Weeping Buddha statues in the wilderness | Sunday Observer

Weeping Buddha statues in the wilderness

4 March, 2018
STILL IMPOSING: Fascinating ruins of rock-cut Buddha statues of Budupatuna
STILL IMPOSING: Fascinating ruins of rock-cut Buddha statues of Budupatuna

With wild animals, water bodies and trees for company, at the dense Lahugala-Kumana forest, a team of enthusiastic nature and history buffs stumbled upon fascinating ruins that had long been forgotten and left by treasure hunters

“Of course, this is not an ordinary journey, very arduous. Proceed only if you are willing to punish your body,” whispers Bandara, our guide from Kotiyagala. And, excitement grew stronger and stronger to visit this place as it would undoubtedly be an adventure. Our destination is a mysterious, strange and lonely spot where rock-cut figures of Buddha and two Bodhisattva are symbols of the Mahayana School of Buddhism, lying deep inside the Lahugala-Kumana forest reserve that the locals call ‘Budupatuna’ or ‘Budupatungala’. Our experienced guide, Bandara said, this name had been derived from his forefathers’ time and when they visited the forest they found a number of ancient cave sites with Buddha statues, inside the forest.

Killer crocodiles

To visit Budupatuna, one has to travel on foot about 15 kilometres, of which eight is on the river bed of Wila Oya, flowing on the edge of the Kotiyagala village.

During the rainy season, it is impossible to travel on the river bed due to the overflowing water, while during the drought, often, the Wila Oya runs dry and sand dunes emerge on the river bed, and most places contain shallow water holes. The Wila Oya is flanked by virgin forest on both sides, which is home to leopards, elephants and sloth bear. The Wila Oya is also home to killer crocodiles. Most scholars who research on Buddhism are still unaware where Budupatuna lies and not even the villagers of Kotiyagala seem to know the location.

When I inquired about the place from the officials of the Forest and Archaeological Departments of the Lahugala and Ampara area, they too were clueless about the place.

We first drove to our destination in our 4X4 jeep, for around five kilometres until the tractor track ended, and then we left the jeep there. Having crossed the paddy fields, we entered the vast stretch of maize cultivation, which stretched out to the edge of the forest of Kotiyagala. The forest then takes over. Led by Bandara and Raja who joined us later, our guides, we trudge through shrub and slush, cleared patches in the forest and passed the Himbatilyana Mountain, when a portion of an elephant’s skeleton zooms into view, bleached white from years of exposure to the elements.

Now, we are inside the dense forest surrounded by the basin of the Wila Oya. Following the elephant paths, Bandara and Raja walk briskly, and we follow them, making our way through the jungle, along twisting tracks so narrow that you can hardly turn.

The forest canopy give us shade. A sloth bear pauses for us, a herd of elephants just crossed our paths. The landscape kept changing with every turn on the path. Dense evergreen forests, little muddy pools, streams, followed us wherever we went. It was not just the beauty of nature that fascinated us, it was also the absolute silence everywhere.

Shallow waters

As we cross the muddy waterhole that emerge before us, I keep my foot on it and accidentally my foot sinks about two feet, plunging my Nikon camera in my hand into the gene pool. Thanks to my extra Nikon hanging in a bag, I could record the next half of our journey.

As we cross the small stream, we finally spot the bed of Wila Oya, a sea of white sand bleached by drought. We had breakfast on the sand bed near the Kokkumbay junction and began our eight kilometre journey along the dried up bed of the Wila Oya.

Trudging through the sand, we sank with every footstep, the breath rasping in our ears. It is said, several members of the Japanese university exploration team who had come to Budupatuna in 1985, suffered sunstroke, faced by the scorching sun.

We walked for sometime on the sand, and sometime waded through the shallow waters. Since we had not met any carnivorous animal during our entire journey except a lone sloth bear, elephants, leopards and wild buffaloes just crossed the river bed as their footprints were sighted on the sand dunes of the river.

The massive Kumbuk trees cast long shadows, wrapping us in a green world.

We trekked on without stopping until a bend in the Wila Oya brought us to a great arch of Kumbuk trees (Kumbuk Poottuwa). Curving like a Thorana, two Kumbuk trees grow on either side of the Oya, stretching over the riverbed to meet above our heads. Further away from this is another peculiar formation of a rock, in the shape of a Dagoba in the middle of the river. It is a landmark icon and termination of the journey, and is called “Goyamkolaya Gala”.

A little away from this rock in the river, on the left is a small rocky hill. It was here that the Budupatuna temple was built.

“This is Budupatuna” declared our guides, Bandara and Raja reaching the spot after a five hour journey, travelling on foot along the bed of the dried up Wila Oya, as well as inside the forest, for more than 15 kilometres from Kotiyagala. This is one of the best secrets of the Lahugala-Kumana forest. The rocky hill got closer, as the entire canopy of the forests spread itself around us, almost embracing us in a carpet of green. But, in the western slope of the rocky hill, the pictures tell a sadder tale of the place.

Budupatuna rock-cut images, pillars and Dagoba, were first discovered in 1985 jointly by the Archaeological Department and a Japanese expedition team of Hosei University, who described the figures depicting the Buddha in the middle, flanked by Bodhisattva Maitreya and Avalokiteswara. The awe-inspiring ancient Mahayanist image house, probably, between 650-750 AC was hewn out of the small rocky cliff and three figures carved in relief, on rock measuring 6 metres in height and 5 metres in width.

All three figures stand on pedestals. The Buddha himself in the centre, occupies a lotus pedestal, while the other figures stand on two layered plinths.

Taller than the others, the Buddha is the best proportioned. It is almost soft to touch, his body still shows through the clear elegant folds of drapery. All three statues have special umbrellas (Chattras) over their heads which is an unusual feature of the site.

When the Japanese team revisited in 1992, they found these ruins damaged but not badly. Today, most of it is broken, dug and blasted. We have to get across by clinging onto the remains of the images, as there is a very deep hole beneath the rock. The Dagoba has been vandalized beyond recognition.

The head of the nicely carved Buddha has been completely gouged out and parts of its hands, arms and the section of the robe missing. The magnificent Bodhisattva Avalokiteswara figure too has almost completely disappeared. The green moss covered images of only the Bodhisattva Maitreya figure remains intact.

However, it could be assumed that the Budupatuna might have a hidden mysterious historical connection with Buduruwagala at Wellawaya and Mudu Maha Vihara at Pottuvil, as the Buddha stands in the middle flanked by Bodhisattva figures. Moreover, the ancient site has not yet been fully explored by the Department of Archaeology since it is hard to reach the place in the wild animal infested forest, and a dreadful experience.

“When we visited this in 1985, all the images were intact and in good condition, and half of the images were covered with earth. The images have been vandalized by treasure hunters in the recent past”, say Bandara and Raja.

Budupatuna, hidden in the thick forest, is a fine example of Mahayanist in Sri Lanka. But, it has gradually been destroyed at the hands of unscrupulous persons, such as, treasure hunters, cannabis growers and illegal forest loggers, for more than 32 years. If these places will not be conserved for future posterity, all of these heritage sites would be erased completely from our land.

Having explored these ruins in the forest, we understood that if we explore the forest furthermore, many more ruins would have been unearthed and more evidence found, of past civilization.

The exhaustion level and dehydration we experienced during our trek is difficult to explain in words. Having returned to Kotiyagala, ending our 15 kilometre journey on foot, we promise ourselves to go back again one day, as the trip was an adventure right from the word ‘Go’ !