Posted on January 22nd, 2020

Dr. Daya Hewapathirane

Twenty-two years ago, on Sunday January 25th 1998 around 6:30 am, the ruthless Tamil terrorists attacked the Sri Dalada Maligawa – one of the most valued national cultural treasures of Sri Lanka. Built originally in the late 15th century, this fabulous architectural marvel is more than 550 years old, In the centuries that followed, additions and improvements were  effected to the Maligawa by several kings making it one of the most captivating historic buildings in the country. This magnificent structure enshrines the sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha which is the most sacred object of worship in the Buddhist world. It is of utmost symbolic value for Buddhists and the Nation as a whole, because from historic times the possession and custodianship of the Sacred Tooth Relic was tantamount to acquisition of the sovereignty of the nation. It was first brought to Sri Lanka in the fourth century CE and has been treated with utmost veneration by our kings of the past. The possession of the Sacred Tooth Relic was required for a king to be acknowledged as the ruler of the country. 


The savagely cruel and violent actions that were characteristic of the Tamil terrorists reached their highest levels with this ghastly event of bombing the one of the most sacred places of veneration of Buddhists across the world. Structures and historic monuments associated with the entrance to the Maligawa were subject to most severe damage. In addition the blast led to the demolition of a good part of the roof and the exposure of the Maligawa to the open sky.  Extensive peeling off of the wall plaster resulted in the destruction of exquisite paintings that adorned these walls besides damage to other priceless artifacts of the Maligawa. Several pilgrims including children who were at the Maligawa died on the spot along with several police personnel providing security at the Maligawa entrance at this time.  

Reacting to this ghastly act of Tamil terrorists, UNESCO Director General Mr. Federico Mayor said “I am deeply shocked by this act of blind violence perpetrated against a place of meditation, joy and peace. All religions are based on love and respect for life. Attacking a holy place means striking the very best in humanity, undermining its innocence and purity. Those who attack people through their faith can only be condemned. Religious differences can absolutely not be justification for conflict, and places of worship should in no case be used as targets.”


The bomb attack resulted in the disintegration of all the enchanting paintings of the ‘Ambarawa’ that belonged to the 17th -18th century period. Ambarawa is at the entrance to the Maligava in the form of a tunnel. Its entire curved surface was vibrantly adorned with colourful paintings. Also, the blast destroyed the enchanting Sandakada Pahana (moonstone) built in keeping with the unique Mahanuwara tradition, at the entrance to the Ambarawa and damaged the granite rock pillars adorned with delicate and exquisite rock carvings of intricate traditional motifs. Passing the Ambarava one enters the ‘Hevisi Mandapaya’ (the open verandah-like area) with pillars where ‘pujas’ (offering) and drumming are performed.

Besides the damages to the priceless cultural wealth associated with the Ambarawa, the blast resulted in the total destruction of one of the most precious items of the Maligawa – the historic moonstone that was found at the main entrance to the Maligawa. It was one of the few most enchanting moonstones bearing the design and shape of Mahanuwara moonstone tradition, somewhat similar to the one at the entrance to the Degaldoruwa vihare. The destroyed moonstones and other rock structures have been replaced with new ones bearing the same shape and design and the ‘Ambarawa’ paintings have been re-drawn. However, can they ever replace these invaluable historic treasures that glorified and embellished this cultural paradise?  Many ancient ola palm leaf manuscripts and delicate traditional ornaments and artifacts stored in the Pattirippuwa octagonal building were destroyed.

Except for some structural damages to the plasters and walls and dislodging of parts of the carved wooden ceiling structures, most miraculously the ancient inner relic chamber structure at the centre of the Maligawa building where the Sacred Tooth relic was housed remained intact. When conservationists sifted through the rubble after the terrorist attack, they made an unexpected discovery. Beneath the existing wall paintings, two earlier layers of plaster with paintings were detected. Images of an elephant and a dancer’s leg were revealed which appear to be a part of a wider artistic composition of a ceremonial pageant. This painting is attributed to the beginning of the 18th century, to the period of King Narendrasinha. Fragments of these paintings are displayed today in the new Maligawa museum, along with pictures of the destruction wreaked by the terrorist attack.


The earliest paintings of the period of the Mahanuvara kingdom are in the inner chambers of the Dalada Maligawa. They were completed during the reign of king Wimaladarmasuriya -II (1687-1707). Other paintings in the old Maligava building were done during king Kirthisri Rajasinghe (1747-1786).

In front of the ‘hevisi mandapaya’ is the two storied building where the Tooth relic of the Buddha is enshrined.  This was built by king Narendrasinghe who ruled from 1707-1739. The intricately carved wooden structures decorating the upper portion of the outer walls of the two storeys also contain exceptionally captivating paintings. Some of these paintings were done on plaster applied over wooden surfaces.

On the walls and ceilings of both floors of this building are paintings, which are exquisite. The wooden structures of the upper portions of the outer walls of the two storeys are decorated with intricate carving. Paintings found in these structures are exceptionally captivating. .

Most of the Maligava paintings are elaborate, thematic or decorative ones. Those decorating the walls and ceiling of the inner relic chamber are most breathtaking. There are paintings of beautiful designs using human figures. animals, birds, and flowers. Some are found on the carved wooden ceiling structures associated with the relic chamber. Among some especially appealing paintings found here are those depicting King Wimaladarmasuriya-I (1591-1604), King Kirthisri Rajasinghe, Weliwita Saranankara thera, jataka tales and the Esala perahera. Paintings of the Suvisi Vivarana” or the 24 former Buddhas, deities and heavenly beings are gorgeous. A particularly striking painting in one of the Shrine rooms with a Buddha image is a stunning Makara Thorana” which is a great work of art.

The Dalada Maligawa museum established in recent years on the upper floor of the Maligawa Annex displays segments of the painting layers damaged by the bomb blast and photographs of some of the damaged original paintings of the Maligava. Photographs of fragments of paintings of inner wall surfaces that were exposed as a result of the peeling off of walls owing to the bomb blast, are also exhibited in this museum. Canvas replicas of some enchanting Maligawa paintings destroyed by the bomb blast adorn the stairways leading to the Museum.  


The sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha venerated by Buddhists all over the world is enshrined in this fabulous building. It is of utmost symbolic value for Buddhists and the Nation as a whole. Besides, the Dalada Maligawa is also famous internationally for it colourful 10 day procession called the Dalada Perahera, which has an unbroken tradition extending up to the 4th c .CE. This captivating and delightful pageant has been conducted for the past 1700 years in several historic capitals in the country, when it was customary for our kings to built special Dalada Maligava structures in those capitals to enshrine the Tooth relic. Sri Dalada Maligawa is one of the greatest national cultural treasures of our country and should receive the highest level of protection.

Dr. Daya Hewapathirane

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