The Maduru Oya Marvel - And Roads Less Traveled [ Part II ]
Many people follow their dreams while others go chasing rainbows. Some reach for the stars and yearn for far horizons. But in a physical and spiritual sense, we are all peripatetic on lifes great journey. Many years ago I took a road less travelled, in search of a legend, comforted by the fact that some legends have their genesis in a foundation of truth. The road that I travelled on at that time was in a very poor condition. But the mental and spiritual road I took was paved with gold. I was on my way to the Ras Vehera situated in the sylvan surroundings of Sasseruwa, about seven miles from Avukana. The object of my search was the Sasseruwa Buddha statue. I first heard about this statue and the legends connected with it on a previous visit to Avukana from a peasant - a true son of the soil, who fired and infected me with his enthusiasm when he related the legends associated with this statue to me. After he left, I cross checked his story with a monk in the Avukana temple who confirmed every word that I was told. Vowing then to place Sasseruwa on my list of archaeological sites to visit, I was now fulfilling that promise. I had heard that the Sasseruwa Buddha was an unfinished work which for an unknown reason was never completed, unlike the world famous Buddha statue in Avukana.
The Avukana Buddha statue is a beautiful symphony in stone - a classic work of art, the spiritual energy of which seeps into ones very soul and takes your heart and mind to dimensions of spiritual strength and beauty which words cannot describe. The Sasseruwa Buddha statue conversely, is the unfinished symphony in stone with the final notes yet to be written and played......Beauty they say is in the eye of the beholder and I found it beautiful, but with a beauty tinged with sorrow......There are cracks in the torso, and one of the ears is half finished. The work is inferior and the statue is incomplete. I observed then that there are holes in the rock which meant that this statue once stood in an image house. It is taller than the Avukana Buddha statue by 10 centimetres, and time, the enemy of many archaeological sites has taken its toll. I still loved it with a passion and decided to delve into the legends as to why this once potential masterpiece was left languishing and forlorn in the sunken relief in which it was carved. What has been established is that work on both statues, the one at Avukana and the Sasseruwa Buddha were begun during the reign of the great King Dhatusena. And thereby hangs a tale........a tale which has been woven into the folklore of this area for centuries.
When King Dhatusena ruled the island, there was a School of Sculpture for budding aspirants of this difficult art. The Master in charge was an expert in his field, reputed to be among the best in the country at the time. The students seeking entry to this school were hand picked by the great guru himself, and only the best were chosen. Many persevered in perfecting their skills under the direction of the great Master, and many dropped out, unable to cope with the stringent demands that such a fine art demanded. There was one student in the school who outshone the rest, and his superior talents endeared him to the Master who surmised that one day his young protege would enter into royal service and be entrusted with very lucrative sculpturing assignments in the land. This talented student however, had other ideas. Convinced that he was now as skilled and talented as his guru, he in the exuberance of youth challenged his teacher to a sculpturing contest. The rules of this contest laid down by a higher authority, decreed that each would undertake the carving of a Buddha statue. Whoever completed his statue first was to ring a bell to signify that the contest was over. It was the Master Sculptor who tolled the bell, and the statue he completed was the one at which the world still marvels today - the classic Avukana Buddha in which he has practically brought the stone to life. It is a work of art seldom equalled. The student filled with despair, abandoned work on his statue when the Avukana Buddha was unanimously judged the winner, and left his work incomplete - It stands today, timeless through the ages, maintaining a lonely vigil in its mantle of stone in silent tribute to a novice sculptor who has vanished from the pages of history and only exists in the realms of folklore and legend.
There are many differences in both statues, too numerous to enumerate in the brief confines of this article. One legend states that the Sasseruwa statue was started on a sort of "trial basis" as a forerunner to the Avukana statue. King Dhatusena decided to match his masterpiece the mighty Kalaweva tank, with a classic Buddha image, and work originally began on the Sasseruwa statue which was to be his 'piece de resistance'. But as the work progressed, he had his doubts regarding the strength of the rock and expressed his concerns to the master sculptor. The latter however continued work on the statue, but sent his gifted student to commence work on the Avukana Buddha. This legend to me lacks credibility, but when history is not documented and records are not maintained, legends are born, and legends give rise to conjecture. Today the Sasseruwa statue stands lonely in history, as it does in beautiful Sasseruwa. I left Sasseruwa with an ache in my heart, but full of admiration for the Master Sculptor and his student. What a glorious legacy we have inherited from both these unsung heroes.........
