BUDDHISM IN PRESENT DAY EASTERN PROVINCE Part 1
Posted on August 3rd, 2020

KAMALIKA PIERIS

Ven Ellawala Medhananda has  explored the present day  Buddhist ruins of the Eastern Proivince.  He found  evidence in today’s Eastern   Province , to show  that the Eastern Province had a vibrant Buddhist civilization in the ancient and medieval period.  He has also shown that it had special features, such as hillside monastic complexes and a series of ‘Muhudu Maha vihara.

Monastic complexes

Medhananda found evidence of huge monastic complexes in the Eastern province. There was a  monastic complex at Bambaragastalawa in Kumana. This monastery extends to over 450 acres.

At Bambaragastalawa he found over ten stupa,  on hill tops and flat ground.  He found rock cut steps,   Buddha statues, asanaghara,  pillars, caves, viharas, image houses, chaitya  and  very old bricks. There was a stone seat, 15’ by 5’9”, beautifully carved at the edges. This may be an asanaghara, said Medhananda. He also saw a stupa 50 ft wide and 23 ft high. He  found a rectangular arrangement of six rows of six columns each.  

There is a huge pilima lena surrounded by smaller lena, said Medhananda.  In it there was a reclining Buddha image, 36 feet in length, built with brick, mud and lime plaster, vandalized by treasure hunters. There is a  drip ledge all round the cave. Brick walls were built dividing the cave into many rooms, with the top decorated with swan sculptures. The bricks used were excellently  burned ones.  There was a vestibule 16 by 48 ft in front of cave. It had  ten square holes  for wooden beams. There was a stone pillar in front, and  stone steps indicating two entrances,  a  wooden door frame and  a wooden pillar, of milla wood, concluded Medhananda.   

Medhananda  had  also explored Sembumale monastery,  in  Kuchchaveli,  which covered over hundred acres. He  visited the monastic complex at Mahapattuwa in Veheragoda area. This has not been explored by the Department of Archaeology and there is no official record of it. Bovattegala showed ruins of a monastery, said Medhananda . 

Medhananda went to Omunugala Cave Monastery ( ‘len vihara’ ) at Ampara. The meditation caves at Omunugala extended from the foot of the mountain to a level little below the summit.  They  were very  impressive. Every cave had its   drip ledge inscription .  Most caves had remains of walls. There are ancient  paintings in one cave. One cave is startling, said Medhananda .  The cave and the rock in front have been combined to make something like a two storey house. another cave had rectangular holes drilled into it probably to support beams to an upper storey. 

The largest cave, a shrine cave, is about 120’ in length, had walls on three sides and a window. There was a  flight of steps leading to a door frame to enter the cave.  It had a makara thorana.  There are more undiscovered   caves but access was very difficult  and  I did not climb them, said Medhananda. 

There was also the magnificent monastic complex at Rajagala. The Rajagala monastery was known as Girikibalavi Tisa Mahavihare. The Rajagala hill range, also known as  Rassehela kanda,  is  1030 feet above sea level. Both north and south slopes have many ruins. All over the hills there  are   ruins of stupa.  There is a hermitage to the  north. Many stone pillars of various heights and sizes, circular, rectangular, octagonal are seen scattered. Stone ponds, one had a sluice. Medhananda noted its special features such as the two water spouts to fill large stone cisterns.There were decorated urinal stones.

There were over hundred caves. Brick and stone walls created separate rooms inside the caves. One cave had a bed and pillow cut out of rock. Cave walls were plastered and painted, paintings have faded. One cave has a roof carved in shape of an umbrella and handle of the umbrella is done in most exquisite fashion, said Medhananda .

Rajagala yielded 70 cave inscription, 20 slab inscription and rock inscriptions. One huge inscription said that the ashes of Mahinda and Ittiya are enshrined there. Inscriptions spoke of donations of tanks, caves, fields. Inscription also made reference to statues, taxes and coins. One inscription refers to tilling the land with a  golden plough. One Inscription has been tampered with, concluded Medhananda.

Forest hermitages

The eastern Proivnce hosts many forest hermitages  today. There is Kudimbigala. Medhananda said that there were  Buddhist ruins extending over at least    600 acres around Kudumbigala   with numerous stupas  on the rocks. Kudimbigala has  the only cylindrical stupa known in Sri Lanka, said Medhananda . inscriptions show that Kudimbigala was established by  king Kavantissa. 

