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Sunday, 16 January 2011





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Significance of Duruthu Poya

Duruthu Poya, the first Full Moon Poya Day falls on January 19. It is of very special significance to Buddhists in Sri Lanka. Legend says that the Buddha came to Lanka on the ninth Full Moon Poya Day, in the first year of His Enlightenment. The ninth full moon day is the Duruthu Full Moon Poya which is usually in January.

The grand finale of the Kelani perahera, one of the great annual pageants, is on the night before the Duruthu Full Moon Poya Day. Many think that this perahera is held to mark the Buddha's visit to Kelaniya. They are mistaken.

The Buddha's visit that poya day was not to Kelaniya but to Mahiyangana, which is on the right bank of the Mahaweli in the Badulla district.

The circumstances of His visit as told in the Sinhala classic, Thupavamsa (History of Thupas or dagobas) is roughly as follows: The Buddha came to settle a dispute between two groups of Yakkhas. Before Vijaya and his followers came to Lanka and colonized the island, this country was inhabited by three main groups. Today we would say 'ethnic' groups; Yakkhas, Rakshashas and Nagas.

They were human beings like Vijaya and his men. There is in NE India a state called Nagaland, home of the Naga people. A naga, a serpent must have been the totem of their ancestors. A totem is usually an animal regarded as the symbol of a tribe.

The Yakkhas in that area had clashed over something or other and they had come together in a crowd in an open area in Mahiyangana, and were throwing barbs at each other. The Buddha seeing this with His divine eye, came by air and standing above the warring crowd, created a rain storm and a thick darkness.

The Yakkhas were filled with fear and looking at the sky called out, "Oh Lord! grant us mercy." "I have granted you mercy," said the Buddha. "Give me a place to sit." "We give you the whole of Lanka. Please grant us mercy", they said with one voice. Then the Buddha dispelled the darkness and stopped the storm.

He then sat on the sheet of skin spread out for Him, and willed that flames to come out of that sheet. Seeing the flames the Yakkhas were seized with fear and they rushed towards the beach. Thereupon the Buddha created an island off the coast and banished the Yakkhas there.

Thereafter, He preached to the Devas who had gathered to witness this scene. At the end of the sermon, God Sumana or Saman Devi asked the Buddha for something as an object of veneration.

The Buddha placed His right hand on his head, and gave God Saman some hairs which God Saman enshrined in a seven cubic dagoba, built on the spot that the Buddha sat upon. This then is the first dagoba built in Sri lanka. It was enlarged two or three times, subsequently.

This is the story of the Mahiyangana stupa, which is one of the 16 places of veneration (solosmasthana.)


Duruthu Perahera

The Kelani Vihara which is one of the sixteen hallowed places of worship in Sri Lanka, described in detail by the 15th century poet, Sri Rahula Thera in his poem Selalihini Sandesa, was razed to the ground by the Portuguese in 1575. For 200 years it was in ruins. Only a mound of earth and a few stone pillars remained of the once glorious vihara, until King Keerthi Sri Rajasinghe rebuilt a part of the main temple in 1767. The murals in the main hall which the King built are typical of the 'Sittara' art (style of paintings) of the Kandy period in our history. The murals are dated 2394 Buddha Varsha (Buddhist era). That is 1851 AD. It was Mrs. Helena Wijewardene, mother of D.R. Wijewardene, founder of Lake House who restored the Kelani Vihara. Through her generosity Kelani vihara is what it is today, a show piece of Sri Lanka. The right wing she built has murals by the famous temple artist, Soliyas Mendis, depicting scenes from Sri Lanka's history.

Mrs. Wijewardene was living at Sedawatta on the other bank of the Kelani river, within sight of the ruined vihara. The state of this sacred vihara saddened her. She wanted to rebuild it one day. The first step in her ambitious plan was the building of a mal aasana (flower alter) - by her and her husband, Muhandiram D.P. Wijewardene. (The Muhandiram passed away in 1903). After the construction of the 'mal aasana', she may have resolved to restore the vihara. A wish became a determination.

