Totagamuwa: Out of the past

By Gamini G. Punchihewa
In the Kotte period, during the reign of King Parakrama Bahu VI (1412-1469 A.D.), the southern part of the country - ancient Ruhunu Rata was said to have been administered by a person called Demeta Kumaraya. He was also called Jayamahaladana Kumaru.

This Demeta Kumaraya once officiated in a religious ceremony at Welitana, close to Balapitiya. There the chivalrous Demeta Kumaraya met the beautiful daughter of a chieftain of the village called Salaya, Sunethra Mahadevi.

A son was born to them in Dematenna in the Kegalle district. He was to become famous in Sinhala prose and verse. Named Jayaba, he became a learned Buddhist monk - Ven. Sri Totagamuwe Rahula.

After the death of his mother, the boy took refuge in the Kotte Royal Palace. There he came under the tutelage of the most erudite Buddhist monk of the time, namely Ven. Vidagama Maha Maithri Thera, and was later ordained.

As the years passed, the young Buddhist monk, Sri Totagamuwe Sri Rahula Himi acquired a mine of Buddhist scholastic works and literary brilliance in prose and verse. Later he became a proficient native physician, well versed in manthrams.

He became proficient in eight languages and was known as Sath Basha Paramahimi.
As a Buddhist monk he stayed for some time at the Totagamuwa temple. He also founded the famed Sunethra Devi Pirivena in Pepiliyana. Among his eminent literary works in prose, verse and classic Sandesa (Message Poems) are Paravi Sandesaya, Selalihini Sandesaya, Kavya Sekaraya, Mogagallana Panchika Pradapaya and Buddhippasadini. Of these brilliant works, his first one was Paravi Sandesaya written in the Buddhist era of 1972 (1430-A.D.) in the reign of King Parakrama Bahu VI.

Totagamuwe Sri Rahula Raja Maha Viharaya is located along Galle Road, off the 57th milepost from Colombo. It’s about 5 kms from Hikkaduwa. In the foreground of the temple premises stands the statue of Sri Rahula Nahimi Sangaraja under a canopy. Prof. Vinnie Vitharana, a well-known scholar and author of books on our culture, history and archaeology, in his authoritative book titled 'Totagamuwa' (1986) gives vivid accounts of the origin of this historic temple. The bulk of the material in this article has been taken with due acknowledgement from this valuable monograph.

The Totagamuwa temple is in the village of Telwatta, (the village used to supply coconut oil to light lamps in the temple). Totagamuwa originated from Thittagama - meaning in Sanscrit, 'Thirtha', and 'Tittha-tota (port) in Pali. In the 'Culavamsa' Part II, (pages 206-207), mention is made of a long prasada of forty-five cubits, which was created by King Vijaya Bahu III (1232-1236 A.D). As it had fallen into decay, King Parakrama Bahu VI (1410-1468), had later built a long prasada of thirty cubits consisting of two storeys. In this chronicle it is referred to as Titthagama meaning this Totagamuwe temple.

Visiting the temple recently, I met the incumbent priest - Ven. Pituwala Sumana Thera. He was helpful in giving me access to the temple's library where I was able to get useful information on books on Totagamuwa temple like Dr.Vinnie Vitharana's book, and the pictorial book Paintings of Sri Lanka, Telvatta, a publication of the Archaeological Department.

The Portuguese during their occupation of the Southern Province in the 16th century had destroyed almost all these buildings. What remains are four standing monolithic pillars behind the devale premises. Some of these have stone inscriptions which date back to the 15th century A.D.

In 'Culavamsa' Part II, it is recorded that Parakrama Bahu VI of the 15th century A.D. had laid out a park filled with 5000 coconut palms. At the turn off from the Galle Road at the Telwatta junction is a board put up by the Wildlife Conservation Department, indicating the 'Telwatta Sanctuary', which had existed from British times.

The nameboard though is deceptive as all that remains of the sanctuary are a few acres of coconut palms and other plants. Villagers say that wild boar, porcupine, mouse deer and jungle fowl are found here.

