Ancient glory of Tantirimale | Sunday Observer

Ancient glory of Tantirimale

11 February, 2018
AWE-INSPIRING SCENE: A vibrant sunset over Tantirimale Dagoba.
AWE-INSPIRING SCENE: A vibrant sunset over Tantirimale Dagoba.

Tantirimale: The ruins of this ancient monastic complex on the banks of the Malwatu Oya transports us to another era where history, art, architecture and Buddhist practices blend seamlessly.

I imagined how the inaccessible jungle leading to the sacred site of Tantirimale looked like over 2,500 years ago where glory, peace and serenity prevailed. The ruins of Tantirimale stretch out in front of us surrounding a massive rocky boulder spanning over 250 acres. The remains of this ancient monastic complex, located next to the Wilpattu National Park in the Southwest, are often deserted and consist of rock hewn statues, stupas, bhikkus’ caves and viharas. The crimson of the bricks and grey rock boulders glows in the light of the morning sun, making an evocative tapestry.

There are two main routes which can be used to reach Tantirimale. One approach is to travel 18 kilometres from Anuradhapura- Wilachchiya road and the other one lies through Medawachchiya on the Mannar road travelling 18 kilometres, turning left from the Gajasingha junction and proceeding another 12 kilometres to reach Tantirimale.

This is my second visit to Tantirimale. I first visited this historic site in 2002, after the then UNP government signed a Ceasefire Accord between the Sri Lanka Government and the LTTE. It was a long cherished dream that came true for me, as I have had a life-long passion to visit all the lesser travelled historical places in the country.

Scenic locaton

Travelling on 18 kilometres along the Anuradhapura- Tantirimale gravel road, I saw chena farmers torching forests for cultivation and children with their mothers bathing in village tanks full of lotus flowers blossoming beautifully. The whole landscape was enriched by lush greenery.

Most of the villagers are farmers who left the area during the troubled period and returned to their ancestral lands and settled down again. Farmers are busy once again and acres and acres of lush paddy fields are a soothing sight. Now, newly carpeted roads, new schools, community centres and hospitals are available for the village masses. Eventually, I was thrilled to see that a new era of prosperity had come about after the troubled times during my second visit recently.

Some of the stone inscriptions and ruins look worn with age, but one admires their quality, and endurance for the monastery is said to have flourished from the latter part of the Anuradhapura period. I have only to shut my eyes to think of the robed hermit monks making their way across the impressive structures to attend meditation sessions.

The history of Tantirimale dates back to Third Century BC, during the reign of King Devanampiyatissa. Tantirimale seems to have become a large monastery by the end of the Anuradhapura period. The ancient chronicle, Mahawamsa recorded that Arahat Theri Sangamittha, a daughter of King Asoka of India, and her entourage rested one night at Tantirimale when they brought the Sacred Bo-sapling from India to Anuradhapura.

Tantirimale was first civilized by a minister of King Vijaya called Upatissa who chose this place surrounded by the Malwatu Oya to build his future settlement, then named Upatissagrama. History says, when King Devanampiyatissa first visited Tantirimale, it was introduced by another name – Tiwakka Bamunugama, literally, “home to a Brahmin called Tiwakka”. Thus, the name of the village was derived from the Brahmin’s name.

It is said, one of the eight offshoots of the sacred Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi at Anuradhapura was planted at Tiwakka Bamunugama in 3rd Century BC. Thus, the impressive Bo-tree in Tantirimale can count more than 2,500 years of existence and it still stands majestically on the top of the rock boulder, venerated by thousands of pilgrims. I soon come upon a magnificent sight in Tantirimale - the small but beautiful Dagoba surrounded by a natural rock that lies to the north of the rocky boulder with a modern shrine room. The two Buddha statues hewn out of living rock gives an ancient splendour to Tantirimale.

The reclining Buddha statue on the northern slope of the rock is 45 feet long and is said to be similar to the one at Gal Vihara, in Polonnaruwa, but there are not many details in the figure except the face and lines of the robe. Sadly, I noticed that the face of the statue had been destroyed by treasure hunters, though it has now been restored by the Department of Archaeology. To see the second statue, one has to take a flight of steps which leads down from the summit of the rock boulder. On either side are the remains of two sets of pillars. Perhaps, this was once a covered walkway descending to an image house embedded in the rock. Carved out of rock, this second 2.16 metres high crossed-legged statue has a marble finish inside a box like cave. The face is long and beautiful and lines of the robe are drawn finely. Beneath the statue’s head is a frieze of squatting lions, staring straight. Above and behind are two deities, holding fans in their hands.

At the archaeological museum nearby we see magnificent images of Buddha, terracotta figures and artifacts recovered from the site. But, what is unique is the head of Bodhisatva of Mahayanism.

Pre-historic art

Further below, there is a natural pond filled with lotus blossoms to add beauty to the rock landscape that served as a bathing pond for Bhikkus and villagers as well. The water is fresh and remains even during the drought. I also had a chance to dip in this pond while staying overnight at Tantirimale.

Passing the pond I walked into the forest canopy and found another stone structure called ‘Pothgula,’ the library of the monastery entirely built on a rock. It is believed that in ancient times, a large number of valuable books written on Ola leafs had been kept here for reference. Beneath the rock is another drip-ledge cave where inscriptions from 8th Century are carved out on the rock ceiling of the cave. A stone structure was the abode for meditating bhikkus to live and perform their rituals. I saw a few drip-ledge rock caves deep in the forest of Tantirimale dating back to the pre-historic era. One of these caves has aboriginal paintings.The archaeologists believed, these primitive paintings show the primary symbols of sun, moon, arrows dating back more than 4,000 years, and drawn making a mixture of paste derived from the barks of trees, ashes, and soil. Tantirimale was forgotten due to foreign invasions and re-settled in 1960 by the founding chief priest of Tantirimale, the late Ven. Kuda Kongaskada Vimalaghana Thera, who came to Tantirimale at the age of 20 in 1960. He made Tantirimale a reputed Buddhist Vihara and awakened the livelihood of villagers in the area.

Tantirimale was constantly in the the grip of terrorists as it lies at the edge of the Wilpattu Wildlife sanctuary which was a safe haven for the LTTE, which is believed to have come via Tantirimale to attack the sacred Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura, in 1985. Eventually, the life of the chief incumbent of the Tantrimale Raja Maha Vihara, Ven. Kuda Kongaskada Vimalaghana Thera was snatched away by the ruthless terrorists in 1992.

Following the vision of the late founding monk, the present chief incumbent Ven. Tantirimale Chandrarathana Thera works hard to uplift the living conditions of farming families and bring some of its past glory back to Tantirimale.

Certainly, Tantirimale is a great sacred site. It is a religious oasis surrounded by impressive rock boulders and covered with a forest canopy where peace and serenity prevail. It is the nation’s duty to protect this sacred site which occupies a unique place in our history.