Rankoth Vihara - The hallowed Buddhist Shrine of Panadura
by Ven. Prof. Bellanwila Wimalaratana Anunayake
The total subjugation of Sri Lanka deprived the country of its
independence. However, it gave the people the will and strength to fight
the colonial rulers. The colonial rulers tried to drive a wedge between
the people and the Buddhist clergy, for they realised that the
alienation of the masses from the temple and the influence of bhikkhus
is necessary to weaken any protest against them. Yet, the bhikkhus did
not shirk the responsibility that had traditionally devolved on them.
The Rankoth Vihara
The bhikkhus gave leadership to the people and rekindled patriotism
and religiosity. Many bhikkhus and monastic institutions played a key
role in the national and religious awakening, the Rankoth Vihara in
Panadura played a vital role in this endeavour.
Founding of Rankoth Vihara
Rankoth Vihara blossomed into what it is now from small beginnings.
It was founded in 1810 by Ven. Batapola Kalyanatissa Thera, the chief
disciple of the Most Venerable Sri Kataluwe Gunaratana Mahanayaka Thera,
the founder of the Amarapura sect. The vihara was set up in a small hut
in a quarry at Panadura. Hence it was known as the Galwale Pansala
meaning 'the temple in the quarry', it was later called as Galkande
In 1890 when the pinnacle of its Stupa was gilded it came to be known
as Rankoth Vihara.
According to tradition the spot where the Vihara is built is a place
of sanctity. There was a waterlogged place in the quarry which was
inhabited by a large number of frogs. Cobras came to the spot to feed on
frogs. One day the frogs attacked a cobra till it retreated. The carters
who witnessed this miraculous happening, considered the spot suitable to
construct a temple.
When Ven. Batapola Kalyanatissa Thera decided to settle down at this
spot people applauded his courage to set up a temple. This was the time
when there was a new rich class of Buddhists who were engaged in
business, trade and other enterprises. With the generous support of the
Buddhist entrepreneurs, the new temple was developed.
In 1821, a two-storied Sanghavasa was constructed; it was in 1863
that the Stupa was built on a huge rock, with the Bodhi tree just below
it. The Buddhist devotees were so interested in developing the vihara
complex that they lined up from the Panadura beach up to the temple and
passed baskets of sand from hand to hand they had dug from the beach, so
that the construction could be expedited.
It was in 1865 that the Buddha relics were enshrined in the dome of
the Stupa. By 1894, a new shrine room was added to the temple complex.
In 1930 the work of the "preaching hall" was completed. The new rampart
around the Bodhi tree was completed in 1981. In 1987 the International
Library was built to mark the academic contribution by Ven. Prof. Sri
Moratuwe Sasanaratana Anunayaka Thera.
Most of the rapid development took place when Ven. Walpita
Gunaratanatissa Thera headed this monastery, and the development work
continues even at present.
Modern Buddhist revival
The Panadura Rankoth Vihara occupies an important place in the modern
movement for Buddhist revival. Five great religious debates were held
between the Buddhists and Christians in the 18th century. The fifth was
held at a spot in close proximity to the Rankoth Vihara on August 26 and
28 1873 coincidentally its prime mover was Ven. Walpita Gunaratanatissa
The chief spokesman for the Buddhists was the indefatigable debater,
Ven. Mohottiwatte Gunananda Nayaka Thera.
The Christians were represented by Rev. David de Silva, and a
catechist called Rev. Sirimanne. As a result of this debate the famed
American, Sir Henry Steele Olcott visited Sri Lanka and guided the
surging revivalist movement of Buddhists pioneered by the bhikkhus and
the educated laity of Sri Lanka. This event itself has been significant
enough to carve a special niche for the Panadura Rankoth Vihara in the
annals of the modern Buddhist revivalist movement in Sri Lanka.
The Panadura Rankoth Vihara is remembered for securing the right of
registering of Buddhist marriages by registrars of marriages which put
an end to the colonial practice which made it mandatory that all
marriages should be registered in the churches. Ven. Walpita
Gunaratanatissa Nayaka Thera gave inspiration and leadership to the
laity and collected signatures of the people and petitioned the British
Government opposing the discriminatory law that was imposed on the
Buddhist by the British authorities.
Sir Edwin Arnold, the author of "Light of Asia" visited the Rankoth
Vihara and recorded that Henry Steele Olcott visited the temple and
delivered a lecture.
Rankoth Vihara has been fortunate to have the following eminent
bhikkhus at its helm. Ven. Batapola Kalyanatissa Mahanayaka Thera (1810
- 1841), Ven. Walpita Sirisumanatissa Nayaka Thera (1841 - 1857), Ven.
Walpita Gunaratanatissa Mahanayaka Thera (1857 - 1920), Ven. Panadure
Gnanawimalatissa Nayaka Thera (1920 - 1929), Ven. Karagampitiye
Jothiratana Anunayaka Thera (1929 - 1958), Ven. Prof. Moratuwe
Sasanaratana Anunayaka Thera (1958 - 1981), Ven. Prof. Kahapola
Sugatharatana Nayaka Thera (1981 - .....).
These prelates are illustrious members of the Sangha and some of them
have been either the Mahanayakas or Anunayakas of the sect. The last
mentioned two prelates have shown exceptional erudition as evidenced
from the fact that both of them have attained professorial positions in
the University of Kelaniya (formerly Vidyalankara University).
Ven. Prof. Moratuwe Sasanaratana is held in very high esteem as one
of the eminent Buddhist scholars of modern times.
Rankoth Vihara has done yeoman service not only to the Buddhist
revival activities but also to monastic education. The history of its
Pirivena, Sri Sugatha Vidyalaya dates back to 1896. Its first principal
was Ven. Weligama Sri Sumanagala Mahanayaka Thera. He was succeeded by
Ven. Panadure Gnanawimalatissa Nayaka Thera. Some of the Mahanayakas of
the Sect were students of this Pirivena.
Among its illustrious students are Aggamaha Pandita Beruwela
Siriniwasa Mahanayaka Thera, Ven. Rajakeeya Pandit Kahanda Modara Sri
Piyaratana Mahanayaka Thera, Ven Rajakeeya Pandit Ambalangoda Dhamma
Kusala Mahanayaka Thera and Ven. Prof. Moratuwe Sasanaratana Thera. The
fame of this Pirivena was such that in the early days the Most Ven.
Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Mahanayaka Thera himself had conducted religious
examinations at this centre of education.
The Buddhist laity of Panadura contributed immensely to the
development and sustenance of this Vihara. While the public contributed
their mite, the affluent and the educated generously shouldered its
developmental projects. Thus, it could be rightly said that the Panadura
Rankoth Vihara amongst its many facets serves also as a symbol of the
religiosity and devotion of the Panadura Buddhist population.