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Sunday, 14 February 2016

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Wattarama: The wilderness monastery


Ven. Galgediyave Piyasumana Thera, the current Chief Priest of the Wattarama monastery

Looking for something different, something more adventurous, something off the beaten track, we decided to explore a lesser known and less travelled archaeological site, buried in the jungle boundaries of Ampara and Monaragala Districts close to the Yala East National Park in Ruhuna. The journey is tough, uncomfortable and even dangerous. Our mode of transport is a four-wheeler, and we traverse muddy tracks, cross many streams and drive through jungles home to wild elephants, bears and even a leopard or two.

A vast geographical area, Ruhuna in the times of kings, occupied a major part of the East, the whole of the South-East and the Southern and South-Western parts of the island, including what is now Batticaloa, Ampara, Monaragala, Hambantota, Matara and Galle. Although historical notes depict Anuradhapura as the most important kingdom in the country, possibly, in pre-colonial era, Ruhuna was much a larger, powerful region.

Even today, Ruhuna has many monuments visible only in fragments... stupas on hilltops, ancient walls crumbling in jungles...

The Wattarama monastery, located in the village of Kodayana that lies between Monaragala and Siyabalanduwa on the A4 highway, is one such fascinating archeological site.


Some of the beautifully carved terracotta images found at the site The main stupa in the lower platform is a mound of earth overgrown with creepers

The history of the Wattarama monastery goes back to the reign of King Kawantissa, who ruled the Magama Kingdom. Today, the hillock is scattered with ruins of the monastery, which flourished in 1st and 2nd Century. There are around six caves with drip ledges indicating these caves had been used by the monastic monks in the past.

It is said that Wattarama monastery is one of the dwelling places of Arahat Maliyadeva, who had lived and preached in 60 places around the country.

From the top of the hill one gets a magnificent view of the surrounding landscape dotted with many stupas. It is this collection of stupas that gives Wattarama its name.

The Wattarama monastery consists of two sections, the upper and the lower. On entering the lower platform, which lies on the slop of the hill, one can see the ruins of several of stupa, a shrine room and a Bodhigara. Here, you can also see the ruins of the main stupa, which is today just a mound of earth overgrown with creepers. A number of stone pillars indicate there had been several structures with ancient brick tiled roofs.

The silent Wattarama hill is believed to be the upper platform of the monastery, dotted with the caves where meditative monks were said to have lived in meditative silence.

The caves are still visible as one walks up the path leading to the upper platform of the monastery. It is said the meditative monks never descended to lower platform, as they had everything they needed including a shrine room and placid pond, in the upper platform.

Today, treasure hunters have caused extensive damage to the Stupa and the ancient Buddha statue. What left are stone pillars and broken bits of the statue.


The ruined structure of a Pilimage (Shrine room)

Chief Priest Ven. Galgediyave PiyasumanaThera, who arrived at the monastery 22 years ago, revived the place from an abandoned shrine to the monastery it is today. Over the years he has added a new Dana Shalava (alms hall), new Bodhigara (Bo tree enclosure) and shrine room. The monastery currently accommodates several meditative monks.

The lower platform of Wattarama is littered with the surviving examples of terracotta images that originate from Ruhuna. These are sophisticate and elaborate, made from long flat clay bricks, and depict swans and elephant heads. Each terracotta image is a visual treat.

Many of the archaeological remains lie half buried in the shrub jungle. The smaller pieces of terracotta found at various places were once kept in the monastery ground, but are now displaced due lack of proper maintains.

Nevertheless, PiyasumanaThera points out that the Wattarama monastery has become popular pilgrimage site these days, courtesy the 30-kilometre Kotiyagala route to Kebilitta Devale, which cuts across Wattarama, making the monastery a very welcome transit point for weary devotees to rest and take in a little bit of ancient architecture before continuing with their journey.

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