The Book Of Stone
The medieval capital of Lanka Polonnaruwa, attracts thousands of visitors each year. How many dwell on an ancient wonder which perhaps merits only a passing glance ? This is the Book of Stone [ Galpotha ] which was indited on the orders of King Nissanka Malla who ruled from 1187 - 1196 AD. It is the largest book of stone in the world and records the achievements of King Nissanka Malla. Twenty-six feet in length and four feet in breadth, there are seventy-two lines on its surface, and more than four thousand three hundred letters - by far the longest in the world ! Wherever there are huge ancient monuments in stone, it is recorded that the blocks of stone were quarried and transported over long distances. For example, the bluestone used to build the megalithic complex of Stonehenge which stands on Salisbury Plain in England, have been traced to a Welsh quarry 130 miles northwest of the site. The sarsen slabs which one sees today were transported from the Marlborough Downs, twenty miles away. I have seen giant stone slabs [ which were not used due to cracks in the blocks ] in the quarries near Aswan in Egypt from where the blocks to be used were hauled over long distances to build the Pyramids and other monuments. Conversely, King Nissanka Malla's Book of Stone records the fact that it was carried from Mihantale more than sixty miles away to Polonnaruwa by the strongest men in his army. This Book of Stone is another tribute to the skill and ingenuity of the ancient Sinhalese craftsmen and builders.
The Kadiligama Highway
There is a tradition which suggests the existence of a pilgrim road known as the Kadiligama highway which ran from present day Kandy, through Gampola and Ginigathhena all the way to Adams Peak. Any traveller who would care to turn off at the 28th milepost on the Ginigathena - Ambagamuwa road (on the way to Nawalapitiya, or conversely on the way to Hatton from Nawalapitiya ) will find two weather worn rocks at a place called Akuru Ketu Pana with an inscription dating to 1100 AD attesting this fact. This pathway was built during the reign of King Vijayabahu 1st who ruled from 1059 - 1114 AD. The rock inscriptions confirm this story. The pathway has long vanished, but my biggest fear is whether this valuable piece of history is still preserved. It is only one of several gems of ancient Lanka's glorious past which if not maintained for future generations, will disappear in the mists of time.
The Elahera Canal
One notable feature of ancient Lanka's rich historical tapestry was the vast network of giant tanks and reservoirs which were vital for a thriving civilisation which depended on irrigation. Her irrigation engineers were more than equal to the task. They were giants in their field, and the best in the world. It would be no exaggeration to say that they were the "think tanks" of the time, unequalled in tank building and all facets of hydrology. Many of the tank builders like King Mahasena, King Dhatusena, and King Moggallana the 2nd owe their place in history to the superhuman efforts of these experts. There is another tank builder who is credited by The Mahavamsa for having inaugarated the construction of twelve reservoirs and canals during his reign, most of which are in the Anuradhapura region. He is King Vasabha who ruled the island from 127 - 171 AD. Perhaps the masterpiece of these projects is The Elahera Canal. The Mahavamsa mentions this canal in the chapter detailing King Vasabha's reign. This canal was used to take water from a tributary of the Mahaweli ganga the Ambanganga, to Anuradhapura and its environs. This canal stretched for a distance of thirty miles from a weir across the Ambanganga. The length of this canal is testimony to the competence and advanced knowledge of the ancient Sinhala engineers. One hundred and ninety years later, King Mahasena used this canal as the main source of water supply for the Minneriya tank which he constructed.
Everything you do becomes your memory and your memory becomes your story. The story then becomes your history - and history lives on. What a rich legacy we have inherited from our ancient Kings, artists, engineers, sculptors, poets and painters. Their stories became history which is now our rich legacy. We are the custodians of this legacy and safeguarding it for future generations is a sacred duty. Approach these ancient sites with the reverence they deserve, specially the sites where there are statues of The Buddha. Tread softly and very gently......history lies beneath your feet.
[ To be continued ]
Written by : Bernard VanCuylenburg