Neelagiri Sacred Relics, a national treasure | Sunday Observer

Neelagiri Sacred Relics, a national treasure

28 May, 2023
The Neelagiri dagoba after restoration work began
The Neelagiri dagoba after restoration work began

The historical Neelagiri Sacred Relics, which have been placed under tight security in the National Museum in Colombo, will be exhibited for the public for the first time in three years at the Dharma Rashmi Poson Zone at the Sri Sugathabimbarama Purana Vihara in Homagama from June 3 to 5. This article reveals the background and discovery of these ancient Relics.

Archaeology Director General Prof. Anura Manatunga

Archaeology Deputy Director 
(Excavation) Saminda Porambage

In Ampara, there are several Buddhist sacred sites. Ampara Buddhanggala and Dighavapi, Pottuvil Muhudu Maha Vihara, Kudumbigala, Magul Maha Vihara and Neelagiri are among them. Among them, except Neelagiri Seya, all the other places are under the preservation of the Department of Archaeology. It has been a few decades since the archaeological work was started in Neelagiri Seya.

The Neelagiri Seya (Stupa) is located in the Lahugala District Secretariat Division of Ampara District. After travelling from Moneragala to Siyambalanduwa and from there on the Pottuvil road, passing Mahakalugolla, you will find Lahugala. Turn from the 10th post on the Lahugala main road and take the concrete road. After walking for about 3 minutes, you will find Hada Oya. After passing it, you can reach this Buddhist temple which is the second largest in the Eastern Province after Dhigavapi.

Former Archaeological Commissioner A. M. Sokat first explored this region in 1928. Excavation and conservation work was carried out at the Stupa for a long period of time, but with the threat of terrorism, all excavation and conservation work came to a standstill. After the end of the war, excavation and conservation work started again. In 2011, Professor Raj Somadeva of the Post Graduate Institute of Archaeology conducted an expedition to Neelagiri.

In 2012, excavations were done on the instructions of the then Director General of Archaeology Dr. Senarath Dissanayake. It was revealed a brick wall that was added during the construction of Stupa to enlarge it in the seventh century had collapsed later. Archaeological excavations started from the collapsed brick hill. Metal caskets, crystal caskets, stone caskets, clay caskets and glass caskets have been found through the excavation.

In the excavation conducted in 2011, a gold box was found in the collapsed part of the Stupa interior. Because of the lotus flower symbol which was written in a linear form at the bottom of the gold box, it was considered as a special sacred object.

Stoneware and a metal casket

In a rather large bowl-shaped earthen pot, a layer of Tiruvana pebbles was spread and another small bowl-shaped pot was placed on top of it. The golden relic casket was found in it. During the excavations, the large clay pot and the small clay pot were broken into pieces and the Stupa-shaped casket emerged from the bowl. Its height is 27 cm. This casket had a manjusa with a lid covered with gold and beautiful stones placed in the centre of the base. Inside was a chest made of gold ornaments.

Under the supervision and instructions of Senarath Dissanayake, the golden sheaths were investigated further. After that, it became clear that Sacred Relics were contained in it. In addition, 10 crystal boxes were also found.

The box with the Relics was then exhibited in various places throughout Sri Lanka. Saminda Porambage, Assistant Director (Excavations) of the Department of Archaeology said that during the conservation work as well as the excavations, more valuable artifacts were found. The excavation was done with great care. The height of the collapsed Stupa is 21 metres. The diameter is 60.5 metres.

In the past, Neelagiri is considered to have been a major shrine of the Rohana Kingdom. The site also had 44 Siri-Pada stones and 15 seat stones. It has been found that the Stupa was built in the pre-Christian era. The excavations carried out by the Department of Archaeology detected 39 gold caskets, 245 crystal caskets, 12 glass caskets and four silver caskets. This is the largest number of caskets found in a Stupa excavation in this country.

The golden casket found in a stone casket

All these caskets have been created for the preservation of Sacred Relics. Many of the relics caskets had been opened due to the passage of time. Among them, only the relics of a few caskets that were still preserved have remained intact. A special cover has been created for the preservation of these relics. This device is called a Dhathu Manjusa. Gold, silver and gemstones have been used as raw materials for the construction of these relics caskets or Manjusas, which have been created in various shapes.

Among these 28 Dhathu Manjusas found at the site, four special Manjusas can be identified. One of them is made in the shape of a Siri Pathula (footprint of the Buddha) and the other manjusa is made in the shape of a square box with a Siri Pathula logo engraved in the middle of its lid. A large collection of Siri Pathul engravings were found during the archaeological excavations at Neelagiri.

A large number of seat stones that were buried in the courtyard around the Stupa have also been found through the excavation work. According to the Department of Archaeology, these seat stones were also buried along with the Siri Pathul stones. This is clear archaeological evidence that the Buddhist residents living in these areas must have used various Buddhist symbols for the worship of the Buddha in ancient times.

A cave complex has been identified in the Neelagiri mountain around 3 Km from the Stupa. There are also fragments of ancient paintings in one of the caves. There is evidence that this temple was built during the reign of King Bhatikabhaya Tissa (1st century BC). An inscription has been found nearby that mentions a pooja made by his queen Chula Siwali to Neelagiri Stupa.

It is believed that the Neelagiri temple was built by King Mahadathika Mahanaga in the pre-Christian period, and the Neelagiri temple has been expanded some time later. Due to the collapse of the Rohana kingdom and the lack of royal patronage and the depopulation of the area, this Stupa has fallen into disrepair. However, Neelagiri is currently being conserved and the Relics that were there have been placed under the Archaeology Department according to a decision of the Cabinet.

Those Relics are taken only to places that have State approval. The Relics of Neelagiri will be taken from the Department of Archaeology to Homagama on Poson Poya Day for an Exposition at the Dharma Rashmi Poson Zone.

Minister of Transport, Highways and Mass Media Dr. Bandula Gunawardena, was instrumental in this effort, with the support of Minister of Religious and Cultural Affairs Vidura Wickramanayaka. All these activities are carried out under the supervision of the Commissioner General of Archaeology, Prof. Anura Manatunga.