Posted by: lrrp | August 30, 2012

Sastrawela-an ancient seat of learning

 

The attention of the media and the government were at once focused on this tiny speck of a village that hardly appears on maps. Yet, this village that lies on the Panama Pottuvil road professes to have a history that runs far back into the island’s millennia old past. The Nation decided to revisit the history of this village to uncover the legend of our heritage before it was smeared with the blood of our brethren.

If not for the sad news of the massacre of 10 Muslim youth early this week Sastrawela situated off Pottuvil would hardly make the news. This remote location situated on the road to Panama from Pottuvil had witnessed its fair share of violence during the conflict. In the early eighties before the ethnic violence erupted in the North-East, Sastrawela was a thriving agrarian village. However, soon after the violence it was abandoned by its mainly Sinhala inhabitants who relocated to a much safer Panama region.

However, a single monument stands alone in the deserted village of Sastrawela reminding the odd visitor of the prosperity that once was abundant in the region. The Sastrawela Mani Naga Pabbatha Viharaya dating back to the time of King Mahanaga is still venerated by the villagers who visit this shrine mostly on full moon Poya days after undertaking the arduous journey from Panama. The Nation was fortunate to visit this place on a full moon day when it came alive for a few hours with pilgrims who had observed sil. There were a few of the elderly who could still remember the days when the Sastrawela village was a thriving settlement. There was a sense of nostalgia in their voices when they spoke of “those times.” The prosperity, the serenity and liveliness of the place has long been lost. However, every Poya the pilgrims come in tractors and sometimes in bullock carts to this ancient shrine which remains the only monument which reminds the villagers of their place of birth.

The history of this ancient shrine goes back to the 3rd century B.C when the Ruhuna Kingdom was established by King Mahanaga, brother of Devanampiya Tissa. Mahanaga fleeing from Rajarata after an assassination attempt established his capital in Magama in modern day Tissamaharama. Since then Ruhuna flourished for many centuries at times as an independent kingdom and at times as a semi autonomous sub-kingdom under the rule of Rajarata. Though many archaeologists believe that the original temple complex was build by Mahanaga there are some who suggest that it was, in fact, a Naga king called Maninaga who was the first patron of the shrine. The Nagas were a prehistoric tribe which lived in the island before the advent of the Aryans in 6th century B.C. However, it is believed that many Naga’s intermingled with the Aryan settlers and were part of the fabric of ancient Sri Lanka. Therefore, a Naga king ruling this region and building a shrine is not totally improbable though historical evidence to prove this point is yet to be discovered.
Sastrawela, during the time of the Ruhuna kingdom, was a famous place of learning. Many scholars are said to have resided at the temple complex, mastering the arts of astrology and other science disciplines. Legend says that scholars from far away kingdoms of India were also studying at this Sastrawela. Thus the name Sastrawela which derived from the original name Shastraweiliya suggests that the region was a seat of learning. The word ‘Shastra’even today is used to express a discipline or a form of art.

The story of King Dutugemunu, the hero of the Mahawamsa, is a thread which weaves a web connecting numerous locations in the region. For example, some believe that Princess Devi mother of Prince Gamini, was washed ashore near Kirinda in the Southern coast. Others believe that she was found on the coast of Pottuvil.
The Muhudu Maha Viharaya situated in the heart of Pottuvil is said to mark the place where the princess was first sighted by the subjects of the King of Ruhuna. The then King of Ruhuna, Kavantissa, is said to have gone in search of the Princess at a place there he asked “Ko Kumari?” (Where is the Princess?) – which later became Komari.

