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|Year and Month||January, 2015|
|Number of Days||One Day Trip|
|Crew||One but ideal for a family outing|
|Transport||Public transport and three wheeler|
|Activities||archeology, Photography, hiking|
|Weather||It was a very hot and shiny day|
|Route||Bus route and driving instructions from Colombo is as followsAukana
Train routes from Colombo are as follows
|Tips, Notes and Special remark||
|Comments||Discuss this trip report, provide feedback or make suggestions at Lakdasun Forum on the thread|
The region Kala Wewa is renowned for the tank bearing its name, the Avukana Buddha and the ancient temples of Ras Vehera and Vijithapura. Its grandeur, historical significance and spiritual importance continues to attract thousands of pilgrims and visitors each year. And the temple of Avukana is said to be the place to witness one of the most spectacular sunrises in the island. A dawn of colors, when the east facing statue made out of yellow sandstone is lit up with the first rays of the day. But only a handful of pilgrims and visitors actually visit Avukana at the crack of dawn to witness this incredible spectacle. For many, it is a passing stop in a crowded itinerary of places to be covered within one day. And very few of them are able grasp the true mystique of this enigmatic region. A mystique that lies almost forgotten within the astonishing array of oral traditions preserved by the local community. Hence, the objectives of this trip were two fold. One, to witness the fabled sunrise at Avukana. And secondly, to explore the link between historical fact and folklore by gathering firsthand accounts from local residents.
My plan was to travel to Kekirawa in the night bus and hire a three wheeler to visit Avukana and Sasseruwa in the morning. Thereafter, I was planning to return to the Kala Wewa bund, Kadawara devalaya and finally Vijithapura by the latter half of the day
I left home at 10 pm to catch the Jaffna bound night bus (route 15) from the fort bus stand. Having got off at the Kekirawa junction clock tower, at 4 a.m. I was picked up by Sabri (mobile 0719870363), who was my three wheeler driver for the day. This was the second time I went to Avukana with him, and he proved to be trustworthy and reliable on both occasions. From Kekirawa junction we came to Ihalagama junction and took a left turn to the road that goes towards the Galewela passing Vijithapura and Avukana. Driving by moonlight we arrived at the Avukana temple within 40 minutes. It would have been a much more comfortable journey had I travelled by the 7.15 pm night train from fort and got down at the Aukana station at dawn. It is only 15 minutes by three wheeler from the station to the temple. The security personnel asked me to wait till 6.30 am at the police check point till the temple was opened to the public.
By 5.50 am I could sense that the hustle and bustle has already started at the temple. I quickly climbed the staircase and had a brief chat with the head priest regarding the purpose and objective of my journey. After obtaining his permission I registered myself at the security check point. To reach the statue one has to climb a slight incline and walk past the temple premises and a bana maduwa. Even in dim light, the first sight of the colossal statue was awe inspiring. Long ago the statue had been protected within a large image house or shrine nearly 70 feet in length. In moonlight the giant remnants of this imposing structure resembles a stone maze surrounding the Buddha. Walking towards the statue through this maze, one’s gaze is invariably drawn to the dark silhouette of the Buddha’s face. There was barely enough light to focus the camera…but the suspense of not knowing what was to come with the dawning day made all sleep and tiredness vanish.
The drama of light and shade, shapes and lines and yellows and blues which unfolded within the next half hour is difficult to be described in words. It was truly an unforgettable spectacle. Hence, I have left the pictures unedited, attempting to capture the events exactly as seen through the third eye of the lens. Using a heavy tripod, the DSLR controls were set to ISO 200, auto white balance and aperture priority mode at f/12.
In my eagerness to witness this spectacle I had arrived at the temple far too early. The real drama began to unfold only at about 6.55 am. I watched mesmerized as the first rays of the day slowly illuminated the siraspatha of the Buddha. Then the eyes and the face was also lit up in yellow by about 7.10 am. By 7.30 am the whole statue seemed to be ablaze with a golden hue created by the yellow colored sandstone lighting up in the morning sun. It was almost as if the statue must have been meant to be worshipped as it stood shining against the deep greens of the trees behind and the blues of the skies above. The finish, polish and design of the sculpture clearly seems to have taken into consideration the drama of light and shadow unfolding with the dawn of each day. The Buddha seemed to gaze towards the tank with such serenity, power and compassion that all beings, human or animal could only be humbled by its presence.
The surveyor and historian Brohier describes his first encounter with the Aukana statue
“I felt an insignificant pigmy in its presence and humbled. Yet grasping hold of the tail end of my reason there gradually seeped into my mind enough clarity to perceive the still, unmoving features and expression on the face of the statue, the idea of majestic compassion it conveyed, the emotional poise and the mellow beauty with which the sculptor has draped it…”
The eccentric Raven Hart summed it up best… in just two sweeping sentences
“It is indescribably impressive, the face of benign power, confirming the blessing given by the right hand. The robes flow as you would think granite could never be made to flow – they almost move in the wind.”
Avukana is arguably the best crafted and preserved standing Buddha statue in the island. Visitors belonging to any faith, culture or religion, would invariably admire the artistry, craftsmanship, history and the scale of this 40 foot colossus. Just the big toe itself is over a foot long and the ankle eight feet round. The estimated weight is said to be 75 to 80 tons! What impresses most, about this sculpture is not its size or proportions, but the delicate craftsmanship displayed by the sculptor. The artistic manner in which the Buddha’s robes chastely reveals his underlying physique is a prominent feature of the sculpture. When one stands at the foot of the statue and gazes upwards… the robes look as if flowing with some unseen breeze. Some have even speculated that the flow of robes depict the waves of the Kala Wewa.
It is said that a Buddha has 32 features that reflect his enlightenment and greatness. The ancient Sinhalese sculptors have paid particular attention to depict these characteristics correctly and clearly in their work. And in the Avukana Buddha statue 16 of these features have been visually identified. The right hand of the Buddha faces the viewer sideways in what is known as the “Ashisha Mudra” or the “posture of blessing”. If not for the spirituality of the face, one may almost anticipate a swift Karate chop about to be delivered. The symbolism of the left hand shows the gathering up of the robe in preparation to step over a river – a representation of the cycle of rebirths in the “Kataka Hastha” mudra. The figure is carved in the round, narrowly connected at the rear to the rock.
