Duvindi Illankoon and Shaveen Jeewandara discover why Thai Royalty and dignitaries pay homage to the Dipaduttamaramaya temple in Kotahena Thai Premier Yingluck Shinawatra’s visit to Sri Lanka a few weeks ago was marked by several trips to significant Buddhist temples in the land. After visiting the most hallowed of them all, the Temple of the [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Little known Thai temple with a long history


Duvindi Illankoon and Shaveen Jeewandara discover why Thai Royalty and dignitaries pay homage to the Dipaduttamaramaya temple in Kotahena

Thai Premier Yingluck Shinawatra’s visit to Sri Lanka a few weeks ago was marked by several trips to significant Buddhist temples in the land. After visiting the most hallowed of them all, the Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy, Prime Minister Shinawatra made a trip to Dipaduttamaramaya temple in Kotahena. Why you may wonder did this foreign dignitary choose to pay her respects at a temple most Lankans have not visited or know little about?

The Rathna Chaitya: Designed by the Kumara Hamuduruwo in Thai style. Pix by Susantha Liyanawatte

Our curiosity was satisfied the moment we stepped into the temple grounds this week. Dipaduttamaramaya is resplendent with places of worship built in the style of Thai architecture. The temple’s Rathana chaitya (shrine) is unlike any Sri Lankan dagoba; made entirely of small glass fronted boxes in bronze mounted on each other. Each small casing contains a miniature statue of Buddha, which must add up to about a hundred overall – illuminated as dusk falls, the chaitya makes for a beautiful sight at night time.

We learn that Dipaduttamaramaya is a temple of great historical value. Built in 1775, this is the oldest temple in the Colombo city limits and also the first of its kind. It was the temple of the great orator of colonial Sri Lanka, Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda Maha Thera over a hundred years ago. Along with Ven. Waskaduwe Subuthi Maha Nayaka Thera, Migettuwatte Thera was the Chief Incumbent of the temple. Due to this patronage, the temple earned the distinction of being the first place in the world where the Buddhist flag was hoisted on April 28, 1885. In fact the announcement of Vesak as a national holiday by Gazette notification was made at the temple premises on April 27, 1885. Following this the great monk visited the Kelaniya temple to make his historic speech on the significance of Vesak.

Apart from the significant place it holds in Buddhist history, Dipaduttamaramaya is also considered the official temple of Thai royalty. Thailand and Sri Lanka have a close relationship in contemporary times mainly due to ties established many centuries ago as fellow Buddhist countries. This year marks the 260th Anniversary of the reinstatement of the Upasampadawa (Higher Ordination) that uplifted the Sasana in the 18th Century, when Kandyan ruler King Keerthi Sri Rajasinghe, along with the Most Ven. Weliwita Sri Saranankara Maha Thera got down the Upasampadawa from the Kingdom of Siam (Thailand). This signifies the close religious ties between the two countries and as we walk around the tranquil grounds of the Dipaduttamaramaya we learn of the interesting events that transpired to forge the bond between the temple and the Kingdom of Thailand.

Relating the story of Dipaduttaramaya, the present Chief Incumbent of the temple Ven. Waskaduwe Mahindawansa Nayaka Thera mentions that its history is intricately bound to probably the greatest Pali scholar of his time, Ven. Waskaduwe Sri Subhuthi Maha Nayaka Thera. The scholar monk was renowned around the world and served as the foreign advisor to Siam and Burma while presiding over the Abhinavaaramaya temple in Waskaduwa (later renamed as the Sri Subuthi Viharaya in his honour). “Sri Subuthi Maha Nayaka Thera was a visionary and great teacher. The way he handled languages was unsurpassed,” says Ven. Mahindawansa Nayaka Thera, noting that his writings are to this day kept in a museum at the Sri Subuthi Viharaya in Waskaduwa. The Nayaka Thera equipped with an immaculate knowledge of English penned diplomatic letters to the two countries and mesmerised by the monk’s wisdom, Prince Prisdang Chumsai, grandson of King Rama the Third of Thailand developed a strong interest in Buddhism.

Fifteen years and many letters later, the Prince made a momentous decision to leave behind his worldly possessions and step into priesthood under the tutelage of Sri Subuthi Maha Nayaka Thera. Being ordained in 1896 as Ven. P.C Jinavarawansa Thera -the protégé of the Nayaka Thera- he was eventually bestowed with the Chief Incumbency of the Dipaduttamaramaya Temple in 1904, thus being the first foreign monk to become an incumbent of a Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka. He also laid the foundation for the construction of the Rathna Chaitya.

Inside the shrine room

Henceforth Dipaduttamaramaya was known as the ‘Thai Temple’. Ven. P.C. Jinavarawansa Thera developed a close rapport with the people of the area and was commonly known as the ‘Kumara Hamuduruwo’ (Prince Priest). The temple is revered by Thais as it was home to their royal son who took the leap of faith across the river of materialism and into the land of the peaceful and ordained. And just as Premier Yingluck Shinawatra made her official visit to the temple, the temple grounds have been graced by the presence of Thai royalty on their visits to Sri Lanka.

“This temple is officially recognised by the Thai people as their own, and the monks of the temple have the rare privilege of being allowed into the royal palace grounds of the King of Thailand, which would otherwise be inaccessible,” says the Ven. Mahindawansa Nayaka Thera. In fact various members of Thai royalty have subsequently paid their respects at the temple; Former ruler, King Rama VIII, present ruler King Rama IX, the Princess Mother, Queen Sirikit, Queen Rambhai Barni, Princess Galyani Vadhana Krom Luang Naradhiwas Rajanagarindra, Princess Chulabhorn and Prince Prem Purachatra are amongst the dignitaries to have graced the temple over the last century. Several Thai government officials and Prime Ministers and other eminent Thai professionals have also visited.

Swaying in the cool breeze that rushes past the chaitya are three trees; A Red Sandalwood, Madara and a White Sandalwood that looms over the Budu medura, planted in a special area of the temple grounds reserved for the traditional practice of planting a sapling to mark these occasions-a habit the royals have followed on their many visits. These, planted by King Ananda Mahidol, King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Princess Chulaborn on three different occasions symbolise the warmth of Thai affinity to the temple.

On the weekday evening we visit this historical temple, the Rathana chaitya is resplendent with the many miniature lights on its imposing structure. The warm yellow orbs twinkle against the light of a waxing moon heralding the Poson poya. Legend has it that the Kumara Hamuduruwo’s royal robes are deposited at the very core of the temple’s shrine. As Sri Lankan Buddhists mark the advent of their religion into the land, the Dipaduttamaramaya in the heart of central Colombo stands as a compelling symbol of Buddhist revival in the country.

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