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Sunday, 8 November 2015

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Deegavapi:

A place that resonates spirituality


The sacred Deegavapi Stupa as seen today

We set off early, literally chasing the dawn, as we drove along the carpeted A-25 highway. Our destination was the Deegavapi Raja Maha Viharaya. Deegavapi itself has been subjected to much controversy when a dynamic politician and an equally dynamic monk were still alive. Well, that was a murky blip in the fascinating history of a place that dates back to the time of the Buddha and is much revered place of worship.

Anyway, speeding along the highway, we turned left from Siyabalanduwa towards Ampara, even as the dawn shaded the landscape in fascinating hews of pink and yellow and morning mist. Our route took us past paddy fields and sugar plantations until we reached Irakkamam town. Deegavapi is 12 kilometres from Irakkamam town, past the panoramic vista of Irakkamam Wewa and several water bodies that are the life blood of the adjacent paddy fields. A visual bonus was the peacocks literally performing the 'sun worship dance' from their tree top perches.

Deegavapi has always been a place of veneration for Buddhists. It is said that the Buddha during his second visit to Sri Lanka accepted the invitation of the Naga King, Maniakkitha, and made a third visit to the country. According to legend, the Buddha proceeded to Deegavapi after placing an imprint of his foot on a gem stone at the summit of Sri Pada or Adam's Peak.

The Deegavapi Stupa that we see today is located at the place where the Buddha and his entourage of 500 monks rested and the Stupa is one of the 16 sacred sites (Solosmasthana) visited by him. It is said that the Buddha, fulfilling a request made by the Gods, gifted a fingernail relic to be placed within the Stupa, which was named Naka Vihara, giving further significance to the temple.

Naka Vihara

The name Deegavapi means 'long tank', which many have identified with the Irakkamam tank located just a few kilometres from the Stupa. The present Deegavapi Stupa, located at a place called Veerydi, was originally referred to as Naka Vihara. Given the history, size and close proximity to the tank, many have accepted this to be the place where the Deegavapi Stupa was originally built.


Scattered stone ruins with beautifully carved motifs

Human settlements in ancient Sri Lanka began after the arrival of Prince Vijaya. The first settlements were established in Anuradhapura and later spread to the East. The name Deegavapi came to existence when Prince Digayu, brother of Prince Vijaya's Indian wife Baddakachchayana gave priority to establishing settlements in his name along the banks of Gal Oya in Digamadulla. In order to develop agriculture, building tanks for irrigation was priority during this time. Accordingly, an elongated tank - Deega Wewa - which translates into Deegavapi was constructed near Naka Vihara. This gives rise to the belief that Naka Vihara was originally known as Deegavapi Vihara.

History records that during the time of Prince Saddha Tissa (137-119 BC), much agriculture based development was seen in Digamadulla, ensuring further development of the Deega Wewa. It is believed that it was during this development that the massive structure of the Deegavapi Stupa came to be erected at this hallowed spot. The Deegavapi Viharaya was a significant place of worship during this period with many monks in residence. King Saddha Tissa's time can be seen as a period where the Deegavapi temple played an important role in the spread of Buddhism to the Eastern part of the country.

Neglected and claimed by the jungle overgrowth prior to the construction of the Gal Oya Dam in Inginiyagala, this sanctified spot was actually discovered as Deegavapi in 1925.

Sacred site

The area has now been declared a sacred site and although the Stupa would have been imposing edifice, what have been restored today are the remains of the original masterpiece. Restoration work on the Deegavapi Stupa began 1965, with the Department of Archaeology and the Gal Oya Development Board carrying out the work with the help of public supported Shramadana campaigns.

Scattered around the Stupa are numerous ruins including elaborately carved stone pillars with beautiful motifs, moonstones, flower altar and stone inscriptions. One of the restored artefacts is a Vahalkada sculpture with disfigured elephant heads carved on quartz. On the western side of the Stupa are depictions of Goddess Lakshmi seated upon the Kalpa-Wuksa, carved on stone pillar erected near one of the Vahalkada sculptures. On either side are two elephants sprinkling water over her, in what is believed to be a symbol of fertility.

Today, what remains of the ancient temple is only the massive ruin of the Deegavapi Stupa, with only a portion of the base restored by the Department of Archaeology. Although the original base of the Stupa remains intact, what remains of the Stupa itself is a pile of rubble lying by the side in an ungainly heap. Alongside the Stupa however, is a large quantity of modern day bricks, indications of a plant to start restoration work sometime in the near future.

The new shrine room Budu Gaya and the spacious pilgrims' rest are newly added structures to the temple. After recent archaeological excavations in and around the Deegavapi Stupa, many artefacts have been found at the site including precious jewels, golden Buddha statues, coins, all of which have been preserved and are on display at the archaeological museum located in the temple premises.

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