Visiting Thanthirimale after 35 years

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Thanthirimale Raja Maha Viharaya

Thanthirimale Raja Maha Viharaya

My childhood memories of Thanthirimale are of rocks, caves and lily ponds. Back in the days when my father was the chief engineer of the Nothern province (based in Madawachchiya) he was involved in making the road to this historical temple. The most memorable day was the Koth palandima, the day the pinnacle of the stupa was placed by dignitaries who arrived in a helicopter. This experience was all too much for Ayya and me. (we were 5, 4 yrs respectively)

Historical evidence reveal this area to be one of the oldest human settlements in Sri Lanka (Upathissagama) – dating back to the 6th century BC. The Bo tree at Thanthirimale is said to be at least 2300 years old, a direct sapling of the famous Sri Maha Bodhi of Anuradhapura. Common tale is that when Sangamiththa thero brought the sapling to Lanka enroute Mannar she rested for the night at  Thanthirimale and that the Bo tree had taken root. However  the Bo tree is rather small compared to what we have in our local temple (which 0nly dates back to Kotte era).  A larger decaying  trunk nearby is perhaps proof of the original tree. The place was not identified till early 19th century and it was in 1960s  when the temple was re-established by the Chief Priest of North and East Ven Kudakongaskada Wimalagnana. The priest cleared a part of the jungle and got the tanks repaired to build a settlement. In the early 70s my father was very much part of this effort.  The temple and the village came under LTTE attack several times including the 1992 bomb blast which claimed the life of the Chief Priest. (read more)

Atavisi buddha pooja procession at Thanthirimale

Atavisi buddha pooja procession at Thanthirimale

For the other party who travelled with us on this two day trip was nothing short of a pilgrimage. An old aunt of mine had organized an Atavisi Buddha Pooja at Thathirimale. This is a program they intend to repeat at a dozen other locations. I do admire their zealous for the religion but see no point in imitating. At Thanthirimale I wanted a peaceful form of prayer and the goodness to emanate from me rather than from the exterior.

To reach Thanthirimale you need to travel along the Anuradhapura Mahawilachchiya road for 18 kilometers, and turn right to the Sri Wimalagnana Road (named after the slained chief monk) and travel a further 27 kms. Therfore we were up before dawn to travelled a distance of over 50 kms to Thanthirimale and in fact arrived just in time for the procession. There were 28 buddha poojas painstakingly prepared by male devotees, each pathraya was carried under a canopy (decorative umbrella) up the rocky rerrain to the temple. It was offered to the 28 Buddhas in a simple prayer conducted by laymans. (the absense of a priest puzzled my son)

Seated Buddha statue, Thanthirimale

Seated Buddha statue, Thanthirimale

In the area surrounding the temple there are ruins dating back to the Anuradhapura era (4th BC – 11th AD), including two stone statues and a cave monetstry. The seated Buddha statue is similar to the Samdhi Buddha statue of Anuradhapura. At the base of the statue were interesting carvings of lions. Stone pillars with decorative tops suggested roofing that would have shielded the statue. Further away and down the slope of another rock is a statue of  the reclining Buddha. Both statues had markings of damage probably inflicted by treasure hunters. When we mentioned this to the currator of the Jathavanaramaya Museum, he showed us a large 6’x6′ stone with pockets carved out.  According to him the King and the nobles of  his court would offer jewels, coins and other valuables they pocess to fill these coffers that were buried beneath the statue or stupa. Perhaps this was done as a mark of respect or to add value to place of worship. During invasion such treasures were plundered causing great damage to the structures.

Reclining Buddha statue, Thanthirimale

Reclining Buddha statue, Thanthirimale

Thanthirimale means many different things to many different people.  The serence beauty of  Thanthirimale became an ideal setting for a recent film –  ‘Uthpalawanna‘ a story of a bikkunee or famale monk. For pilgrims the place is sacred due to its historical importance – the placing of a Ashta Pala Maha Bodhi ( a sapling from the original Bodhi) and for the villages, they benifit from all the development that follows. For me the scene has changed – the lily ponds were nearly dry leaving dead stems jutting out of green water, the monestry of the chief monk (a dark cave with cement slabs for seating) had been demolished.  Three decades ago it was an isolated village with simple people who would offer half of their meal on a lotus leaf. Not because you brought dry rations for them or provided jobs. But because they pocessed that humble nature of village people – giving and sharing. Whilst development is a good thing, we should try to salvage and retain as much as possible the essence of a hermitage and a village at Thanthirimale. It is only then we could relate to the significance of the location.

 

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