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Pilikuththuwa Raja Maha Vihara

The vihara lena and the Chaithya Lena
Picture by Anesley Fernando

30 miles off Colombo the commercial capital of Sri Lanka lies the len vihara (cave temple) Pilikuththuwa Raja Maha Vihara, atop a mountain frontier. It is off Yakkala on the Colombo-Kandy highway. The len vihara lies in the upper maluwa (higher terrace), just going past the two giant Bodhiyas(Bodhi trees) looming over the premises.

  1. Inscriptions and drip ledges
  2. Portuguese paintings
  3. The location
  4. The hoary legends
    • The five divisions
    • King Valagamba
    • The Portuguese
    • Other origins
  5. The paintings
  6. Architecture
  7. The rock cave hermitages
  8. Brahmi Inscriptions
  9. Stone age man

Inscriptions and drip ledges

On the apex of those rock cave shelters are carved drip-ledges (kataran), for preventing rain water from falling into the interior of the cave abode. Below such drip ledges bore the etched stone inscriptions mostly of Brahmi scripts. In them are mentioned the names of the donors with their titles and the names of kings and queens. The name of paramuka stands gloriously carved on them, denoting the donors’ designations. The ancient concept of cultural values had been symbolic of the tank weva, dagaba and rice field (ketha). Such features are well portrayed in the innumerable archaeological relics found in the nooks and corners around Raja Rata, Maya Rata, Pihitirata, Ruhuna Rata and even extending to the medieval kingdom of Sitawake.

Portuguese paintings

The Portuguese, during their invasion into this area in the 16th century are said to have disfigured some of those mural paintings and on the entrance doorway to the image house of the len vihara. The Portuguese had disfigured the paintings on the doorway depicting a doratupala(doormen). This doratupala figure is daubed and instead a Portuguese soldier armed with a sword stands. Some of the Vessanthara Raja’s mural paintings are also disfigured. Instead there appears Vessanthara Raja wearing socks and shoes. The doratupala is the divine guardian of a doorway.

The location

This whole region is encompassed by a sea of forest studded mountains interlaced with coconut woods, while the lush valleys and dales below are studded with sprawling rice fields. Among such prominent hills are Warana, Hewakanda, Belungala and Maligatenna. The time honoured purana villages that gave support towards the progress of this Pulukunawa Raja Maha Viharaya are still existing. Among them are Kinigama, Buthpitiya, Maligatenna, Malwathuhiripi-tiya, Waturagama and Radwatta.

The hoary legends

The five divisions

Many are the hoary legends that a told of this len vihara and its surrounding mountain villages. One of them is the story of the derivation of its name as Pilikuththuwa. In those halcyon days of monarchy rule over this vast area, there existed five divisions called kotuwas. Those patriarch villages were named thus—Pili Kotuwa, Arachchi Kotuwa, Mal Kotuwa, Halpath Kotuwa and Biligaha Kotuwa. As the years rolled on, those five kotuwas were coined together to be transformed into one single village.

Initially it was called Pilikotuwa which was subsequently changed to Pilikoththuwa and finally to present day-Pilikuththuwa.

King Valagamba

The other links to the origin in legend to its name as Pilikuththuwa are told thus. This village at one time during the royalty days had supplied apparel to the king. Hence it came to be named as Pilikuththuwa, as ‘pila’ in Sinhala is another synonym for the word clothes. Still another lore connected to its name as Pilikuthtuwa refers to king Valagamba of the 1st century A.D., when he had taken refuge at this lena (cave). As the royal clothes worn by his queen was kept at this lena, it was called so.

The Portuguese

Other myths wrapped around those villages in the environs are also worth recalling. During the time, when the Portuguese had overrun this region to apprehend a Sinhalese chieftain who had his hide out there, they had posted an army unit. Thereafter, it came to be known to this day as Hewagama (heva means a soldier in Sinhala). As the villagers did not extend their support to the invading Portuguese soldiers, in an act of vendetta, they burnt the village. That burnt up village later was called Ginigama, which still later transformed into present day Kinigama.

