Homage in rock to Bodhisattva | Sunday Observer

Homage in rock to Bodhisattva

13 March, 2022
The rock hewn statue of Kustarajagala in Weligama
The rock hewn statue of Kustarajagala in Weligama

Having visited Rumassala, which we featured last week, we headed towards the coastal fishing town of Weligama, through delightful seaside resorts. The placid bay of Weligama is 30 kilometres from Galle. The seascape is filled with ubiquitous stilt fishermen’s single poles with a cross bar to catch small fish in chest-deep water on the beach. This is a visual treat and perhaps, one of the most photoworthy sceneries in the world.

Though Weligama is a drowsy small sea town today, in the colonial period it was a highly prosperous centre for foreign trade. The 16th century lace-making craft which was introduced by the Portuguese still remains in some parts of the coastal area of Weligama. We spotted a few old buildings here and there with columns with lattice work as the only remnants of the colonial period in Weligama.

The magnificent ancient Kustarajagala archaeological site is within the hustle and bustle of the Weligama town close to the Aggrabodhi Vihara off the old Colombo road. Urbanisation has engulfed the surrounding of Kustarajagala which is confined to cramped small plot of land today.

The houses are on every side. The Matara-Colombo railway track is behind the site. A playground lies in front of this sacred site where children play cricket and stray cows graze here and there. Although the peace of time has overtaken the sacred place, it still retains its character as a place of peace and tranquility.

Statue of Bodhisattva

The Kustarajagala rock cut statue about 15 feet in height stands on an isolated rock. An intricately carved and elaborately dressed splendid statue of Bodhisattva is set deep into the rock. It lies in the shade of overhanging Bo-tree. When we stepped in to the site, the morning rays of the sunlight were flickering through the branches of the Bo-tree.

Perhaps, a huge rock boulder has been sliced in two to create this work. The other half lies just opposite side, wrapped within the roots of an ancient Bo-tree. Since the statue was carved out into the rock at a higher elevation, we can view it above the eye level about eight feet from the ground. After climbing the opposite rock, we came up to eye level with the statue. From this point, the whole statue seems different and every detail becomes clear. Then, we realised the massive scale of the statue.

Known as Kustaraja, the statue was created between 7-8th century according to the notice board erected by the Department of Archaeology. There are various legends associated with the name and the construction of the statue. An ancient chronicle records that King Aggrabodhi IV (667-683 AD), suffered from an incurable skin disease and had got this sculpture made under his patronage. Since Aggrabodhi IV lived in Ruhuna for a long time he may have constructed this statue.

Looking closely at the details of this rock hewn statue, we came across several features.

The statue is heavily draped in elaborate ornaments and cloths. The head dress too is elaborately designed with four figures of the Buddha carved on three sides of it. Many necklaces adorn the neck.

Parts of the head dress touch the shoulders. Perhaps this, one of the most beautiful and intricately carved statues in Sri Lanka suggests the influence of Mahayana Buddhism in the Country in the 7-8th centuries.

Tragically, someone has attempted to dig out an area between the chest and the waist of the statue removing a piece of rock which contained an elaborately carved ornamental design across the statue.

Several similar marks are found in the head-dress of the Kustarajagala statue which is also believed to represent a Bodhosattva. Avalokitesvara is assigned a higher status than Maitreya by the Mahayanists.

He is identified as Natha Deviyao and is said to represent the influence of Hindu pantheism in Sri Lanka.

The left hand of the statue’s ring finger and middle finger are bent to touch the palm of the hand. This Mudra (pose) is believed to signify a beckoning to devotees for a blessing.

Nearby, the Aggrabodhi Rajamaha Vihara is the place where one of the first 32 saplings of the Sri Maha Bodhiya at Anuradhapura was planted.

It is also speculated that this Vihara was called Aggrabodhi since it was constructed under the patronage of King Aggrabodhi IV.

Kustarajagala statue

The Kustarajagala statue is said to have been part of this temple at the time, though according to some archaeologists, it was part of an old Avalokitesvara-Natha temple that used to stand on this site.

This tallies with the doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism, as the Avalokitesvara was the saviour of man-kind and the healer of the sick. Kustarajagala may belong to the Mahayana sect, long since defunct here and considered heretic.

In Ruhuna, we found several other Mahayana sites where similar Avalokitesvara Bodhisatva statues exist – Situlpahuwa, deep in the Yala National Park, Maligawila at Okkampitiya and Buduruwagala rock carvings at Wellawaya are examples.

The Kustarajagala statue is the most outstanding relic today of a period during which Mahayana and Tantric Buddhism held sway in Sri Lanka. When the statue was completed is not known.

This lack of any detailed history may be due to the statue’s Mahayana origins.

Veritable war

The competition between Mahayana and Theravada became a veritable war at one point in Sri Lanka’s history. Finally, the original sect of Theravada prevailed. With time, memories of Mahayanism faded away completely.

Most Sri Lankans today consider Mahayanism is an exclusively foreign sect. However, devotees still come to the Kustarajagala statue to worship and pray for relief from diseases – they regard the statue as a Mahayanist Bodhisattva who is considered a healing deity.

In front of the Kustarajagala statue just a few feet away, lays a tomb of a European. Some believe it may belong to an engineer who came to build the railway track. Why this tomb is erected here is not known and mysterious, but its details carved out on a granite plaque are still readable. It says “In loving memory of Thomas H.D. Gadder, Born 25 August 1825, Died 10 August 1907, Jesus is our Peace”.

If you find some extra time on your hands on a trip to Weligama, do not forget to see the statue.