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Sunday, 9 February 2014

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One of the imposing caves

Namal Pokuna: History atop a hillock

It was morning and I could see the silhouette of the Dimbulagala mountain range with its jagged peaks thrusting against the pale blue sky. The air was a little chilly. The placid water of the Dalukana tank could be seen on the left side of the road, lying in the foot of the Dimbulagala hill. Across the tank, a soft, cool breeze blew through the leaves of trees. The shade and the soothing swishing sound of leaves mesmerised me. I closed my eyes and breathed in the serenity.

My destination was Dalukana, often referred to as an ‘Adi Vasi’ village, 10 km from Manampitiya, an ancient Adi Vasi village, which was home to one of the earliest Adi Vasi clans. I was at Namal Pokuna Rajamaha Vihara, Dalukana, with high expectations of meeting an Adi Vasi Bhikkhu, Ven. Millane Sri Siriyalankara Thera, who resides in this temple where Adi Vasis have left marks of their civilisation in caves, most of which have vanished. Sitting on a bench under a shady mango tree in front of the spacious compound of the Avasa Ge at the temple on the foot of the Dimbulagala mountain, the Thera spoke about the temple and reminisced his childhood with me.

The history of Dimbulagala and its forest hermitage, which had sheltered thousands of Bhikkhus in the past, dates back to the reign of King Pandukabhaya. It had been overgrown with creepers after the Chola invasion and had later become a home for the Adi Vasis.

Millana Yapa, the last chieftain of the clan who lived in these caves in the Dimbulagala forest for a long time had decided to gift all these properties to a Bhikkhu along with 12 young Adi Vasi boys, to be ordained as Samanera Bhikkhus. Ven. Millane Sri Siriyalankara Thera, the current Viharadhipathi, was one of these 12 boys.


Ruins at the site

“When we were small, we lived in caves. We didn’t have money. We took honey, dried meat, maize and fruits such as Mora and Weera to the Kaduruwela town and sold them, got our provisions and returned to our caves. Whenever we suffered from any disease, we used our own medicine based on tribal methods. We bathed in the Avushadha Pokuna (herbal pond), at the centre of the Dimbulagala mountain, which was believed to cure all diseases,” the Thera said.

Shrines and hermitages

“These caves were gifted to Ven. Kithalagama Sri Silalankara Thera by my father, Millana, who was the chieftain of the Adi Vasi village in Dimbulagala. In place of the caves, he received some mud houses from areas such as Polonnaruwa and Minneriya. The caves where we lived became Buddhist shrines and hermitages. Later, my father’s name was changed to Yapa by the Viharadhipathit because of their close connection”.

“The Viharadhipathi had built a school for us in Horiwila. It was a very enjoyable life in school,” he said.

Instead of exercise books, those days they carried a slate and a slate-pencil to school. Returning from school at noon, they would have a dip in the village tank under the scorching sun, an enthralling experience for the children.

“I was ordained a Samanera at the age of seven in the Dimbulagala forest hermitage on June 17, 1965 under the name, Millane Sri Siriyalankara, along with 11 other Adi Vasi boys. The event received wide media publicity. However, I am the only one who remains in the Sasana out of the 12: Some of the others have disrobed while some have died,” he lamented.


The Avushadha Pokuna (herbal pond)


Ven. Millane Sri Siriyalankara Thera

“My teachers were Ven. Matara Kithalagama Sri Silalankara Thera and Ven. Udupillegoda Pragnalankara Thera. We got up at 4.00am at the hermitage. For breakfast, we were given gruel or Kurakkan Thalapa.

“When the Gediya (bell) was rung at around 9.00am, we went for the Buddha Pooja, and later had our morning meal at the alms hall. Then we had a short interval around 9.30am, when we would go either to the Mahaweli river or to a nearby tank to bathe. We would return for the midday Buddha Pooja and have the midday Dana offered by devotees. Later, we headed to the Pirivena to study”.

After this conversation, we crossed the main gate of the temple and started climbing the rocky boulder to explore the ruins of the Namal Pokuna. The path uphill was dotted with rocky boulders, interspersed with tall, shade-giving trees.

At last, we saw a man who was the watcher of the Department of Archaeology, climbing downhill and asked him how far the ruins were. He merely smiled, shrugged and walked on, but with each stone step we passed, it seemed that we were going back in time, delving into the past, to another era. In days of yore, this rock shrine was a reputed Buddhist pilgrim centre.

Reputed monastery

Around the Polonnaruwa era, it is believed that King Pandukabhaya and Princess Swarnamali ruled the country from this region. Earlier Dimbulagala was a reputed monastery for 5,000 Bhikkhus who chose the hillock for meditation. Almost an hour later, we reached the centre of the hill where most of the ruins stood amidst the forest canopy. We took in the charming landscape. The horizontal outline of the Polonnaruwa ancient city presented a pretty picture against the blue canvas of the sky. Below, the gleaming lakes, paddy fields, winding rivers, clusters of villages nestling amid the green carpet were enchanting.


Damaged statues in the compound - torsos of the Buddha


Stone pillars at Namal Pokuna

We explored the natural caves and stone ruins that have made the Namal Pokuna famous. What caught my attention on the hilltop were clusters of ruins such as huge torsos of the Buddha, brick stupas, stone pillars and stone walls almost resting on each other to form a narrow path through which one could see the beautiful landscape in the flat land in the centre of the hill.

Walking around the rock wall, we came across a flight of steps which took us through the forest canopy to the imposing ruins of several drip-ledged caves and the Avushadha Pokuna, the jewel of the temple. A large rectangular pond with steps, it was then used by Bhikkhus to bathe when they fell sick.

The miracle of this pond, I learnt from the Bhikkhu, was that even in a severe drought, the water never dries up. It is surrounded by several drip-ledged caves and lies fully covered by the greenery.

The Namal Pokuna area is considered one of the stone architectural marvels of the Polonnaruwa period. This temple too faced hard times during the Chola invasion.

The Namal Pokuna Rajamaha Vihara is not yet spoilt by hordes of visitors and remains a tranquil spot - a confluence of history and religion. The serenity you experience at the hill is worth the arduous uphill climb.

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