Revelation via excavation

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy

Seruwawila Ancient Buddhist Monastery and settlement is one of Sri Lanka’s most significant religious, historical, cultural, and archaeological places. The monastery 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.

Many efforts have been made to preserve and protect the site, ensuring that its historical and cultural legacy is maintained for future generations. The temple monks, devotees, and the Sri Lankan Government, along with various cultural and heritage organisations, have 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 Mahamevnawa 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). 

Prof. Gamalath joined us to explain the history and archaeology of Seruwawila. In our last article, we discussed the historical background of this significant Buddhist monastery and settlement. 

Prof. Gamalath explained to us about the main goals of this excavation. “It is important to carry out an archaeological excavation and to record all the data on an experimental basis. This information is intended to be passed on to the next generation.

“A great contribution is being made to achieve this goal by the Seruwawila Viharastha Chaitya Development Society with the permission of the DoA, and especially with the full contribution and guidance of Ven. Aludeniya Subodhi Nayaka Thera, the present Chief Incumbent of the temple. The study, excavation, and conservation of the archaeological monuments at this place will be done following the guidance and permission of the DoA and the temple administration.” 

Historical and archaeological background of the site

“The entire Sangharama which is considered the great temple of the Eastern Province, including the Seruvila Mangala Maha Stupa, is designed in the Maha Vihara style and begins in the second century BCE. According to literature sources, three Buddhist viharas were formerly established by enshrining the relics of three previous Buddhas, Kakusanda, Konagama, and Kassapa”, said Prof. Gamalath. 

Legend has it that the Seruvila Stupa was named Mangala Maha Seya because Gautama Buddha visited this place and offered eight bunches of sapumal and wished that a temple would be built here and the temple should be called Mangala Maha Vehera.  

The Seruwawila Mangala Maha Seya

The professor narrated the rediscovery of this once glorious great monastery in the early 20th century. 

In the year 1922, Ven. Dambagasare Sumedhankara Thera discovered the Seruvila Mangala Maha Stupa which was covered by thick jungle. He started clearing the jungle and the reconstruction work in September 1925. 

The DoA formally took part in the conservation work at Seruwawila and prepared the proposed plan for the conservation work. This work was completed in 1931. After the stupa was rediscovered in 1922, a society was formed to do the conservation work of the stupa. This society collected money and completed the conservation of the stupa. The stupa was opened to the public in 1931. This archaeological site with an area of approximately 85 acres was declared as an archaeological reserve in 1962.

The Northern entrance of the stupa was conserved and the work was completed in 1973. The Western entrance was in 1979, and the stone-paved terrace was in 1981. The pond located in the Southern direction of the stupa was conserved in 1970 and the Bodhigara in 1980. Bhikshu residential building was built in 1983. 

“The DoA is responsible for the conservation of this site. Currently, the chief incumbent thera and Mahamewna Society maintain and administer the entire religious premises,” said the professor. 

The distribution of archaeological evidence

There are no visible archaeological monuments or artefacts on the surface of the quadrant north and east of the  Seruvila Mangala Maha Stupa monastery complex. 

“To the south of the stupa, from its outer wall, the recently-conserved Bodhigara, Dharma Mandapa, and a pond can be seen. Also, a small square structure with four stone stumps can be seen on the surface of the earth outside the Bodhigara wall. Apart from this, no other surface antiquities or monuments are found in the southern quadrant. Outside the outer wall of the stupa, in its north-western part, a conserved prasada building and parts of a urinal and a toilet complex, as well as the remains of a rampart can be seen,” Prof. Gamalath elaborated. 

Most of the ancient remains of the monuments of this monastery can be seen on the surface of the outer wall of the Stupa in its western quadrant. The stone inscription belonging to the period of King Kasyapa V (914 – 923 CE) is found not far from the entrance porch near the western gate. 

“Outside the new Sangarama building, the remains of the ancient image house, Uposataghara, and Dharmamandapa which are believed to have been built in the mid-historical period (between the 5th century CE and the 8th century CE) of the Anuradhapura Period. This section of the site is surrounded by a main boundary wall and it seems that there were several entrance gates and pavilions at both ends. Between the Uposathagara and the image house are the remains of the walking path. It leads from the western end of the stupa towards the far western section of the monastery,” Prof. Gamalath said. 

Beyond this main rampart, there are ruins of the Jantaghara building and the toilet complexes, as well as broken stone ruins that may have belonged to monks’ residential buildings. In the central part of this region, three stone caves with dripledge inscriptions dating back to the second century BCE can be seen. Beyond them are two ponds which were used by the monks for bathing purposes. 

