Unveiling Eastern treasures

“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.”

—Marcus Garvey

Thiriyaya Nithupathpana Girihandu Seya

The ancient area known as the Girikanda Rata or Galkanda Rata (during the time of King Pandukabaya) is today the area surrounding Thiriyaya. As we discussed in our previous segment, the original names of places in the North and East are being distorted and corrupted today. Ancient texts, inscriptions, and maps reveal the real names of these places. Thiriyaya, also known as Nithupathpana has another name, Girihandu Seya. Despite all these ancient Sinhalese names, with legacies, in modern times, the place name is Tamilised as Thiriyayi, which is clearly distorting the identity and legacy of the place. We must emphasise that it is not Thiriyai, but Thiriyaya.

Merchants who met the Buddha

According to the Pujawaliya, two seafaring merchants Thapassu and Bhalluka met the Buddha and received his sacred hair relics. After that, they visited this place and built a stupa enshrining the Buddha’s sacred hair relics. However, later lore also suggests that two other places (one in Hambantota District and the other in Kurunagala District) as the place where the two merchant brothers built the stupa. However, as the famous 8th-century Sanskirt inscription was discovered in 1929 – read and interpreted by Professor Senerat Paranavitana – things were cleared out. The inscription proved the Pujawaliya statement that Thiriyaya or Nithupathpana Girihandu Seya is the place where the seafaring merchants Thapassu and Bhalluka built a stupa enshrining Buddha’s hair relics.

The origin of Thapassu and Bhalluka is still debated. Stories about them building stupas in other countries in South East Asia are also believable as they were seafaring merchants and it is possible that they built stupas along the coastal ports they rested. We also must understand that they did not build stupas great in size, but small pagodas to symbolise the Buddha, to pay homage to his sacred relics, and to enshrine them. The beautiful stupa and Watadage we see today at Girihandu Seya is a later construction. The earliest stupas were not grand in size, they were a pile of mud or stones to commemorate a place that is significant for the life of the Buddha or to enshrine sacred relics of the Buddha.

As per lore, the two merchants arrived at the Gal Waraya (Kalwaraya) Harbour. They rested on the top of the hill rock and placed the relic casket there until they finish their work in the country. Once they were about to leave, they tried to take back the relic casket but they were unable to take it back. Therefore, they covered the sacred relic casket with stones and continued their journey.


As the former chief monk of the place, Ven. Gandara Dharmakeerthi Sri Ananda Thera writes in Girihandu Seya Pudabima book, Nithupathpana in Pali means the rock where the merchant leaders arrived. Nithupathpana is the ancient name used to identify this place and is mentioned in the Pujawaliya. Also, the 1st century CE tank built by King Vasabha is also known as the Nithupathpana Tank.

  • Where did they come from?

According to the Theravada tradition, Thapassu and Bhalluka or Bhallika were two brothers in a city in Northern India. They were seafaring merchants. On the 5th day after Gautama Buddha was enlightened, the two met him at Gaya. They had offered Wilanda Meepani (Wilanda is a food made of rice. Meepani is bee honey) to the Buddha, which is honoured as the first alms offered to the Buddha. They embraced the teachings of the Buddha and are known as the first two devotees to follow the Buddha. Then they were given sacred hair relics of the Buddha by him. With great love and reverence, they took the relics and continued their journey. On their journey, they built stupas enshrining the hair relics, making them the earliest Buddhist stupas in the world. They have been built in Burma, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

The reason to build stupas in areas belonging to ancient Pakistan and Afghanistan has made scholars assume that the two merchants were actually from the area today known as Bhalk in Afghanistan. As seafaring merchants, they must have built stupas in their hometown and home country, on their return. However, some scholars believe they were from the area today known as Odisha.

Clarifying the place’s identity

Pujawaliya, a 13th-century ancient text in Sri Lanka, narrates this story. The Thiriyaya 8th-century Sanskrit inscription confirms this. The inscription is written in Pallava characters and Sanskrit language and it has 11 shlokas. In the inscription, the two merchants’ names are Thrapushyaka and Vallika.

Therefore, in 1930 the Sri Lankan Government issued a special gazette notification and declared that Thiriyaya is the ancient place where Thapassu and Bhalluka built a stupa enshrining the sacred hair relics of the Buddha. The discovery and reading of the above-said inscription was the base for this gazette. For those who are interested in reading this inscription, please read the Epigraphia Zeylanica Volum IV.

Archaeology of the place

This is not the only inscription at this place. There are some Brahmi inscriptions which are carved above caves that were used by monks for meditation.

The most attractive feature of this place is the beautiful Watadage. It is an architectural wonder. Also, the stone stairway is an exquisite masonry work of the ancient Sinhalese. There is also a large pond.

The remains of two image houses are also seen here. One has been for a reclining Buddha image and the other for a standing Buddha image.

There is a second pond at the place which is known as Lanka Pokuna. The Lanka Pokuna has the shape of our little island.

Purawidya Chakrawarthi, Purawidya Paryeshanashuri, Most Ven. Ellawala Medhanadha Thera writes that this architectural wonder has followed the Pallava School of Art.

“A people’s relationship to their heritage is the same as the relationship of a child to its mother.”

—John Henrik Clarke

Ampara District; ruins everywhere

The Ampara District is a treasure trove of cultural heritage. A notably large number of ancient places are scattered all over the district. The modern-day Ampara District was known as the Digamadulla Janapadaya in the ancient times. It belonged to the Ruhuna Rata according to ancient administrational divisions. This area also acted as a land where the Sinhalese would gather and organise battles during times of invasions and in order to save the Anuradhapura capital from usurpers.

For example, during the Dutugamunu – Elara war, Prince Saddhathissa was sustaining the country by strengthening its economy. For that, he harvested vast areas of paddy fields in the Digamadulla area. Ancient Sinhalese kings also constructed a large number of tanks and irrigational works in this area to nourish the grand-scale agricultural work.

A treasure trove of history and culture

Also, if one travels in the Ampara District, one can witness an extraordinary number of cave monasteries, small ruined stupas on hill rocks, and small tanks. Adjoining these tanks are vast paddy lands. All these point out one important fact; this area was one of the busiest and most prosperous areas of Sri Lanka during the Anuradhapura Period. There is a saying among locals, that if one climbs to a rock and throws a hand full of pebbles, at each point a pebble fell, and there is a Buddhist monastery. The density of Buddhist stupas and cave monasteries is that high in Ampara.

The extraordinarily large number of man-made tanks is evidence of the large-scale rice agriculture work of the area and also, hints that the area had a dense human population too. Sadly, today, the district is one of the most poverty-stricken areas of the island and least developed. During the 1818 Great Freedom Fight of Sri Lanka, the British mercilessly attacked the Sinhalese to crush the uprising. For that one of their brutal tactics was to massacre the people of the Uva Wellassa area. They burnt paddy lands and turned them into barren lands. Parts of the Ampara District also faced this brutality.

According to archaeological and historical evidence, the Ampara District has some of the oldest Aryan settlements in Sri Lanka. The area was also developed a lot by the kings of the Magama Kingdom during the early centuries of Sri Lanka’s civilisation. It is believed that Prince Deegha, an Aryan prince, first established the settlement here, hence it was named Digamadulla Janapadaya. The interesting fact is that the village established by him grew up to be a large city that greatly influenced the country’s politics, economy, society, and culture.

“You don’t stumble upon your heritage. It’s there, just waiting to be explored and shared.”

—Robbie Robertson

To be continued…

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy

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