Ancient Dambadeniya splendour | Sunday Observer

Ancient Dambadeniya splendour

27 November, 2022
A Dagaba in the building
A Dagaba in the building

Dambadeniya is a majestic, isolated and ancient city off the Kurunegala- Giriulla road. From the Kurunegala town off the Giriulla road, this winding road leads to Giriulla where it runs through sprawling rice fields interlaced with coconut plantations.

Looming over this is a prominent rock boulder called, ‘Waduwa Ketu Gala’, a rock in the shape of an egg, with a long rock cut flight of steps from the top to the bottom. Perhaps, this is one of the amazing creations I ever saw during my visits to ancient places around the country.

It is not often that we hear of the 13th century Kingdom of Dambadeniya. Recently, travelling on the highway that links Kurunegala to Giriulla, we made up our minds to drop in at the Dambadeniya Raja Maha Vihara, better known as Dambadeniya Vijayasundararamaya.

When we arrived at the temple, the scorching sun’s rays bombarded the temple’s sandy compound from the cloudless blue sky, making it a difficult walk on the burning sand. From a distance, we glimpsed an ancient building with some murals.

Ancient Dalada Maligawa

As we walked into its modern precincts, a board indicated that here was included the ancient Dalada Maligawa. Walking further up, we spotted the two-storied quaint Vihara Mandiraya set in the middle of a cluster of modern buildings, believed to have been the old Dalada Maligawa. The wooden stairs, which form a part of the building, can be ascended by a steep precariously slanting stairway, which leads to a modest shrine room.

Tragically, today, little remains of the ancient structures of the Dambadeniya period. This is said to be so because much of the work during this period was of bricks. But, a few stone statues and carvings of the Dambadeniya period have been found and are exhibited in the museum built in the temple precincts. It is one of the best places to research the history of Dambadeniya.

At the time we visited the Dalada Maligawa, several devotees were present to offer Buddha Pooja of the mid-day Dana (lunch) to the small shrine dedicated to the Buddha statue with the elaborately carved Makara Thorana (Dragon arch) belonging to the Kandyan period. Its ceiling of wooden planks is adorned with lotus flowers while murals depict colourful paintings of deities.

The ancient murals belonging to the Dambadeniya period in the outer surface of the walls of the Dalada Maligawa have been extensively conserved, with care. Since the scorching sun disturbed our exploration at the site, we quickly looked at the ruins, and spotted on the upper terrace, a small dagaba in a building with marvelous stone carvings just a few yards away on the right side of the Dalada Maligawa.

Age-old Bo-tree

The next significant vestige was a huge, long, stone slab without any ornaments carved, but believed that such square shaped stone slabs were known as Mal Asanas (flower altars). Close to this stone slab is another standing stone pillar with a carving of the history of the temple, which may have been erected in the recent past.

From this stone pavilion-like structure, we were confronted with an age-old Bo-tree stretching its branches over the area and its Bodhigara (Bo tree enclosure) with three terraces of stone walls covering the Bo tree. Here too we spotted a narrow shrine room with a small Buddha statue belonging to the Kandyan period.

According to the stone inscription erected in the temple premises, the history of the Vijayasundararamaya goes back to King Vijaya Bahu III’s time who first made Dambadeniya his capital. The Kalinga King Magha was ruling in Polonnaruwa then. However, Dambadeniya’s golden age dawned with the accession of Parakramabahu II, the eldest son of Vijaya Bahu III. The scholar Parakramabahu II, titled Panditha Parakramabahu is said to have been one of the greatest scholars to have ruled ancient Sri Lanka.

The great chronicle Kavsilumina was his main work. King Parakramabahu’s rule witnessed a renaissance in art, literature, education and extended even to religious, political and economic regeneration in the country. He regained Polonnaruwa and defeated the challenge of an invader, Chandrabahu, the son of the first ruler in Jaffna. Thus, the country was once again unified under one king. After the death of his father, King Vijaya Bahu III, King Parakramabahu II (1236-1270) had brought the sacred Tooth Relic from Beligala to Dambadeniya so that he could worship it whenever he wished.

Three-storeyed temple

To house the relic, he built a splendid three-storeyed temple in the vicinity of the royal palace called, Vijayasundararamaya, perhaps in honour of his father’s memory. During his reign, the Vijayasundararamaya became one of the leading temples in the country, an important centre of learning and scholastic activity.

The present temple consists of two terraces, and part of an ancient wall still surrounds the Vijayasundararamaya, marking the boundaries of the medieval temple. Walking within the temple precincts, we saw a number of buildings dating from the Dambadeniya period and carvings testifying to its former glory. The stone Bodhigara, for instance, is adorned with a frieze of royal lions. It is a remarkable three dimensional sculpture. The lion squats on its paws and stares straight out at you, its tail behind. I photographed this intricately carved line of lion sculptures set in the subdued sun rays, filtering through the shadows of the sprawling branches of the Bo tree, falling on the stone carvings.

The Dambadeniya rock which is one of the most important places in the Dambadeniya period where the royal palace had located, was a kilometre from the temple and more than 300 feet in height from the ground level. We didn’t venture into the rock due to my leg ailment, and being a time consuming journey.

Rampart walls

The fortified rock of Dambadeniya was defended by a series of stone rampart walls which once encircled the summit. The outer wall lies at the base of the rock, almost hidden among the houses and gardens which have grown up. Made out of rough cut stone, it is broad and solid. At present, political bickering has been written with the paint, proclaiming the kings of the new era, and obliterating the spirit of the past.

If you are unable to climb the rock, never mind, yet, you can view all the places on the rock boulders through the photographs displayed in the museum in the temple. It was set up by the Department of Archaeology and those in-charge-of-the museum will explain all information about the place.

At the site, we saw another majestic rock looming over, quite a distance away from the temple. From the floor of the Vijayasundararamaya, I took several close up photos of its rock cut stairway, said to have been carved by a carpenter who was imprisoned there. This famous rock known as, Waduwa Ketu Gala where the royal jail was located, could be viewed from the temple. When you look at the stairway which has been carved into the rock from top to bottom with a steep slope, you are indeed mesmerised and wonder how these steps were carved into the rock. If you are a history buff, you should visit this historic site, at least once in your lifetime.