According to folklore the ancient sculptors have executed their task with such precision, that even a drop of rain that fall on to the top of the statue would flow along a path over the nose of the statue and fall to an exact point between its toes. Thereby preserving the statue from erosion caused by the monsoons. Till this date, a small depression mark is seen placed precisely between the two toes and directly below the tip of the nose.
To me… the facial expressions of the reclining statue in Gal Viharaya in Polonnaruwa portrays a “calm peaceful face”. Thereby striking the viewer with a feeling of spiritual bliss and serenity. I felt that the impassive visage of the Avukana Buddha portrays a “strong face”. Thereby conveying supreme spirituality and power. And from his curled hair there sprouts the flame called siraspatha signifying his enlightenment. The gaze of the Buddha is forever, fixed in the direction of the tank. And at a certain time of the day, the eyes are said to level with the water.
I had a quiet chat with the temple priest about the history, folklore and legends surrounding the Avukana statue and temple
- According to the priest the statue was constructed by King Dhatusena at about the same time as the tank. The existence of caves with drip ledges and Brahmin inscriptions prove this to be a pre Christian era monastery in existence long before the reign of Dhatusena. According to the priest the word “Avukana” is said to be evolved from “Pabbatha Kona”, “Pawuru Kona” and “Paukana”, meaning the edge of the rock. This is said to be because the statue has been carved at the edge of a rock face. There is another theory that the word Avukana is derived from “Wawu Kona”, meaning the corner of the tank. Its close proximity to the edge of the Kala Wewa may have given rise to this thought
- “Avukana” is popularly thought to be derived from the meaning “sun-eating” or dawn. This seems to be a most logical conclusion for anyone who has witnessed the statue being lit up by the morning sun. However, it is generally accepted as a recent evolution, as the temple was known as “Kalagal Viharaya” till the 18th Century. Probably because of the close proximity to the Kala Wewa (tank). The word “Kalagal” could be translated to Pali as “Kalasela”. A place called Kalasela is mentioned in the Culavamsa as containing an image for which King Dhatusena (455-73) had a diadem made. As the Avukana statue dates from around the 5th century AD, it is generally accepted as this statue mentioned in the chronicle
- There is a village nearby named “Gal Waduwa Gama”, meaning the village of the stone craftsman. Pleased by the skill displayed in carving the Avukana Buddha, king Dhatusena is was said to have donated all the lands of this village to a single sculptor by the name of “Bharana”. Thus the memory of the “Bharana”, is still preserved in oral tradition.
- The Avukana Buddha is contemporaneous with the images at Buduruwagala, Maligawila and Polonnaruwa’s Gal Vihara and Lankatilaka. This brief craze for such gigantic monuments may have been inspired by the Indian Mahayana influence, with its emphasis on the Buddha’s superhuman, transcendental powers. It is said that Deepankara Buddha (one of the 28 Lord Buddhas in Buddhism) was 88ft tall and that Aukana Buddha statue reflects Deepankara Buddha. Statues of the Gods Indra, Brahma, Yama, Suyama and Santhusika who were the Gods affiliated to the Deepankara Buddha were said to have been found near the flower altar and provide further proof of the identity of the statue. However, another thought is that the statue was sculptured as a form of blessing to the people in the area. As the gaze of the Buddha is directed towards the tank, some other have speculated that the statue was carved to protect the tank.
- The neat folds of flowing drapery and the posture of blessing of the statue is said to bear signs of influence from the Ghandhara and Amaravati schools of art in India. The Ghandhara School of art developed from the mix of Greek, Syrian, Persian and Indian artistic influences which merged along the Silk Road in the regions of northern Pakistan and Afghanistan. There is unconfirmed speculation that the word Avukana is derived from the word “Avagam”, which means Afghanistan in Turkish. If this be true… the influence from the Ghandara School of art in creating the Avukana Buddha may have been derived from the now destroyed Bhamiya Buddha statues in Afghanistan…
Probably the most popular of all folklore is said to be those linking Avukana with another statue of similar proportions, situated just 8 miles away. To explore this I journeyed to my next destination of Sasseruwa in Galewela.
The bumpy road from Aukana temple to Sasseruwa temple winds through about 15km of varied terrain dotted with patches of lush greenery, lakes with mesmerizing reflections, pleasant stretches of paddy and typical dry zone vegetation. The road is quite bumpy and public transport highly unreliable along this route, necessitating a three wheeler or an off roader to reach the temple. The unmistakable sight of elephant dung, attala and electric fences gives hint to roaming elephants in the area. Hence it would be best to avoid this route before 9 am and after 4 pm.
Sasseruwa had been one of the earliest, most significant and largest Buddhist monastic complexes in ancient Ceylon. The archeological site is littered with more than 100 drip ledge caves which would have provided abode to a massive population of forest dwelling monks. Thus rivalling even Mihintale and Ritigala in sheer scale. Forest dwelling monks depend on alms offered by the local population for sustenance. Hence, such large monasteries are invariably constructed only a short distance away from a large population of devotees. Thus, providing further proof to the existence of a flourishing agricultural community in this region. The Brahmin inscriptions in some of these caves bear evidence to their pre Christian origin. Ruins of stupas, ancient moonstones, stone inscriptions and stone pillars can be seen in every direction. The sapling of the very first 32 saplings (Dethis Maha Bo Ankura) of the Sri Maha Bodhi in the Anuradhapura is thought to be planted by king Devampiyathissa (250 – 210 BC) at this temple. Folklore asserts that on the day the tree was planted the area was lit by colorful rays of light (ras). Thus, the name ‘Ras Vehera’ has been attached to this temple. This tree is still protected by an ancient Bodhigara, and surrounded by a grove of Araliya trees.
However, the main attraction of Rasvehera is undoubtedly the gigantic 13 meter, image of the Buddha. A steel railing has been newly installed to aid the pilgrims in their short ascend to worship the statue. The sacred feet, the creases in the siura or robes, the posture of the arms and the serenity of the smiling face invoke all viewers to discard all worldly concerns and enter into a moment of calm contemplation.
