The Indrasaramaya in Aruggoda

In his book on the rock and wall paintings of Sri Lanka, Senake Bandaranayake questions whether the southern tradition of Buddhist temple art was derived from or inspired by the Kandyan tradition. Though displaying an entirely different character from Kandyan art, low country temple paintings nevertheless shared certain affinities, in particular its depiction of Gautama Buddha and his disciples. Yet such affinities intersected with certain unique traits, such as low country artistic depictions of the underworld.

Though we know little about the culture in the Maritime Provinces in the 18th century, we know that with British annexation of the low country and later the Kandyan kingdom, Buddhist art underwent a pivotal transformation. This accompanied what Bandaranayake notes as “the transmission of Buddhist leadership” to the low country.

Such transformations had a profound impact even on temples in the Maritime Provinces linked to the monastic chapters of Kandy. Yet though connected to Kandy, their association with the latter chapters did not erode their independent character. As Kitsiri Malalgoda has noted, geography played as much a role in the formation of different Buddhist sects as did caste, which is how high caste laymen in the South felt inclined to offer alms to Salagama-affiliated Amarapura Nikaya rather than the Govigama-affiliated Siam Nikaya.

A similar disruption transpired in the mid-19th century when a breakaway faction in Kotte threatened the monopoly of the Malwatte and Asgiriya Chapters in the Siam Nikaya. Not surprisingly, certain low country played a significant role in these developments. Malalgoda notes several of these temples, including one rather unlikely Viharaya situated in the border between the Colombo and Kalutara districts, in Aruggoda.

The Rajavaliya refers to Aruggoda as Arakshagoda. After Alakeshwara, a Minister in the reign of Vikramabahu III of Gampola, routed and destroyed a fleet of ships belonging to Arya Chakravarthi in Panadura, it is said that he stationed his troops at Arakshagoda to ensure the protection of the Raigam Kingdom. This, reputedly the highest point in the region, was later to be the site of a temple. Local folklore has it that Arakshagoda changed throughout the years and decades, from Arakgoda, Arukgoda, Aruggodawila, and finally to Aruggoda. We can never be sure, but what we can be sure of is that Parakramabahu VI of Kotte turned it into a viharagam.

Although Aruggoda doesn’t contain a significant Catholic population, along the Panadura-Ratnapura road it begins with a Christian cross: a kurusa handiya, between Pamunugama and Alubomulla. The entire area, which borders on the Bolgoda Lake, is linked to Panadura through Hirana. In the 19th century the Buddhists of Panadura had agitated for a viharaya in their vicinity; the Rankot Vehera had not been established. The temple that would be built in that vicinity quickly became pivotal to the spread of Buddhism in the surrounding areas and beyond, and it took a cool half-century to be completed: the Indrasararamaya, in Maha Aruggoda.

With the ordination of a new Buddhist order under Welivita Saranankara during Kirti Sri Rajasinghe’s rule, the links between various temples and pirivenas gained strength. Among Saranankara’s pupils was Dehigaspe Atthadissi, who the records mention as being close to Kirti Sri Rajasinghe. He sought shelter at the Muthugala Viharaya in Dambulla, from where he oversaw the restoration of the Kelaniya Temple. Given his influence several disciples gathered around him; to one of them, Sangharakkitha, he devolved the responsibility for the welfare of the rest before he passed away at Kithaladeniya Viharaya.

Okgamuwe Buddharakkitha was one of Sangharakkitha’s disciples, and among Sangharakkitha’s disciples was a monk called Waththawe Indrasara. As with his teachers, Indrasara had been committed to the restoration of temples that had been destroyed by the colonial powers, in that interlude when Buddhism, after the fall of the Dutch, flourished.

Given the enormity of his task he was always sojourning from one place to another. It so happened that one day on a pilgrimage from his abode at Mathugala to Galle, he passed Aruggoda. The inhabitants there had been planning on building a temple; the site proposed was to be on the same higher ground that Alakeshwara would have stationed his troops at in Maha Aruggoda.

The problem was that they did not have a Chief Prelate. Upon seeing Indrasara Thera, a group of residents at the Panadura courts prevailed on him to take up the position. After listening to their plea, the monk agreed, and agreed to the site they had selected; the hill on which they were to build the temple overlooked a wel yaya, from where you can see Sri Pada.

