A new lease on life

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Kuragala Buddhist Monastery is one of the well-known ancient Buddhist sites in Sri Lanka. It is also known as the oldest Buddhist place in the intermediate zone of Sri Lanka. The history of the Kuragala Buddhist Monastery dates back to the 3rd century BCE as per archaeological research.

According to local folklore, the place’s history dates back to the time of the Buddha.

Kuragala is also special as it is an archaeological site where remains of prehistoric human settlements were found during excavations. The place’s human activities show a gradual evolution from prehistoric times, throughout historic times, and to later times. Kuragala has a large number of caves with drip ledges, inscriptions saying that the place was donated to the Sangha by devotees, and remains of a Buddhist monastery such as stupas, pillars, statues, and engravings. Kuragala is also declared an archaeological reserve.

However, during the 20th century, the place was inhabited by Islam devotees and clergy who set up a mosque at the place. The danger was when they disfigured the inscriptions, caves, and stone steps and also started to vandalise the statues and the stupa.

Since then many unauthorised constructions took place at the archaeological site, violating the rules and regulations of the country as well as the ethics of humanity. The country’s law and the Antiquities Act, governing bodies, devotees, or Buddhist monks were unable to protect the ancient monastery or put an end to the shameful vandalising of an ancient archaeological site that was happening for decades. During this year, the place went through tremendous development and was opened to the Buddhist world for veneration.

If we set aside our personal political views and religious views, and look at it with an open mind, it is a reason to rejoice to see the ancient place has gotten its true identity back again and is now under protection and is open for devotees all around the world.

For decades, devotees, monks, and scholars witnessed the damage being done to the place, helplessly with sorrow. Nothing could be done to save the place. Hence, the recent development at Kuragala is a victory for justice and order, and humanity.

Plus, on social media some grumbled over the giant lion statue at Kuragala; nonetheless, we believe that it is a beautiful structure and as the lion is the national symbol of Sri Lanka, it looks majestic and fantastic. Also, it is the largest lion statue in Sri Lanka, and possibly the largest one ever built after the gigantic lion at Sigiriya.

The name

Located in Balangoda, Sri Lanka, Kuragala can be reached via the Balangoda – Kaltota road.  The name Kuragala derives from the term ‘Kuhare – gala’ which means, the rock with a hole. Purawidya Chakrawarthi, archaeologist Ven. Ellawala Medhananda Thera, says Kuragala monastery was called Thandulayia Pabbatha in ancient times.

Prehistory of Kuragala

The known history of Kuragala dates back to prehistoric times, as archaeological excavations and research prove. Stone tools used by prehistoric humans, the human skeleton remains, and seashells were discovered at this place and are dated to be more than 8,000 years ancient. Recent archaeological research has also revealed that these humans were not mere hunter-gatherers, but were engaged in agriculture. Discoveries of the plants that remain at this place have shown evidence of early plant domestication.

Folklore

According to folklore and local religious beliefs, Gautama Buddha visited this place during his visit to the Sri Pada Mountain. Buddha had spent the noon at a cave in this complex, thus the cave is known as the Diva Guhawa.

It is also believed that there is a sacred footstep at the Kuragala rock. Therefore, the place is considered an utmost sacred location by Buddhist devotees.

History and archaeology

Historical texts and folklore say that the Buddha visited Sri Lanka thrice, making many embrace the new teachings or the Dhamma. Stupas such as the Mahiyangana Stupa, the stupa at Nagadeepa, and the stupa at Kelaniya are believed to be built to commemorate the visit of the Buddha by the early Buddhists of Sri Lanka.

Among the many places that were considered sacred after the visit of the Buddha, Kuragala is one.

However, as clearly proven by archaeological evidence, Buddhism was officially introduced and declared the religion of the kingdom during the 3rd century BCE, after the arrival of Arhat Mahinda. King Devanampiyatissa was the Sinhala king at the time. During this time, caves all over the island were cleaned and made into cave monasteries for Buddhist monks to reside and practice the Dhamma. One of the earliest such cave monasteries was the Mihintale monastery or the Chethiyagiri where Arhant Mahinda and his group lived.

Following this tradition, caves and rocks were turned into Buddhist monasteries in Sri Lanka as well as India. Large cave monasteries such as Ajanta, Kanehri, and Karla Caves in India are examples of such cave monasteries.

In Sri Lanka, most of the natural caves were places where Buddhist monks used for meditation. They were forest monasteries with essential needs for meditating monks. Many of these early monasteries continued as religious centres and were renovated from time to time. Some were eventually abandoned due to reasons such as changes in human settlements, wars, famine, and in recent times, terrorism and extremist activities.

Cave shelters of monks

Kuragala is one such earliest Buddhist cave monastery that has its history tracing back to the period between the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE. This is believed based on the cave inscriptions (Brahmi inscriptions) found at the caves. It is reported that Kuragala cave monastery complex has a number of 30 to 40 caves.