This shrine is also called Sasseruwa (or Sas-seruwa) which could be interpreted as the “similar statue”. Thus hinting the connection of this statue with the one at Avukana. Even a casual observer would not fail to notice the striking similarity in size, stance and basic form between these two statues, located just 8 miles apart. The plains of Kala Wewa, where simple farming folks have been engaged in an unhurried way of life for more than a thousand years have fostered many imaginative tales, that have passed on to folklore and legend. In such a place, one can hardly expect so remarkable a coincidence to pass unnoticed. Thus giving rise to many a tale linking Avukana with Sasseruwa.
- Arguably the most popular story asserts that a master craftsman and his student set out to carve two identical statues in a classic “Guru-Gola” (master pupil) rivalry. The Ras Vehera statue was said to be assigned to the student while the master set to work in Avukana. . The completion of either masterpiece was to be signaled by the ringing of a bell. The master and pupil got down to the job of finishing the statues furiously. And one fine day the sound of the bell was heard… The master had completed the statue at Avukana. Defeated and disheartened, the student laid down his chisel. Never to be picked up again.
- Once upon a time the same artist was said to have sculpted both statues, beginning with the one at Sasseruwa. It was during the carving process that a large cracks was said to form in the torso of the statue (still seen today). Thus frustrating the sensitive artist abandon the sculpture. He had packed up his tools and moved to Avukana to start work in a fresh masterpiece.
- The southern Sinhalese hero Dutugamunu, on his way to attack Vijithapura, was said to be forced to camp along the flooded Malwathu River. The river was said to be full to the brim and too perilous for the army to wade across. The king had given orders for his men not to be idle and do whatever they were skilled with. The craftsmen who were there had started to carve this Buddha image. These craftsman have stopped their work half way through to join the rest of the ranks when the river subsidized enough for the army to cross it. Thus, the statue was said to remain unfinished to this date. Perhaps these warrior sculptors never returned from battle.
Paranavitana in his masterpiece “Sinhalayo” noted that the statue at Avukana near Kala Wewa may be of the same date as the tank, and the Sasseruwa Buddha may be even somewhat earlier. He pointed that colossal Buddha images of this type carved on rock faces are not found in India but was discovered in larger dimensions in modern day Afghanistan.
Further illustrating this in his work “the art of the ancient Sinhalese” Paranavitana writes
“The statue of Aukana appears to be o be the image referred to as the “Kailasela” Buddha in Mahawamsa. The site was known in the eighteenth century as “kala-Gal” viharaya which in Pali would be “Kailasela” Viharaya. As there is reference to it in the reign of king Dhatusena, the image most probably dates from that reign. Kailasela can be taken as the equivalent of the Sinhalese “Kaliya” a title of Dhatusena.
The colossus at Sasseruwa is of somewhat lesser height than the Aukana Buddha, and it is not so imposing. It is carved in high relief inside a niche, and has no pedestal placed against its feet. If the tradition which was prevalent in the fifteenth century about this image can be relied upon, it is the earliest Buddha image found of this type in Ceylon. The author of “Rajawamsa” when he returned from his travels abroad, gave king Mahasen an account of the two colossi on the rock at the “Bhamayana Vihara” (Bamiyan) in the Sugdha (Udyana) country, which were intended to be portraits of two kings father and son, who ruled that kingdom in the third century., and ere in the form of Maitreya Buddha Mahasen decided to have his own portrait carved in the guise of the maître Buddha on the face of the rock at “Rahera” Vihara (modern Sasseruwa) on the likeness of the Maitreya Bodhisattva. Though wearing the monastic robes, and the hair on the had shown in ringlets, the image is that of a bodhisattva as indicated by the left hand holding the hem of the robe, Mahsen did not live to complete the image, and after his death, his son “Srimeghawarna” stopped work thereon, in order to placate the followers of the Mahavihara. But the image appears to have received worship as that of a Buddha in subsequent ages.”
Comparing the Avukana Buddha with the earlier sculpture at Rasvehera is in many ways similar to comparing the statues at Thanthirimale with the later sculptures in Gal Viharaya in Polonnaruwa. The statue at Rasvehera with a missing “siraspatha”, an unfinished ear and a large crack in the torso appears somewhat incomplete and less well preserved in comparison to the pristine condition of the Avukana Buddha. This could be partially explained by it being constructed several centuries before the Avukana Buddha. Though not all legends connecting these statues may be accepted as fact, it is very unlikely that the sculpture at Avukana was not influenced by the earlier statue in Ras Vehera.
Two of the caves used by meditating monks in pre Christian era have been converted to image houses during the reign of king Walagamba. Today they contain beautiful dragon arches, seated Buddha statues and wall paintings dating from the Kandy era. The fading paintings closely resembles the mara parajaya in Dambulla and Degaldoruwa. Though generally kept locked, the priest kindly assigned a guide on my request to see the caves. And they were well worth a visit…
One of the caves is said to be guarded by a giant snake – who to my great relief had not been seen by anyone in the past 50 years. A Kandiyan era reclining Buddha nearly 40 feet in length dominates the interior of this “Naga Lena”. Worshippers can walk right around this statue using a passageway behind the statue and the cave wall. It is said that a hand woven cotton thread has been pasted to represent the waves of the robe and plastered and painted over to finish this statue. This thread was said to have been woven by single poor woman as an offering to the great teacher. One can still see the thread in places where the statue has been damaged
In a dark corner behind the Buddha statue lies a wooden bed… covered with the dust of many years. It is said to have been donated to the temple nearly four hundred years ago, when only royalty and aristocrats were allowed to sleep on beds. Most common folk had to content with sleeping on the floor using paduru. Apparently not all common folk were content to sleep in paduru…as according to oral tradition, a woodworker in a nearby village had secretly constructed this bed, to placate the naggings of his wife. Not surprisingly… the wife could not keep it a secret for very long. In a typical village context, where nobody minds their own business… the word spread far and wide. By the time it reached the kings ear, the wood worker had managed to save his neck by donating the bed to the temple. What happened thereafter in the drama between the wood worker and his better half is lost in time. However, this same bed is preserved as a curious attraction to this day. The four leg posts of this bed have been decorated with carvings and very solidly constructed. I commented to my guide that the bed seems to have been quite a sturdy design… and we both had a quiet laugh over it.