“Going past them, you will find a rock formation. At the top of its central part is a water-filled fountain. This is identified as Varahagalkema near Seruwawila Stupa which is mentioned in Dhatuvamsa,” said the professor. 

“According to Dhatuvamsa, King Kavantissa built the Seruvavila Stupa near this galkema by enshrining the forehead relic of the Buddha and two other hair relics of the Buddha. There are holes cut into the surface of the rock around this galkema. These are the factors that ensure a rain cover is installed above the galkema. Also, the ruins of a Tampita house can be seen at the western end of the Sangharama. From this Tampita building, when you move towards the south of the Sangharama, you will find the rock outcrops that belong to the adjacent buildings and the ruins of the boundary walls.”

The professor further explained that all the religious and non-religious buildings of the monastery have been built on the plain west of the Stupa. In the north-western quadrant of the stupa is another medium-sized bathing pond created between the natural rock outcrops. 

Between the stupa and these built-up areas is a considerable space. That area has the current bhikshu residential houses. The space that appears between the stupa and monastery buildings in such Maha Vihara-style monasteries organised around the Maha Stupa is a common feature that can be seen in Maha Vihara-style monasteries such as the MahaVihara, Abhayagiri Vihara, Jethavana Vihara, Mirisawatiya, and so on.

The distribution of artefacts

Among the artefacts that can be seen on the surface are Chatrastone slabs, Yupa stones, footprint slabs, urinal stone slabs, balustrade stone slabs, and many other stone artefacts and fragments of small pottery. However, most of the artefacts were found in previous excavations.

“The most significant among these artefacts is the stone samadhi Buddha statue that is carved as seated under a nine-headed cobra. It is placed inside the image house situated in the stupa courtyard. This statue is famously known as Sumana Nagaraja,” said Prof. Gamalath. 

“Another smaller stone Samadhi Buddha statue with a Nagaraja similar to this has been found in the area and placed in the Seruwila Archaeological Museum. A replica of it has been made and placed in the image house in the stupa courtyard. The stone Avalokitesvara statue placed in the Seruwila Museum was also discovered in this area. A notable amount of brick artefacts, clay bricks, metal coins, pottery, and stone artefacts found during excavations are on display in the Seruwila Museum, and other artefacts belonging to Seruwila are kept in the Colombo Museum,” explained Prof. Gamalath 

Prof. Gamalath said that a prominent suburban archaeological site is the restored stupa at the ancient Vilgam Vihara (Thoppur) ancient Buddhist monastery. Prof. Wimala Wijayaratne, who researched Somanuwara, concluded that this stupa is the Somavati Stupa, which enshrines the Buddha’s right tooth relic, and that the monastery, where a thera named Mahinda lived, was discovered there. It is also believed that the historical site with ancient stone pillars in the centre of the present-day bazaar could be the historical Somanuvara dating back to the second century BCE. 

“But the land where there are many ruins scattered all over the place has been destroyed and occupied by Muslim people,” said Prof. Gamalath. The Dehiwaththa archaeological site, at present Mandalagiri Vihara premises, is a site close to the Seruvawila archaeological reserve. A stupa has been excavated recently on this site. Another important archaeological site named Sirimangala Pura lies within 20 kilometres of the Seruwila site.  Recent excavations at this site unearthed a Hindu devala (built in bricks) that had been built in the 10th/11th centuries; a Tamil inscription found in situ aided to date the Hindu devala,” explained the professor. 

Previous archaeological works at Seruwila

During the period from 1922 to 1930, the stone slabs and pillars of the Seruwila Mangala Maha Stupa were removed, the soil was removed and the stupa was restored and in 1931 it was handed over to the Buddhist devotees.

In the year 1972, the DoA excavated and preserved a large pond, a Bodhighara, and a rectangular pavilion in front of it, south of the Stupa in Seruwawila. 

In 1979, the four doorways of the four directions of the stupa were restored.

A structure of prasada building and a series of latrines found in the northwest part of the stupa has been excavated and conserved. However, this conservation is not complete. Today, many ancient stone artefacts can be seen piled under the surrounding trees. 

In 1970, a new town, a bazaar, and a pilgrim rest hall were built on the large land north of the Seruwila Stupa. In June 2009, the National Physical Planning Department upgraded the Urban Development and Sacred Land Development Division to its current status as per the Minister’s instructions.

To be continued…

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