The epic 'Ira Sandesaya' describes vividly the grand buildings that had existed then, like the Vijayabahu Pirivena, and image houses and the approach roads through groves and groves of coconut and other trees like sal, sapu, na and water plants like lotus and nelum.

Parakrama Bahu VI died in 1467, but before his demise, he conferred the highest royal prelate title of Sangaraja on Totagamuwe Sri Rahula Himi for his literary contributions. During the Dutch period in the 17th century, it is recorded that Totagamuwa served as a company village of the V.O.C. (Dutch East India Company) to which it had supplied coconuts, arecanuts and cinnamon in bulk.

In the late 18th century came the dynamic Buddhist monk Ven.Veliwita Saranankara. He played an active part in the resurgence of the Totagamuwa temple. It was during his period from 1734-99, that another equally dedicated Buddhist priest Ven. Pallaththara Punnyasoma made his timely arrival. He took refuge in the ambalama close to the famed Seenigama Devale by the seashore, a little distance away from the temple. His mission was to restore the buildings damaged by the Portuguese. He, along with a band of villagers, spearheaded the movement to restore these buildings. Such restorations commenced from 1792 and were completed by 1799 along with the devales.

Among the legacy of Ven. Totagamuwe Sri Rahula Sangaraja are the works written on Vijaya bahu Pirivena comprising verses and prose compositions and other Sanskrit scripts titled - 'Buddha Setaka and Viri Karutna Pancika' written by his pupil - Sri Ramachandra Bharata of India. There is also the portrait of Sri Rahula Sangaraja hung on the wall. The inscription in Sinhala script reads thus: "Sri Rahula Maha Sanganayake Wahansege Murtha Sariraya" meaning "The mortal remains of Ven. Sri Rahula Maha Sangaraja which were interred by the Portuguese in Goa”.
(Part II next week)

Masterpieces in stone

Vandami cetiyam sabbam
Sabba thanesu patitthitam
Saririka dhatu-Maha bodhim
Buddha-rupam sakalam-sada
I salute every cetiya (shrine)
That may stand in any place
The bodily relics, the Great Bodhi
And all images of the Buddha.
Buddhists recite this stanza in salutation to the three main objects of veneration - the cetiya or stupa, the bodhi tree and the image of the Buddha - found in any Buddhist temple throughout the world.

The stupa is a beautiful piece of architecture where the Buddha's relics, images and other valuable objects are enshrined and people venerate and pay homage. The stupa is also known as dagaba, chetiya or vehera.

In the temple premises, the stupa is generally located at a higher elevation. Stupas have been built from early days. The emperor Asoka built several stupas at hallowed sites in India. In Sri Lanka, although there are legends about stupas said to have been built during the lifetime of the Buddha, the earliest recorded is the Thuparama dagaba built by King Devanampiya Tissa (250-210 BC). When originally built, it was in the form of a heap of paddy. After several restorations, the Thuparama dagaba has a diameter of 59 feet at the base.

Stupas take several shapes. At least six types are on record - Bell (ghantakara), Pot (ghatakara), Bubble (bubulakara), heap of paddy (dhanyakara), lotus (padmakara) and myrobalam fruit (amalakara).

At the entrance to a Buddhist shrine room or a stupa are masterpieces of Sinhala craftsmanship created by stonemasons showing a high degree of competence in sculpture. These are the guardstones, the flight of steps and the moonstone.

The moonstone (sandakada pahana) is a semi-circular slab of stone at the foot of a flight of steps. During the first stages of sculpting a moonstone, only a plain slab of stone was used. It had a lotus flower in the centre. The decorative features are a later development.

The guardstones (mura gal) on either side at the bottom of the flight of steps are joined by a set of decorative balustrades (korawak gal). At the early stages, these may have been used as pegs and did not have any sculptural work. It is possible that in the early stages a full vase may have been kept in front of each guardstone and later sculptured onto it. A full vase symbolizes prosperity and abundance. Later the figure of a naga (cobra) came into it. The nagas are considered guardians of water, celestial as well as terrestrial. They are represented both in animal and human forms. When in human form, three, seven or nine hoods are sculptured.

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