After thanking the head priest I returned to the Kala Wewa bund along the same bumpy road.
Kala Wewa ranks with the pyramids and the great stupas, as one of the great engineering marvels of the ancient world. With a circumference of 40 miles, an embankment of almost 4 miles, a total capacity area of seven square miles and a spill (pitawana) measured to be 216 feet in width and 170 feet in length its sheer size and scale is staggering. To fill such a massive reservoir, a dam was constructed across Dambulu Oya and Mirisgoni Oya. Additional water was diverted from Hawnell Oya and the drainage coming from the lush Matale hills. A 54 mile long canal from Kalawewa to Anuradhapura known as Jayaganga was built to carry its waters to four major reservoirs in the city more than fifty miles away. They are Abhaya wewa, Tissa wewa, Nuwara wewa and Nachchaduwa wewa. Jayaganga is approximately 54 miles in length and 40 feet in width. Its gradient was measured to be only 6 inches per mile. (1:10,000). Maintaining such a gradient is an extremely challenging task even for the modern Engineers using laser guided survey technology. An engineering project of this scale and precision more than a thousand years ago, is indeed a stupendous achievement
Kalawewa and Jayaganga formed the very heart of a vast irrigation network that sustained one of the most populated and long standing capitals in the ancient world. It is in no way an exaggeration to state that the very existence of Anuradhapura was dependent on this crucial supply of water. In sheer size and scale Kala Wewa and Jayaganga rivals the Minneri/Elahara scheme of Mahasen as well as the mighty Parakrama Samudra of Parakramabahu.
Many think of giant tanks as isolated masterpieces of ancient ingenuity. But the network of canals and feeders to collate and distribute their waters were a crucial link in these vast irrigation networks. Some may have wondered why the waters of Kala Wewa are collated almost 50 miles away from its intended destination in Anuradhapura. Our ancestors have selected a location where the downpour of the monsoons draining from the Matale hills and the flow of two branches of the great Mahaweli may be amassed and distributed along the most favorable features of the landscape. These tank builders have clearly identified the unique location of the Matale hills, placed in the path of both eastern and western monsoons. Thus ensuring access to a constant source of rain fall throughout the year. They have also been capable of somehow surveying and measuring every nook and corner in the region. How else could they have identified such optimum placements for canals, feeders, bunds and sluices? Perhaps placing this crucial lifeline some distance away to the south of the capital may have rendered it less vulnerable to the invasions from the north. The irrigation network of Kala Wewa and Jayaganga is indeed a product of local ingenuity, resourcefulness, simple practicality, foresight, centuries of acute observation and the astounding unity of purpose of our ancestors. Something that their descendants may admire and be justly proud of. And surely, aspire to as well.
Rowland Ravenhart wrote a glowing tribute to the ancient tank builders.
“The tanks are a constant feature of the lowland landscape, and a beautiful one. Climb any hill there and see them steel blue in the darker forests; see also the fiery green of the rice fields they nourish; and salute those engineers. There were no “cats” or bulldozers; there were giants of large conception in those day….The irrigation engineering was consistently excellent. New canals have been sited with modern instruments, and found to run a few feet from the old ones; sluices have been planned in the optimum positions, and excavations for them have found old ones just there.”
The visit to Rome of the four envoys from Ceylon in the year 45 AD, is one of the most puzzling episodes in our long history. There is no mention of this event in our oral or written traditions. Neither is there any Roman record of Emperor Claudius having spared them an audience. Fascinatingly, it is this same Claudius who was selected as the main protagonist in the fictional novels of Robert Graves. While the emperor was quite busy defending his empire and planning the murder of his third wife, a Roman historian by the name of Plinius or “Pliny the elder” as we know him today, took a great interest in the four Ceylonese ambassadors. We know this, as he had dedicated a complete chapter in his lively narrative of “natural History”, to the island of “Taprobane”.
“IT hath been for a long time thought that Taprobane was another World under the appellation of the Antichthones. But from the time of Alexander the Great, and the intercourse in those parts, it was discovered to be an Island… And hereupon especially was he moved to seek for the Friendship of Rome; and so despatched four Ambassadors, of whom Rachias was the chief. From them it became known that there were five hundred Towns in it; and that there was a Harbour facing the South, lying conveniently near the Town Palesimundum, the principal City of all that Realm, and the King’s Seat; that there were 200,000 common Citizens: that within this Island there was a Lake called Magisba, 270 Miles in Circuit containing in it some Islands fruitful in nothing but Pasturage. Out of this Lake issued two Rivers ; the one, Palesimundas, passing near to the City of the same Name, and running into the Harbour with three Streams ; of which the Narrowest was five Stadia Broad, and the largest fifteen ; the other Northward towards India, by Name Cydara : also that the next Cape of this Country to India is called Colaicum, from which to the nearest Port (of India) is counted four Days’ Sailing : in the midst of which Passage, there lieth the Island of the Sun. They said, moreover, that the Water of this Sea was of a deep green Colour; and, what is still more extraordinary, full of Trees growing within it : 1 so that the Pilots with their Helms broke off the” Crests of those Trees…
…The King is adorned like Liber Pater : but others in the habit of Arabians. If the King offend in anything, Death is his Punishment : but no Man doeth Execution. All Men turn away from him, and deny him any Intercourse, of even a Word. They are destroyed during a solemn Hunting, which, it appears, is exceedingly agreeable to the Tigers and Elephants. They cultivate their Ground diligently. They do not use Vines ; but all sorts of Fruits they have in Abundance. They also take Pleasure in Fishing, and especially in taking Tortoises :and so great are they found there, that one of their Shells serves to cover a House. They count a hundred Years no long Life. Thus much we have learned concerning Taprobane”
Parts of Pliny’s exaggerated and baffling account may be attributed to these ambassadors wanting to paint a glowing picture of their country in the minds of Rome. Perhaps some of it could have been misinterpreted when translating their accounts with the aid of the sailors who accompanied them. However, roman coins of Claudius have been found by the Portuguese in Mannar in 1574. Neither was it unusual for Ceylonese kings to send ambassadors to foreign kingdoms. And nor is there any doubt that the “trees whose crests are broken by the helms of boats that grows within deep green seas” may have been a reference to the corrals adorning our shallow shores. Likewise, it is generally speculated that the giant lake Magisba mentioned by Pliny may have been the “Kala Wewa” we know today.
