Buddhist rock cave temple in British colonial style | Sunday Observer

Buddhist rock cave temple in British colonial style

26 March, 2023
The exterior view of the Rakkiththakanda rock cave temple
The exterior view of the Rakkiththakanda rock cave temple

A Buddhist temple with a tinge of British flavour! This may sound odd, but there really is one such cave temple in the Uva Province. Wellawaya, close to the town of Ella, which is 221 kilometres from Colombo. The temple – Rakkiththakanda cave temple is just 16 kilometres off the main road from Wellawaya, in a little known part of Ella near the Uma Oya Multipurpose Development Project. Driving on this uphill road about two kilometres, a small road turns to the left, leading to the historic Rakkiththakanda cave temple, where this amazing ancient rock cave temple nestles sheltered by a giant cobra hood like rock, filling us with fascination.

My twenty-year-old son and I were fortunate, to explore such vestiges of our past heritage and visit this archaeological-like museum the Rakkiththakanda cave temple, recently. We undertook this journey at the earnest request of K.G. Jagath Sirisena of Ratnapura, an experienced Forest Officer of the Department of Forest Conservation. He has visited this cave shrine when he was stationed in Wellawaya.

Sirisena took a group of us to visit the historic Rakkiththakanda cave temple. At the temple we paid homage, first to its chief incumbent, 49-year-old scholar bhikku, who is quite fluent in the English language, Ven. Karadagolle Sugatharansi Thera. This young bhikku, a real repository of the antecedents of every aspect of this cave temple narrated to us the legends, as if reading from a history chronicle. Later, we ventured along the stone pathway to visit the cave shrines tucked away in the maze of huge boulders looming over the place.

The weariness and fatigue of a long drive through winding mountain bends vanished as we walked into the peaceful realm of Rakkiththakanda Raja Maha Viharaya, where the rock cave shelter and woodland extends its protective shade, cooling the entire compound. The mid-day breeze that blew, soothed our senses, as we explored the tales of history hidden beneath this scenic salubrious mountain country setting.

Situated in a serene atmosphere on a steep slope in a wooded rocky ridge is the temple, said to have been a flourishing Buddhist rock cave temple, long, long ago. The cave temple has been named after the bhikku, Arahat Buddharakkitha who is believed to have lived in this cave. A Brahmin inscription is etched below the drip-ledge, on the right side of the main cave, named, ‘Buddharakkitha Therasi Lena’ belonging to the 1st century BC.

Tradition has it that the famed King Walagamba of 1st century BC used to take asylum when in exile during foreign invasions, sheltering in ancient rock caves. Hence, this tale is woven around the Rakkiththakanda Raja Mahaa Viharaya, where he is supposed to have lived and built the cave temple. It is said, the King built a secret tunnel from this cave connecting Dova temple across the Bogoda Bridge close to Bandarawela to flee during invasions.

As we entered, the cave shrine came into view and a few flights of stairs in the centre constructed in stone masonry, took the visitors to the spacious verandah of the rock cave, sheltered by a giant rocky formation as that of a cobra hood. Painted in soothing white, a small but beautiful ancient dagaba stands under the cave, which is the place of worship that has stood in good stead through the centuries. There is a folk-poem interwoven with this dagaba, ‘Lawanagiri Vehera’ traced by the chief incumbent from a 100 year-old villager of the area.

Kandyan period paintings are visible and their related styles from the reign of King Kirtisri Rajasingha in the last quarter of the 18th century, when the highland kingdom enjoyed a renaissance in art, culture and religion. The murals of Rakkiththakanda cave temple, drawn in the Kandyan period was probably renovated later as the temple lay in the neighborhood of the Kandyan Province. They are a remarkable manifestation of indigenous paintings at the zenith of British colonial power in 19th century Sri Lanka.

Heavily influenced by the British colonial flavour, the front verandah that wrapped around the image house has an arch wooden doorway giving access to the inner chamber of the Budu Ge (image house). What captured our attention was an exquisite thorana with the British Royal coat of arms, (the lion and unicorn) flanking the crown of England and the picture of Queen Victoria. We discovered many paintings influenced by British colonial era and the social effects of culture in those days. The most striking feature are the British Royal coat of arms, and the one-headed two lion figures on the wall. Most of these delicate murals on the outer walls have sadly faded with time due to the harsh climate.

A most notable feature in the image house is that all the images and paintings of the deities in the cave shrine have necklaces with Christian crosses hanging over their necks. Some paintings carry the figures of horse riding soldiers wearing British helmets, as well as the Union Jack, inside the cave shrine. Another amazing mural, the British Royal coat of arms above the doorway in the cave shrine was painted with the date and year that renovated the cave mentioned as 22-10-1886, indicating the respect the society had for the British throne in 1886, along with other images of the colonial period.

When bidding adieu to the cave temple, the chief Bhikkhu tied pirith strings around our hands. The chief incumbent said his intention was to develop the temple as a spiritually significant place in the area. “Situated close to the Ella Gap, this cave temple is largely visited by local and foreign tourists who visit Ella and Ravana-Ella. I intend to develop it as a centre for propagating Buddhism to the world. I would like to help the university students and history buffs who engage in archaeological explorations at these historic sites. Besides, a number of young mountain hikers visit our temple while mountaineering at Kurullangala and I help them too,” says the young bhikku sitting in a cross-legged posture on a chair in front of his Avasa Ge in a rock cave. The Thera wishes to ensure that the heritage of the Rekkiththakanda cave temple is preserved for posterity so that they too can see how our ancestors prospered.