Bodhi on the bank of Kalu Ganga | Sunday Observer

Bodhi on the bank of Kalu Ganga

12 February, 2023
The Kalutara Dagaba rises majestically on the bank of the Kalu Ganga
The Kalutara Dagaba rises majestically on the bank of the Kalu Ganga

Although I prefer to visit the less frequented sites around the country, I recently had an opportunity to visit the county’s most worshipped roadside Bodhi at Kalutara. It is a place of religious worship set in the midst of the hustle and bustle of a busy roadway. Despite the roaring traffic, faith and calmness create the requisite sanctity to this highly venerated place.

My first encounter with the Kalutara Bodhi was in the 1970s when I was a schoolboy at the Botalegama primary school. Botalegama is a remote village with an abundance of natural resources in Bulathsinhala in the Kalutara district where I was born and grew up. When the Kapilawasthupura Relic exposition was held at the Kalutara Bodhi premises in the late 1970s, as schoolchildren we were taken to see the relics. That was my first visit to the Kalutara Bodhi.

The Kalutara Bodhi is a well-known landmark, just 40 kilometres from Colombo on the main Galle Road on the A2 highway. No vehicle passes this majestic Bodhi without stopping here and the drivers and passengers dropping coins into the till boxes on the roadside, regardless of their religious affiliations. Some even throw coins over the windows. This is to ensure a safe journey for them.

 Inside hollow of the main Dagaba, the small Dagaba with Buddha statues around it

During the colonial times, Kalutara was a busy centre of the spice trade. Today, it is surrounded by rubber estates although it is perhaps better known for its mangosteen, a delectable fruit imported from Malaysia in the early 19th century. The area is also famous for basket ware, and toddy-tapping.

No one knows for how long this Bo tree has stood there. There is another Bo tree on the hillock close to the Dagaba. Legend has it that it is one of the ‘Detis’ Bodhi (32 Bo trees). Eight saplings sprouted from the Sri Maha Bodhi shortly after it was planted in Anuradhapura and they were planted in important places islandwide. Later on, four saplings had sprouted from each of these eight, now grown into trees.

Special locations

Then there were 32 ‘Detis’ saplings. They were planted in special locations. The hillock near the mouth of the Kalu Ganga was one of these special places. The mouth of the Kalu Ganga was the North Western extremity or apex of the Ruhunu Rata, and the hillock, a few yards from the river mouth was a suitable place for a sacred Bo tree.

On the left bank of the estuary is the railway track. Beyond that is Galle Road running parallel to each other. On the strip of the land between the railway track and Galle Road is the sprawling Bo tree, the famous Kalutara Bodhi which stood there for centuries before the railway track and Galle Road were built. But, the Bo tree survived.

Sometime later a Vihara was built on the Southern bank of the hillock and it was known as Gangathilaka Vihara. Information about who planted the Bo sapling in the lower terrace and when, is not known. The Portuguese demolished the Gangathilaka Vihara and built a fort on the hillock in the 16th century. After the fort was built, the people had no access to the Bodhi. So the Bodhi tree on the lower terrace must have become their place of worship.

Today, a large number of devotees flock under this Bodhi tree to offer poojas and fulfil their vows. The Dutch rebuilt and expanded the fort which was surrendered to the British in 1796, the year the British took possession of the low country. After the Kingdom of Kandy surrendered in 1815, and the whole island came under the British, they set about establishing administrative units. The Fort was converted into the office and residence of the Government Agent for the region. In the early 1960s, the site was taken over by the Kalutara Bodhi Trust and a magnificent Dagaba was once again erected on this ancient site.

We have no clues about the Kalutara Bodhi until the last quarter of the 19th century, when work on the Kalutara bridge commenced in 1877, a year after the Kalutara Kachcheri was opened. On one occasion, the Government Agent ordered the engineer in charge to cut the Bo tree as it blocked the path of the proposed bridge. However, due to the agitation of the people of the area, the Government Agent and his men withdrew.

Cyril de Zoysa’s role

The history of the Kalutara Bodhi is recorded from the 1930s. In 1931, the Kalutara Bodhi Society was formed and work on improvements to the place begun. The person responsible for this was a young lawyer named, Sir Cyril de Zoysa who became a leading businessman, and subsequently, President of the Senate (the Upper House of the former Parliament). After Sri Lanka gained independence, following a request by Sir Cyril de Zoysa from the first Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake, the then Assistant Government Agent of Kalutara, C.P. De Silva took steps to release the Kachcheri on the Uda Maluwa.

It is said that Sir Cyril de Zoysa took over 25 years to achieve this. At this time, the Kalutara Bodhi Trust was formed replacing the Kalutara Bodhi Society. All the work to improve the Kalutara Bodhi and build a religious complex on the hillock was performed by the Kalutara Bodhi Trust. The foundation for the Dagaba on the hillock was laid in 1964 and it took 16 years for it to be completed and to be crowned with a pinnacle. The pinnacle was unveiled by former President J. R. Jayewardene on February 25, 1980.

The Kalutara Dagaba is different to other Dagabas. It is a concrete shell. In the hollow inside are four small Dagabas with seated Buddha statues and the walls depicting scenes in panels from Jathaka Stories.

The same replica of this Dagaba can be seen at the Mahaweli Maha Seya at Kadadora in Kotmale which was built to commemorate the 16 temples submerged in the construction of the Kotmale reservoir. In 1969, all lands and buildings belonging to the Kachcheri were entrusted to the Bodhi Trust. By 1976, construction work on the massive ‘Wata da Ge’ was completed.

Spiritual setting

On the hillock at the Kalutara Bodhi, one could feel the peace and calmness in the religious complex with assembly halls, a meditation hall and a Dana Sala. The soothing, rustling leaves of the old Bodhi, now over 2,000 years old stands sentinel over the whole complex on the bank of the Kalu Ganga.

For the benefit of the large number of devotees who throng the Bodhi daily, an underground passage connects the Bodhi with the hillock via the river. Devotees can thus worship at one Bodhi and go to the other safely without crossing the busy Galle Road.

Much of the funds for the buildings and their maintenance come from the offerings in cash made by travellers who pass by the Bodhi. They make the offerings to ensure safety on their journey with the blessings of the Kalutara Bodhi and those travelling in each vehicle don’t forget to drop coins or currency notes into the till boxes by the roadside.

It is interesting to note that way back in the late 1930s or early 1940s, Sir Cyril de Zoysa started a bus company and ordered all bus drivers to drop a coin in the till box at the Bodhi. Other bus drivers followed suit and in the course of time, all vehicles began to stop by to drop a coin and make an offering to the Bodhi.

The drivers and passengers do this to ensure a safe journey to their destination and the tradition continues to this day. 

Devotees take part in the Bodhi pooja on the upper terrace (Uda Maluwa)

The Sanchi Thorana at the entrance to the Bodhi tree on the lower terrace

Devotees around the branches of the Bodhi tree to offer poojas