The shady three wheel drive along the bund of the tank was one of the most pleasing experiences of the day. It must be such sceneries that inspired R. L. Spittle to write….
“Through forest roads flanked by scattered homes and tanks melodious with the cries of water-fowl. And so we attain a pleasant goal by pleasing paths”
I saw plenty of bird life with kingfishers, herons and Brahmin kites on and above the tank bund. However, the highlight of the day was the abundance of butterflies… bringing to mind fond memories of walking along the Bududruwagala tank in Wellawaya. Roaming elephants are also said to visit the other end of the tank bund by evening.
The origins of Kala wewa is steeped in local legend and history. The popular version of folklore says that there was once a man so disgraced by the behavior of his wife that he fled to the forest. Rumors began to spread that the wild man was hiding some treasure in the jungle, prompting the king to have him brought to his royal presence. But the man said that the only treasure he knew of was a lake held by an entanglement of “Kala” creepers. (This tall creeper “Derris Scandens”, still flourishes in the tank today… with huge white flowers and clumsy bean pods). The king replaced the creeper with a dam and made him its guardian. One day there was a breach in the bund. In order to stop the breach, its guardian placed himself bodily in the breach until workers arrived to repair it, losing his life in doing so. Having selflessly dived into the “kada vala” (broken hole), he was, in time, deified as “Kadawara” Deiyo (God). To this date he remains the guardian deity for all whose livelihood, way of life, customs and traditions are revolved around the tank. A small temple in the old spill way, remains dedicated to this God.
As I entered the Devalaya a puja was going on. My attempt to patiently wait till the ceremony was over and have a quiet chat with the Kapu mahattaya was well rewarded. The oral tradition maintained by those serving the temple is a darker version of the popular legend.
“The God Kadawara was once a resident of the region by the name of Seneviratna. He was a person who really enjoyed his food and drink. (Hondata kana bona kenek). One day after a drunken brawl with his wife, he walked into the jungle in a terrible rage… wowing never to return. Seven years elapsed, during which time he lost touch with all humanity and roamed the wilderness with a herd of deer. One day it came to the king’s ear that a wild man was obstructing the palace servants from obtaining venison for his table. It was also rumored that he was guarding a treasure in the jungle. Enticed by these tales of gold and precious stones, the king ordered the whole army to be deployed to capture this enigma. Bound and caged, the man was neither willing nor able to speak in human tongue. Drummers were sent to all corners of the kingdom announcing a reward of 1000 gold pieces for anyone who could make him talk. Time passed and no one could claim the prize. One day a woman came forward and suggested that the wild man be fed with tasty morsels with plenty of salt and lime. (Hondata lunu ambul). To the surprise of all, the man recovered his ability to speak. And the woman was found to be none other than his estranged spouse. Even to date, a special list of food is cooked and offered to the deity during the puja. The king inquired how he survived in times of drought in these dry forests. The man replied that he ate leaves and bark of plants and drank water from a lake formed by “Kala” creepers blocking the flow of a river. The king ordered a mighty dam be built in the place of the Kala creepers. The tank thus formed was named as the Kala wewa. A second tank was also ordered to be built at the other side of the river. As the second tank was built by looking (balaa) at the Kala Wewa, it was named as the Balalu wewa. A pirit mandapaya was built and 62 priests were invited to chant pirit till the tank was filled with rain water. The king decreed that Seneviratna be appointed as the guardian of the tank. His first duty was to guard two clay pots which were placed to measure the water level of the tank. Once the water level reached the required level the sluice gates were to be opened and the water distributed to the paddy fields. Thus was the wish (Wara) of the king. All seemed going well for Seneviratna basking in royal favor. But tragedy was destined to follow. During the ceremony both clay pots was accidentally broken by an aged monk who got up to leave the pirit mandapaya. Knowing that he would surely be executed for failing to carry out the royal wishes, Seneviratna committed suicide by jumping into the tank. In a fit of rage he is said to have broken the necks of all 62 monks before taking his own life. The place in the old bund still called as “Pannuma”, is said to be the very place where Seneviratna jumped (panna) to his end. Soon after the local residents started to suffer from bad dreams and frightful apparitions. The spirit thus reborn from a broken (kada) wish (wara) was thereafter named as Kadawara. To appease this powerful spirit the king built a temple on a rock in the middle of the tank. During times of extreme drought and receding water levels, this “Kovil Gala” is still said to be visible from the tank bund. Thereafter the spirit went to the banks of the Menik Ganga and started terrorizing the Kataragama pilgrims by grabbing their food offerings. The mighty God Kataragama summoned the spirit and enquired the reason for his wanton acts. Kadawara replied “mata badagini wuna mamma kewa” (I became hungry, I ate). After admonishing him God Kataragama inquired if he is willing to wage war with the “Asuras”. Borrowing the golden sword of God Kataragama, Kadawara boldly vanquished the feared Asuras in combat. The head that the God Kataragama is holding in his hand, seen in some religious iconography is said to be a decapitated Asura offered by Kadawara. It is said that only lord Buddha was able to defeat the Asuras in battle before this. As reward for this feat, Kadawara was appointed as the guardian of the southern entrance to the palace of God Kataragama, and given the right to be worshipped alongside the deity. To date daily Puja is offered at 4.30 am, 9.30 am, 12.30 pm, 7.30 pm and 12.30 pm at the Kadawara devalaya to exactly match the times when rituals are observed at the Kataragama shrine.”
