- The Saga of Vilgam Vihara Temple -
The Vilgam Vihara temple is not second to any other ancient temple in the eastern region in grandeur, architecture and magnificence. This temple built about 240 BC by King Devanampiyatissa was renovated by Kings Bhatiya (140-164 AD) Agbo the Sixth (733-772 AD) Vijayabahu the First (1053-1110 AD) and Maha Parakramabahu (1153-1186 AD).
It was finally renovated and protected by Tamil Buddhists who had emigrated from the less powerful kingdoms of South India and who did not form part of the invasion forces of the rulers of the Chola, Kerala and Pandian tribes.
According to historical records these Tamils may have come to the eastern coast of Sri Lanka purely on business expeditions. When they found that the people living here were friendly they decided to settle down and take up to agriculture. It is also a landmark which vividly shows the property of the eastern region of ancient Lanka.
A Prince named Ramagona (a brother-in-law of King Pandu Vasudeva) is believed to have established a city in this region which was named Gonapura (now Trincomalee), though he set up the first city in this region even at that time Buddhism had not reached the island and the Nagas who were living here were sun worshippers.
When the Vilgam Vihara was built by Devanampiyatissa the people living in Lanka were the Nagas. This temple was called the Vilgam Vihara of the Nagas in Buddhist chronicles. The architecture of the temple belongs to both the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa periods of our history. King Devanampiyatissa had his capital at Anuradhapura.
According to one of the granite inscriptions found at this Vihara two South Indian Kings Raja Raja and Rajendra and also a wealthy merchant had donated a herd of buffaloes to the temple to provide ghee for the lamp that was kept burning throughout the year.
This fact could also prove that the Tamils who lived in this region at that time were Buddhists and further it has recorded that a Tamil Buddhist monk, Buddhapiya lived at this temple.
The history of this temple is also connected with various aspects of the day-to-day activities of the people. The people who lived here were cultivators who did extensive paddy cultivation with the help of many large tanks. They had been economically sound and prosperous until the more powerful Pandiyans and Cholas began to invade the eastern coasts of Lanka. The local population who were religious minded and not warriors gradually moved towards the central regions which were more secure. This area subsequently fell to the invaders.
Though Tamil Buddhists maintained and protected the Vilgam Vihara for a certain period they too could not continue because of the invaders who were non Buddhists. By the 12th century A.D. scores of Buddhist temples in this region including the most significant temples such as Vilgam Vihara, Seruvila Mangala Vihara and Girihanduseya Vihara were left uncared for; thus gradually this once developed area began to give way to the jungle and the temples fell into ruins. The Vilgam Vihara remained in ruined condition even after the discovery of the famous Seruvila Mangala Vihara. The existence of this temple was first discovered by chance in 1949.
But nothing happened until 1952 when Ven. Maduwe Rathanawansa Tissa arrived in Trincomalee on the instruction of the Nagaviharadipathi Ven. R. Somasiri Tissa with the idea of restoring the Vihara. After a conference with leading Buddhists in Trincomalee the speedy restoration of this Vihara followed.
For Ven. Rathanawansa Tissa it was a dream come true because a few years before he arrived here he had been thinking about this temple on the east coast. Though he had read about Vilgam Vihara in the Mahawansa he had not taken any special interest in the Vihara until about this time.
A young bhikkhu who lived in the same Pirivena after a pilgrimage to Anuradhapura had obtained certain unusual powers of reading a persons past and future. While in a trance one day the young bhikkhu had started relating the past birth of Ratanawansa Tissa thera.
According to the young bhikkhu Ratanawansa Tissa thera had been an elephant living in the jungle off Trincomalee where the ruins of an ancient Vihara were to be found. The elephant a huge tusker had been the guardian of the ruined temple and on several occasions it had scared away treasure hunters. According to the details given by the young bhikkhu the Vihara was none other than the Vilgam Vihara.
by K. D. Jayasekera - Trincomalee correspondent
Added April 11, 2007