mahagal Wewa.

Archaeological evidence

The place, known as the historic Padikemgala Raja Maha Vihara, is now an archaeological reserve. It got its name from a huge water hole “Kema” in the cavity of a rock surface with a flight of steps carved out of the rock boulder in the temple, believed to have been used by meditating monks, in the past. It is one of the largest monasteries found outside the capital city - Tissamaharama in the Ruhuna Kingdom.

Since the site is believed to have been completely forgotten for a long period, the true name of Padikemgala is still not known. However, it was one of the largest monasteries outside the capital of Tissamaharama. According to archaeological evidence, it was built by the founder of Ruhuna, King Mahanaga, somewhere between 250-210 bc. Padikemgala is a rich and splendid place, especially favoured with its own unique art forms in the stone carvings.

Walking around the place, we noticed the ruined ancient vihara complex which stood on a high terrace, made of rock boulders that surrounded the whole complex preventing erosion of the upper terrace, where most of the buildings stood. Intricately carved guardstones had been leaned to huge trees in the past, and now they are fixed permanently into the trees. As we climbed the steps leading to the upper terrace, we saw ruins and statues everywhere, aged and blackened pieces of stone lost among the thorny shrub.

At the entrance is a large pillared structure and a single standing guardstone, probably a chapter house, and its columns leaning to a side and buried half into the earth. On the other side are the remains of what appears to be a small image house, with sculptured steps. Behind it is, yet another group of huge stone pillars, hidden in the undergrowth.

On our left was what appeared to be a mound of earth; perhaps an ancient dagoba. The other rare priceless archaeological artifact was a structure called, “Yanthara Gal” (treasure chambers). In ancient monarchical times, valuable treasures were buried for safe-keeping. Such treasures were deposited in the Yanthara Gal, square in shape, having square deep seated grooves in which these valuables are preserved. At Padikemgala, we witnessed one such Yanthara Gala broken into pieces lying close to the mound of earth, surely, destroyed by treasure hunters.

Peculiar moonstone

Not far away from the ruined dagoba, lies a peculiar moonstone, another sign of Padikemgala’s distinctive past. This great limestone slab has an unusual geometric feel to it. Solid, regular and massive, it is a world away from the graceful curve which came to epitomize the moonstone.

In the middle of the upper terrace, lies the ruins of a huge image house and a torso of a buddha at the entrance. The Department of Archaeology has carried out extensive excavations around the image house of Padikemgala recently, and later it was handed over to the Central Cultural Fund to carry out the rest of the excavations and restoration work.

As we proceeded along the footpath under a forest canopy on the upper terrace, we came across a stone built bodhigara (the house of the bo tree), quite unique for Padikemgala, which is nothing like it in the rest of the country. Standing on a platform of lotus petals, it is enclosed within an eight-sided structure with pillars rising from the walls.

Around the Bodhigara, in the middle of the decorated limestone frieze lies Sujatha offering Kiripidu Dana to Siddartha Gautama, followed by more stone friezes of elephants with their trunks curled up. In the inner shrine are circles of elephants and dwarfs. Even today, one can see the figures, although faded due to weather patterns. Outside it, is yet another octagon, also set with columns. With its roof and surrounding set with pillars it is almost like a Vatadage. Although it opens on one side, each of the other seven faces contains a niche with the remains of the carvings in its midst. Strangely, it is typical of the art of Padikemgala. Built by King Mahanaga, the ruins of the Bodhigara were scattered all over the area, centuries before the department of archaeology undertook conservation in1988. It has been restored to its ancient glory.

Returning to the lower terrace where Avasage and other buildings are located, we sat under the shade of a tamarind tree close to the Dhamma school. Despite many difficulties, the present chief incumbent of the temple, Ven. Mahgalwewa Venitha Thera conducts Dhamma school every sunday, to provide better Dhamma education to the children in the area.

According to the chief incumbent, getting text books on time and the shortage of teachers in the area, are the problems they face.

Padikemgala is a place of cultural value and part of a rich heritage we are fast losing. The need today, is to have this ancient temple steeped in history, properly conserved and carry out a thorough archaeological survey of the site.