The Kapu Mahattaya swore that the “deviyan wahanse jeewamanawa wada sitinawa” (the god is alive and present) and is all powerful in his adaviya. Nothing for better nor for worse (hondata ho narakata) is said to happen without the deity’s consent. Even the slightest improper utterance (kata waradda gannawa) must be avoided as there is “aayith no katha no hellum” (not a chance to talk or even budge), should his wrath be aroused. The vengeance of Mul Kadawara Seneviratna Devatawun Wahanse… is said to be certain on those who deny him overlordship in the region. During my brief stay, I could observe a steady stream of visitors to the shrine. Some seem to stop by in the midst of their daily errands to make a brief prayer, while others arrived bringing offerings for puja and wows. The look of piety, trust, fear and reverence in their faces said it all…
The king in this legend was Dhatusena, a warrior from the Deep South who vanquished the Tamils who were in possession of Anuradhapura. Dhatusena ascended the throne n 459 A.C. thus restoring the Sinhalese sovereignty at a crucial juncture. He was the first monarch of the mysterious Moriya dynasty. No reliable information can be extracted from existing sources as to who the Moriyans were, and what claim Dhatusena had for the throne. However, there is no doubt that the brief rule of the Moriyan’s provided royal patronage for an astonishing flowering of art, sculpture, architecture and irrigation. The mere mention of the names of Dhatusena and Kasyapa should itself suffice to summarize their reign of glory.
According to Culawamsa the building of the kala wewa was itself predicted by the great thera Mahanama. During the time when the youthful prince Dhatusena was being groomed in state craft at the Gonisa-Vihara, the Pandu invaders sent forces to have him captured and killed…..
“In the night the Thera had a dream about it and fetched the boy away. Scarcely had he departed when the people surrounded (the house) but did not find him in the parivena. The twain (uncle and nephew) departed thence and when, farther south. They reached the great river called Gona then just in flood, they were obliged to halt, much as they wished to press forward. The Thera spoke: “even as this river holds us back, so do thou (in future time) hold back its course by collecting its waters in a tank,” and he descended with the boy into the stream…”
Those like myself, born in the late seventies, were probably the last generation to witness the end of the age old bond of the extended family. Before the onslaught of cultural change heralded by the open economy, uncles and aunts were very much part of the family. And in many situations, played an active part in supporting their siblings and their children. The Mahanama thera who is mentioned above is said to be the maternal uncle of Dhatusena. And it was his uncle who was said to have played a key role in placing young Dhatusena in the throne. According to oral tradition, he was also the learned compiler of the Mahawamsa. Though some experts think the author was not this Mahanama, but another monk of the same name, most of those who have actually read the Mahawamsa would be inclined to disagree. The deep piety, patriotism, humility, zest and wisdom of this charming old monk glows between the lines of his chronicle. Also the author of Mahawamsa ended the saga with Maha Sena. Perhaps not trusting himself to record impartially the occurrences that so nearly touched him. The story of Dhatusena is recorded at the beginning of Culawamsa.
The Culavamsa portrays Dhatusena as a mighty builder of tanks and a righteous ruler. It also records the misdeed which foretold the kings’ tragic undoing.
“When this king was building the Kalavapi tank he saw a bhikkhu sunk in meditation and as he could not rouse him out of his absorption, he had a clod of earth flung at the bhikkhu’s head. The consequence of this deed experienced in his lifetime has been described in the story of his violent death.”
The doom which was to follow is vividly narrated by the ancient chronicler. The king’s eldest son Kasyapa seized the throne, “having every scoundrel as his comrade” against his father, imprisoning him and demanding the treasures held in secret (he thought) for Moggalana, the rightful heir.
“When he heard that, this most wicked of men grew furious and sent messengers to his father with the command to make known the place where the treasure lay. The latter thought: this is a pretext of the villain to kill us, and he kept silence. The messengers went and told the King. He became very wroth and sent (messengers) again and again. Dhatusena thought: it is well, I will visit my friend, bathe in the Kalavapi and then die, and (he) spake to the messengers: “if he lets me go to the Kalavapi he shall learn it.” The messengers went and told the King and the King joyful in his thirst for gold, sent messengers to whom he gave a chariot with a damaged axle. As the Monarch drove thither, the driver who guided the chariot, ate roasted corn and gave him also a little of it. He ate of it, had joy over the man and gave him a leaf for Moggallana asking him to make him gate-keeper as a reward. Thus is good fortune fleeting as the lightning? How then can the sensible man be intoxicated by it? When the Thera Mahanama heard: the King comes, he put aside the bean soup and chicken he had received remembering: the King likes that, and took his seat awaiting the guest. The King came, greeted him respectfully and took a place at his side. Thus the twain sat side by side joyfully as if they had gained a kingdom, and their mutual converse chased their cares away. After the Thera had entertained the King, he admonished him in many ways and encouraged him to strive ceaselessly, showing him how the world is subject to the law of impermanency. Then Dhatusena betook himself to the tank, plunged as he liked therein, bathed and drank and spake to the King’s henchmen: “This here, my friends, is my whole wealth”.”
Kasyapa was furious. He had his father stripped naked and chained, and walled up to die. Some say at the bund of the same tank
Passing the devalaya, the road continued through lush paddy fields towards my final destination for the day…the ancient raja maha viharaya in the village of Vijithapura.
Vijithapura which is also known as Vijitha Nagara or Vijithagama, is one of the earliest recorded cities in the island. When Vijaya, the first recorded ruler of the country arrived from India, he brought a large retinue of his followers with him. These followers spread throughout the country, and established settlements. One of his chief followers named Vijitha founded the establishment which was then known as Vijitha Nagara (city of Vijitha) or Vijithagama (village of Vijitha). The city is believed to have been founded during the reign of king Panduvasudeva, the third recorded king of Sri Lanka, who was the brother in law of the chieftain Vijitha.
As usual I had a quiet chat with the temple priest about the temple and its history. And what a conversation it turned out to be…According to him the stupa has been constructed at the very center of the ancient fortress of Vijithapura to commemorate the great victory of Duttugamunu at this very site. The original stupa built at the same time as the Maha Seya in Anuradhapura, is said to have been built on the very spot where the kings standard was said to have been raised to signal victory to the troops. The unusual features of the stupa seen today have been added during its reconstruction as a memorial stupa.