This is a small town a few kilometres from the Pottuvil town. Another important monument associated with this legend is Magul Maha Viharaya situated in the Lahugala jungle. Here it is said the young King Kavantissa married Princess Devi who by now was called Vihara Maha Devi. It is at this point that Sastrawela makes its contribution to the legend. When the royal wedding was to take place the astrologers at the Sastrawela temple were consulted to obtain the auspicious times. It is said that after considering the horoscopes of the royal couple the learned men at Sastrawela determined the auspicious times for the many rituals involved in the marriage of the royals. This marriage would be most fruitful with the birth of a son called Gamini who entered the legends of the land as Dutugemunu, the ruler who freed the country from foreign occupation and united the land under one umbrella of sovereignty.
Much has changed from the times when the Sastrawela Mani Naga Pabatha Viharaya and the surrounding area got the patronage of kings. Today it is a forgotten land abandoned by its inhabitants. However, in the midst of this gloom, there still remain a few ruins which speakvolumes of its glorious past. Most important among these are the ruins of a stupa. This crumbling pagoda is said to have originally been built by King Mahanaga and later renovated by King Kavantissa and his son Saddatissa. Also in the vicinity of the stupa are several caves with Brahmian inscriptions indicating that the area was first presented to meditating monks in the early 3rd century B.C. Stone pillars and other ruins remain scattered around the vicinity of the stupa, indicating that this was once a huge monastic complex, sheltering many monks.

Bold father and son pair refuse to let Sasthrawela temple die

Hundreds of miles to the east, buried in vengeful jungle, is a historic Buddhist shrine. Few, if any devotees, worship there. Fearful of the bear, leopard and wild elephant, nobody lives in the surrounding areas. The only footsteps on the sandy soil outside are those of a bold father and son pair who refuse to let Sasthrawela temple die.

Panama Wimalaratne Thera often cooks his own meals because alms are nowadays hard to come by. The young priest is in his early twenties and lives at the temple with his 55-year-old father, S.K. Kiribandara. Life is hard. At night, wild animals pose a distinct threat, encouraged by the absence of other human beings. Mosquitoes swarm by the dozen, often making sleep impossible. By day, the only sounds which break the silence are that of birds, leaves and the sea nearby. Yet, Wimalaratne Thera and Kiribandara will not leave the temple which was abandoned years ago, in the eighties, when the LTTE swarmed into Panama village and helped themselves to its inhabitants.

Situated on the Panama-Pottuvil road in the north-east, Sasthrawela temple is falling to ruin. It is only six kilometres from the Panama village and can be reached through a dilapidated track which turns off near the Panama STF camp. But thick jungle and a demanding road have discouraged visitors while years of war and terrorism have instilled fear even in the most daring. Bit by bit, people have forgotten Sasthrawela.

Panama is recognised as an area of great importance in terms of Buddhist heritage. There are two shrines which are thought to be more special than others. One is the nearby Magul Maha Viharaya where, it is said, Vihara Maha Devi was married to King Kavantissa. The other is Sasthrawela temple. Unfortunately, both have been grossly neglected due to war.

The road to Sasthrawela is rocky but soothing to the senses. Sunlight filters through verdant foliage and the sound of birds lighten the atmosphere. Only broken branches and droppings alert a visitor that wild elephants are fond of the track. Meeting one on such a road would be no joke.

The first sight of Sasthrawela is a white bell-tower installed on a stone boulder. It offers a beautiful picture, rising out of the jungle. There is a modest shrine room with a lamp glowing reverently within. A stupa and the monk’s dwelling complete the temple: small and delightfully lacking in fuss or frivolity.

Wimalaratne Thera greeted us with a smile. He pointed out a small pond or “pokuna” near the bell tower as well as some old stone columns which indicated that an impressive structure had once stood there. Kiribandara, meanwhile, explained that the stupa was called “Lanka Seya” and had been built during the period of King Kavantissa.

Nearby was an ancient stone stairway, now overgrown with grasses and weeds. Halfway up, we discovered a cave which had once been used as a priestís refuge. There was a Buddha statue inside and a few more stone columns at the entrance.

After walking around the charming premises, we told the priest and his father the real reason for our visit. We wanted to go to the place where Vihara Maha Devi was said to have landed in Sri Lanka. We knew that it was close to the temple.