Among the archaeological reports published about Kuragala, the 1932 report by C.H. Collins says that there are two cave shelters with 2nd century BCE Brahmi inscriptions. Other remains of the monastery such as carved stone lintels and steps are mentioned in the report. Prof. Senerat Paranavitana has read, examined, and published these Brahmi inscriptions in Inscription of Ceylon Vol I, published by the Department of Archaeology. The Brahmi inscriptions are unmistakable testimonies of these cave shelters. They say that the caves were donated to Buddhist monks or devotees.

The drip ledges on the top of the caves are evidence that the caves were used as shelters and this has been a practice of all cave monasteries in Sri Lanka.

The stupa

Remains of an ancient stupa can be seen on the summit of the rock. The bricks and the stupa style reveal that it belongs to the Anuradhapura Period and according to scholars it belongs to the 7th century CE.

The vandalising of the ancient site

Before 2021, if one visited the site you could have witnessed how some of the ancient inscriptions were destroyed by pouring acid and cement on some. This is against the country’s law and the universal law and ethics in terms of protecting cultural heritage.

Also, two cave shelters with clear evidence of the ancient monastic site were disfigured by creating mosques.

In addition, before 2013, one could have witnessed how a large number of modern constructions were done at archaeological reserves, without permission, without following the place’s values and identity, and by disfiguring the place. Houses, signboards, shops, office buildings, and entrance gates were among these many unauthorised modern constructions.

It is also reported that the Buddhist monk in charge of this place had to flee as he was faced with violence and life threats.

 Muslim pilgrims and scholars claim that a Muslim priest had lived in this place in one of the caves and that his body was found here. Hence the place became a sacred place for them. According to scholars, this was a Persian priest (whether he was an Islamic priest or a Mahayana monk is not clear) who arrived in Sri Lanka during the 11th century CE and had travelled in search of sacred places. He had travelled to Sri Pada and discovered the ancient Diva Guhawa cave and also heard of the folklore about Buddha’s footprint on the rock. He had gone in search of the ‘Kuhare-gala’ which is a steep tunnel and had never returned. According to local folklore, this tunnel would lead to the Budugala ancient monastery, and the secret path was filled with traps. The skeleton of the dead priest was discovered during the 19th century by a group of Islam pilgrims who had placed his remains inside one of the ancient caves. This cave has a Brahmi inscription which reads as the cave of Daththa. This name was later misread and the cave was disfigured.

As the caves were no more occupied by Buddhist monks as shelters, these new pilgrims could easily occupy and vandalise the place.

However, Buddhist devotees and scholars who visited the place were disappointed by what was happening. Year by year, new constructions were put up. Although the place was gazetted as a Buddhist monastery and an archaeological reserve, new signboards were put up changing the place’s identity. The monk was forced to leave the temple and eventually, Buddhist devotees stopped visiting the place. Even archaeological research work that was planned at Kuragala to report all the inscriptions was forced to stop due to various political influences.

Saving Kuragala in 2013

In 2013, the Department of Archaeology took a brave step by enforcing the law. All unauthorised buildings were removed, unauthorised occupants were relocated and they claimed the archaeological land.

Revival of Kuragala in 2021- 2022

In 2021, Kuragala’s history entered another phase. The temple was handed over to Ven. Rajakeeya Pandita Wataddara Gnanissara Thera. Since then, Kuragala is going through a revival with the theme of Yali Pibidena Kuragala.

On last Vesak the Kuragala Buddhist Monastery was opened again to devotees all over the world and has undergone major reconstructions. A new stupa, monastery building, sacred relic house, and a gigantic lion were constructed.

According to news, the gigantic lion is to pay tribute to those who devoted their lives to saving and protecting the ancient site, including monks, devotees, and scholars. The Department of Archaeology is monitoring the new construction work and they are making sure that the ancient monuments are not been damaged. The new constructions are only been done on the flat rock plateau and not in the cave areas where ancient monuments are seen.

Sri Lanka has a good history of religious harmony and reconciliation. There are more than enough examples of Hindu and Islamic shrines having been built on the premises of ancient Buddhist shrines in Sri Lanka. And at such places, all religious communities come and practice their beliefs in harmony. Problems occur when these new constructions and devotees become a threat to the original shrine via attempts to remove the older identity. Any number of beliefs can coexist and should be practiced at a certain place without damaging the original structure, without vandalising the place, and without damaging its original values and attributes.

Sri Lankan Buddhists have no history of violence and terror committed in the name of religion. For centuries, they have silently witnessed how thousands of religious and nationally important places of theirs are being vandalised, disfigured, and finally forbidden for them. If needed, hundreds of examples can be presented to show how the original identity of Buddhist places has been erased and a new identity has been forged, and how many other religious places were built on demolished Buddhist shrines.

Starting from the Cholas, Kalinga Magha, the Aryachakravarthins in Jaffna, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British, and then in recent times the LTTE and certain Islamic extremist groups have destroyed or rebuilt religious places on destroyed Buddhist sites. But as a response, nothing violent was done so far, and will not be done even in the future. Thus are the teachings of the Buddha.

Yet, archaeological science will always be a solid testimony of truth. And the laws, regulations, and policies to protect cultural heritage will always be our biggest strength.  

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy