Revelation via excavation (Part I)

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy

Seruwawila, also known as Seruwila, is a significant historical and archaeological site located in the Trincomalee District of Sri Lanka. This site, primarily renowned for the Seruwawila Mangala Raja Maha Vihara, is deeply embedded in the cultural and religious history of Sri Lanka and offers a fascinating glimpse into the island’s rich past.

The Seruwawila Mangala Raja Maha Vihara is a revered Buddhist temple, with its origins tracing back to the reign of King Kavantissa, who ruled the ancient kingdom of Ruhuna in the 2nd century BCE. According to historical records and Buddhist chronicles, it is believed that King Kavantissa constructed this temple to enshrine a sacred relic of the Buddha, specifically the Lalata Dhatun – the frontal bone relic. This act was not only a testament to the king’s devotion to Buddhism but also a strategic move to consolidate his rule and promote Buddhism in the region. 

Beyond its religious and archaeological significance, Seruwawila also holds a place in the local folklore and traditions of the region. The temple is a focal point for annual religious festivals that attract thousands of devotees from across the country. These festivals not only underscore the continuing religious importance of the site but also contribute to the preservation of traditional practices and community bonds.

Efforts have been made to preserve and protect the site, ensuring that its historical and cultural legacy is maintained for future generations. The Sri Lankan Government, along with various cultural and heritage organisations, has undertaken initiatives to promote Seruwawila as a site of both religious pilgrimage and archaeological interest.

Among these many efforts, the most recent was the recently concluded archaeological excavations at the premises, funded by the Mahamewnawa Buddhist Monastery, and led and supervised by Prof. Dananjaya Gamalath of the Post Graduate Institute of Archaeology (Professor Gamalath is an archaeologist who has done extensive research on historical archaeology, and heritage management), with the permission of the Department of Archaeology (DoA). 

History of Seruwawila 

Joining us in conversation Prof. Gamalath explained the history and archaeology of Seruwawila. 

“The initial stage of the entire Sangharama – which is considered as the ‘Great Temple of the Eastern Province in ancient Sri Lanka’ – with the Seruwila Mangala Maha Stupa – which is designed following the Maha Vihara style – has its antiquity running back to the second century BC,” Prof. Gamalath took a start.  

“Seruwila Mangala Raja Maha Vihara is one of the most sacred temples in Sri Lanka. According to R. L. Brohier, the Seruwila area was a large marshy land or a large lake where the flood waters of the Mahaweli River gathered. The lake was home to large herds of teal (Seru) during migratory periods, and that is probably why the place was called ‘Seruwila’,” explained the professor. 

Three drip ledge caves with Brahmi inscriptions dating between the 3rd and 2nd century BCE at this archaeological site reveal that the early phase of this Sangharama dates back to that period. 

He said that in one of the inscriptions, it is said that, Parumaka Vasabha, the son of Parumaka Yakkha Datta, offered a cave here to the Sanghas from all four directions. After this, it is mentioned that the Seruwawila Maha Seya or the Great Stupa of Seruwawila was built by King Kakawanna Tissa (202 – 161 BCE) of Magagama (Ruhuna Kingdom) to enshrine the forehead relic of Gautama Buddha, as mentioned in the Dhatuvamsa and Mahavamsa. Historians point out that Mahanaga Yuvaraja, who ruled Magama before King Kavantissa, took the forehead relic of Gautama Buddha from Mahakala Kelembia and kept it safe there.

He further added that the history of Seruwila undoubtedly indicates that King Kakavanna Tissa established the Seruwawila Sangharama as the main Buddhist centre of the Magama Kingdom in Tissamaharama, which consisted of a collection of five sub-states which were spread out up to the Mahaweli River within the ‘Rohana Desa’ or the Ruhunu Kingdom.

“Magama was the capital of the Rohana Kingdom and it was spread across a vast area of the island, including the Seruwawila area. King Mahanaga established this kingdom in the third century BCE, in Magama,” Revealed Prof. Gamalath.

Before King Dutugamunu waged war against the usurper Elara and united the island, King Kavanthissa set the stage for his son by uniting the Ruhuna Kingdom. The political sharpness and wisdom of King Kavanthissa are often overshadowed by the valour of his son, Dutugamunu. Kavanthissa was a visionary ruler and a strategic politician. 

Kavanthissa unites the Ruhuna Kingdom through a sharp strategic plan

“Even then, the powerful Kshatriya family of Kataragama must have been friendly with this king. But after Mahanaga’s son Gotabaya became king, he wanted to suppress the power of the Kshatriya family and develop the power of the Rohana Kingdom. Then, he tried to expand the kingdom by killing the 10 kings of Kataragama (Dasabarajawaru),” revealed the professor. 

As the effort was completely unsuccessful, Princess Viharamahadevi (Abhisaverakamariya)  of the  ‘Kataragama Dasaba Fraternity’ gave shelter to King Gotabhaya’s son Prince Kavantissa and through that political marriage Gotabhaya managed to subjugate the Dasaba Fraternity permanently. The marriage between Kavantissa and Viharamahadevi took place before he became king. 

After Kavantissa of Magama became the king, he made another political marriage to bring the parallel rulers who were powerful in the Ruhunu Kingdom and their kingdom areas under his control. That is, he married off his sister Soma Devi to the nephew of King Siva of Kelaniya. According to the Dhatuvamsa, he was the son-in-law of King Siva, and his name was Prince Abhaya. After this marriage, it can be said that a politically friendly relationship began between the fraternity of Kelani kings who are descended from King Kelanitissa, and the descendants of King Mahanaga in Rohana.

