The Sunday TimesPlus

24th November 1996



Dagabas, giant rocks and caves

By Sirancee Gunawardena

The Maligatenne temple, Varana and the Gal Vihara at Attanagalla were three historic places of Buddhist interest that we visited not long ago.

Not far from Colombo, about two miles from the Tihariya junction turning to the right, we came to Maligatenne rock cave temple, our first destination. We could see a small dagaba, right on top of a high mountain, shining white amidst the green foliage, set against a clear blue sky.

In the temple premises are several caves, not very deep but with drip ledge brows, approximately 40- 50 ft. high. The caves are on different levels and sizes. As we walked up a few steps and went in, we could feel the coolness of the granite slabs beneath our unshod feet and the cool atmosphere within the cave.

The caves are at 3 levels, the largest being the main meditation centre. They were established in the time of kings and dates back to the time of Mahinda Thera. As a centre of Buddhism, it is well known from early times. This cave temple is also renowned for its association with King Walagamba who found refuge here when he was escaping from the Indian Chola invaders. Hiripitiya Rala had hidden King Walagamba here till he was able to form an army to counter Indian attacks.

To make these rock caves habitable, drip ledges were cut to take rain water away from the steep rock surface. Many such ancient drip ledges could be seen at great heights on the huge boulders above the temple. Most of them were cut during King Walagamba's time and it is amazing to think how this was done considering the sheer percipitous height of these rock caverns.

The large cave was made into a shrine room as an act of thanksgiving by King Walagamba, as he had been sheltered here. The king had ordered a Buddha statue to be made and even today we can see this 18 ft. reclining Buddha statue. When we were there, the high priest was chanting and there were some devotees seated on the floor in an act of worship; while others came in later with offerings of fruit. There are also mural paintings depicting Jataka stories.

Outside, at the back of the cave, in a sheltered nook, is a skeleton hung up. This was meant for people to meditate on the transient nature of life and it is a philosophical reminder to man of the inevitability of death. It gave us a shudder when we saw it as we came upon it quite suddenly. A little way from it is a path leading to the top of the mountain which has the dagaba which we saw from afar. We started to climb with much gusto, but found the pathway very rugged with jagged rocks and loose gravel making the climb quite difficult.

With difficulty we continued our climb and were quite breathless by the time we reached the top. We were surprised to see here beside the small dagaba a fairly large rectangular pool full to the brim with water and covered with beautiful blooming white lilies. We stood a while gazing at this beautiful sight. It is said this pond never runs dry and that there is hidden treasure at the base of the pond.

We came away happy that we had climbed to the top as it was quite an achievement and the panoramic view uplifted our jaded souls. We had one last look at the towering rock and Maligatenna temple jutting out majestically against the blue sky and then we proceeded on our journey.

Temple at Varana

The temple at Varana

We next visited Raja Maha Vihara, Varana, which is approximately 20 miles from Colombo. It has got its name from the Va trees which grew in its vicinity - Va Aranaya - a place where lots of Va trees grew. This too is a rock temple on a high elevation where King Walagamba sought refuge from the Cholas. Varana was a meditation retreat from ancient times and the dates back to King Devanmpiyatissa. There is a Brahmi inscription which reads "This is donated to Tissa Dhatta Thero, the brother of Majima Thero" and it is most likely that it refers to Tissa Dhatta Thero who was the first pupil of Ven. Mahinda who came to Sri Lanka to spread Buddhism. The area where the inscription is was over-grown and we were not able to see it though a monk told us that it is there.

In later years, this temple became known because King Walagamba hid in one of the caves here during the Chola invasion. He later gifted a shrine room. To the left of the temple was a large hall with a very beautiful ornate wooden covered Pirith Mandapaya. To the right there were steps leading to a high elevation where there was an 18 ft. reclining Buddha statue and in the quadrangle outside was a Bodhi Tree. Varana, after King Walagamba's time had gone into oblivion and was covered in jungle.

After many centuries, during the Kotte period, King Parakrama Bahu VI who ruled in Jayawardanapura, reclaimed Varana Temple, endowed it with a Buddha statue as well as a standing Vishnu statue and Bodhisathva and also gave a grant of temple lands. It is said that the king and queen came personally to open the shrine and make offerings to the Buddha. We were taken up by the tranquillity of this place. Large forest trees and shady groves and large boulders surround the temple premises. There is an outcrop of giant rocks and caves.

Gal Vihara Gal Vihara near Attanagalla

Our next visit was to the Gal Vihara in Attanagalla. It was past noon by the time we reached this temple. The sun was high in the heavens and the cool interior of the temple building was like balm. We walked round the hall which had paintings of the Jatakas all around. Outside we stood a while and looked at the spot where it is believed King Sri Sangabo sacrificed his head. The young monk pointed to the exact spot and with authority stated that it is not at Hasthakuchchi that King Sri Sangabo offered his head but it was in this temple premises. He waxed eloquent about it.


Statues of King Sri Sangabo and the hermit"

Beside the small white dagaba is a mound with the statue of Sri Sangabo and the hermit. There is a pond a little further away. We then went indoors and we were shown several ancient olas. The monk was kind enough to show me a copy of a gigantic Pansiyapanas Jataka with 490 Jataka stories. It was taken out of its wooden box for me to have a look at it. There were several others in a glass cupboard. The monk demonstrated how ancient manuscripts are blackened "Kalumadeema" to enable the script inscribed on the palm leaf to be made readable. He chanted all the while. Several of my colleagues tried their hand out and were blessed for their efforts. For me it was most absorbing as I have been doing research about palm leaf manuscripts for many years.

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