Rock-cut Samadhi statue in modern time | Sunday Observer

Rock-cut Samadhi statue in modern time

11 June, 2023
The side view with a pond in front of the Buddha statue
The side view with a pond in front of the Buddha statue

Kurunegala, or to use its historical name - Hasthihaliyapura and the modern name - ‘Ethu-gal-pura’ literally translates to ‘Elephant-Rock City’. Kurunegala was the royal capital of Sri Lanka from 1293-1341 AD and is steeped in legend, romance and history. The city is also the gateway to many places of historic significance.

Everywhere you look around Kurunegala, Buddha statues and glistening Chaityas rise up crowning the rocks, silently competing for attention. Right in the centre of the bustling town, a statue of the Buddha atop what is known as ‘Ethu Gala’ or Elephant Rock serenely glances at the happenings below. When you drive away from the town, you look over your shoulder to see if the Buddha’s glance is still cast upon you and no matter which direction you drive, you can be assured that the Buddha’s blessings are upon you.

If you travel North East of Kurunegala, 20 km away lies the historic Ridhi Vihara, a temple that dates back centuries. It is 15 km down the Keppetigala road from the Mallawapitiya junction on the Kurunegala – Kandy road. Just five kilometres down the same carpeted road was our destination – Vidyasagara Piriven Vihara at Moneragala, Rambadagalla, where the enchanting Samadhi Buddha statue has been hewn out from a single rock boulder. We saw how this massive rock boulder has been transformed into a peaceful Buddha statue. It was like witnessing history being etched in stone right before your eyes.


Construction work on the Buddha statue in 2008

We have witnessed the tradition of rock-cut Buddha statues in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa where ancient kings’ creations are considered among the best examples of rock carvings and sculpture of the ancient Sinhalese. Even today, these mid-12th century stone carvings rank among the masterpieces of Sinhalese art. Rock-cut statues are rare and the rock-cut Buddha statue at Rambadagalla is, therefore, unique, in contemporary times.

It was almost seven in the morning when we reached the temple premises and parked the vehicle. A few yards from the car park we came across the Avasa Ge of the Chief Incumbent of the temple Ven. Egodamulle Amaramoli Thera and from there a flight of steps across a rock boulder led us to a higher elevation where the Buddha statue is carved out on a massive granite rock facing the East.

After gazing at the splendour of the surrounding landscape with a misty range of rolling hills, we moved further until we came upon the enchanting Samadhi Buddha statue of Rambadagalla. The early morning rays of the sun directly shining on the rock-cut statue added a golden hue to its surface. The granite laden compound and rock-cut pond at the site lend an enchanting atmosphere to the Buddha statue.

The brainchild behind the creation of this Buddha statue is the Ven. Egodamulle Amaramoli Thera, the chief incumbent of Vidyasagara Piriven Vihare, Moneragala, at Rambadagalla in Kurunegala.

I once visited this statue when it was being built in 2008. I have the unforgettable experience of climbing to the middle of the statue through ladders and ropes to photograph the Indian sculptors who engaged in the construction.

Culture and artistic heritage

Sitting on a stone slab in front of this statue in those days, I saw Indian sculptors smoothly chiselling rock, and labourers removing and drilling the stone. I imagined how the monarchs who lived in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, had built magnificent statues in the days of yore. We, Sri Lankans, have always been proud of our rich culture and artistic heritage.

Today, after centuries, we relive the pride and glory of sculpturing through the making of another majestic Samadhi Buddha statue under the supervision of Ven.Amaramoli Thera and the craftsmanship of highly skilled South Indian sculptors. They worked according to the instructions of the world famous Indian sculptor, Padmasri Muttiah Sthapathi who had been awarded the ‘Padma Sri’ honour by the Indian government.

Why a replica of the Barmiyan Buddha is being sculpted in the Kurunegala hillside is itself a tale worth relating. It was in the aftermath of the Taliban’s act that outraged the world and agitated a Dhamma school student who met the chief incumbent demanding that some action be taken. Ven. Egodamulla Amaramoli Thera gave them a patient hearing and resolved to harness the feelings of the youth. The next day, he called a meeting at which he suggested the building of a replica of the Bamiyan Buddha in the village itself to show the world a positive response to a tragic act.

Such were the beginnings of this mammoth project – the building of a 67.5 foot granite statue which has now attracted the support of people from different communities and all walks of life. While I was at the temple in 2008, I talked to the chief incumbent of the temple, Ven. Egodamulle Amaramoli Thera. He told me that he had decided to build the statue in an effort to recreate a 1,500-year-old Bamiyan Buddha statue in Afghanistan which was demolished by the Taliban terrorists in 2001. The statue was commissioned to be carved on the auspicious day of September 13, 2003.

Bamiyan Buddha statue

The Bamiyan Buddha statue before it was demolished in Afghanistan

He said most people had praised his effort. Ven. Amaramoli Thera added that many dignitaries had helped him financially and added that he acknowledged the unseen force behind this work. Former Indian High Commissioner Nirupama Rao visited the site and this was followed by a Rs. 2.5 million donation from the Indian High Commission for the project. Donations have been received from many, including former President Mahinda Rajapaksa who contributed Rs. 2.5 million.

We visited the Buddha statue a couple of weeks ago and it is being worshipped by devotees who throng the site. A guide is also on hand to apprise the people on the history of the Buddha statue. The guide told us, the idea of building the Buddha statue first came from a village boy who attended the Dhamma school in the temple.

The boy rushed to the temple to meet the Chief Incumbent to tell the sad story of the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha statue in Afghanistan. The Dhamma School students of the temple, made a till-box to collect money to build a Buddha statue with the advice of the chief incumbent Ven. Egodamulle Amaramoli Thera. Then he had an idea of building a statue not second to the tallest one that had been destroyed in Afghanistan.

The Chief incumbent had a trepidation whether he could finish this effort successfully, and realised it was going to be a massive task. Yet he made a firm resolution to construct a 50 foot tall seated Buddha statue rather than replicate the Bamiyan Buddha statue in Afghanistan. On the other hand, the chief incumbent wondered who could undertake this task of hewing out a Buddha statue in a single rock.

South Indian sculptor

Ven. Amaramoli Thera then met a well-known businessman, D. Easwaran of Easwaran Brothers. He facilitated a meeting with a South Indian sculptor to perform the task. Eventually, after a series of meetings, the Chief Incumbent agreed to go up to 67.5 feet.

We next came to the spot where the ancient shrine room and Chaitya stood. It was on another rock boulder facing the Buddha statue. We came upon a horizontal rock. From that elevation, we got a glimpse of the landscape all around, comprising a seemingly never ending range of rolling hills. A few yards away from the rock were several ponds with water lilies.

The statue was unveiled on April 30, 2015 by President Maithripala Sirisena, making this the largest sedentary Buddha statue carved out of granite in the world. There are minor details that are still in the process of completion under the expert craftsmanship of a team of Indian sculptors.

The 67.5 ft tall rock-cut Samadhi Buddha statue took more than a decade to complete and is now one of the most prominent Buddhist statues in Kurunegala.

Tourists and Buddhist devotees come to the Moneragala temple daily to witness the rock-cut Buddha statue of modern times and they make a generous financial contribution to the temple since a large sum of money is needed to complete the rest of the work around the statue.

There were a few Indian sculptors still doing the final touches to the statue when I visited the temple recently.