Twenty years and more passed before her plan was put into action. The work on the restoration commenced with the laying of the foundation stone on January 10, 1927. Her son, Walter Wijewardene who was Basnayaka Nilame of the Vibhishana Devala of the Kelani Vihara, had suggested that a perahera be held to mark the event. The perahera was held on Duruthu Poya night in 1927. The perahera was held again the next year and the following year, and the Kelani Perahera at Duruthu became an annual event and notched its name in the calendar of religious celebrations in Sri Lanka.



Kelaniya has a history going to the days of the Buddha. It was then a settlement of Nagas, one of the ethnic groups that lived in this island before Vijaya and his followers came, as explained earlier..

Legend says that the Buddha came to Lanka, for the third time on Vesak Full Moon Poya Day in the eighth year of His Enlightenment. This was in response to the invitation extended by Mani Akkhika, the chief of the Kelaniya Nagas, when he met the Buddha at Nagadeepa five years earlier.

The dagoba at the vihara marks the spot where the Buddha sat and has enshrined in it, the gem-studded seat He sat on, when He preached to the Nagas and Devas. This dagoba is unlike other dagobas. It is like a heap of paddy. It is not round like the Ruwanveli Seya or bell-shaped like the Thuparama.

We next hear of Kelaniya when it was an independent kingdom, ruled by Kelani Tissa, like Magama in the south east of the island, which was a contemporary kingdom. The first recorded tsunami came to Sri Lanka , in the time of Kelani Tissa.

History books say that the sea invaded Kelaniya because the gods were angry and horrified by what the king did. He suspected the chief bhikkhu of having a love affair with his queen and as a punishment made the bhikkhu sit in a cauldron of boiling oil. (The queen's lover was the king's brother). The gods were so angry that they made the sea flood the land. Mind you, at that time Kelaniya was much further from the sea than it is now. Much of the coastal area was lost in the tsunami.

The king on the advice of his wise men, then sacrificed his daughter, Vihara Devi to appease the gods who were sending wave after wave of sea water, into the land.

Kelaniya was never abandoned like many capitals were.

Being one of the places hallowed by the Buddha's visit, it was, through the centuries, a place of worship set in grand surroundings.

In the 15th century, the heyday of the Kingdom of Kotte, Kelaniya was an opulent township second only to Jayewardenepura, the capital with streets lit up at night and flags flying on the minarets of the mansions. There was even a royal residence in Kelaniya, wherein the kings came to spend their leisure or to relax after discharging their duties. Kelaniya was just across the river, a couple of miles from Jayewardenepura.

Thanks to the poet, Totagamuwe Sri Rahula Thera we have a detailed picture of the Kelani Vihara complex in the 15th century when Parakrama Bahu VIII was king. At that time, Nagas were still livig in Kelaniya as a distinct group when the poet wrote the Selalihini Sandesa.

The poet points out to the Selalihini bird who is carrying a message to God Vibhishana, the Naga maidens seated on the sandy bank of the river, strumming their veenas and singing hymns to the Buddha (Budu guna gee).

Kelani Vihara then was a vast complex, comprising dagobas, image houses a preaching hall, the Bodhi tree and the grand shrine of Vibhishana, the guardian god. In addition to the main dagoba, there was another with a wall and a roof, a watadage, and a third dagoba called Sivuru dagoba built on the site where the Buddha is said to have robed himsel fafter bathing in the river. There was a reclining image of the Buddha which could be the one that is still there.

There were sedant images, one carved in rock and an image of a seated Buddha with a serpent coiled round it. This depicts the legend of the serpent Muchalinda, sheltering the Buddha with its hood during a week of continuous rain. The poet bids the Selalihini who enters the vihara at dusk to pay obeisance at several shrines and then watch the girls dancing before the image of Vibhishana.

Poet Sri Rahula Thera painted a picture in words of the Kelani Vihara in the twilight of its glory.King Parakramabahu's successor Bhuvaneka Bahu's grandson, who was baptised Don Juan handed over the vihara to the Franciscan Friars and it was razed to the ground by the Portuguese in 1575.The restored Kelani vihara is a monument to the generosity and Sraddha of the lady who lived across the river at Sedawatta.


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