Other origins

But yet another queer story creeps in from royal origins. It is said that the armaments for the king were made at this village. Therefore it was named Kanihirigama which later metamorphosed into present day Kinigama. Present day Buthpitiya originated as cooked rice (bath) was supplied to Royalty, it was then called Bathpitiya. For some time, the Buddha’s Sacred Tooth Relic was said to have been kept there. As earth was excavated for the construction of the Dalada Maligawa, that spot came to be called as Pasgammana to this day. The villagers had offered flowers to the Sacred Tooth Relic enshrined in the Maligawa. That sanctified place still bears the apt name Malawathuhiripitiya.

The paintings

In the Sinhala book Pilkuththuwa Raja Maha Vihara authored by Sanjeewa Prasanna Tennokoon, Sirimal Lakdusinghe, Director of National Museums, writing an article on ‘Gampaha District’ has discussed the Pilikuththuwa Temple paintings. The book has been published by the Department of Cultural Affairs. The English translation follows:

“The paintings and statues were done in the 19th century in one of the rock caves in the temple premises after converting it into an image house (buduge). Various incidents pertaining to Dharmapala, Mahakanaha, Vessanthara Jataka stories, Arahants, sun and moon’ illustrations of ‘Hell’ are shown in the temple murals. The canopy is decorated with a thousand flowers. A glance at the doratupala’s (divine guardian of a doorway) recalls the views expressed by Andrea Neil on the Kelaniya Temple paintings. It is to the doratupala figure with a Portuguese war uniform. Furthermore King Vessanthara is shown wearing socks and trousers and draping a shawl. Manthree Devi appears to be an average woman, wearing a kambaya (woman’s coloured cloth) and puffed sleeved jacket. This neither has a head dress or shoes.

His comments go further: “King Vessanthara offering alms to the beggar and needy had been painted in a very unaesthetically pleasing manner. The scene of the kitchen has been painted in a different manner compared to the paintings at Kelaniya and other locations. Manthree Devi is shown serving meals seated under a jak tree. In this panel, the upper portion of the bodies of the women remain naked, and not covered with any kind of clothes. But the artist has shown reluctance in a painting the breasts, and has displayed a higher degree of discipline by avoiding the appearance of breasts by carefully covering up with limbs and various external objects.

The Kelaniya frescoes painting techniques of the early period differ more or less with the Kandyan style. The fact that artists from distant areas have failed to follow up the discipline and methodology of Kandyan painting traditions in the proper manner may be because of the inspiration they got from other styles of paintings and the lapse of time.

The Pilikuthtuwa Temple paintings reveal the quiet changes the artists of the Kandyan period are undergoing. Even the painting of a tree is done in a geometric and a stylish character producing a creative work of art. But the Pilikuthtuwa artist has made a faithful attempt to paint the jak, mango, breadfruit and plantain with easily recognisable artistic forms embodying the individual characteristics of the particular species. In this contrast, the Pilikuththuwa paintings differ not only from the traditional Kandyan paintings found in early temples such as Degoldoruwa and Dambulla cave temple, but also from the Kandyan temples.

These conclusions made by an acknowledged authorities, on the Kandyan style of architectural patterns of such temples, reveal that the artists or the painters who had done these original paintings in Pilikuththuwa temple had not achieved the pristine style of Kandyan paintings.

Another striking but spectacular part of the paintings lie on the rock cave’s ceiling. Here the paintings are well portrayed having the signs of the 12 lagnas of the astrological chart, with their symbols well featured. On the cave roof ceiling if the image house are paintings of the lotus flower in full bloom and its tendrils winding around have been artistically executed.

Inside it (in the upper maluwa—terrace) lies a Buddha statue in reclining pose, a Sammadhi Buddha statue and another standing Buddha statue. The temple chronicles have recorded that the paintings on the mural and rock cave ceilings were later touched up in 1874, by a painter / Siththara, named Mangala Thiraye Sriya.

