Posted by: lrrp | October 25, 2004

Sacrilege at a sacred site By Damitha Hemachandra

The battle between the past and present in Pottuvil is about to leave one of the most important archaeological sites of eastern Sri Lanka destroyed forever.

Muhudu Maha Viharaya, situated in the heart of Pottuvil, is believed to be the place where Princess Devi, the legendary mother of King Dutugemunu, is said to have landed at the kingdom of Ruhunu ending her journey from the Kelaniya kingdom. Historians and archaeologists have discovered numerous villages and places which claim a direct connection to Princess Devi. They say that she is known as Vihara Maha Devi due to her arriving at a temple.

Yet the historical facts are heavily clouded with myths and legends. The story based on the arrival of Princess Devi claims that she was first spotted at a village near Pottuvil but when the king arrived at the spot the craft carrying the princess had drifted to the ocean and the disappointed king questioned the villagers ‘Ko Kumari?’ which eventually gave the village its name ‘Komari’. “Later the princess drifted ashore at Arugam Bay and the villagers told King Kawantissa that the princess had landed at ‘Ara Gama’ which later changed into ‘Arugam’, ” a villager at Pottuvil explained.

Shasthrawela Viharaya situated in Pottuvil is believed to be Devi’s school while Magul Maha Viharaya is said to be the place where Princess Vihara Maha Devi got married to King Kawantissa. Although the legend has it all explained, the story is yet to be backed by archaeological evidence. But veteran archaeologist, Ven. Ellawala Medhananda Thera, the only archaeologist to conduct research at the site, is convinced about its authenticity.

According to Ven. Medhananda Thera, the temple is one of the oldest temples in the country with its history dating back to the early Anuradhapura period.

He believes the temple to have been constructed by an early line of kings.

“The temple could be almost 2000 years old,” he pointed out, while adding that the majority of the artifacts still lie under the sand . During the initial excavations nearly 100 stone pillars were discovered buried under the sand suggesting a large Buddhist monastery and a temple complex buried under the sands of time.

Most of these stone pillars are no longer on site and were sold as artifacts to foreigners and antique dealers while the chief incumbent of the temple, Kataragama Siriratana Thera, watched helpless.

“Although the Archaeological Department appointed a watcher, much harm is being done by him than good,” the Ven. Thera pointed out. He said that the Archaeological Department authorities have not taken any step to stop the deliberate sacrilege unleashed on Muhudu Maha Viharaya.

These planned acts of vandalism began in the mid ’90s when a leading politician of the SLMC bulldozed nearly 1000 years of a stupa in the temple, he pointed out.

“The stupa was strong proof that there was an age of temples and monasteries in the area and this politician who was planning to eliminate the traces of a temple, destroyed the stupa overnight leaving just a pile of bricks at the premises,” said the Ven. Thera. The uninvestigated archaeological reservation, which surrounds the temple, amounts to 30 acres according to the gazette notification issued in 1965. “The majority of the temple’s artifacts were discovered during a two year excavation initiated in 1960 and the area was gazetted as an archaeological reservation after the discovery of wide spread monasteries buried underground,” said Sirirathana Thera.

However, the archeological reservation of the Muhudu Maha Viharaya has been diminished to a mere five acres today with planned and rapid encroachment by many Sri Lanka Muslim Congress MPs in the area, he pointed out. According to Sirirathana Thera, the encroachment started in the early 1980s when the East was a focal point of terrorism and violence.

“The chief incumbent and many priests living in the temple were forced to abandon the temple due to the rising violence,” he said. On his return in the early ’90s he found the temple land encroached upon.

“However, I did not complain since I did not want to deprive the encroachers of a living space,” he said. But the dimension of the problem dawned upon the Ven. Thera when Muslim Congress MPs started distributing the temple land among more and more people and encroachment surrounded the archeological conservation left, right and centre.

The encroachers are using most of the invaluable artifacts for their home construction while destroying proof of a temple on site.

An encroacher who destroyed two statues at the statue house of the temple believed to be of King Kawantissa and Queen Devi later pleaded insanity and was released by the court on directions to follow a course of treatment. “This man was not insane and he is not following any treatment,” Ven. Sirirathana Thera said adding that it was act vandalism. Meanwhile repeated complaints to the Department of Archaeology, Cultural Ministry and Ministry of Buddasasana have gone unheard or unattended.

According to the Department of Archaeology, the Ampara regional archaeological director has informed the main office that no such encroachment is taking place and authorities are negotiating with the incumbent Thera to give the temple another 30 acres with no archaeological value.

However, the Ministry of Cultural Affairs and Ministry of Buddasasana has initiated another inquiry against the chief incumbent of the temple on a complaint made by a former SLMC MP

In his letter to the authorities he had pointed that he is greatly distressed by the vandalistic acts of the monk in charge of the temple. He alleges that the Ven. Thera is selling the artifacts of the temple and is involved with drug dealing and smuggling.

The Pottuvil police have failed to find any evidence to back these allegations. The Ven. Thera has had several death threats since the ’90s. A chat with the encroachers revealed that they had been ‘planted’ at the temple site which is close to Pottuvil town, from other areas. Many of them are Muslims and believe that the declaration of an archaeological reservation is just leaving good land wasted.

Many were eager to distance themselves from vandalism but felt that more temple land should be spared to built an access road to their homes. The unspoilt beach line behind the temple is becoming rapidly encroached thanks to the politicians.

An inhabitant of Peanut Farm, one of the few beach lines in Pottuvil, which still remains the same, told us the ‘secret’ behind the encroachment. According to him, two former ministers had tried to remove them (a small fisherman group) from their own lands in the forests of Peanut Farm on grounds of conservation “while we came to know that they were planning to sell the lands to a Korean hotelier.” A lengthy court case has stopped the threats at Peanut Farm but the threat looms the same in Muhudu Maha Viharaya, where environment and history are at the mercy of political encroachers and vandals.


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