Sri Lanka is embellished by countless Viharas and Devales. Not surprisingly, there are many such places of spiritual concentration around Kandy. With fine architecture, striking murals and a splendid history, they provide for remarkable exploration.
As I drove along the steep climb of the Kandy-Colombo Road passing Mawanella and Kadugannawa, layers of mist-laden mountain tops met my eyes and a chilly wind blew strongly across the road to the Bible rock range of mountains far away. The legendary mountain range was visible in its grandeur shrouded in misty pockets, touching the first rays of the yellowish sun in the velvety slopes and rocky outcrops.
It was a chilly morning around 7.30 am when I reached Pilimathalawa on the Colombo-Kandy main Road and turned off to the Embilimeegama - Daulagala Road which leads to the architectural trinity comprising, the Gadaladeniya, Lankathilaka and Embekke Devale. These three temples of major interest close to Kandy belong to what is called the ‘Gampola Period’, a time of great artistic activity in the region of Kandy.
My first stop along what is known as the Daulagala Road was at Gadaladeniya Vihara, just about one kilometer down the road situated on a huge rock boulder. Several bus loads of pilgrims had already come to visit the Vihara when I arrived and I saw them strolling here and there looking at the monuments and offering flowers to the Vihara, a popular pilgrimage site. Although it was only 8 a.m., the cloudless blue sky and the harsh sunlight paved the way for a majestic view of the Vihara.
A large number of brass work souvenir shops are located along the road to the temple and there are two different routes leading to the Vihara from the Daulagala Road. The one on the left side of the Vihara is a steep climb through the rock cut flight of steps, which is also used to hold the annual Perahera of the Vihara.
Climbing the long flight of steps I entered the Vihara through a narrow doorway of Hevisi Mandapaya (drumming hall). Atop a rock outcrop on the upper terrace, I glimpsed a huge Bo tree, spreading its shade with its branches, in the foreground, while a Dagoba with four miniature stupas around it stood in front of the Bo-tree on the upper terrace.
Considered the biggest Vihara in Kandy, built of granite, the Gadaladeniya Vihara atop a rock outcrop is believed to have been built by Ven. Dharmakeerthi Thera during the reign of King Buwanekabahu IV, (1341-1351 AD) the first King of the Gampola period.
I walked along the rock outcrop and entered the main image house which stood among the significant buildings in the Vihara. The stone building, erected in 1344, according to an inscription in the Vihara, is topped by a dome in the form of a Dagoba. Another small dome adorns the adjoining Devale. These shrines are constructed out of dressed stone and symbolize a blending of Hindu and Buddhist architectural patterns in one monument. It has the appearance of a three storeyed building.
Vastly influenced by Hindu architecture, the image house of the Vihara is more like a Hindu shrine than a Buddhist temple. The stone entrance is finely sculptured, and the steps are decorated by a frieze depicting dancers and drummers. The two pillars on either side of the entrance have two additional pillars each, which makes them tri-pillars.
They are believed to have been carved by two stone sculptors, the one on the right by a sculptor named Ganeshwarachari, known to be a South Indian and the pillars on the left are said to have been carved by a sculptor from Sri Lanka. According to the inscription in the Vihara, the sculptors had been employed by Ven. Dharmakeerthi Thera. Consequently, the pillars have distinctive motifs that are unique to each country.
Another significant feature is its marvelous stone carvings of Gajasingha (elephant-lion) balustrades found at the entrance to the image house of the Gadaladeniya Vihara. Gajasingha is a mythical creature, which has the head of an elephant and the body of a lion. It is believed to reflect the nation and its prosperity. A wooden carving of this mythical being is found on a wooden pillar at the nearby Embekke Devale.
Entering the stone built image house passing the intricately carved tri-pillars, I met a pupil Bhikku selling picture post-cards and small booklets about the history of the Vihara. Passing this point further inside, a massive wooden door that opens up in two pieces, display elaborately painted flower motifs.
As I entered the image house, I spotted a huge seated Buddha statue lying below a beautiful Makara Thorana (dragon arch) surrounded by statues of the standing Buddha. Some of these statues and the paintings on the stone ceiling are discoloured.
Looking at the seated Buddha statue in the image house for a minute, I wondered that contrary to the serene appearance that is characteristic of Buddha statues that belong to the Anuradhapura period, the seated Buddha statue exudes a sense of pride and authority, perhaps another influence of Hindu architecture. Visitors entering the image house would be able to see the Devala to its left. The inscription refers to the deity as Upulvan, currently known as deity Vishnu. There are several historic inscriptions on the rock outcrop of the Vihara, covered by building fences.
Another striking architectural feature on the upper terrace, is the stupa in the foreground of the image house. The bigger of the stupa is built at a height of about 15ft and has four accompanying miniature stupas around it. They are believed to be the four deities protecting it. The roof above the stupa ensures that it stands the test of time through the centuries.
This foundation and structure, also built on the rocky outcrop with entirely plastered stones have four miniature image houses which have small seated Buddha statues inside the walls and the entrances adorned by beautiful murals. Today, one can see that some of these paintings are fast vanishing due to their antiquity.
I walked along the rocky outcrop in the Vihara premises and found two water holes in front of the image house with Manel mal (water lilies) blossoming even in dry weather.
Since the Department of Archaeology has been restoring the main stone dome building of the Vihara for some time, visitors may not be able to see the real shape of the Gadaladeniya Vihara until they finish the restoration and remove the temporary structure.