A silent past | Sunday Observer

A silent past

18 February, 2018
MAGNIFICENT SIGHT: A section of the massive Chaitya of Yudaganawa and shrine-room
MAGNIFICENT SIGHT: A section of the massive Chaitya of Yudaganawa and shrine-room

Being a land of ancient kingdoms, there is a temple in ruins in almost every corner of our country. Built by kings and princes, they speak of a glorious past, when they were once the capital of a dynasty. Mostly ignored, dilapidated, they lie in crumbles, waiting to tell their story, if somebody is willing to hear them. We happened to stop by a couple of such sites in the Moneragala district, Uva Province.

It would hardly occur to you that Buttala, a dried but lush little town you pass on your way to more interesting places, is adorned by historic religious spots which are inspiring, enchanting and wholly occupying.

Your wanderings could take you to at least sixteen places of interest. This is Uva rich in natural resources and beauty – water bodies and waterfalls, parklands, forests and valleys, undulating terrain, birds and animals, the lovely Ella gap, and national parks. The ruins of ancient temple complexes and their Chaityas are spread around in several acres where modern temples have sprung up. If you are more adventurous you could wander further on to Kataragama, Arugam Bay and Pottuvil in the East.

Massive dome

Driving through the A4 Highway, passing Wellawaya we slowly make our way to the outskirts of Buttala. A little while later, the driver brings the van to a halt and announces we are in the vicinity of the ancient Chaitya of Yudaganawa. And all we see is a vehicle park filled with dusty shops with refreshing drinks of Belimal and Badairingu (maize).

In a while, the mist clears and the rays of the sun stream out from the clouds. We are in Yudaganawa, an archaeological site with a massive dome like half completed Chaitya believed to be first built by King Parakramabahu the Great in memory of his mother Queen Ratnavali who was cremated here.

In some of his writings, eminent archaeologist, Dr. Senerath Paranavitana expounds the theory that Yudaganawa Chaitya, which looks unfinished, is in fact, complete. He says, in the era that this Chaitya was built, a few other Chaityas were also built in the same style.

Lying in ruins is a half completed dome like massive Chaitya called Yudaganawa with a small shrine room belonging to the Kandyan period. Just a kilometre away there are a few stupas and a torso of Buddha. This is identified as the ‘Chulangani Vihara belonging to the 12th century. But the Buddha statue in the image house is believed to date back to the 6-7th centuries. Partially restored, these stupas have lost a bit of their sheen, their erstwhile glory summarized on a simple Department of Archaeology board.

Local lore, however says, this is the place where the two brothers, Prince Gamini or Gemunu (later the great King Dutugemunu) and Prince Saddhatissa fought for the crown and Prince Saddhatissa lost. He escaped to the Dematamal Vihara at Okkampitiya where the Bhikkus hid him. The legend goes that when Dutugemunu inquired of the Bhikku where his brother was, the Bhikku told him he was not on the bed. He was in fact, under the bed, says the legend.

One should not also miss the massive Chaitya which marks the place of the battle, and now restored by the Department of Archaeology. Step into the small shrine-room where you can see some wall paintings and the elaborate Makara Thorana, (Dragon arch) as well as the ancient Buddha statue, belonging to the Kandyan period. In the recent past, the section of the stomach area of the statue has been dug out and extensively damaged by treasure raiders in search of treasure. However, the officials of the Department of Archaeology have restored the statue to its former glory.

This is another historic temple shrine-room in danger of being destroyed due to neglect. Murals, paintings and statues that are more than 600 years old have been left to the mercy of the elements. However, it is a matter of serious concern that the archaeological remains of the shrine-room are facing decay and the authorities should take drastic action to protect them from danger.

We walked around the Chaitya, taking in the sculptures. A group of pilgrims just strolling around the Chaitya were wondering about its massive size. The Chaitya is so huge that it was difficult to frame it in the camera lens unless it is a wide-angle one. Some believe, this Chaitya with a circumference of 317 metres was initially thought to be a ‘Kota Vehera’ – a huge Chaitya built half way and a small Chaitya built on top of that. There are four such Chaityas around the country with minor changes. Recently, I visited one such Kota Vehera at Deliwala in Rambukkana, which was featured in the Sunday Observer, several weeks ago.

In the vicinity of the Yudaganawa Chaitya is the enchanting Yudaganawa Wewa. It is believed, the clay needed to make bricks for the Chaitya was dug here. According to historical chronicles, the tank had been built by King Mahanaga in 300 BC. However, in 1950, it was renovated by the Department of Irrigation. This picturesque tank covers an area of 150 acres and provides water to 252 acres of paddy cultivation in the area.

Glorious fragrance

Leaving Yudaganawa, our next stop is only about 20 minutes’ drive from Buttala. It is another historic site - the magnificent Dematamal Viharaya. Passing lush paddy fields surrounded by undulating mountain ranges, we reach the middle of the paddy field where around two acres of the temple land are covered with stone ruins scattered here and there on the ground.

Heaps of fallen Araliya flowers had been freshly swept into piles giving out a glorious fragrance.

As one walks up the steps to the reconstructed parapet wall of the brick-built Chaitya, it is easy to visualize the past inhabitants’ way of life and its green paddy fields paint a vivid landscape. The fragrant breeze that blows across the paddy fields soothes those who stand on the basement of the Chaitya. The day being a Sunday, a large number of Dhamma School children were present at the Vihara clad in white costumes.

Situated about five kilometres away from Buttala in the village of Helagama on the Maligawila - Okkampitiya road, Dematamal Vihara, dates back to the 3rd century BC. It is a dark red colour brick-built Chaitya of historical significance, set amidst lush green paddy fields. It is supposed to be the place where Prince Saddhatissa took refuge, when he fled after losing a battle for the throne with his brother Dutugemunu who later became a warrior king.

The Queen Mother, Vihara Maha Devi, saddened by the animosity between her two sons pleaded with them to make amends. The Maha Sangha also intervened to make peace between them.

The ruins of the Vihara are scattered in the area of two acres land and many of them are now being restored by the Department of Archaeology. The most significant is a granite torso of the standing Buddha at the image house as well as peculiar guard stones in the site. An impressive stone head believed to be of a Bodhisattva lies in the Vihara premises.

In addition to its picturesque locale, a large number of ruins are scattered around the temple premises and also nearby paddy fields, such as, stone pillars, moonstones, a torso of the Bodhisatva and guard stones. The guard stone is a unique sculpture at the entrance of the Vihara.

The two brothers made peace with each other, and to mark this truce a colossal Chaitya was erected on the battlefield where they had fought. The battlefield is known in Sinhala as ‘Yudaganawa’.

Some historians believe that an already existing Chaitya, that we visited earlier, was reconstructed and named Yudagana Chaitya. The Dematamal Viharaya and Yudaganawa Chaitya bear testimony to the warrior dynasty in the Ruhuna Kingdom.

We lose ourselves in the beauty of the ruins and wonder how these temples were destroyed. One Bhikku at the Vihara explains, they met their end when the Cholas and Pandyans from India invaded these parts of the country, and pulled the monuments down while the Sinhala kings deserted their Kingdoms.

The setting sun reflects vibrant hues over the mountains as we leave. The darkness engulfs us as we wonder how much of history lies lost in ruins.