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Sunday, 12 May 2013

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Somawathiya Stupa amidst the lush wilderness

The Somawathi Stupa

Once, there was a stupa dazzling like a pearl, completely surrounded by the lush greenery of the wilderness. Isolated, in an uninhabited region, the structure could not defy the scorching sun, the torrential rains, the gushing floods or the invading roots of the green giants for many years. It couldnít help falling into a state of ruin and slowly disappearing into oblivion and remaining so for 10 long centuries, in a dense jungle camouflaged from civilisation.

Upon being restored to its former glory and evolving into a temple worshipped by thousands of devotees every year, the soaring stupa again dazzles like a pearl amidst a sea of green. And to pay homage to this stupa at Somawathiya, the writer and family set off in the wee hours one day.

Among the relics of the Buddha found in Sri Lanka, two are treated with utmost respect. They are the Sacred Tooth Relics of the Buddha - the Left Tooth Relic is enshrined at the Sri Dalada Maligawa in Kandy while the Right Tooth Relic is enshrined at the Somawathiya also called Somawathi Raja Maha Vihara in Polonnaruwa. Apart from this fact, the temple is significant due to its historic and archaeological value and is also well known as a sacred site where miraculous sightings often occur.

Dense wilderness

Our route was along the cities of Kandy, Matale, Dambulla, Habarana and Hingurakgoda. We passed through the Habarana jungle, Minneriya Sanctuary and Somawathi Strict Natural Reserve before reaching the Somawathi Raja Maha Vihara. It was like a journey to the heart of mother nature as the temple was surrounded by breathtaking marshlands and dense wilderness as far as the eyes could see.

It was a little past 10.40 in the morning when we finally alighted from the vehicle. The dry warm air and the calling of three eagles circling high above in the azure sky welcomed us. As we walked past the towering gateway brimming with enchanting relief motifs and topped with a big canopy, we were greeted by a stunning spectacle; a beautiful pond full of tuskers of all sizes, sculpted so deftly that itís hard to tell them apart from their real counterparts unless you get close to them. From the spot, we could clearly see the stupa rising above everything else on flat terrain.

The unusual moonstone

The walls of inner stupas

The Elephant Pond

The soaring stupa still had scaffolding around its pinnacle as it was being whitewashed for an upcoming religious event. The tiled courtyard around the stupa was nothing short of blistering hot, and we could hardly stand still for a few seconds in one spot. We left the courtyard and sat under a huge banyan tree. There around us, under the shade of the great banyan tree, sat dozens of devotees clad in pure white, reciting stanzas after the Nayaka Thera while attending a Buddha pooja.

Tiled courtyard

Once the event was over, we entered the tiled courtyard once more and this time headed towards a vahalkada (gateway). Awaiting us was yet another surprise; within the stupa was a small shrine room built atop a narrow stairway behind the vahalkada. Right above the offerings table heaped with flowers in multifarious hues stood a golden casket bearing the Relics.

Strolling around the premises, I stumbled upon various unusual and unique features. One was the moonstone beneath a flight of steps which was missing the usual relief carvings of the four types of animals, swans and floral patterns found in other moonstones. Flanking the moonstone were metal racks neatly stacking oil-filled glass jars instead of the usual clay lamps. Next to one metal rack rose a great banyan tree snuggling two or three statues of Lord Ganesha around its base.

We went around the sandy courtyard and arrived at the Samadhi Buddha statue, which resembled the world famous image at Mahamevuna Uyana in Anuradhapura. Behind this statue stood the Bo tree encircled by a golden railing. Next to them in a hall were scores of posters and pictures featuring the mysterious halos and rainbows that have appeared right around the stupa. Beyond that we came upon an open area dotted with beautiful iron works holding the usual clay lamps around a Dolos Mahe Pahana - the lamp that remains lit throughout the year.

Through the oil lamps, we spotted the greenery not too far, reminding us that we are still surrounded by the Somawathi Strict Natural Reserve and wildlife sanctuary teeming with wild pachyderms and other animals big and small. In fact, some of the wild elephants and tuskers love to throng at the Elephant Pond to quench their thirst early morning or late evening and some, itís said, even pay homage to the stupa before heading back to the jungle.

Interior walls

As we went around the stupa, I came upon a portion which revealed its interior walls, flaunting their sheer breadth. The centre-most wall is what remains from the very first Somawathi Stupa built by Princess Somawathi (sister of King Kavantissa) and Prince Giri-Aba in the Second Century BC. The outer wall portrays the second stupa built by King Kanitta Tissa in 164 AD, enveloping the original.

It is said in the chronicles that following the cremation of the Buddha, when the Relics were distributed, King Jayasena - a king of serpents - brought the Sacred Right Tooth Relic to the Kingdom of Nagas (serpents). During the construction of Somawathi Stupa, upon the request of Prince Giri-Aba, a bhikkhu named Mahinda Thera visited the Kingdom of Nagas and retrieved the Relics to be deposited within the stupa. After years of being secluded within a dense jungle, the area was cleared and the stupa renovated in 1947 by Sirimalwatte Sri Piyarathana Thera who also became the first Chief Priest of the Somawathiya.

En route, we came across many interesting sights such as the free roaming cattle across watery marshlands, paddy fields and the sparsely built dry zone homes adjoined by dome-shaped rainwater collectors.

Despite the sizzling heat, which often made us scamper for shady spots, we enjoyed complete peace of mind and serenity until it was time for us to leave, having received blessings from this sacred site snuggled amidst a thriving wilderness.

 

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