A gateway to history | Sunday Observer
Bihalpola Tampita Vihara:

A gateway to history

26 December, 2021
The Bihalpola Tampita Vihara built on wooden beams on a rock boulder
The Bihalpola Tampita Vihara built on wooden beams on a rock boulder

There was a unique type of Vihara called the ‘Tampita Vihara’ during the Kandyan period. The Tampita Vihara is a temple on pillars. Its most prominent feature is that it is mounted on stone pillars or dwarfed rock pillars.

This type of Vihara that stood on raised platforms of wood standing on stone pillars or on huge rock boulders was constructed this way to prevent white ants or other vermin from entering and damaging it. The Panawitiya Ambalama has also been built using this method.

On a recent tour around the interior of Kurunegala not far from the city, we came to know that there are a few such Tampita Vihara in surrounding areas of Kurunegala. These archaic monuments are preserved by the Department of Archaeology.

If you travel North West of Kurunegala, 25 kilometres away lies the Bihalpola Tempita Viharaya, a unique Vihara that dates back centuries. It is just five kilometres down the Kuliyapitiya road from the Kadahapola junction on the Kurunegala-Madampe road.

The superstructure of the Bihalpola Tampita Vihara is composed of wattle and daub and square in shape. There are three Viharas altogether which belong to different periods of time built on a huge rock boulder on the top of the hill, of which the relic chamber (Dhatu Mandiraya) is in the middle of the buildings.

Wooden beams

The building at the far end of the temple complex is also a shrine room, decorated with murals, which houses the main image of Buddha that belongs to the Kandyan period. A dramatic architectural feature of this small building is that it is built on a framework of massive wooden beams that rest on elevated solid rocks placed on a rock boulder. Some wooden pillars have been driven into the rock boulder, in some places. The walls of the square Vihara are built with wattle and daub using lime plaster on surface. It also has a characteristic roof thatched with Kandyan Pet-Ulu (flat tiles).

There are two small doorways in the Vihara, placed on two sides. The height of the doorways is about six feet. Wooden frames are decorated with intricately carved floral motifs. One door frame is painted in blue while other is plain. Several solid rock slabs with plain moonstones have been placed in front of the doorways which lie on an elevated platform for pilgrims to enter the image house of the Vihara. The doorway is so small that one has to bend down as if in obeisance to enter the Vihara.

After a brief chat with the Chief Incumbent of the Vihara at the foot of the hill, we were accompanied by a Samanera bhikkhu of the Vihara. Having climbed a steep rock cut flight of steps around 40 metres up to the summit under the many white Frangipani trees laden with blossoms, we saw an arched entrance. Around the summit is an elaborately built stone wall around six feet tall with rectangular holes carved into the wall to light lamps around the upper terrace of the Vihara which contains three structures. The glistering ancient Chaitya on top of the hill gives a picturesque setting to the Vihara.

The lower terrace contains a huge Bo-tree and Devalaya. We saw heaps of fallen Araliya freshly swept into piles, and emanating fragrance. We experienced the tranquility and the amazing bird’s eye view of a lush green landscape of the area from the higher elevation of the summit where the Tampita Vihara is located.

Stone pillar inscription

According to chronicles, the Bihalpola Rajamaha Vihara is believed to have been constructed during the reign of King Devanampiyatissa and later renovated by the King Walagamba. Among the ruins at the site are a stone pillar inscription, several stone pillars and a stone carved flight of steps possibly belonging to the Anuradhapura period.

The Samanera bhikkhu took us to every nook and corner of the Vihara, opening the shrine rooms for us. Entering the image houses, we first visited the modern image house which contains a reclining Buddha statue and a couple of seated statues with murals of lotus designs painted on the ceiling probably around the early part of the 20th century.

The second one, the two-storied Datu Mandiraya of the Vihara, was closed due to the restoration work carried out by the Department of Archaeology. Next to the two-storied relic chamber is a Tampita Vihara erected on a wooden frame on four rock slabs on a rock boulder of the temple. This is one of the most striking features of the Vihara. Climbing a short flight of steps, the Samanera bhikkhu opened a door and showed us the interior of the image house which comprised seated and standing Buddha statues and designs depicting Jathaka stories covering the walls, while on the ceiling there is a painting of flowers and creepers with tendrils, which is fast deteriorating.

Jathaka stories

The Jathaka stories - stories of the Buddha’s previous lives - on the Vihara walls are fast decaying. The stories are visually retold in long panels. There is a small strip that is sufficient to give a short explanatory note of a Jathaka story. Along the outer walls of the corridor of the image house, the fairly large panels depicting the Buddha’s life had been painted in the recent past.

A fire has damaged a number of priceless paintings and beautiful wooden Makara Thorana at the Tampita Vihara image house in 1997, while treasure hunters have taken away several priceless Buddha statues at the Vihara.

Observing the wooden pillars in the image house of the Tampita Vihara, we noticed that they are unique creations resembling the wooden pillars at the Panavitiya Ambalama. Sadly, the murals on the Tampita Vihara are believed to have been repainted over a black background. Probably, all the vibrant colours (red and yellow) have faded and been destroyed in the fire.

There are many temples in the area where our rich history comes alive. Kurunegala which is an entry point to these splendours of our past is indeed a gateway to history.