The tale written about Vihara Maha Devi recounts that the princess, the daughter of King Kelinitissa of Maya Rata, had been offered as a sacrifice to the sea-gods in the hope that she would appease their wrath and prevent the seas from swallowing villages. She had been placed in a gilded canoe and released into the sea. The waves drifted her towards Sri Lanka, where villagers in what is thought to be Panama (more precisely, Arugam Bay) had spotted the glinting vessel and alerted their king, Kavantissa.

Kavantissa, who was told that a beautiful maiden was in the boat, hurried to the beach but the boat was gone. Legend has it that she had sailed towards the village of Komarigama in Arugam Bay where the king met her. Kavantissa, upon learning that she was Kelanitissa’s daughter, married her on a “magul poruwa” which can still be seen in the vicinity of Magul Maha Viharaya.

We went to Sasthrawela to visit the area where Vihara Maha Devi’s boat was first observed and to stand on the spot from which Kavantissa had strained to see her.

It was already late when we arrived at Sasthrawela and Wimalaratne Thera advised it to wait till the morrow to make the short trek.

“After six in the evening, this area belongs to the bear, the leopard and the elephant mahattaya,” said Kiribandara.

However, we wanted to set out immediately because we had scheduled our return journey for early the next day. This information prompted the young priest to light a torch and make his way through jungle, beckoning us to follow him cautiously. His father also accompanied us as we walked through thick shrubbery towards the sound of the sea. Wimalaratne Thera’s information that crocodiles were aplenty in the area did nothing for our beating hearts but we marched ahead bravely.

We finally reached a steep, stony peak. The sea was spread out before us. Taking off our slippers and shoes, we clambered down around 100 feet and entered a large, old, funnel-shaped cave. A few old bricks were scattered inside. It was clearly very old.

“This cave dates back to around 2 BC,î said Wimalaratne Thera. ìIt is from here that King Kavantissa waited for Vihara Maha Deviís boat.î

The priest complained that there was no conservation done at the site and intruders had even thrown some of the precious bricks in the sea below. There was also an old stairway where there had been a ìmandapayaî in ancient times.

After hastily glancing about ñ the dusk was rapidly turning to night ñ we clambered a further 200 feet where we saw the Heda Oya, a lake which Wimalaratne Thera said was usually infested with crocodiles. Needless to say, we didnít wait long there. It was evident that although the young priest made an effort to keep our spirits high, he, too, was scared of the night and its dangers.

Many villagers in those areas knew charms to calm down animals or to “tame” them but Kiribandara had not taught many of them to his son.

“That’s because most villages use the mantras to trap or kill animals,” Wimalaratne Thera said.

A wild bird took flight in fear as we reached the temple. Sometimes, a solitary elephant – a loner – comes to the temple pond to quench its thirst at night, Kiribandara said.

The air was cool as we left but the swarms of mosquitoes took away any enjoyment we may have had. It struck us that Wimalaratne Thera and Kiribandara were not only living perilous lives but sorely uncomfortable ones.

We turned to look at them as we left the temple. Their eyes seem to say, don’t pity us. We are performing a service to the nation willingly. If not for us, who will give life to this forgotten shrine?

Sastrawela-an ancient seat of learning

On September 11, 2006 in Pottuvil, Ampara 11 civilians were brutally massacred. The victims, all Muslims were found dead in the small village of Sastrawela. The attention of the media and the government were at once focused on this tiny speck of a village that hardly appears on maps. Yet, this village that lies on the Panama Pottuvil road professes to have a history that runs far back into the island’s millennia old past. The Nation decided to revisit the history of this village to uncover the legend of our heritage before it was smeared with the blood of our brethren.

If not for the sad news of the massacre of 10 Muslim youth early this week Sastrawela situated off Pottuvil would hardly make the news. This remote location situated on the road to Panama from Pottuvil had witnessed its fair share of violence during the conflict. In the early eighties before the ethnic violence erupted in the North-East, Sastrawela was a thriving agrarian village. However, soon after the violence it was abandoned by its mainly Sinhala inhabitants who relocated to a much safer Panama region.
However, a single monument stands alone in the deserted village of Sastrawela reminding the odd visitor of the prosperity that once was abundant in the region. The Sastrawela Mani Naga Pabbatha Viharaya dating back to the time of King Mahanaga is still venerated by the villagers who visit this shrine mostly on full moon Poya days after undertaking the arduous journey from Panama. The Nation was fortunate to visit this place on a full moon day when it came alive for a few hours with pilgrims who had observed sil. There were a few of the elderly who could still remember the days when the Sastrawela village was a thriving settlement.

