Temple by the Sea; Pothuvil Muhudu Maha Viharaya

The Northern and Eastern plain of the island is blessed with an abundance of cultural and natural heritage. The golden era of the country’s civilisation sprang into life in these areas, leaving a massive number of archaeological ruins all over the region.

Ampara is one of the districts in Eastern Sri Lanka with a high density of archaeological ruins and a rich history although many of these ruins were deliberately vandalised with the shallow hope of wiping out of identity of the land. For centuries the archaeological sites in Ampara have stood fiercely against the test of time, greed of treasure hunters and the cruelty of extremists. What we witness today in this region are the few archaeological sites that passed the test, although weathered and breathing their last breaths. If it wasn’t for the stubbornness of the monks who refused to leave these sites during the internal conflict, even these places would not have been here today for us to witness. 

The iconic Buddhist monastery, in the coastal belt of the East in Pottuvil, Muhudu Maha Vihara is one such place which is now taking a much-needed time out since May 2020, courtesy the special security measures provided by the Government via Sri Lanka Navy, after years of weathering the extremist storm.  

Muhudu Maha Vihara

According to Mahawamsa Muhudu Maha Vihara was first built by King Mahadatika Mahanaga in the 8th century CE. The temple consists of a ruined image house, and few more remains which are now buried under the sand. Over the years due to encroaching the Vihara has lost a lot of land belonging to the temple and what remains now is believed to be only a fraction of the original temple land. Some scholars believe that the temple was known as the ancient Ruhune Lanka Vihara. 

The image house 

The image house of the monastery is a beautiful structure with three stone sculptures. The walls are built in brick and stone pillars can be seen inside. The entrance is facing the east. A stone Buddha statue can be seen in the centre as well as two Bodhisattva statues on both sides. 

The Buddha statue can be identified belonging to the mid Anuradhapura period, which can be approximately dated to the 7th – 8th century CE. The style of the robe and andanaya is typical to Sinhalese Buddha statues. The left arm is folded upwards, holding the cascading robe. The right arm is broken from the shoulder, making it is difficult to assume the mudra. The statue is standing on a lotus pedestal. The facial features are severely worn out yet the sticking similarity between statues of Buduruwagala, Budupatuna and Dova is unmistakable. 

Bodhisattva veneration in ancient Ruhuna

The other two statues can be identified as statues of Bodhisattvas. One is in Raja Kumara attire while the other is depicted as an ascetic. It is typical to the Ruhuna Rata that Buddha statues are often depicted with two bodhisattvas besides him. Also the spread of Mahayana Buddhism in Ruhuna during the 6th and 9th centuries CE was prominent. Quite a considerable amount of Bodhisattva images were found in areas belonging to the ancient Ruhuna kingdom. Sri Lanka’s largest Bodhisattva image, the colossal Dambegoda statue is closer to Okkampitiya and the famous Kushtarajagala Bodhisattva statue is in Matara; both of which belonged to ancient Ruhuna Kingdom.

Bodhisattva veneration rose into popularity in Sri Lanka with the influence of Mahayana, reaching its peak during approximately the 8th to 10th centuries CE. There is a large number of Bodhisattvas venerated in Mahayana including Padmapani, Vajradharma, Vajrapani, and Manjusri. These Bodhisattvas has Shaktis or female Bodhisattvas. Tara, Mala Tara, Chunda and Marichi are to name a few. Paintings and Statues of these Bodhisattvas are identified based on the various symbols and mudras they are bearing.

A similar art school 

If one observes the Buddhist sculptures of ancient Anuradhapura period, a slight yet, unambiguous difference is evident between the statues belonging to the ancient administrative regions of Rajarata and Ruhunu Rata. This style is unique to sculptures of ancient Ruhuna. The gentleness and the essence of blissful youth which is prominent in sculptures that are discovered in the ancient administrative region of Rajarata is somewhat absent in sculptures in ancient Ruhuna. Faces are rather heavier and round with filled cheeks and heavy chins, with stern unfriendly tight lips. This is apparent in statues at Kushtarajagala, Dova, Sithulpawwa, Buduruwagala and Budupatuna.

Ruins of Muhudu Maha Vihara  

Ruins of an ancient pond can be seen in here. This is yet to be excavated and conserved. This could be the pond that was used by the monks who resided here in ancient times. 

It is unfortunate that only a glimpse of an ancient stupa can be seen today as the rest of it is buried under the sand. In the year 2010 more ruins were discovered in the beach and also, it is rumoured that in 2004 villagers have sighted ruins of an ancient Buddha statue and a stupa submerged in the sea. 

A glimpse of folklore 

Although not archaeologically proven, folklore says that this was the place where the marriage between Queen Viharamahadevi and King Kavanthissa actually took place. It is said that the ship where the princess sailed landed here at Pottuvil where the monastery is located. During the historical tsunami took place during King Kelanithissa’s time, his daughter Princess Viharamahadevi was sacrificed to the sea god. Her ship sailed towards Kirinda but as it was a rocky shore the ship sailed further and landed at Pottuvil. The king of that region, Kavanthissa, heard of the incident, was anticipating the princess at the beach of Pottuvil. While the king was journeying to Pottuvil, he has asked his men “where is the princess?” (ko kumari?), from which the name for the village Komari was derived. The men answered saying, “in that village” (ara game) which later became Aragame, and Arugame. 