“After this political marriage, Kakavanna Tissa of the Magama family took control of the territories owned by the royal families of Kataragama and Kelaniya to raise the power of Rohana without any wars. After this, Kavantissa’s attention is directed towards the small but independent states around Rohana or Magama, namely Giri Danawwa, Serunuwara, Lona Nuwara, Soma Nuwara, and Dighavapiya,” Prof. Gamalath said. 

As Professor Gamalath further explained, King Kavantissa first thought of spreading his power to Giri Danauwwa because the province where Prince Abhaya, who had taken refuge with his sister Soma Devi, was residing in this area. It is mentioned in Dhatuvamsa that he was known as ‘Giri Abhaya’. Prince Dutugamunu was led by King Kavantissa to seize the power of Giri Danawuwa. 

After a conflict of opinion with Giri Abhaya by sending him to the Giri Colony, Giri Abhaya left his colony with Soma Devi and succeeded in placing its power under the command of Kavantissa. Dhatuvamsa mentions that King Abhaya left Giri Desa with his queen Soma and his army due to a dispute caused by Kavantissa. He ruled Giri Danawuwa until King Kavantissa called Prince Gamunu to Magama to join the march to Seruwila.

“After gaining Giri Danawuwa in this way, King Kavantissa used religion to take three more kingdoms under his control. Those kingdoms were Soma Nuvara built by Abhaya and Queen Soma from Giri Danawuwa, Seru Nuvara under King Shiva, and Lona Nuwara under King Mahanaga.”

King Kavantissa’s son-in-law ChullapindapathikatissaThera told a prophecy that in the future, a king named Kakavanna Tissa would build a shrine near the Varaha named ‘Galkema’ near Seruwawila, in the bank of Mahaweli River. After accepting this prediction, Prince Abhaya who was in Giri Desa, which was handed over to the Kingdom of Magama, secured it and left for Seru Nuwara with the army and five hundred monks led by Chullapindapatikatissa Thera and Sagala Thera of Tissamaharama, accompanied by Prince Saddhathissa and Queen Viharamahadevi.

 “This is truly a religious war. Since the Buddhist monks who went to Seru Nuwara were popular in that area, it was easy to conquer them spiritually,” said Prof. Gamalath. 

King Siva accepted Kavantissa’s power and welcomed the arrival of Buddhist monks and allowed King Kavantissa and his army to enter Serunuwara. Through this strategy, Seru Nuwara also surrendered to Magama. Dhatuvamsa mentions that King Siva who lived in Seru Nuwara helped King Abhaya and Queen Soma Devi who came from Giri Colony to build Soma Nuvara. After King Kavantissa conquered Siva in Seru Nuwara naturally, Soma Nuwara where King Abhaya lived, was also conquered by Mahanagath in Lona Nuwara.

Because of this, when King Kavantissa built Seruwawila Dagaba, these three subordinate kings also brought gifts. King Abhaya assisted in making bricks for the stupa and all the three kings went to see the bricks. Also, the kings came for the relic-enshrining festival of the stupa and thus all these three small kingdoms came under the rule of the Magama Kingdom. King Kavantissa sent Prince Saddhatissa to subdue the Kingdom of Dighavapi to the south of Seruvila to the Kingdom of Magama.

According to Dhatuvamsa, King Kavantissa, who completed the construction of the Seruvila Stupa, planted the Bodhi tree named Sri Vardhana, built a Bodhighara around it, a three-storied chapter house, and built all the ‘night places’ and ‘day places’ in a place called Varahisondi. Porches, terraces ponds, and so on, have been made and the temple has been offered to the Sangha.  

Inscriptions at Seruwawila

“The earliest archaeological remains of this site include several stone caves with drip ledge cave inscriptions from the second century BCE. Among these inscriptions, one inscription states that;

“Parumaka Yakhadalallnplilh ‘rhapnniniaknvnhabnhalenechathudisasagasaniyathe.” 

 —Inscription of Ceylon, Vol.1; P. 93

Another Brahmi inscription of the second century BCE says;

“Batha Gutaha Lene Caduke.” 

This means that the cave of Gupta God is dedicated to Sataradiga (Bhikkhus of all four directions) Bhikkhu Sangha,” explained the professor. 

The 13th-century text Dhatuvamsa mentions that the historical name of this temple is This maha vehera or Tis Mahavihara. This reference is also revealed in the content of the rock inscription that can be seen near the western entrance of the Seruwila Stupa. The Tis Mahavehera mentioned in that inscription can be identified as Maha Vihara built by King Kavantissa mentioned in Dhatuvamsa. The content of this rock inscription engraved by Sirisangabo Mapurmuka or King Kasyapa IV (898 – 914 CE) also tells about two Sangha leaders; Ananda and Mahinda. Another inscription was found inscribed on a stone slab brought to the Seruwila Stupa courtyard, but both sides of it have been destroyed. Puravidya Chakravarthi Ven. Ellawala Medhananda Thera points out that the period of this inscription belongs to the period of King Kasyapa V (914 – 923 CE) or Aba Salamevan (914 – 923 CE) and its content reveals the details of a discourse. 

(To be continued)

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