English education at serene heights | Sunday Observer

English education at serene heights

5 November, 2017
At an elevation of over a thousand metres at the Batatota cave temple in the outskirts of Eratna, a group of student Samanera Bhikkus learn English at a newly set up English medium Pirivena.
At an elevation of over a thousand metres at the Batatota cave temple in the outskirts of Eratna, a group of student Samanera Bhikkus learn English at a newly set up English medium Pirivena.

It is the first day of an all-new Pirivena (Buddhist higher education institute). Young and impressionable, the youthful monks are laughing, running as they walk past me in groups with Watapothas (hand-fans). The cave temple adorned the reddish-saffron colour as over 50 student Samanera Bhikkus flocked to the sacred place to witness the auspicious occasion of the setting up of the new Buddhist education institution called “Sri Chandarathana English medium Pirivena” at the Batatota Cave Temple.

A tiny little village called Batatota, located seven kilometres from the Kuruwita town on the Eratna-Sri Pada road resembles a mini hill country. Nestled amid a verdant mountainous landscape, Batatota is believed to be one of the first settlements of Sabaragamuwa. The Batatota cave temple is located about 20 kilometres from Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak). On sunny days, the Sri Pada mountain range can be seen through the valley from the Batatota cave and is indeed a mesmerizing sight.

Pottering around the slushy roads, I realise that life seems to follow a pattern of its own in these parts. Children play at school on the foothill, men and women carry gunny bags full of tea leaves and youths listen to music at roadside tea boutiques using earphones. You look up and see colourful Buddhist flags fluttering everywhere.

Batatota seems like any other - with a medical centre, community hall, school, playground, grocery shops. Ubiquitous tea plantations have created a steady flow of income for these people. I climb the narrow, meandering tarred road to the hill of the Batatota cave temple in pouring rain, along the bank of Kuru Ganga, drinking in the beauty of mist-laden hills, deep valleys and gushing waters in streams.

Propagating Buddhism 

I visited Batatota on the invitation of Ven. Rassagala Chandakiththi Thera, Chief incumbent of Sri Bodhinikethanaramaya temple and also the principal of Sri Somananda English Medium Pirivena at Bopaththa in Eheliyagoda which was set up to spread English education among the student Samanera Bhikkus. This scholarly, courageous young Buddhist monk has started yet another English Language medium Pirivena at the Batatota cave temple to educate the student Samanera Bhikkus.

“Our main mission is to propagate Buddhism all over the world through these student Samanera Bhikkus once they become proficient in English as a communication tool,” says Ven. Chandhakiththi Thera, the brainchild of the newly set up English medium Pirivena at Batatota. He was supported by his Guru, Ven. Meneripitiye Chandarathana Maha Thera, chief incumbent of the Batatota cave temple. He performs a yeoman service to upgrade the Batatota cave temple as a centre of English Language teaching and learning. The first batch of eight student Samanera Bhikkus ceremonially attended the first class under the guidance of Ven. Chandakiththi Thera, initiated at the auspicious time of 8.30 a.m. on October 1 at the Batatota Cave Temple, with the participation of a distinguished gathering, including, A.A.P.A. Kulathungha, OIC, Kuruwita Police Station and Nevil Kumarage, Secretary, Plan Implementation, Sabaragamuwa Provincial Council.

The 50 student Samanera Bhikkus have come here from various parts of the country. Since most of the Bhikkus come from poor families from far away villages, the first level of ordination is a robing ritual held in the temple when a young novice Samanera enters the Bhikku Order. “I have travelled to many remote villages where the poor farmers seek to offer at least one of their sons to the Buddha Sasana. So, I ordain them and teach them to lead a life of a Bhikku with a high calibre of academic and intellectual knowledge,” says Ven. Chandakiththi Thera. The tales of student Samaneras who had come from far away remote villages, touch our hearts. 

Playful grin 

I met a 13-year-old student Samanera who says he dislikes Math. His subjects include English, History and Buddhism. I ask him about his family background and the playful grin disappears. “After my father died in an elephant attack in my village, my mother looked after my brother and me. I do not remember much. I came here a few years ago to become a novice Samanera.” Another Samanera has more vivid memories. “I was eight when I left my village. Our chief priest asked my parents to offer me to the Sasana. So I became a monk.”

It is a different world out here. The student Samaneras say they like to learn English which is one of their basic subjects. “Now we can deliver a speech in English,” says another Samanera Bhikku.

The Batatota Cave temple is made up of several caves and the most famous is the Diva Guhava. It is said, during daytime the cave is filled with sunlight and that is how the cave got its name (Diva-day, Guhava-cave). In 1995, the most Ven. Balangoda Ananda Maithreya Mahanayake Thera identified this ancient cave temple as ‘Diwaguhawa’.

The cave is 150 feet long, 70 feet wide and 50 feet tall. According to legend when the Buddha visited Sri Lanka for the third time, he journeyed to Sri Pada on the request of deity Sumana Saman, to leave his footprint. Afterwards, along with his disciples and 500 Arahats he had come to the Diva Guhava and rested awhile.

A path flagged by makeshift shops on one side leads the way to the foot of the Batatota cave temple. The path to the top of the cave is a combination of steps and upward sloping concrete pavement, sheltered with a roof at certain points where the climb is quick but strenuous.

At the top where the cave stands, a steady stream of water drips to a small pool, lending cool air, while inside there are two Buddha statues for pilgrims who throng this sacred mountainous site to worship.

I walk around, and the air is filled with chants and the loud voices of student Samaneras arguing as they speak. Amid all the laughter, however, are two threads that bind them together – the Dhamma and English.