Lankatilaka Vihara: Magnificent edifice of Gampola era | Sunday Observer

Lankatilaka Vihara: Magnificent edifice of Gampola era

19 February, 2017
The front entrance of the Lankatilaka Vihara from the east, with a breathtaking view.

Shading our eyes against the rays of a mild sun, we gazed further inside the narrow Daulagala- Embilimeegama road and the grand vista of the countryside sprawling below in the outskirts of Kandy. Venturing another three and a half kilometres along the same road that winds through fertile lush green paddy fields, we caught a glimpse of the impressive awe-inspiring Lankatilaka Vihara in the distance. Its whitewashed exterior and the dagoba atop the hill stand out amidst the treetops.

Standing atop a rocky outcrop, the Lankatilaka Vihara overlooks a sea of vivid green vegetation, encircled in the distance by the salubrious Hantane mountain range. Like Gadaladeniya, Lankatilaka is also the work of a South Indian architect. However, the Lankatilaka Vihara is more delicate and beautiful in its proportions.

The Lankatilaka Vihara is situated on a top of a rock popularly called Panhalgala in the village of Hiyarapitiya in Udunuwara in the Kandy district. There are several access roads to this place of worship. A visitor travelling along Colombo-Kandy highway will have to take the turn to the right at the Ambilimeegama-Daulagala road via Gadaladeniya before reaching Lankatilaka. It is also possible to go along this road a short distance, take the turn at Pujagoda and proceed along Pujagoda- Siddhaulla road for a distance of one and half kilometres. This road is motorable up to the Daulagala village.

From here visitors can glimpse the Lankatilaka Vihara on top of the hillock. It can be reached by climbing the steeped rock carved flight of steps leading to the front entrance of the Vihara. However, to reach the Vihara, as most pilgrims do, we used the motorable route which leads up to the rear entrance of the Vihara on top of the hill.

Entering the magnificent Vihara, we came across two Samanera Bhikkus stationed on the top to educate visitors and pilgrims about the Vihara and sell picture post-cards and booklets about the temple. First, we were taken to the massive image house and shown the magnificent gold-plated seated statue of Buddha and impressive floral decorations on the ceiling and murals on the walls.

Gampola Kingdom

In tracing the history of the Lankatilaka Vihara, we should hark back to the 14th century where several strong kingdoms ruled the land. At the time the capital of the Sinhala kingdom was Kurunegala, located about 50 kilometres to the north and west of Kandy (now linked by a very good road). The Kurunegala Kingdom drew to a close when the Sinhala Kings decided to move to a new kingdom at Gangasiripura or Gampola, a comparatively safe stronghold on the bank of the Mahaweli Ganga.

The king who first chose Gampola as his dominion was Buvanekabahu IV, who reigned from 1341 to 1351 AD. However, among the monuments seen as notable exceptions that are in existence today from that period, the Gadaladeniya Vihara (featured last week), the Embekke Devale and especially the Lankatilaka Vihara are three which distinguish themselves. Of these, the Lankatilaka Vihara stands supreme in its majesty of structure and design.

According to the historical notes at the Vihara, King Buvanekabahu IV (1341-1351 AD) had commissioned a reputed architect from the Mehenewara, an artisan clan to construct a monumental Vihara. It is also recorded that this architect had obtained instructions on design and construction from a renowned South Indian architect called Stapati Rayar.

Although the uneven rock upon which the Vihara was built posed a serious problem to this South Indian architect, the location was so special that he went out of his way to overcome this difficulty. He achieved this by placing the Vihara upon a terrace of solid stone, first laying the foundation and then levelling it with large slabs of granite.

One of the most magnificent works of architecture from the Gampola Period, the Lankatilaka Vihara bears a massive stone inscription on its left side of the rock which tells us that this Vihara built in the 14th century is a dedication by Senalankadhikara, a minister of King Buvanekabahu IV (1341-1351 AD). Another inscription, engraved in copper, also tells us that it originally had four stories and was nearly eighty feet high, of which only the ground floor is used today.

The Vihara as it stands today is living testimony to the creativity and ingenuity of the artists of Kandyan Kingdom. Near the entrance is a decorative moonstone elegantly carved out of rock and above this is a Makara Thorana (dragon arch). On either side of the entrance are two Gajasingha statues, which are said to be very rare in the style of their execution and design.

Despite the loss of the two storeys, the Lankatilaka Vihara monument still retains a good portion of its ancient majesty. The present building of two storeys was renovated and the tile roof added in 1845, by then Chief Incumbent and village headman Basnayaka Nilame Arawwala, employing the service of a renowned architect and builder known as Godapola to attend to the reconstruction. Even from a distance you can see this elegant roof standing out at the end of the rock.

Floral motifs

We were led by the Samaneras to the interior of the Vihara through a broad arch and shown the elegantly designed wood portal of the Vihara. The main entrance to the Vihara consists of a monumental door hewn out in one piece from a single tree and is delightfully decorated with paintings using floral motifs. The ceiling of the Vihara is decorated with stylized illustrations of floral motifs. The inner image house Budu Ge contains a fine gold-plated image of Buddha underneath a Makara Thorana which is similar to the Gadaladeniya image in appearance. The walls and ceiling of the interior are covered with well-preserved murals, some of the oldest and best examples of the Kandyan style.

Located alongside the enchanting landscape of the main Vihara building is a minor Vihara entitled the Kuda Viharaya (literally small temple) which was our next visit. Also contained within the premises of the Dharmashalawa (preaching hall), glistering unique bell-shaped Dagoba and a huge Bo-tree give shade to the place as its tender Bo leaves rustled in the morning breeze as we walked under the shade into the rear entrance. On the Western doorway of the rear entrance of the Vihara is a devala for five Hindu or local deities. Ganesh and Skanda are represented in the niches facing east, while Saman, Vishnu and Vibishana face north, west and south. A new feature added to the Devale is the worship of deity Kumara Bandara.

During the Gampola period the fraternity of Bhikkus belonging to the forest and the village had resided together in this Vihara. The Lankatilaka Vihara is presently owned by Bhikkus of the Kobbekaduwa Sirinivasa succession. An annual pageant is also conducted in the Lankatilaka Vihara under the patronage of the Basnayaka Nilame of the Vihara.

When we visited the Vihara a couple of weeks ago, the roof of the Vihara was being renovated and the top of the roof was covered by a temporarily tent.

Indeed, the awe-inspiring Lankatilaka Vihara is one of the most beautifully constructed monuments in the country and another facet of a historical legacy that has withstood the test of time, bearing powerful witness to the artistic, cultural and spiritual glory of the bygone era.