The stone beauties of Nillakgama Bodhi-ghara | Sunday Observer

The stone beauties of Nillakgama Bodhi-ghara

28 May, 2017
Exterior view of the Bodhi-ghara at Nillakgama, the frieze of elephant at bottom
Exterior view of the Bodhi-ghara at Nillakgama, the frieze of elephant at bottom

One of the best preserved Bodhi-gharas (Bo-tree house) in the country is situated in Nillakgama, Hettigama. Our journey seeking the Bodhi-ghara, however, was met by much more than what one would expect - rocky crevices and tanks blossoming with water lilies. We took a secondary road rather than a trunk road. To reach Nillakgama Bodhi-ghara, we took the Ibbagamuwa-Moragollagama secondary road turning left from Saliyagama and driving down another 18 kilometres on the Galgamuwa road via Ehutuwewa.

Upon reaching Gallewa on the Ehutuwewa-Galgamuwa road, a Department of Archaeology sign board directs to a turn off to Bodhigara. Turning right to the narrow gravel road flanked by shrub bushes we go through chena cultivations and a wooded area for about six kilometres to arrive at the Nillakgama Bodhi-ghara in Hettigama.

Made of granite

We parked the vehicle in the shade of a huge tree just a few yards away from the Bodhi-ghara and walked towards the site surrounded by clumps of greenish grass and elephant infested shrub jungle.

The site gets no pilgrims today. It is silent, but in its heyday, this was a main spiritual hub of a sacred Bo-tree worshipping site.We glimpsed the pink colour stone structure through the branches as the late morning sun rays filtered through the huge Kone tree at the site.

Nestling in a wooded area beneath the bund of the village tank of Hettigama, the Bodhi-ghara seems to be made of granite. It belongs to 8th century BC of the Anuradhapura period. Once this place was known as ‘Dalada Maligawa’ and ‘Pattirippuwa’ by the village folk in the abandoned village of Nillakgama.

Buried deep under the forest, the remains were examined by H.C.P. Bell, the Commissioner of Archaeology in 1895 with the help of villagers, and his report carried a brief descriptive note supplemented by some fine drawings.

The place was then deserted in the jungle for more than 60 years and treasure hunters had ravaged it digging deep pits in the centre and destroying the upper terrace throwing carved stones confusedly about in search of valuable treasures.

Again, after more than 60 years, shedding light on Nillakgama in 1954, Prof. Senarath Paranavithana, commenced the conservation of this archaeological site.

He has said, it was not an easy task to conserve the remaining artifacts and structure which had been ransacked by treasure hunters. Furthermore, the jungle also contributed to the ruin of the monument when huge branches of a Kone tree crashed down damaging the beautiful door-frame of the western side and scattering pieces of the structure.

The shrine was reclaimed and conserved in less than a year by the Department of Archaeology under the supervision of Prof. Paranavithana himself as Commissioner of Archaeology. He was surprised by the creative craftsmanship of this Bodhi-ghara.

Paying homage inside the shrine on the upper terrace, we observed all the magnificent stone carvings, walking to every nook and corner of the stone structure considered as one of the best carvings chiselled by Sinhala sculptors.

A major feature which fascinated us was the structure of the monument which may be divided into two component parts. The outer shell, as it were, in reality the lower platform, has a parapet wall with two entrances on the east and west, giving the appearance of a fair-sized building.

The platform, which it encases is the actual terrace on which the Bo-tree had stood. In its original state, a devotee would have viewed the sacred tree rising from within one building.

The present height of the walls of the outer platform is 9 ft. 6in up to the coping of the parapet. The platform itself is 34 ft. square. Its chief ornamentation is centred on the entrances, and the display and arrangement of designs are unique in many ways.

Artistic effort

The most striking feature is that the door frames are elaborately carved while some of the principal designs normally found on the moonstones themselves are absolutely plain. For the most part, one is struck by the simplicity of the building: the wall surface of the parapet is in fact, wholly devoid of ornamentation.

A structure on which so much of artistic effort was lavished must have been dedicated to an object of great religious veneration. Prof. Paranavithna has mentioned that there are no door frames so elaborately ornamented as those found at Nillakgama.

Entering through the eastern doorway, we came across the inner platform that is 13 ft. square and 6 and 1/2 ft. high. It is sculptured with lion reliefs, placed right round the upper potion. At the bottom is a row of hansas, (swan) and in between are lotus petal mouldings.

Four stone altars 4 2 and 1/2 had been placed on each side for the purpose of offering, but one of which is now missing. The floor below the actual terrace is paved with irregular stone slabs. Here, too, there are stone pillars which had supported the roof of the structure and broken roof tiles were found in this spot.

While we were photographing the carvings, a person named Muthubanda Wanasinghe came and introduced himself as caretaker of the monument.

He showed us a single-line Sinhala inscription of the 8th or 9th century carved on the foundation stone to the left of the western entrance, recording the grant of ten elephants (sculptured) to the Great Bodhi Tree on the spot.

The obvious reference was to a special number from among the frieze of beautifully sculptured line of elephants on the lower portion of the outer platform. Thus, archaeologists had clearly identified that the structural remains are that of a Bodhi-ghara.

Regarding Nillakgama, it may be noted that Bodhi-gharas are known only in India, as at Sanchi and Amarawathi. In Sri Lanka, the Sri Maha Bodhi Maluwa at Anuradhapura has long been a shrine.

It is not impossible that the Bodhi-tree which stood at the centre of the upper platform could have sprung from the seeds of the Anuradhapura Bodhi-tree immediately after it was planted in the reign of King Devanampiyatissa.

The ancient chronicle Mahabodhi Vamsa gives a list of the places where these Phala-ruha Bodhis exist but it does not mention Hettigama in Nillakgama or any other village in its vicinity. It is also not clear why this elaborately carved magnificent Bodhi-ghara was built on the edge of the enchanting village tank. Archaeologists constantly struggle to find out the ancient name of the site, the inscriptions or any other evidence, which so far have not come to the archaeologists’ aid in their quest.

Treasure hunters

Looking at the surrounding vicinity of the Bodhi-ghara, one cannot find any sign of a building except a tank bund, but at the site, we met a villager who came to collect firewood. He told us that there is an ancient stupa which had been buried and dug out by treasure hunters, nestled a few yards away from the Bodhi-ghara.

Shading our eyes against the scorching sun, we gazed at the narrow foot path into the forest in the direction given by the villager. However, venturing in, we were surrounded by stone ruins and mounds of earth where ancient bricks and parts of carved stone altar slabs belied the grandeur that must have pervaded the Stupa adjoining the Bodhi-ghara at one time.

Archaeologists now have the task of excavating around the Bodhi-ghara to find more clues on the history of the Nillakgama Bodhi-ghara.