I could see no remnants of a fortress at the temple premises. But the priest pointed out that due to the sheer scale of the fortress it lay scattered over a wider area of about 8 km across. There is still said to be a part of the Vijithapura wall about 4 km away near the Hiripitiyagama junction in the Thalawa Kekirawa road. The eastern part of the wall was said to be submerged by the Kala Wewa built on a later date. About 3 km to the west of the temple, another part of the wall is said to be still standing in a village called “Galnaewa”. The priest pointed out that the original fortress would have been eight to ten kilometers wide and would have encircled the whole settlement of Vijithapura. If this be true it may have looked very similar to the ancient defense fortifications still to be seen at Polonnaruwa.
In places like Vijithapura legends and place names continues to be remembered, long after cries of battle and even whole fortress walls have disappeared into the abyss of time. Though unsupported by written proof, they constitute an accumulation of circumstantial evidence which cannot be ignored.
The hillside surrounding the temple is still said to be dotted with remains of guard posts. These “mura kutti” are said to have been used to relay messages from one hill to another warning the approach of enemies. Two of these hills are still called as “oththu gala” (spying rock) and “Us Gala” (high rock) by the local residents.
Mahawamsa records that king Elara was killed outside the southern gates of Anuradhapura in a final duel with Duttugamunu. But according to local folklore the two kings fought a prior duel in Vijithapura as well. King Elara was said to be defeated, but managed to escape using an underground tunnel. Less than 2 km away from the temple is a place called “Gal-Linda yaya”, meaning “field of stone well”. I was told that remnants of an ancient structure resembling a well is still seen there. The locals still say that this was entrance to Elara’s escape tunnel.
The ancient fortress was said to be protected by multiple moats or “agal”. With the passage of time, whole villages are said to been built over these gigantic moats. Village names such as “Pahi Vala”, “Digan Vala and “nabada vala” are said to be places where these moats have once stood. These places called “Vala” meaning hole or depression in the ground may have originally been abandoned moats.
Scattered village names in the region such as “demala akkaraya” (acre of Tamils), Karukkankulama, Puliyankulama and Ichchankulama may be remnants of a strong Dravidian influence in the area.
The ancient road to Anuradhapura is said to lie behind the current temple. The remnants of a building said to be a three tiered gate house controlling the entrance to this road is still found in the temple premises. Thus indicating that the temple is indeed at a strategically important location in the ancient route to Anuradhapura
The “Kadu Gae gala” which was said to be used by Duttugamunu’s warriors to sharpen their swords, is a key attraction at the temple. The wear and tear of the stone, does indeed look as if caused by sharpening a thousand swords.
The exact location of Vijithapura continues to be debated even today. Many historians and archaeologists believe that ancient Vijithapura is situated in close proximity to Polonnaruwa, where the southern border defense fortifications of the Anuradhapura kingdom has been traditionally located. When travelling to Polonnaruwa from Colombo Fort, one takes the “Kaduruwela” bus. The word Kaduruwela is said to have been derived from “Kandawuru wela”, meaning the field where camp was set up for battle. The residents in that locality maintain an oral tradition that, this was the place where Duttugamunu pitched camp during the bloody siege at Vijithapura. While carrying out aerial mapping for the Mahaweli Development Project, surveyors came across a location which indicated to the existence of three ancient moats and a square fortification. This site located between Kaduruwela and the new town of Polonnaruwa, is now generally accepted as the location of Vijithapura.
Since neither the priest nor I was able to agree as to the exact location of the fortress we decided to call a truce, and discuss about the archeological importance of the site. According to local folklore the Avukana temple was donated by king Dhatusena to the monks of the Vijithapura parapura (dynasty), bringing it under the administration of this raja Maha Viharaya. It was at this temple, that the king was said to have resided whilst, supervising his mighty constructions. In a neglected corner of the temple lies a mound of ancient brick guarded only by a few crumbling pillars. This is said to be a stupa built to preserve the ashes of the great Mahanama thera. For according to oral tradition the great thera is said to have passed away in this very temple.
The attack of Vijithapura is arguably the most vividly described battle scene in the Mahawamsa. The author of the great chronicle regales the reader with lively prose, not dissimilar to the grand style of Homer narrating the siege of Troy. I could not but wonder if this was in some way influenced by the author’s personal connection to Vijithapura
“…………….. All the Damilas on the bank of the river who had escaped death threw themselves for protection into the city named Vijitanagara. In a favorable open country he pitched a camp, and this became known by the name Khandhavarapitthi……………………………. Near the south gate befell a fearful battle between the warriors. But near the east gate did Velusumana, sitting on his horse, slay Damilas in great numbers. The Damilas shut the gate and the king sent thither his men. Kandula and Nandhimitta and Suranimila, at the south gate, and the three, Mahasona, Gotha and Theraputta, at the three other gates did their (great) deeds. The city had three trenches, was guarded by a high wall, and furnished with gates of wrought iron, difficult for enemies to destroy. Placing himself upon his knees and battering stones, mortar and bricks with his tusks did the elephant attack the gate of iron. But the Damilas who stood upon the gate-tower hurled down weapons of every kind, balls of red-hot iron and molten pitch. When the smoking pitch poured on his back Kandula, tormented with pains, betook him to a pool of water and dived there.`Here is no sura-draught for thee, go forth to the destroying of the iron gate, destroy the gate !’ thus said Gothambara to him. Then did the best of elephants again proudly take heart, and trumpeting he reared himself out of the water and stood defiantly on firm land.The elephants’ physician washed the pitch away and put on balm; the king mounted the elephant and, stroking his temples with his hand, he cheered him on with the words: `To thee I give, dear Kandula, the lordship over the whole island of Lanka.’
