Benthara Galapatha Raja Maha Vihara
Many of the rivers flowing through our country have been named in Pali, as mentioned in our chronicles such as the Mahavamsa, and Culavamsa. Among them is the Bentota Benthara river flowing through the deep south. About 38 miles away from the Colombo-Galle-Matara highway, this river is named in Culavamsa (Part 1) as Bhimathitha. It is derived from the Pali word ‘Bhima’, which means fearful/dreadful, while ‘thitha’ means ferry/port.
Legend has it that the river is said to be haunted by a demon lying in its murky depths, ready to prey upon anyone crossing. Old timers living along the banks of this river have recalled how their ancestors, before they crossed the river, invoked the blessings of the guardian deities such as Kataragama and Vishnu for a safe crossing.
Close to this Bentota river lies an ancient temple named Benthara Galapatha Raja Maha Vihara. Associated with this river, this temple is also aptly named Bhimathitha Vihara.
Carvings in stone
The pathway leading to this temple goes through a stone archway off a stone doorway having two upright monolithic pillars on either side, and another two above and below. On those standing pillars are carved elaborate, Nari Latha motifs. These decorative carvings of great aesthetic value date back to the Kandyan period.
These fascinating Nari Latha carvings come out of a hoary myth spun around the Rishis of the Himalayas, linked to a fabulous climbing creeper named Nari Latha, which when it blossoms, takes the shape of an enticing damsel. These clusters of flowers are said to have even mesmerised the Rishis, disturbing their meditation.
The stone door frame and its standing pillars had been originally installed at the Bentota Udakotuwa Raja Maha Vihara in the Kali Devale. In later years, it was brought to the Galapatha temple.
Rare archaeological find
Surpassing them all is a unique archaeological object – Galperanaya (stone water filter), made out of some quality of stone having porous properties to absorb the water filled into it.
It is oval in shape, like a basin, having its mouth at the top. Its depth is about 18 inches. There are two small arm-like appendages attached on its left and right hand sides. There are also two oval stone pillars with circular rings lightly carved on them. The Galperanaya is kept under the two arm-like appendages serving as pedestals.
The Incumbent of the temple, Ven. Bentota Assaji Himi demonstrated how this Galperanaya worked, when water was filled into it from its mouth. After about 15-20 minutes, I noticed the outer surface of this stone vessel gradually getting damp. Thereafter drops trickled down into the small basin kept under it. I examined the underside, but there were no incisions made for the water to filter down.
Ven. Bentota Assaji disclosed that Dr. Roland de Silva, as Director–General of the Department of Archaeology had visited this temple and been quite amazed to see this marvellous piece.
Ven. Assaji said that this Galperanaya was kept exclusively in the Pilimage (image house) to be used for sprinkling ‘pen’ (water) on the flowers offered to the Buddha. He was of the opinion that its age cannot be determined, but it had been kept at this temple from time immemorial when arahats had lived in this monastery.
Close to the stone gateway down on a rock outcrop is etched a line of inscriptions supposed to date back to the reign of Parakramabahu the Great of the 12th Century A.D. or that of the Dambadeniya period of King Parakramabahu I of the 13th century. These inscriptions have been enclosed with a protective metal fence by the Department of Archaeology.
The gist of the inscriptions is as follows: In the 31st reign of Parakramabahu king, he had directed a Dravidian chieftain named Mahendra, with the assistance of Dravidians there to build the Galapatha Vihara for which labour, lands, gamvaran and other land donations have been decreed. This noble, a chieftain of high rank and prestige is named Kahambalkulu Mahinda, Dravidian chieftain, thus decreeing lands, gam vasam to the temple, the people and other relatives. (This extract in brief is taken from the Sinhala book titled ‘Bentota Paradisaya’ by Albert Kannangara (2005).
Where a Queen bathed
Down by the Bentota river lies another historic landmark in the shape of an oval rock. It is named ‘Nissankamalla Raja Bisawa Isnanaya Kala Istanaya’ (The spot where King Nissankamalla’s Queen had sat on to bathe).
There is an inscription here that King Nissankamalla of the 2nd century A.D. had stayed in his travels around Bentota at a place called Maha Pelane. Hence it is locally-named Nissanka Gala.
A Sacred Tooth
In the temple premises on a rock outcrop, stands the Dagoba where the Sacred Tooth Relic of Sri Anubuddha Maha Kassyapa Arahat is said to have been enshrined.
In front of the temple premises lies the first image house (Pilimage). At its entrance lies a plain moonstone. The murals are adorned with episodes of Jataka stories, while the ceiling is studded with paintings of lotus flowers, while on either side sit Bahirawa figures. Inside the shrine room is a reclining Buddha statue.
The next image house is also a relic of the past. The original image houses were destroyed by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Here too are seated and recumbent Buddha statues and mural paintings.
The Avasa (Monks’ residency), is a commodious one. It has a touch of colonial architecture, having arched windows, and other colonnades.
The annual perahera is held on a grand scale in August. It is a great tourist draw, as the temple is located in the heart of the Bentota tourist complex.
by Gamini G. Punchihewa
February 18, 2007