The  cave architecture of Kudimbigala was astounding, said Medhananda . The cave technique is amazing. Cave after cave, placed on top of each other for 100 acres or so. He had counted 105 caves. one cave was a Budu madura.   One cave was named Maha Sudarsana ,another was Yoda lena. Sita pokunu lena had paintings of  7th century.

There was a huge cave project at Samangala forest hermitage, Ampara. This was a high level hermitage. Inscription  indicates that this was started by Saddhatissa. One cave is 60 feet in height and can shelter about 500 people. All caves had drip ledges. There were many inscriptions which have not yet been  recorded. No archaeological  explorations have been done here. An attempt to turn this into a meditation centre, some years ago, failed, said Medhananda.

There has been a monastery at present day Namalu chetiya. Namalu chetiya was huge, almost as large as Ruvanveli. The villagers used to worship there. The monastery of 150 acres  occupied flat ground , rock, hill and forest. There were ponds, flights of steps, heaps of inscriptions and several stone beds.  The monastery ended at Heda oya. This would have been a developed, scenic, large monastery, said Medhananda . A monk was living by the stupa in a small  hut when Medhananda went there.

Buddhangala aranya Senasana,  Ampara has 200 acres of ruins,  on  five hills. Stone bridges connect one rock to the other. Caves were partitioned into three by walls. Bricks with decorations and inscribed are found in plenty. There was a fine siripatula, circular , 11 feet and well carved.  In 1964 Buddhangala was restarted as a hermitage.

Piyangala vana Senasuna,  Ampara has over 100   meditation caves with and without drip ledges. Some of the old walls remain. The old badama is there,  this is worth examining, said Medhananda.  

Cave shrines.

Medhananda has drawn attention to the existence of   cave shrines. The most notable  of the cave shrines explored by Medhananda  was   the Karandahela  cave complex, in Hulannuge, Ampara, 633 feet above sea level. Karandahela has the biggest cave in Asia. .https://roar.media/sinhala/main/features/caves-in-karandahela-sri-lanka/

At Padikemgala Medhananda found many caves first inhabited by monks, then turned to shrines. There were many shrines in these caves, the paintings on the walls could  still be seen. One  cave had brick wall with many niches and no windows.   Neelagiri  pilima lena  had    two important caves at the top, both are shrines.  The caves had walls, one wall was of stones. The walls  had been plastered, the plaster can be seen, also the  paintings.

Muhudu Maha viharas

Muhudu Maha viharas could be seen in abundance on south, east and northern coastal areas, said Medhananda. These  shrines were built  to be seen  from the sea. Medhananda drew attention to the Muhudu maha viharas built along the coast of the Eastern province.

Kucceveli Maha vihara was one of these muhudu viharas, he said. Magul Maha vihara , Kirinda  had rows of caves with walls and  drip ledge. The viharas at Bundala,  Gokanna, Gotha pabbata, Jambulkolaptuna  Kirinda, Lankapatuna,Okanda, Potuvila, Sangaman kanda, Sastravela, were in existence  until recently, he said. Stupas were also  built at the mouths of the rivers where they  meet the sea, as at Walawe ganga.

Ariyakara viharas

Ruhuna has had several Ariyakara vihara where venerated arahats lived and Ariyawansa sutra was preached. This was very popular in Ruhuna, there is evidence to prove this., said Medhananda . There was Ariyakara Raja maha vihara   at Kettama village, in the Eastern Province.  It has steps, siripatul, gal vangediya, faded inscription, naga carvings on rock as well as  carvings of horse and  bahirawa.

Ariyawansa sutra was  also preached at Mulhitiya Velegoda near Pulligoda, said Medhananda . this was Pelegama vihara originally. Veheragala, at Rajagala, had Ariyawansa preached there. Inscription says Kubira bhikkhu stayed there. This inscription is still there. Bovattegala Inscription  indicates that the  Ariyawansa sutra was preached there.

There were other viharas where the Ariyawansa sutra was preached from a seat set on a hilltop. There are such open places with a seat at Molhitiya, Velegala, Mutugalla ,  Panama, Sastravela, said Medhananda .  

Medhananda thinks that there was also an Ariyakara building at ‘Punchi Sigiriya” in Digamadulla. Punchi Sigiriya is not a rock, it is a cave. With a one  Sigiriya like painting, seen by Paranavitane, which is fading away. Medhananda was more interested in a ruined building  on a hill close by, reached by a flight of steps. Medhananda  thinks  this was for preaching Ariyawansa sutra.  

Forgotten viharas

Medhananda has  discovered  many forgotten viharas, in the eastern province such as Boralukanda vihara ,Nilaveli. Illukpitiya kanda len vihara, Ampara. Sri Pana Raja Maha Vihara, Pottuvil.