Present situation 

It will be ungrateful not to mention the hard work of ven. Kataragama Seelarathna Thera, the chief incumbent of the temple, who passed away in 2010. He was residing in the temple for 14 years facing even death threats. The biggest challenge faced by the temple was the illegal encroaching of temple lands by certain groups of people. Due to this Mudhu Maha Vihara lost a massive amount of land which has a high archaeological value. The Bo tree of the temple was destroyed more than six times by religious extremist groups and the present Bo tree is the seventh one to be replanted. The present Chief Incumbent of the temple is Ven. Warakapola Indrasiri Thera. There is a pirivena at the temple which is called as the Siri Indasiri Mulika Pirivena and the monk who is in charge of the pirivena is Ven. Pahalalande Piyananda Thera.

What is needed to be done?

The importance and need of scientific excavations and research at Muhudu Maha Vihara is vital. Also, the attention of the Department of Archaeology, scholars, history lovers and travellers must be focused on Muhudu Maha Vihara. Also it is important to reacquire the illegally acquired land which was lawfully owned by the temple for centuries. 

Not so far away from the iconic Arugam Bay, Muhudu Maha Vihara is located in Muhudu Maha Vihara Mawatha in Pottuvil town, surrounded by a wealth of archaeological hotspots such as Panama, Okanda, Lahugala, Wadinagala, Damana, Galoya, Ampara, Akkareipattuwa, Digawapi, Uhana, Gonagolla and Kalmune. Lahugala Kota Vehera, Neelagiri, Kirivehera, Magul Maha vehera, Bogahalanda, Deegavapi, Mani Naga Pabbata Vehera, Sastravela, Elephant Rock Temple, Veheragala, Kudumbigala, and Pansalgoda are some of the well-known archaeological sites in its vicinity. 

While Gal oya, Karanda Oya, Panna Oya, Hada Oya and Wila Oya nourish the dry land, a large number of man-made tanks that stores rainwater giving life to the dry soil and flourishing the paddy lands. Most of these paddy lands are ancient and according to history they were cultivated by Prince Saddhathissa during 2nd century BCE, as he was strengthening the country’s economy during his brother’s warfare against Elara. 

History of Ampara

Ampara was a part of ancient Ruhunu Rata or the Kingdom of Ruhuna. During the times of Sinhala monarchs this region was also known as Digamadulla Janapadaya. This region was also known as Deeagawapi Mandala or Deegavapi Ratta in ancient times. Digamadulla was known for its rice cultivation and as the rice bowl that strengthened the country’s economy, especially during times of warfare and political instability. Also, during every foreign invasion, the Sinhalese princes retreated to the Kingdom of Ruhuna as it was believed that a ‘historical saviour’ would always rise from the Ruhunu Rata and would save the islands sovereignty. The most well-known saviours were Dutugemunu and Vijayabahu I who were originally from the Rohana Kingdom. 

The high density of rock inscriptions, pabbatha viharas or monasteries built on small mountains and a large number of man-made tanks are evidences of a once heavily populated and prosperous region. The well-known Bowattegala and Kotadamuhela Inscriptions (in Kumana) reveal about the Kshathriya rulers of Ruhuna and the ten-sibling-kings of Ruhuna (dasa-ba-rajawaru).

Eminent scholar and archaeologist prof. Senarath Paranavithana explains that Queen Viharamahadevi was a princess of Ruhuna who grew up together with King Kavanthissa, and not a princess from Kelaniya in the Western province. She is mentioned as Princess Abhi Savera in the Bowattegala Inscription. Kalayana Kannika (Kalyana Karnika) was an ancient region of the Ampara District, mentioned in inscriptions.

According to Mahawamsa and a rock inscription found in the area Ampara Rajagala Stupa was built enshrining relics of Arhat Mahinda – son of Emperor Asoka – and Ittiya. Another important archaeological hotspot of Ampara is the huge stupa built at Deegavapi where Buddha visited during his third visit to the country. 

It is mentioned in chronicles and inscriptions that King Mahadatika Mahanaga built many monasteries in the coastal area of Pottuvil including the Mani Naga Pabbata Vehera, Kalanda Vehera, and Lahugala Neelagiri Vehera. 

(Pix courtesy Udeshika Jayapali)

© සියලූම හිමිකම් ඇවිරිණි. කතෘගේ ලිඛිත අවසරය නොමැතිව මෙහි සඳහන් කිසිවක් හෝ උපුටා ගැනීම, ගබඩා කර තැබීම, නැවත ප්රකාශය, පලකිරීම සපුරා තහනම්ය.

Copyright © All Rights Reserved. The words, ideas and images are the intellectual property of Ama H. Vanniarachchy. All work published (words and images) here is copyrighted. If you wish to reproduce the work published here, please inform the writer, to get her written permission and acknowledge this site as the source.

Uncategorized, Bodhisattva statues, Buddhist arts, Buddhist heritage, Muhudu maha vihara, Pottuvil Muhudu maha vihara, Sri Lankan archaeology, SRI LANKAN HISTORY