History of the
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
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
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
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