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Photo: © Heritage Expediciones (Pvt) Ltd

Today is the Nawam Poya day, which is synonymous with the Nawam Perahera. The stage for this grand pageant, which is held annually, is the Gangarama Temple at Hunupitiya, Colombo.

The beautiful Gangarama Temple is famous for its imposing buildings, and is complete with a chetiya, bo tree, image house, Simamalaka, relic chamber containing the relics of the Buddha and Arahat Seevali, museum, library, pirivena, and residential, education and alms halls. It is decorated with stone carvings, brass work and many other forms of Buddhist art. It contains row upon row of Buddha statues in the meditating pose, alongside miniature stupas arranged like a staircase.

As one enters the temple, one will see a huge mural on the wall depicting the 'Atalo Dahama' (the eight vicissitudes of life) - gain and loss, good repute and ill repute, praise and censure, and pain and pleasure - to give the message that one shouldn't be disturbed by these.

The Simamalaka, located on the waters of the Beira Lake and accessible via a wooden platform, is part of the Gangarama. This small temple and island pavilions had been designed by the renowned architect Geoffrey Bawa.


The original Simamalaka, which is said to be over 100 years old, had gone into ruin and collapsed into the lake. The new building was opened on February 10, 1979. It contains a model of the Buddha's footprint sculpted in marble, which had been donated to the temple. The beautiful sculpture on its walls depict good and bad deeds and their results, on the right side, and Sri Lanka's history and events in the Buddhist religion, on the left.

A library comprising thousands of books on Buddhist and other subjects, a museum with rare objects such as old coins made of gold and other metals, conch shells, ola leaf books and antique carved objects of brass and copper, are part of the temple.

The first day of the annual Navam Maha Perahera of the Gangaramaya Temple at Hunupitiya. Here the main tusker of the temple carrying the Casket during the procession. Pic by Pradeep K. Pathirana

The temple was said to have been built in the 19th century by a trader and ship owner named Don Bastion, who had played a leading role in reviving Buddhism. The temple's bo tree is a sapling of the Sri Maha Bodhi and is over 100 years old.

The architect of the present day Gangarama was Mahopadhya Dewundara Sri Jinaratane Thera. Until his arrival, the temple was only a hermitage on a marshy land on the bank of the lake. The Thera was highly regarded among the people of the area, and with their help, brought the temple to what it's today.

He also got the temple exempted from the rates that, till then, had to be paid to the municipal council. The old Simamalaka was replaced during his tenure with the help of S.H. Moosajee. Accommodation was provided to monks who came from afar to learn the Dhamma, and alms and pirikara supplied to them.

The Thera was also in the habit of producing and collecting ola leaf books, and the rare books he collected are now housed in the temple. He was also a collector of antiques such as relics, elephant tusks and artifacts he acquired both here and during his overseas visits; these are now displayed in the temple.

A printing press was also established with the help of Scotsman, J. Holmes Pollock, with the idea of printing books to disseminate the Dhamma among the public. The Thera was also instrumental in expanding the temple by acquiring land around it.

He was succeeded as the chief priest by Keerthi Sri Sumangala Jinaratane Vacissara Thera, who continued to improve the temple. He replaced the old image house with a new artistic version, got land with the help of well-wishers and built a three-storeyed pirivena hall and residential hall for Bhikkus, and started the library.

The Simamalaka was modernised and the chetiya and a samadhi statue was built. With the aim of producing learned and virtuous monks, he built the Sri Jinaratane Bhikku Training Centre in 1954, and the Sri Gnaneswara Pirivena in 1955.

Monks were also encouraged to sit for Pracheena examinations.

Gangarama is a centre of learning. Vacissara Thera laid the foundation for the Sri Jinaratane Vocational Training Centre and the Sri Jinaratane English Academy, which have taught vocational and language skills to many under-privileged youth.

He also initiated many Buddhist centres abroad, thereby propagating the Dhamma in foreign lands. More books were printed at the press, while a language laboratory was established to teach foreign languages. This great monk died in 1984.

He was succeeded by his chief pupil, Galaboda Gnanissara Thera, who is the present chief incumbent of Gangarama. He improved the temple premises further with more artistic touches to inspire piety in the devotees' hearts. A dhamma school was established for children, while much was done to improve the lot of under-privileged youth and artists. The services of the vocational training centre improved, and branches were set up in many parts of country.

The temple is home to six elephants, which are Gnanissara Thera's pets. When Raja, the tusker who carried the Sacred Tooth Relic at the Kandy Perahera, died, Nawam Raja of Gangarama was sent to the Dalada Maligawa to carry out the sacred duty.

The Nawam Perahera, launched in 1979, has been held uninterrupted since then. This beautiful festival of arts has over 1,000 performers. It comprises dancers in traditional costume depicting the different dance traditions, drummers, whip crackers, schoolchildren carrying flags, percussion bands, conch shell blowers, stilt walkers and flautists; over 100 elephants brought from different parts of the island is the highlight of the pageant.

It was held on a smaller scale last year due to the tsunami catastrophe, and the funds, which would have gone towards organising the procession, were diverted to provide shelter and assistance to the victims. The temple was in the forefront of humanitarian efforts in the aftermath of the tsunami.

The Gangarama was instrumental in setting up the Buddhist temple in Staten Island, USA, Buddhist Centre in New York, Birmingham Buddhist Vihara in the UK and the Buddhist Centre in Tanzania.

Sunday Observer, 12 Feb 2006
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Updated March 24, 2007
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