The grandeur of Pujas at Somawathi Chaitya | Sunday Observer

The grandeur of Pujas at Somawathi Chaitya

18 March, 2018
Somawathi Chaitya stands majestically at dusk
Somawathi Chaitya stands majestically at dusk

Grand offerings, Hevisi sounds and stanzas chanted by Bhikkus and fascinating, spiritual evenings attract hundreds of Buddhist devotees daily to this hallowed jungle shrine in the outskirts of the  Polonnaruwa sacred city

March 6-7, 2018

The Somawathi Chaitya evokes a true sense of wonder in every visitor. Perhaps, it was the way Somawathi Chaitya was ‘rediscovered’. It was rediscovered in the 1940s and archaeological excavations began in 1964. Archaeologists have unearthed several artifacts including, stone inscriptions, moonstones, flower pedestals and Siripathul gala (footprint). It is believed, one Prince Giri Aba who was married to Princess Somawathi, sister of King Kavantissa, built the Chaitya in 2nd Century AD. They lived in and ruled over an area known as Somapura, which was located at the bed of the Mahaweli Ganga, and the Somawathi Chaitya has been built on the request of the princess who wanted a Vihara to perform religious activities.

The most significant event of the place is that the right Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha is enshrined in the Relic Chamber of the Chaitya and is believed to be one of the two remaining tooth relics in the world, the other being the one at Sri Dalada Maligawa, in Kandy. The Somawathi Chaitya was maintained by several kings who succeeded Prince Aba. However, it was later abandoned during foreign invasions.

Again, in 1987, the Somawathi Chaitya came under a terrorist attack. The Bhikkus and civilians who resided in the Vihara and the nearby village of Sungawila fled for safety. The entire area of the temple and Somawathi wildlife sanctuary was largely abandoned for over 20 years until the temple was renovated in 2002, during a ceasefire with the Government and LTTE and reopened to the public. Now, it is regularly visited by pilgrims and has become a fairly popular tourist attraction as well.

Another unique phenomenon at the Somawathi Chaitya is the radiation of beams of light (Budu Res or Buddha rays) from the pinnacle of the Chaitya. This phenomenon was first reported in 1977 and then in 1981, 2002 and 2006. There are eye witnesses and photographs of this display at the temple, however, it remains an unexplained mystery.

Two week ago, I had an opportunity to visit this sacred site with a group of devotees who offer Puja to the sacred Chaitya annually, and took part in the Puja with them, both day and night.

Day 1 - 4 pm

We knew from our travels to Somawathi Chaitya, that if you want to have the best experience at tourist sites, you must reach the site as early as possible and reserve rooms which suit you, from the temple authorities. We booked three rooms for a day, which cost us Rs. 2,500 each. We started our journey from Ratnapura in the morning and reached Somawathi around 4 pm. Having parked our vehicles under a shady tree and kept our belongings in our rooms, we walked to the Chaitya premises with brooms to sweep the compound of the Chaitya, it being the duty of each devotee who comes to offer the Puja of the day. At dusk, the setting sun gives vibrant hues of different warm colours in the western horizon of the landscape and you would spend some time gaping in awe at the Chaitya premises. You have to be ready for the first event of the Puja.

7 pm

Gilanpasa Puja (tea and herbal offering) is offered to the Chaitya by devotees who flocked to the temple taking Puja under embellished umbrellas in a procession. A Bhikku from the temple observes the Puja chanting stanzas for around an hour. Each devotee has his or her turn in the Puja of the day until it ends with the mid-day Buddha Puja, the following day. To offer the Puja, each devotee reaches the temple from various parts of the country on his/her day with relatives and friends. There are spacious rooms available for devotees who come to the temple. Food is not allowed inside rooms, which is good, because it’s kept really clean. There are eating areas built close to the rooms. You will need to get plenty of rest, because the next day you have to be up early.

Day 2 - 5 am

Getting up early on a cold morning is tough. But, not when you are near the Somawathi Chaitya.

The sheer anticipation of getting a glimpse of nature’s wonders can fill the air with a spiritual atmosphere. Devotees engage in sweeping the compound of the Chaitya at dawn. They sweep the sandy earth neatly. Indeed, it seems to be part of the meditation practice. Meantime, the rising sun on the Eastern horizon like a fire ball is a sight to behold.

7 am

Now, it is time for morning ‘Kiripidu Puja’ (milk rice offering) as devotees clad in white costumes flock in front of the temple’s alms hall to take the Puja under colourful umbrellas in procession, to the Chaitya. The devotees walk in single file carrying bowls filled with milk rice and other offerings to offer to the Chaitya. One of the Bhikkus in the temple conducts the Puja in a spacious preaching hall just outside the Chaitya.

9 am

The ‘Kanchuka Puja’ (robe offering) which is the most fascinating event of the Puja, needs more devotees as it is around 75 metres long. It is carried by many devotees in procession with Hevisi sounds around the Chaitya to be wrapped around it. After the Puja is finished, you’ll arrive at your rest room utterly exhausted. You would need to get a little rest after a cup of tea and be ready for the next event.

11 am

This is the last and final event of the Puja, the ‘Buddha Puja’ (mid-day alms offering). With this, all the events of the Puja terminate, invoking blessings on the devotees who take part in the Puja, by a senior Bhikku of the temple. This last event is rather unique because devotees need to prepare 32 curries for a single Puja which comes from age-old tradition. Every day, this tradition has to be performed in the offering as a ritual. The same method is performed at the Sri Dalada Maligawa in Kandy where the left sacred Tooth Relic is housed. At Somawathi Chaitya where the right sacred Tooth Relic is housed all performances should be carried out according to the age-old tradition.

12.30 pm

On the way back to Polonnaruwa after the Puja, we stopped a while at the Somawathiya strict natural reserve and wildlife sanctuary. It is 37,645.5 hectares and was established first as a wildlife sanctuary in1966, and then as a national park. It is home to a wide variety of animals, the most commonly sighted being elephants. This is mainly because the area consists of villu which the elephants love to eat.

A sad scene we witnessed at the site was the elephants consuming food left over by pilgrims. Wild elephants come close to the pilgrim’s rest to take food. We observed a large quantity of rice thrown away to the elephants. They now depend entirely on the food given by pilgrims who visit the Somawathi Chaitya.

In conclusion, the sacred site of Somawathi Chaitya is an area worth visiting if you are a history buff or a wildlife enthusiast. Visiting the place at dawn, you can witness the sun rising from a sea of mist surrounding the flat landscape, explore the temple, take part in the morning Puja and get the benefit of spiritual devotion.