And when he had had choice fodder given to him, had covered him with a cloth and had put his armour on him and had bound upon his skin a seven times folded buffalo-hide and above it had laid a hide steeped in oil he set him free. Roaring like thunder he came, daring danger, and with his tusks pierced the panels of the gate and: trampled the threshold with his feet; and with uproar the gate crashed to the ground together with the arches of the gate. The crumbling mass from the gate-tower that fell upon the elephant’s back did Nandhimitta dash aside, striking it with his arms. When Kandula saw his deed, in contentment of heart he ceased from the former wrath he had nursed since he (Nandhimitta) had seized him by the tusks. That he might enter the town close behind him Kandula the best of elephants turned (to Nandhimitta) and looked at that warrior. But Nandhimitta thought: `I will not enter (the town) by the way opened by the elephant’ and with his arm did he break down the wall. Eighteen cubits high and eight usabhas long it crashed together. The (elephant) looked on Süranimila, but he too would not (follow in) the track but dashed forward, leaping the wall into the town. Gona also and Sona pressed forward, each one breaking down a gate. The elephant seized a cart-wheel, Mitta a waggon frame, Gotha a cocos-palm, Nimila his good sword, Mahasona a palmyra-palm, Theraputta his great club,’ and thus, rushing each by himself into the streets, they shattered the Damilas there. When the king in four months had destroyed Vijitanagara he went thence to Girilaka and slew the Damila Giriya. ……………..”
The current temple may… or may not have been the exact location of this epic battle. However, a quick study of the numerous sacred footprints, guard stones, urinal stones, building structures, stone pillars and treasure containers littering the site, provides ample proof as to the significance and the antiquity of the temple.
I thanked the priest and continued the last leg of the three wheel ride to Kekirawa junction. As the three wheeler was driving away, I took one last look at the stupa glistening white against the blue skies. Where giants have said to have attacked in all four directions, royal elephants have thundered on to iron fortifications and a bloody victory has been cheered by raising the lion flag of Duttugamunu… only the silence and symmetry of the stupa seem to remain. From Kekirawa I took a bus to Colombo. Seats were readily available, and it was a most welcome opportunity catch a nap.
Sri Lanka possesses several renowned and venerated statues and sculptures of Lord Buddha. Among these the ‘Avukana’ statue commands a prominent position. This statue is adored all over the island to such an extent, that several full scale copies have been erected in Colombo (opposite BMICH), Dondra, Ratnapura, and Trincomalee. But those who have actually been to Avukana are unlikely to compare these modern replicas molded from bricks and cement with the magnificent the original carved out of a living rock. The best time of the day to see the “Avukana” Buddha is definitely at sunrise around 7 a.m. Watching the first rays of the sun unveiling the Siraspatha, the eyes, face and finally the full length the colossal statue is indeed an unforgettable experience. The statue at Avukana is inseparably linked with the giant sculpture at Ras Vehera, the Kala Wewa tank and the Vijithapura temple. Grand conceptions such as Kala Wewa and Jayaganga, are a proud testimony to the accumulation of local ingenuity, foresight, centuries of acute observation and the astounding unity of purpose displayed by our ancestors. Nourished by the waters of a giant irrigation network and shrouded with many a tale of Gods and kings, the basin of Kala Wewa remains one of the most historic and enigmatic regions in the island. Not all of these tales and folklore can be verified as factual. Some of these oral traditions even contradict what is generally accepted as historical fact. Thus, in many occasions being promptly dismissed as amusing tales. But none can deny these age old legends their charm. Like in all ancient communities around the globe, these oral traditions reflect the history, values, aesthetic sensitivity and spiritual beliefs of our ancestors. They have somehow retained the very “pulse” of a community long disappeared. Theirs was a way of life was untainted with the modern confusion about the meaning of life, erosion of fundamental human values, and disrespect for nature and for each other. Hence, these age old tales and beliefs are indeed windows through which we may gaze at ourselves through the centuries. And the few who look, might catch a glimpse of what made us all “Sri Lankan”. It is said that the appeal of the western fairy tales lie not in the terror they invoke about dragons, but in showing us that even these terrifying creatures can be defeated. Perhaps our own oral traditions show us more than a glimpse of what life “used” to be. Perhaps their wonder and wisdom may open our eyes to see what life “can” be as well. But the true magic of these tales must be their absolute defiance to time itself. For in places like Vijithapura, these figments of imagination have proved to be far more enduring than the granite walls of legendary forts. And in the banks of Kala Wewa, the meeting of fertile minds and fertile plains have nourished an astonishing array of these timeless tales. There is something very special about observing a sunrise at Avukana, offering flowers at Ras Vehera, taking a pleasant walk along the bund of Kala Wewa, listening to a dark tale about the local deity or searching for traces of Vijithapura that inevitably draws ones thoughts to a distant past. In silent moments such as these, it is not difficult to picture Mahanama thera stepping into a raging river to save a young prince or Dhatusena surveying the giant mass of water with sad pride. The drama of Kadawara jumping to his death, Bharana chiseling a masterpiece, Kandula charging the gates of Vijithapura or a defeated sculptor laying down his tools at Ras Vehera all seemed very real as I watched the sunset at Kala Wewa. I had left Colombo the previous night eagerly prepared with a list of places and folklores to be explored. I left Kekirawa the next day completely exhausted, and with a mind filled with far more questions than I could have ever imagined…The drive from Kekirawa to Avukana by moonlight the same morning seemed a very long time ago. Who were the Moriyans? What caused the astonishing flourish of art, architecture and irrigation under their patronage? Who was Mahanama thera? Why did he end the chronicle of Mahawamsa with king Mahasen? Did he reside in Vijithapura temple? Why is Vijithapura given such a prominent place in his writings? Was Avukana sculpted by a sculptor named Bharana? Why was the statue at Sasseruwa left unfinished? Was there a connection between the statues at Ras Vehera and Avukana with the now destroyed Bamiya Buddha statues in Afghanistan? Did God Kadawara lose his life in a heroic attempt to save the tank or in a suicidal rage? Why is there such faith and fear for this Deity? Was the fortress of Vijithapura situated in the Kala Wewa region or close to Kaduruwela? Is the remaining parts of the ancient wall in Hiripitiyagama part of the Vijithapura Fortress? Did Duttugamunu and Elara fight an unrecorded duel during the battle of Vijithapura? Could Elara have escaped to Anuradhapura using an underground tunnel? Perhaps another visit to seek a few more answers…or discover more questions and folk lore…