Out of the 99 rock cave hermitages harbouring a top Pilukuththuwa, 84 of them had been identified by the Department of Archaeology, in the recent past. The archaeological officials have duly numbered them in serial order on the apex of each such rock cave shelter.


The gateway to this temple is the spacious but imposing Dharmasalawa lying in the temple premises. It stands under the arbour of lush coconut plantations and other fruit and forest trees. It also has a splendid building adorned with a multilevel hipped roof (a sort of roof in two or three tiers). Each such roof is placed with a sort of a pinnacle like pineal on its top. Then each structure has a portico with a gable or pitched roof. Such structures are prominently provided at its four entrances. Edges with wooden boards around each such gable wall are the barge boards and the rest valance boards. The wooden carvings are decorative timber boards or barge boards. The roof is paved with the Kandyan type of flat tiles. Its architecture is of a Kandyan type. Its standing pillars of granite are strikingly placed around the inside porch serving as collenades.

The rock cave hermitages

Rocky Terrain of boulders and jungle labyrinth Young samanera Buddhist monk our guide beside the large cave shelter lena, where Brahmi inscriptions are etched.

These ancient rock cave hermitages are tucked away amidst huge rock boulders in the labyrinth of the entwining jungle growth. The narrow pathways are winding and cluttered with overhanging crags enmeshed with massive jungle creepers which form a foligage archway. While tredding this rugged but tortuous jungle pathways, one has to be cautious of the feet, as a slip would fling anybody into the dark abysmal filled with rocks and jungle tide.

Brahmi Inscriptions

One of those caves, marked as No. 37-called Kudagala. Its inscriptions have a saying of Manorame meaning the same of its cave. Its other inscription refers to Dakina Lena- meaning the name of the cave. Dr. S. Paranavitana (former Archaeological Commissioner of Sri Lanka) in his ‘Inscriptions of Ceylon’ volume I - page (86) has given the following interpretations of these particular Brahmi inscriptions of these cave shelters: - Pilikuttuva No. 1099 - (1) - Amikatasa batune Agibutine dane. (2) agata-anagata catu disa sangha. The gift of Aggibhuti, brother of Cavalry Officer, to the Sangha of the four directions present and absent.

No. 1100:- (2) Contains the name of the Manorame.

No. 1101:- (3) - Contains the name of the cave - Dakina Lena.

The word Dakina means the right had side of the rock cave shelter. These inscriptions date back to the 1-3rd B.C. era.

Stone age man

There has been both oral and archaeological evidence that the rock cave shelters even date back to the pre-historic epoch. In the above quoted book (in Sinhala), titled Pilikuththuwa Raja Maha Viharaya, Mr. Gamini Wijesuriya has indicated thus: That the earliest stone age man of Lanka had his dwellings in these rock cave shelters. Later in the post history period of the monarchy strode in further development of these rock cave shelters to be occupied by Buddhist recluse monks. They were mostly engaged in medication chores and were involved in the propagation of the Buddhist religion among the people who inhabited this area.

Buddhist monks to occupy these cave shelters there should have been some segment of population to offer alms to them.

In this way, Pilikuththuwa Raja Maha Vihara stands as a hallmark of its historic past and even stretching back to the pre-historic age of the stone age man. Other archaeologists and academics such as Professor Senaka Bandaranayake and Raja Somadeera in their dissections of the archaeological sites around this area skirting the Kelani ganga (Kelani river) in the lower Kelani Valley have left behind authentic evidence on these aspects.

During that pre-historic period, these areas were densely populated by farming communities. But there is still no concrete material evidence of the existence of artificial materials discovered. The adjoining areas of the Siyane Korale of Gampaha valuable archaeological sites like Samanbedda rock cave shelters, Maligavila, Koratota (off Kaduwela), Warana, Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara.

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Updated February 4, 2007
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