ANCIENT BUDDHIST TREASURES OF THE EASTERN SEABOARD OF SRI LANKA
I walked through the desolate track through patches of thick shrub and dense forest, my curiosity aroused by some stone slabs and granite pillars which lay scattered in disarray on the forest floor. Ocassionally I came across ancient brickwork which I surmised may have once been part of a wall. The villagers in the area told me that further on, in deep jungle there were statues of the Buddha badly damaged. This did not surprise me because there is an inscription that this whole area was occupied by members of the Buddhist clergy since the 3rd century B.C. It was late in the evening and having been warned that leopard and bear were seen in the vicinity, I ventured no further. I was in Kuchchaveli about 14 miles from Trincomalee, on the Trincomalee - Pulmoddai road. On one side lay the ocean, and on the other the jungle, bisected by the road. The jungle track I was on branched off the main road.
The year was 1974, and I was employed at Nilaveli Beach Hotels Limited. Whenever I had time off I would visit this area and heal my soul in the silence and solitude of this place which must have once been one of spiritual grandeur. To the best of my knowledge these ruins were never classified and no archaeological excavations were undertaken. The intervening ethnic conflict made this task impossible. My heartache then was that these ruins would surrender to the grip of the strangling jungle. Reclaiming them for posterity was a forlorn hope. My heartbreak now, 38 years later is that they may have disappeared from the pages of our history forever.
Fortunately, there is one special treasure which has been restored and will forever have a special place in my heart. This is the TIRIYAYA VATADAGE, a further twenty four miles from Nilaveli. Historically the Vatadage has been dated to the 7th century A.D. although there is a brahmin inscription which states that the Buddhist clergy occupied this site since the 3rd century B.C. What is most important is that there is a record of two merchants named Tapassu and Bhalluka who visited Tiriyaya during Lord Buddha's lifetime and enshrined hair relics of the Buddha at this shrine. I visited Tiriyaya often. Surrounded by thick forest the Vatadage stood majestic in beautiful countryside. The total isolation and solitude of the place was interrupted by sweet birdsong and the sounds of the forest, which enriched its spiritual atmosphere. I would spend hours here listening to the music of the wind and the sounds of silence. Inspired by the fact that this shrine could be traced back to the lifetime of the Buddha, I left each time, enriched in spirit with a deeper level of consciousness which enabled me to see and understand life more clearly. My fervent hope is that this sacred shrine is well preserved as it was when I first visited it over thirty years ago and has not suffered any damage in the ethnic conflict. In the Kuchchaveli area there are caves along the seashore with Brahmi inscriptions dating from the 3rd century B.C. There had to be a centre of learning, perhaps even some monasteries in the vicinity. Given the vagaries of the weather, I fear these inscriptions will be lost forever.
About seven miles from Trincomalee, on the main Trincomalee - Anuradhapura road, there is a track which branches off into the forest (It was a track then. It maybe a road now). About three miles down this track is a jewel in the crown of Sri Lanka's archaeological sites - the ancient temple complex of THE VILGAM VEHARA. When I first visited it I wondered why nothing had ever been written about it, and it did not even feature in any tourist brochure. Neither could I find reference to it in the Mahavamsa or the Culavamsa. It has to be in the Mahavamsa, or maybe I am missing something. Relatively unknown then, this beautiful complex is as magnificient as any in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. There are ruins of many buildings near the Vehara, and elegant pillars cover a wide area in what once may have been lush gardens. It is a precious gem, and the venerable Chief Priest of the temple was my mentor each time I visited this site. He told me that the Vilgam Vehara is over a thousand years old but could not provide me with any historical information. Perhaps in perusing the Mahavamsa, the information I seek stares at me from the hallowed pages of this ancient chronicle, and my spiritual thirst and enthusiasm blinds me. I can only hope that this site will be preserved for future generations. In her long and glorious history of over 2500 years, a once proud civilisation chose to build her spiritual heart here. The stillness of the woods and the mystery that surrounded the site intrigued me then, as it does now after all these years.
Fortunately the archaeological sites in Sri Lanka have not been attacked by the Thyo - bacillus which causes a disease of stone. This vicious bacillus crumbles any stone surface thus erasing its beauty forever. It is the scourge of archaeologists, and has been prevalent in Cambodia and other sites around the world. However advances in modern restoration techniques have proved a timely antidote. There are surely other ruins buried deep in the jungles of the eastern province which will never be retrieved. We owe a debt of gratitude to the people who gave us monuments like the Tiriyaya Vatadage and the Velgam Vehera. We dont know who they were, but their monuments are a testimony to their skill. It will keep their legacy alive and help to widen our window into the past.
Written by : Bernard VanCuylenburg Melbourne Australia