What happened next was predictable: for over four decades, the villagers toiled hard to complete the temple. It wasn’t easy, not least because the material typically used for the construction of such sites included pol leli and mati (much more formidable than gadol), the latter of which had to be transported from Kandy. Nevertheless, at the time of the monk’s passing away in 1852, the temple had been built; through his will Indrasara Thera transferred the surrounding areas to the viharaya. By then he had, moreover, a retinue of 18 disciples, all of whom would, through their own disciples, provide the impetus for the building of temples in the adjacent areas.

Despite it being a monastic stronghold, its reputation seems to have gradually diminished. It had run as an “agency” of the Asgiriya Chapter, and in keeping with the practice of the time had admitted only those of the higher castes (though low castes had been allowed the lesser privilege of the upasampadawa). Later it had become the centre from which the Kotte fraternity of the Asigiriya Chapter operated, covering a network of 18 temples. The temple at one point had taken precedence in that network, so much so that it was at Aruggoda where the upasampadawa and ordination ceremonies for laymen in the region had been carried out.

On the other hand, in keeping with the recurring cycle of unification and fragmentation in the Buddhist order following the capitulation of the Dutch, it had also been a witness to the rise of rebel sects. Around the time of Indrasara Thera’s passing away a new schism had emerged in the Siyam Nikaya, owing to a proposal made by a monk called Bentara Aththadissi that a low country (high caste) faction be constituted.

The monks of the Siyam Nikaya, which included Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala, had disagreed; nevertheless in June 1855, despite the prohibition on them laid by the Malvatta Chapter, Bentara Aththadissi’s clan met at the Kotte temple (the Chief Incumbent of which was Aththadissi’s pupil) and decided to call themselves the Kalyani Fraternity. Among the monks who were allied with this splinter group had been Panadure Sumangala, one of Indrasara Thera’s pupils.

The support extended to the Kalyani monks by the Indrasaramaya didn’t end there. Malamulle Vijitha, another of Indrasara Thera’s pupils, had donated several jack trees belonging to the temple to the construction of a building for the fraternity, particularly after the priests of the Kelani Temple had refused to throw their support behind it. The rifts between the conservatives, the rebels, and the loyalists in the low country would continue for a long, long time, and during this period, the sympathies of the Aruggoda temple remained steadfastly with the rebels. From a historical perspective, it reveals the waning power of the Kandyan chapter of the Siyam Nikaya, and the rise of a low country priesthood in the post-Kandyan Convention era.

Over the decades the Indrasaramaya gained much in spite of this alignment. We are told that in 1906 a ganta kulunak (bell tower) was constructed with the help of a Tamil builder called Karupaiyyar, and that during the Korean War Manamulle Vijitha Thera suggested that they start a rubber plantation in the vicinity. Given the boom in rubber prices, the temple coffers had overflown, ushering in new improvements like the installation of a generator which, from six to 10 at night, would illuminate the area.

The viharaya had been besieged by destruction also: in 1983, when repair work was underway, the structure supporting the Makara thorana had come off; residents hadn’t rebuilt it, fearing the collapse of the rest of the Budu Madura. This explains the vacant spaces adjoining the statues of the deities.

Today the reputation of the temple has somewhat diminished. Kitsiri Malalgoda skirts around it in his Buddhism in Sinhalese Society, and virtually no proper study of the temple, let alone the places around the temple, has been done, despite references to Aruggoda in the Chronicles. There is no doubt that Aruggoda served as a viharagam at the time of Parakramabahu VI, along with other villages such as Medimala and Kuda Weligama. Moreover, D. B. Jayatilake lists it among the four villages donated to the Pepiliyana Viharaya in 1454 AD. All of which goes to show that the history of the Indrasaramaya, as it stands today, predates its construction in 1806.

Leaving aside its history, what can we say of its architecture, its paintings, and its statues? The latter, it has been observed elsewhere, bear little to no resemblance to their counterparts in the temples of Kandy; they lack what is called the “bhayankara vilashaya” in the viharas of the hill country. The Buddha images are perhaps among the most prominent here: the reclining statue has been considered as the largest in the low country. Nevertheless this does not take away from the profusion of paintings and statues in the temple, including several new images donated by the Thai government.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Sri Lankan. History fanatic. Movie addict. Book lover.

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Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

Sri Lankan. History fanatic. Movie addict. Book lover.

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