Another forgotten vihara is Kotaveheragala vihara in Yalpota village, Lahugala, the village has just four families doing chena cultivation. Kotaveheragala vihara has a cave second only to that in Karandahele. It has a carved drip ledge. It is divided into four  rooms and the walls are still standing.  there is an  inscription on the steps, faded which says the steps were donated by a monk. It must have been an image house .  there are  lovely overflowing ponds on the rock . Lots of bricks all over.  It is possible to go round the rock to the caves on the other side,  but it is dangerous, because   bears and leopards come there. This vihara  has not been seen by the Department of Archaeology.

Medhananda  has  explored Somawathi vihara at Kombanachchiya, near Kiliveddi. It has ruins no one has seen before. Malayadikanda vihara  has  27 caves and ruined stupa. Niyagunakanda vihara   has caves near it with drip ledge inscription. Site has never been examined. Both viharas  are near Hingurana sugar factory. Kappangamuyaye Kadurugoda vihara by Namal oya had stupa, columns, and moonstone. There were  ruins in the forest around. Ganegama vihara, Ampara had veddha paintings of crocodiles, elephant and other figures . it had a simple sandakada pahana,  and a doratupala with  punkalasa. Medhananda    has also looked at Balahudu , Kukuluvagala   and Galaba len vihara.

Some forgotten viharas catered to small populations. Kirivehera Raja Maha Vihara   Lahugala,  was in village where a few families were living off     banana plantations. It was reached  by a footpath from Hulannuge junction.

Medhananda also commented on  some of the  objects found in his explorations. Medhananda took special interest in the bricks that lay in abundance in the sites he explored.Around Verugal ara  near Uppar lagoon there are  hillocks  full of old bricks, he said.   At Henangala  he found three types of ancient bricks. At Veheragoda, Ampara ,  in the ‘Pansal kalla’ section there were bricks measuring 2’1” and 1’2”. Kudagala  had  bricks some  1’4’x8”x 2 ½ and others 8”x9”x 2 ½ .Buriyakulam kanda ruins would have had  very attractive steps judging by  the decorative  bricks found there.  

Medhananda found two clay puvaru 14” by 11” by 1 ½ at Medagama kanda Aranya senasanaya. On one puvaru there was garadi veta carved, resembling the veta at Sanchi. Also an attractive line  of flowers. The  carvings have been  done before firing. These puvaru  were probably used for decoration .

The rock cut  steps at Padi Kemgala ruins are unique. there are  several flights of steps. The first consists of 52 steps   which were  2’6” long and 1’2’ wide. This was followed by several sets of 7 steps each, with a resting stone between,  ending with a set of rounded steps .the resting stone was 10” by 5 with three circles in it,  and a lotus design in the center. The last step was decorated with a curled elephant trunk. I have never been seen such a flight of steps, before exclaimed Medhananda . There was also an inscription which said how the steps were made.  That inscription was  decorated with two lotus buds on stems.  Padi Kemgala ruins  also had a moonstone carved  in the  rock.

Neelagiri  pilima lena  was probably a very important aramaya.  There is set of steps all the way up the hill. there seem to be more than 200 steps. It has breaks in it, for people to stop and rest every   50 feet or so, with arukku gal. There are moon stones at the breaks. the only other flight of steps like this is at Hachchikuchi, said Medhananda .

Medhananda found a special siripatul gala at  Konduvattavana ruins in Inginiyagala. It was a round siripatula gala, and siripatula is elevated in the middle of the  sculpture. This is rare. the upper terrace of the stupa  at Panama Raja Maha Vihara has siripatula on it.  I have seen this only in two other places, Vehera galkanda and Dammina, said Medhananda .

In early Buddhism, the  Buddha was depicted symbolically by an empty chair. This was one of the earliest symbols used for the Buddha. These empty chairs were housed in Asanghara. The Asanagara found at  Pulunkunawa is unique, and not found anywhere else in the country, said Medhananda . It was owalankara  in shape. Veheragoda ruins, Ampara     had an  asanaghara. Medhananda saw a possible asanaghara at Bambaragastalawa too. 

Diviyagala vihara in Ampara district has a beautiful moonstone and umbrella stone in good preservation as well as a complete chatragala, and three siripatul. Tampitiya vihara by Tampita wewa, off Pullumalai junction, Batticaloa district,    has a very unique guard stone with 9 snake heads, a person holding a pun kalasa and a woman bending down and collecting water. ( continued)

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