Ancient splendour of Ruhuna | Sunday Observer

Ancient splendour of Ruhuna

30 April, 2023
The newly renovated dagaba and the age-old reddish brick dagaba on the Bandagiriya rock boulder
The newly renovated dagaba and the age-old reddish brick dagaba on the Bandagiriya rock boulder

The sky was cloudy and not so bright in the morning when we drove toward Bandagiriya (literally, Connected Mountains) off the 155th milepost on the Matara-Tissamaharama – Kataragama Road. As a photographer, I always wish I could photograph the landscape with a bright blue sky wherever I travel. But, sometimes, I miss the luck on some days because of clouds. Bandagiriya is a serene farming colony in the Hambantota District where a wealth of archaeological ruins and ancient dagabas of the Ruhuna Kingdom have been brought to light.

When we travelled around ten kilometres on this narrow carpeted road which leads to Bandagiriya, the glimpse of the way of life of the villagers in Bandagiriya was visible at every corner. We came across herds of water buffalo and the curd making community in Bandagiriya. The area is dominated by the curd making community and in front of each house, the skull of a buffalo (which had died of natural causes) hangs on a tree. Through the shutters of my vehicle, I glimpsed a huge rock outcrop in a distance where ruins lie and a dagaba built of brick.

Rock boulder

It is the Yahangala (literally, Bed Rock) rock temple where a boulder with a dagaba on top looms over a lone and faded image house. The rock boulder is believed to have been the hallowed abode of Arahats in ancient times. The shape of this dagaba is unique and striking. It is called Bubulakara - a bubble shaped dagaba. Steps have been carved out on the rock coming down from ancient time. Some steps are wasting away due to the elements.

However, our destination being Bandagiriya, we left Yahangala and headed towards the Bandagiriya rock temple six kilometres away. We drove another six kilometres on a wide two lane neatly carpeted highway, overgrown with shrubs on both sides and the middle pavement, perhaps, due to the lack of maintenance.

Archaeological site

Restoration work on the ancient dagaba in 2000

Bandagiriya is another archaeologically important site which stands majestically on a twin rock outcrop. This is quite reminiscent of the ancient concept of the tank, dagaba and paddy field. A huge Bo-tree towers over the foot of the rock. A torso of the limestone Buddha and other sculptured stone statues have been unearthed here, and placed under the sprawling giant Bo tree.

Reaching the ancient Bandagiriya rock temple, we glanced over the more modern structures built in front, before ascending the steps behind the temple buildings. Halfway through, the stone steps were replaced with steps that were cut into the rock outcrop here and there. It is said, the rock temple complex is spread across 100 acres donated by King Mahanaga.

Thus, Bandagiriya’s rich heritage dates back to King Mahanaga’s reign. Today, the temple complex is spread across 25 acres and all structures have inscriptions carved onto the rock with Brahmi scripts that are barely visible to the eye. At the summit of the rock are two dagabas built on an elevated brick platform, one seemingly restored recently as it was painted in white, though washed out, and the other still in its reddish brick covering.

Like Yahangala, rock carved stone steps can still be seen on the rocky outcrop in Bandagiriya. The two brick dagabas on the summit of the rocky outcrop is a striking feature. When I first visited the ancient site of Bandagiriya in 2000, restoration work was under way on the dagabas, while excavations were also being carried out by the Department of Archaeology.

These dagabas were in ruins exposing the ancient bricks strewn everywhere on the rock. It was covered by a shrub jungle. On its other rock is the ancient ruined Vihara, where only a mound of broken bricks remain to tell its past glory. During our short stay at the summit of the Bandagiriya rock, with a cool breeze blowing across the nearby tank amidst striking scenes of nature, I imagined how the ancient kings of Ruhuna had striven to develop the agro based civilisation for a prosperous country.

Two rock outcrops

Beside the Bandagiriya rock are two massive rock outcrops known as Chaityagala and Viharagala that were joined together to construct the Vihara. Many believe this phenomenon would have led to this area being called Bandagiriya in ancient time. Near the main dagaba, there was a plain moonstone, with half of a lotus flower featured on the stone slab, now placed at the entrance to the newly restored dagaba.

The top of the Bandagiriya rock affords a bird’s eye view of the surrounding area, which could only be described as breathtaking. At the foot of the Bandagiriya dagaba lies a magnificent tank called Bandagiriya Wewa, which was built in ancient times and filled with water from the Malala Ara. When the tank was restored in 1958, farmers settled on an irrigable area which became a farmers’ colony. The new water purification tanks, the countless paddy fields and the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport all showcase how the old splendour mingling with modernity creates a charm of its own.

The tank is also an excellent spot for birding. This is an ideal location for nature photographers who search for visual treats to click atop the rock of the Bandagiriya temple. There are many varieties of birds such as, painted storks, eagles, pelicans, egrets, and ibis whose commanding actions both in water and sky at dawn and dusk are simply fascinating to watch.

Freshwater fishing is another lucrative business of the local fishermen in the Bandagiriya tank as many fishermen ride canoes with a bundle of fishing nets from dawn to dusk casting them into the water to catch a bountiful harvest. Fishermen in action is also an enchanting sight to view from the top of the rock.

At the top of the Bandagiriya rock, one could get a bird’s eye view of the surrounding landscape of vast tanks and stretches of green paddy fields and mountain ranges of Kataragama. If you look south, you see the vast blue waters of the Indian Ocean. Taking a minute’s respite before we headed out seeking another exotic destination, we took a moment to enjoy the solitude of the temple, drifting back to the days of yore.