Galmaduwa Vihara: An unfinished temple in Kandy | Sunday Observer

Galmaduwa Vihara: An unfinished temple in Kandy

26 March, 2017
The exterior view of the Galmaduwa Vihara with its gopuram like tomb
The exterior view of the Galmaduwa Vihara with its gopuram like tomb

If it is history that fascinates you, Sri Lanka’s own spans 2,500 years. Some unique works of architecture, built hundreds of years ago stand tall to the present day. Built entirely in stone and brick, the distinctive works that belong to the Kandyan era that lasted from the 17th Century bear testimony to the abounding history of Sri Lanka and its rich heritage.

A short turn off from the Kandy–Digane Road via Tennekumbura just outside the city of Kandy which lead to the rustic villages of Nattarampotha and Amunugama, you come across two magnificent Viharas of Degaldoruwa (featured in the Sunday Observer, March 12 issue) and Galmaduwa. Before coming to Degaldoruwa in the village of Nattarampotha, you find a strange sight, the Galmaduwa, a Gedige type Vihara, an unfinished 17th Century Buddhist Vihara with a pyramidal tower of stone and brick, highly reminiscent of a Hindu identity of gopuram.

Golden glow

It was a bright morning, the day I visited the Vihara with sunshine filtering through the canopy of trees, touching the un-plastered stone walls of the Vihara, giving it a smooth and golden glow.

The soft breeze of the hill country rustle through the stone archway of the Vihara. When the sun is high, the Galmaduwa Vihara is a surprisingly beautiful building with its glistering white gopuram which dramatically forms the backdrop of the blue sky.

Having seen my presence, two small Samanera Bhikkus appeared from the Avasa Ge of the Vihara, situated a few yards on the other side of the road. They guided me to every nook and corner of the Vihara, including the Image house where a massive seated Buddha statue is located. We walked around the spacious interior of the building which was empty, but for the huge stone walls.

The Galmaduwa Vihara is an impressive building of strange architectural marvel, traditionally ascribed to King Kirthi Sri Rajasingha. As its name suggests, it is basically a pavilion built of stone and brick. But, a high gopuram resembling the Indo- Muslim tombs of the Moghul Empire.

However, it exhibits features not found in other buildings of the Kandy period. There is an ad mixture of Tamil-Hindu influence within the Buddhist place of worship. Built for his queen, by King Kirthi Sri Rajasingha, it was an affirmation of his South Indian origin and perhaps, his Hindu faith. It is said that Migastenne Adikaram was the patron of this Vihara. It is also called Gedige Vihara or Gal Vihara.

A Hindu architectural design based in Tanjore style has been adopted for the building. For instance, encircling the dome is a structure consisting of seven diminishing storeys, revealing a Tanjore influence, while around this is a rectangular wall with arches that have a western influence. Ancient bricks containing masonry marks in Brahmi letters belonging to the Anuradhapura period have been discovered at the site.

Left unfinished by its creators, it is said that while this building was being completed, the King heard of the discovery of a cave at Degaldoruwa, located two kilometres from this place and stopped the work on Galmaduwa shifting his attention to Degaldoruwa. Sadly, in its unfinished state without statues and even any paintings, Galmaduwa was never used as a temple.

Kandyan nobles

The other story interwoven with this incident is that it was too expensive an undertaking for the King’s impoverished kingdom to bear. Circumstances too may have made him change his mind. In 1761, a conspiracy of Kandyan nobles and Bhikkus had nearly cost King Kirthi Sri Rajasingha his throne.

For all his patronage of Sinhala Buddhist culture, it reminded the king that he was still perceived as an alien. According to these facts, perhaps, the Galmaduwa was too foreign a building for the king to continue. For a king who had so closely identified himself with the Buddhist revival, it was a risk he could no longer afford to take.

A team of archaeologists who explored the architectural features of the Vihara found the central building surrounded by a massive wall with an overhanging and deeply moulded cornice. The outer wall is pierced on three sides by five windows; on the fourth, which is on the west side, the place of the central window is taken by a doorway of slightly larger dimensions. The distance between the central building and the outer wall, is roughly 14 feet. There are two doorways, one into the enclosure and the other opposite, into the sanctum. They are each six feet wide, and the windows four and a half feet. The thickness of the outer wall is three quarter feet, while the mouldings of the wall of the sanctum is three feet.

According to them, the most interesting feature about this building is the shape of the doorways and the windows. They are semi-circular cusped arches with a keystone.

The door of the Vihara had only two cusped arches, while the apex is formed of an arch. There is a massive stone border or framing around the windows in its exterior and this framing includes the arch, the outer line of which is simply semi-circular.

Furthermore, the sanctum is furnished in the interior with a shrine room. The pedestal or throne for the image, but otherwise, is quite bare. The most impressive brick domed roof is un-plastered. Immediately at the back of the outer wall of the building has been erected on the eastern side and within six feet of it, a small Vihara built by the villagers long ago.

They have erected this building because they were unable to raise the unfinished main Vihara. The main work of the modern plastered building consorts ill with the massive stone and brick masonry of the original but unfinished Vihara.