There was a sense of nostalgia in their voices when they spoke of “those times.” The prosperity, the serenity and liveliness of the place has long been lost. However, every Poya the pilgrims come in tractors and sometimes in bullock carts to this ancient shrine which remains the only monument which reminds the villagers of their place of birth.
The history of this ancient shrine goes back to the 3rd century B.C when the Ruhuna Kingdom was established by King Mahanaga, brother of Devanampiya Tissa. Mahanaga fleeing from Rajarata after an assassination attempt established his capital in Magama in modern day Tissamaharama. Since then Ruhuna flourished for many centuries at times as an independent kingdom and at times as a semi autonomous sub-kingdom under the rule of Rajarata. Though many archaeologists believe that the original temple complex was build by Mahanaga there are some who suggest that it was, in fact, a Naga king called Maninaga who was the first patron of the shrine. The Nagas were a prehistoric tribe which lived in the island before the advent of the Aryans in 6th century B.C. However, it is believed that many Naga’s intermingled with the Aryan settlers and were part of the fabric of ancient Sri Lanka. Therefore, a Naga king ruling this region and building a shrine is not totally improbable though historical evidence to prove this point is yet to be discovered.
Sastrawela, during the time of the Ruhuna kingdom, was a famous place of learning. Many scholars are said to have resided at the temple complex, mastering the arts of astrology and other science disciplines. Legend says that scholars from far away kingdoms of India were also studying at this Sastrawela. Thus the name Sastrawela which derived from the original name Shastraweiliya suggests that the region was a seat of learning. The word ‘Shastra’even today is used to express a discipline or a form of art.
The story of King Dutugemunu, the hero of the Mahawamsa, is a thread which weaves a web connecting numerous locations in the region. For example, some believe that Princess Devi mother of Prince Gamini, was washed ashore near Kirinda in the Southern coast. Others believe that she was found on the coast of Pottuvil.
The Muhudu Maha Viharaya situated in the heart of Pottuvil is said to mark the place where the princess was first sighted by the subjects of the King of Ruhuna. The then King of Ruhuna, Kavantissa, is said to have gone in search of the Princess at a place there he asked “Ko Kumari?” (Where is the Princess?) – which later became Komari.
This is a small town a few kilometres from the Pottuvil town. Another important monument associated with this legend is Magul Maha Viharaya situated in the Lahugala jungle. Here it is said the young King Kavantissa married Princess Devi who by now was called Vihara Maha Devi. It is at this point that Sastrawela makes its contribution to the legend. When the royal wedding was to take place the astrologers at the Sastrawela temple were consulted to obtain the auspicious times. It is said that after considering the horoscopes of the royal couple the learned men at Sastrawela determined the auspicious times for the many rituals involved in the marriage of the royals. This marriage would be most fruitful with the birth of a son called Gamini who entered the legends of the land as Dutugemunu, the ruler who freed the country from foreign occupation and united the land under one umbrella of sovereignty.
Much has changed from the times when the Sastrawela Mani Naga Pabatha Viharaya and the surrounding area got the patronage of kings. Today it is a forgotten land abandoned by its inhabitants. However, in the midst of this gloom, there still remain a few ruins which speakvolumes of its glorious past. Most important among these are the ruins of a stupa. This crumbling pagoda is said to have originally been built by King Mahanaga and later renovated by King Kavantissa and his son Saddatissa. Also in the vicinity of the stupa are several caves with Brahmian inscriptions indicating that the area was first presented to meditating monks in the early 3rd century B.C. Stone pillars and other ruins remain scattered around the vicinity of the stupa, indicating that this was once a huge monastic complex, sheltering many monks.

 

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