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History of the Kalutara Bodhi

The Kalutara Bodhi is a well-known landmark in Sri Lanka. It is certainly the best known and most popular landmark on the Southern highway, the Galle Road. No vehicle passes the Bodhi without stopping here and the driver and passengers dropping coins into the till on the road-side. This is to ensure a safe journey.

The Kalu Ganga which flows to the sea at Kalutara, discharges its water into an estuary.

An estuary is like an inverted cone, broad at the mouth and gradually tapering inland.

On the left bank of the estuary is the railway line. Beyond that is the Galle Road running parallel to each other. On the strip of land between the railway line and the Galle Road is the bo tree, the famous Kalutara Bodhi which has stood there for centuries before the railway line and Galle Road were built.

No one knows for how long this bo tree has stood there. There is another bo tree on the hillock opposite. Legend says it is one of the ‘detis’ Bodhi - 32 bo trees. Eight saplings sprouted from the Sri Maha Bodhi shortly after it was planted in Anuradhapura and they were planted in important places islandwide. Later four saplings had sprouted from each of these eight now grown into trees. Then there were 32 ‘detis’ ( saplings). They were planted in special locations and the hillock near the mouth of the Kalu Ganga was one of these special places. Why? There was good reason to choose this place, so far away from Anuradhapura, for a special bo sapling.You know that ancient Sri Lanka was divided into three ‘rata’ of provinces Ruhunu, Maya and Pihiti also known as Raja rata because the King lived in that province. The northern boundary of Ruhuna on the west was the Kalu Ganga, not the Bentara Ganga as is presumed today. The mouth of the Kalu Ganga was the north western extremity or apex of Ruhunu Rata and the hillock a few yards from the river mouth was a very suitable place for a sacred bo tree - one of the ‘detis’ (32) bo saplings.

Sometime later a vihara was built on this hillock and it was known as ‘Gangatilaka vihara. Who planted the bo sapling in the lower terrace and when it was done, is not known.

The Portuguese demolished the Gangatilaka Vihara and built a fort on the hillock in the 16th century. There is a picture of this fort and the island in the river in the book “Description of the island of Ceylan,” written in 1677 by the Portuguese historian Baldeus.

After the fort was built, the people had no access to the Bodhi. So the be tree on the lower terrace must have become their place of worship.

The Dutch rebuilt and expanded the fort which was surrendered to the British in 1796, the year the British took possession of the low country of Lanka. After the kingdom of Kandy surrendered in 1815, and the whole island came under the British, they set about establishing administrative units.

The fort was converted into the office and residence of the Government’s representative or Agent, for this region.

We have no information about the Bodhi until the last quarter of the 19th century, when work on the Kalutara bridge commenced in 1877, a year after the Kalutara kachcheri was opened. We read about an Upasaka Mahattaya, clearing the Bo maluwa - the terrace - which was in a neglected state and making offerings to the Bodhi.Then others had followed and the Bodhi had become a place of regular pooja, with the occasional drumming. Once the Government Agent wanted the ‘hevisi’ stopped. On another occasion he ordered the engineer in charge to cut the bo tree as it blocked the path of the proposed bridge.

The Upasaka put up boards warning of the imminent danger to the Bodhi. When the Government Agent and the engineer arrived they were confronted by men carrying clubs mammoties and axes, and other tools. Despite threats from Government officers the crowd was adamant. The men carrying weapons advanced and the Government Agent and his men withdrew. There the Upasaka Mahattaya saved the Bodhi.

The history of the Kalutara Bodhi is recorded from the 1930s. In 1931 the Kalutara Bodhi Society was formed and work on the improvement of shrine begun. The man behind this was a young lawyer practising in Kalutara - Cyril de Zoysa who became a leading businessman and later president of the Senate. (the Upper House of the former Parliament.)

Soon after the society was formed a Bodhi Prakaara, a wall around the Bo tree and a stone ‘malaasana’ to offer flowers on were built.

A donation of Rs. 1,000 a very large sum those days - towards this was made by Mrs. Jeremias Dias, the well-known philanthrophist of Panadura, who founded Visakha Vidyalaya in Colombo.Gradually the Bodhi shrine expanded and a small dagoba was built. The pinnacle laying ceremony was the occasion for another confrontation of the public and government officers. It was the year 1940.

A mammoth crowd had gathered at the Bodhi for the ceremony. So vast was the crowd that they were compelled to move towards the Government Agent’s residence on top of the hillock.

An angry Government Agent called in the police, who then baton charged the crowd to disperse them.

It is said that Cyril de Zoysa watching what was happening resolved then and there, “to chase away the white man (Sudda) from there “.

It took Cyril de Zoysa over 25 years to achieve this. In the meantime the Kalutara Bodhi Trust was formed on November 12, 1951 replacing the Kalutara Bodhi Society. All the work done to improve the Kalutara Bodhi Shrine and build a religious complex on the hillock was done by the Kalutara Bodhi Trust.The foundation for the chaitya on the hillock was laid in 1964. And it took 16 years for it to be completed and be crowned with a pinnacle. The pinnacle was unveiled by President J. R. Jayewardene on February 25, 1980. The chaitya is different to other chaityas. It is a concrete shell. In the hollow inside are four small chaityas and on the walls scenes from Jataka tales are painted.

The whole hillock is now a religious complex with assembly halls, a meditation hall and a daana sala. The old Bodhi, now over 2000 years old, stands sentinel over the whole complex.

An underground passage connects the Bodhi by the river with the hillock. So devotees can worship at one shrine and go to the other in safety, without crossing the busy Galle Road.Much of the funds for the buildings and their maintenance is from the offerings in cash made by travellers who go past the Bodhi. Just think of the number of vehicles that go past daily.

And each vehicle drops a coin or note into the till, by the roadside.Much of the funds for these buildings and their maintenance comes from the token offerings made by travellers going past the Bodhi. They make these offerings to ensure safety on their journey.

How old is this practice and how did it begin? Not old at all compared to the age of the Bodhi.

Way back in the late 1930s or early 1940s Cyril de Zoysa started a bus company and he ordered all drivers to drop a coin in the till at the Bodhi. Other bus drivers followed and in course of time all vehicles began to stop to drop a coin and make a token offering to the Bodhi.

The drivers and passengers do this to ensure a safe journey to their destination.

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