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Home > Heritage > Shailatharama Viharaya

Shailatharama Viharaya

- The Largest Reclining Buddha Statue in South Asia -

The road goes up the hill through cinnamon plantations to arrive at the Karandeniya Galagoda Shailatharama Viharaya, which houses the largest reclining Buddha statue in South Asia. Three hundred feet above sea level, the view from this point is a grand vista of the countryside sprawling below.

South Asia’s largest reclining Buddha statue lies in an
ill-maintained, little known viharaya in Karandeniya

Inside the hall of the temple lies a gigantic statue - 115 feet or 35 metres in length (the famous reclining Buddha statue of Gal Vihara fame of Polonnaruwa is 46 feet or 14 metres). This statue seems to be made of cement but is supposed to be about 800 years old, belonging to the Dambadeniya period in history, in the reign of King Parakramabahu II.

Ven. Magala Somananda Thera, chief incumbent of the temple says he believes the Buddha statue had been one of the tasks undertaken in that period. He says it would have been done by Devapathiraja, the prominent chief minister of the King. This minister had been responsible for the construction of many temples down by the coast.

Dr. Vernon Mendis in his book, The Rulers of Sri Lanka, writes that “after the expulsion from the North, the Sri Lankan Kingdom established itself in Dambadeniya in the South West under King Parakramabahu the Second”.
The Chulavamsa records that King Parakramabahu II reigned from 1291-1302.
The Dambadeniya era is between the Polonnaruwa and Kotte periods in Sri Lanka’s history.

Ven. Somananda Thera had come to this temple on the hill six years ago when it was an abandoned shrine, overgrown with jungle. There was jungle all around with wild cinnamon aplenty. The entire hall with the statue had been infested with bats hanging from the ceiling. They had dirtied the statue which was black with bat droppings. The place also had a terrible stench. The Thera had got the statue washed and cleaned and had the bats chased away.
He also arranged for a road to be constructed up the hill and got it tarred. Before this, villagers would come by bus and climb up 208 steps to reach the temple. The steps can still be used by those who don’t come in a vehicle and the ascent begins from Karandeniya.

The soft-spoken monk points out that when he came here, the chest area of the statue and the eyes of the statue had been dug out by vandals probably hoping to find some treasure inside.

There had also been an “Ulpatha” – a natural water spring – in the garden coming from underneath a rock. Elderly villagers remember having a drink here to quench their thirst after climbing the steps. Not so long ago, vandals had blasted the rock and since that day, the spring has run dry.

The statue is so large, that the hall is barely large enough to accommodate it. There are seven doorways to enter this hall just from one side. One cannot go back far enough to be able to get the whole statue into a camera frame. The massive size of the statue takes one’s breath away.

Ven. Somananda Thera believes that when the statue was originally built, it would have been out in the open like at the Gal Vihara. The hall has been built much later. He says that when he was getting little repairs done to the temple, the statue was on rock. His workers had misunderstood him and cemented the floor area, covering the rock. He laments that this was a costly mistake as it takes away the historical value of the place. The monk says that the five door frames (Uluvahu) opening into the outer hall had been turned out in rock and this was an indication that it belonged to a bygone era. The Buddha image depicts the death-bed of the Thathagatha. It is the “Pirinivan Manchakaya” – as the two feet are not symmetrical, being placed alongside, but with a gap lengthwise. Ven. Somananda Thera thus concludes that it is not merely a statue of the Reclining Buddha.

While the inner chamber houses the statue, the outer chamber is also impressive. At either end of the chamber are statues of the two kings Dutugemunu and Elara atop elephants with their soldiers alongside. They seem to be coming forward as if to meet. In between on the sides are ten-foot statues of the past Buddhas and also some of the Arahats. The walls, upto roof-level are adorned with paintings from Jathaka stories.

About 100 years ago, the temple was supposed to have been renovated by a pious villager, Iyonis. It seems such a shame that Ruhuna has overlooked this place of religious and historical significance. It is a place that the country could be proud of, although now lying forgotten and ill-maintained due to lack of funds.

By Lankika de Livera
Sunday Times, April 23, 2006

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Updated February 4, 2007
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