Pepiliyana Sunethradevi Maha Pirivena
King Parakramabahu VI, built one of Sri Lanka’s greatest spiritual and historic monuments in honour of his mother, Queen Sunethradevi, whom he is said to have been extremely close to.
The King, a great warrior who united Sri Lanka for the last time before foreign invasion, spent his most trying times before acquiring the crown, in the protection of his mother. The two had a deep and lasting bond.
Touching, but there’s more to the Pepiliyana Sunethradevi Maha Pirivena than that, according to its present incumbent chief priest. "I dug a bit deeper into the history of this temple and found something quite interesting," said the monk.
Ride through the area
According to him, King Parakramabahu, when he was a young prince, used to ride often through the Pepiliyana area on his horse. One rainy day the prince sought shelter in a small hut in the jungle. The hut belonged to a potter, who had a beautiful daughter. The prince fell in love with her, and began to visit the place often. She was supposedly from a poor, low caste family, and so the royal household, hearing of the affair, is said to have plotted her assassination.
Later when he was crowned king, Parakramabahu VI built the temple on the premises of the potter’s house, in honour of the two most important women in his life, his mother and secretly, the woman he had once loved and lost. Indeed the very name ‘Pepiliyana’ is said to be derived from the name of the potter’s daughter.
The girl was called Bebili, hence the area was later known as Bebiliana, which later came to be known as Pepiliyana.
Though the exact dates are not known, according to Mendis Rohanadira, a prominent historian, the temple was constructed between 1415 and 1417 AD.
Its first incumbent Chief Priest was Galkurumala Medankara Maha Thero. The temple was constructed by a man named Sikura Mudal Pothun, who was also responsible for the work on the Queens castle, according to the ancient texts.
The temple premises, which appear to cover at least an acre, is complete with a dagaba, pirivena (school for studying Buddhism), bodhiya, devala, library and many other structures. Scattered around are massive stone pillars that must once have held up even greater architectural wonders. Many ancient texts, scrolls and scriptures, dating from that period, praise and venerate the grand temple, marking it as both a great place of study and worship.
A stone inscription dating back to King Parakramabahu VIth reign was recently found on the premises. It states that the temple was build by him in honour of his mother Queen Sunethradevi.
Adding to its prestige is the fact that the viharaya once housed the Sacred Tooth Relic, now placed at the Dalada Maligawa. This happened during the Portuguese era. The invaders, it is said, discovered they could not capture Sri Lanka because of the Sacred Relic and sought to destroy it. It was brought for safety to the Sunethradevi Pirivena and preserved there for several days.
With the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka by Arahath Mahinda during the reign of King Devanampiyatissa 236 years after the passing away of the Buddha, a firm foundation was laid for a Buddhist education system. Pirivenas or monastic colleges primarily intended for the education of clergy also had lay students.
Pirivenas, which came into being from the Anuradhapura period continued till foreign invasions took place. However, it was during the Dambadeniya Period and beyond that saw the spread of pirivenas.
Birth of pirivenas
During the Dambadeniya Period (1232 - 1271AD) many pirivenas such as Maha Mahinda Pirivena, Buwanekaba Pirivena, Perakumba Pirivena, Prathiraja Pirivena and Mayurapada Pirivena were started and Buddhist literature such as Pujawaliya, Saddharmaratn- awaliya, Attanagalu Wansaya were written. The number of Buddhist education institutions increased gradually and by 1500 AD there were several pirivenas, which became famous due to the bhikkus who contributed immensely for the development of the Sinhala language and literature. Some of these institutions were:
Among the temple’s more famous priests was one Nagasena Thero, who was said to be a renowned magician. The thero was supposed to have possessed a drum with which conversations could be heard anywhere, no matter how distant!
With its unique combination of spirituality, history, romance and magic, the Sunethradevi Maha Pirivena is bound to capture the hearts and minds of all who visit, as it did ours.
By Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema and Kumudu Amarasingham @ TML
February 18, 2007