- A Tough Path to a Sublime Experience -
Last Vesak, tractor loads, lorry loads and bus loads of the young and the old made their pilgrimage to the hallowed site at Tiriyaya, which had been out of bounds for far too long, because of the northern war. For the old it may have been a blessing - a wish come true to once again tread the granite stairway of some 300 steps leading to the summit on which the vatadage at Tiriyaya stood. For the young it may have been a first time visit.
Situated about 29 miles north of Trincomalee, it was not an easy journey through bumpy dusty roads, hostile villages, jungle and ferry. But it was an improvement from one year before when we travelled for the very first time to the same destination and there were hardly any roads.
The oldest incident connected with the site is etched in an 8th century Sanskrit epigraph found at the site which refers to a shrine named Girikandicaitya being established on the hill-top by a company of merchants headed by Tapassu and Bhallika.
According to the Nidanakatha and Mahavagga a book on the Vinaya, Tapassu and Bhallika were two brother merchants who offered some victuals to the Buddha, in the 8th week after his enlightenment. They are considered the first lay disciples of Lord Buddha who sought the refuge of the Master and the Dhamma. And on request the Master gifted them with a handful of hair relics. Tradition claims that the two merchants enshrined the holy relics and built a shrine here.
As such this shrine would have been built during the lifetime of Lord Buddha. Scholars attribute it to possibly the 6th century BC. The present structure or the ruins of the vatadage consisting of a small stupa encircled by two concentric circles of stone pillars and a retaining wall of stone slabs, however is believed to have evolved with time.
Professor Paranavitana states that the vatadage at Tiriyaya while conforming to the general pattern of the vatadage, had architectural features which have not been noticed at any other shrine of this class.
The capitals of the pillars at Tiriyaya have not been separately carved and joined as at other vatadaga sites. Facing the entrances at the cardinal points are altars of carved granite slabs. At the head of each flight of steps is a stone doorway.
The four entrances at the cardinal points are provided with moon stones, makara balustrades and naga guardstones. The moonstones are plain except for a lotus petal carving at the circumference. The guardstones are the most striking artistic feature. The Naga kings are depicted as having an air of austerity, not overloaded with jewellary and are benign in expression. According to scholars these qualities along with their elongated limbs suggest the Pallava style of art belonging to a phase earlier than Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa.
Another unusual feature here is the evidence of a wooden upright of a railing which may have covered the space between the top of the stone wall and the roof.
Around the vatadage are seen the remains of image houses of which the largest housed a large recumbent Buddha image.
On the terraces lower down the hill are ruins of monastic structures, ponds and flights of steps leading to different levels. A stone bridge indicates that an ancient highway passed this site. Some rock caves bear early Brahmi inscriptions indicating the existence of a monastery even during pre-Christian times. The earliest datable inscription at the site is the pre-Christian Brahmi inscription recording the dedication of a cave to the Buddhist monks.
As such a pilgrimage to Tiriyaya vatadage is a poignant experience for the Buddhist in you as much as the naturalist, architect and archaeologist in you.
by Kishanie S. Fernando
April 7, 2007