Kelaniya Rajamaha Vihara: A repository of Buddhist treasures

The main temple building of Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara and the large white Dagoba.

The ancient cultural concept of the Dagoba, Ketha (rice field), and Wewa (tank), revolved around the Pansala (temple) and Gama (village). Such ancient sites featuring the Gama and Pansala were rooted not only in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, but also in the outskirts of the city of Colombo. Many visitors don’t realize that an impressive repository of Buddhist art beckons just twelve kilometres outside Colombo along the Kandy Road.

When I was a schoolboy I heard my mother saying, Upandasita Karapu paw netha varak vendoth Kelaniye (All the sins from one’s birth will be washed away, if he or she worships Kelaniya once). In fact, I have worshipped Kelaniya many times since my childhood and again, I was fortunate enough to visit this sacred place of Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara, recently.
The most important centre of faith for Buddhists living in and around the capital is at Kelaniya, 12 kilometres northeast of Colombo and a short detour off Kandy Road. Indeed, the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara is said to be one of the three places on the island that the Buddha himself made a special point of visiting.

The exact date of Kelaniya’s origin is unknown, but according to the Mahawamsa, the Buddha visited Kelaniya on two separate occasions. Over the centuries, the fortunes of the temple have reflected those of Sri Lanka, with high points marked by artistic excellence and low points at times of colonial domination. Though Kelaniya has been a place of worship for over 2,000 years, the present temple buildings date mostly from 1880 to 1940.

It is worth approaching the temple slowly, to take in all the details on the way. It stands on a manmade hillock on a plain by the banks of the Kelani Ganga. At the foot of the flight of steps facing the river are guardstones. At the top of the steps, standing beneath a stately triple archway, the visitor faces the three great symbols of the “Triple Gem;” on the right, the Dagoba, representing the living presence of Buddha; in the centre, the main temple building, signifying the community of Bhikkus, or Sangha, and finally, on the left, a thriving Bo tree, which reminds one of the Buddha’s enlightenment. Facing the Dagoba is a Devala, dedicated to God Vibheeshana.

Gem-studded throne

The main Dagoba appears enormous to those who have not seen the massive structures at Anuradhapura. The Kelaniya Dagoba is said to contain, buried within its depths, a gem-studded throne on which the Buddha sat on his second visit here, on the request of a Naga King to preach the Dhamma to his subjects and convert them. The original Dagoba is ascribed to King Yatala Tissa of the 3rd Century BC. The Stupa is in the form of a paddy-heap, one of the earliest styles found in Sri Lanka, and reaches a height of almost 30 metres.

From the Dagoba, we step into the modern Vihara which is about 250 years old. Murals decorate its walls, telling stories of the Buddha, Buddhism in Sri Lanka and the Kelaniya Temple itself. The geometrically patterned ceiling paintings in the main hall are fascinating. There are also three important Buddha images, one reclining and two seated. Walking around the compound of the modern Vihara, we saw rows of intricately carved comical dwarfs and elephants copied from Polonnaruwa’s Tivanka Image House adorning the outer walls.

Flanked by these natural and manmade symbols, the main Vihara building is an imposing structure that owes its existence to a Westerner, Henry Steele Olcott who came to the country on a spiritual pilgrimage in 1880. His fervour led to a resurgence of faith, and he managed to secure donations sufficient for the reconstruction of the buildings, which had fallen into disrepair. The fascinating friezes and many of the Kelaniya Vihara’s best  murals were added during this century by the renowned local artist, Soliyas Mendis, whose work has drawn comparisons with creations from the 12th Century Polonnaruwa period.

A new chapter in the history of Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara opened when Mrs Helena Wijewardene, a noble, wealthy lady and wife of Don Philip Tudugalle Wijewardene of Sedawatta visited the temple in 1880. Having seen the dilapidated temple, she made up her mind to restore the Vihara and make it worthy of a place of worship. In 1927, she laid the foundation for the complete restoration of the Vihara and other features of the temple. Today, the Kelaniya Vihara stands majestically on account of her magnanimous work.

European powers

The walls and ceilings of the Vihara in the interior are covered with richly coloured and sharply detailed murals, most of them by Mendis, recounting both the life of the Buddha and episodes in the history of the temple and most importantly figures of various gods in Sri Lanka. One of Mendis’ murals depicts the razing of Kelaniya to the ground by the Portuguese - the first of the three European powers to subject Sri Lanka to colonial rule.
Other panels depict the Buddha’s first appearance at Kelaniya and the arrival in Sri Lanka of the Buddha’s Tooth, reportedly retrieved from his funeral pyre and now housed at the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy.
A constant flow of devotees move through the Vihara, dropping a handful of rice into an urn as symbolic offerings, lighting incense and bringing newborns for blessing and initiating into the religion. The innermost shrine, called the Hall of Perfumes, is backed by a painting of a blue sky with a single mountain peak. A white gauze hangs between the small, golden seated Buddha image and the visitors, who prostrate and sit in silent prayer in the Vihara’s hushed interior.

Our next visit was to the Bo tree shrine on the left side. Seeming to take nourishment from the offerings of devotees at its base, the majestic Bo-tree spreads its branches wide, offering shade for those who come to pay their respects. The tree is surrounded by a golden railing and has a simple stone Buddha statue at its base. Devotees bring lotus, water lilies and frangipani to offer and we saw many devotees offering Pan (water) to the Bo-tree to make vows.

The pious activities of the devotees, as well as the Vihara’s fine sculptures and paintings, is a special experience to the visitors. Devotees come every day of the week. On full-moon Poya days and January 1, the temple gets very crowded.

The biggest crowds turn out for the Vihara’s annual Perahera in January, the full moon (Duruthu), when people and elephants alike are dressed in their finest for an unforgettable pageant. As a spectacle, it is perhaps only second to the Esala Perahera in Kandy.
This year’s annual Duruthu Perahera, that marks the religious significance of Buddha’s visit to Kelaniya will be held at Kelaniya Vihara from tomorrow, January 9 to 11. The Perahera will begin at 8.p.m. with the handing over of the Relic casket to the Chief Basnayaka Nilame, Dammika Attygalle by the Chief Incumbent Ven. Prof Kollupitiya Mahinda Sangarakkitha Nayaka Thera.

The Perahera has been organized under the guidance of the Dayaka Sabha President, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Apart from the religious significance of the Perahera, it also supports and revives our rich cultural traditions of drummers, dancers, flutes and the colourful parades of elephants. 

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