It has been a place of worship and miracles since time immemorial. First built by King Parakramabahu II, many centuries ago to fulfil a vow made by one of his ministers, Sabaragamuwa Saman Devalaya has withstood the worship of devotees as it has the abuse of the enemy throughout the centuries.
Legend has it that the Saman Devalaya was first built by in 1270 by a minister who came to Sabaragamuwa to do gem- mining for the king. His first few attempts were fruitless and he was advised to make a vow at the hilltop where the present Saman Devalaya stands.
The Saman Devalaya was originally awarded 365 ‘Pidavili Gam’ or villages, which were to supply essential items to the devalaya rituals while there were 40 ‘Ninda Gam’, which supplied the devalaya with its income from King Parakramabahu II. However, according to the present Secretary of the Saman Devalaya, K.M.D. Mudiyanse Korala, most of these villages are lost today and cannot be identified except Eknaligoda, which does not function as a pidavili gama at the moment. “Most of them are lost to the estate culture,” he said.
During the Kotte Era, Saman Devalaya received more homage from the king of the country, King Parakramabahu VI. He added more space and strength to the devalaya also granting the devalaya more Ninda Gam and Pidavili Gam.
However, the political and social situation in the country changed with foreign invasions which threatened Sri Lanka. The Saman Devalaya played a great role in protecting Buddhism and its invaluable treasures during times of unrest.
The Dantha Datuwa or the Tooth Relic of the Buddha was transferred to Delgama Raja Maha Viharaya and was hidden inside a grinding stone. During that period of fear, the Saman Devalaya proudly hosted the Esala Perahera which was held in honour of the Tooth Relic.
The perahera procession of the Saman Devalaya was combined with the Dalanda Perahera and both were held together, under the patronage of King Rajasingha. Many items were added to the perahera such as Mahababa Kolama, which is believed to symbolize King Rajasingha.
However, the Sabaragamuwa area of the country too was soon captured by the Portuguese in 1618 and the protector itself became the victim. They destroyed the Devalaya and stupa and built a rampart on the devalaya premises which was surrounded by the Kalu ganga. Even today, the ruins of the old Devalaya could be found in the Kalu ganga and around the present devalaya premises.
The Saman Devalaya became safe grounds for the enemy and remained so until King Rajasingha II rescued Sabaragamuwa from the hands of Portuguese and re-built the Saman Devalaya in the dawn of the 17th Century.The newly built Devalaya was protected with two defense walls which belong to the Kandyan Era. But the king was not financially strong to rebuilt the devalaya with the elaborate wood carvings and wood pillars it used to have. Many of the wood and stone carvings were replaced by much simpler and modest stone pillars while much attention was given to their protection.
A shrine room as well as a devalaya for goddess Paththini was built adjoining to the main Saman devalaya. Simple frescoes of spirits and gods were done on walls of the Saman devalaya using colours like blue, black, yellow and red. The whole building was made using clay and stone dust while some parts of the devalaya were made of clay and bamboo.
Although made out of clay, the devalaya structure stands majestic even today braving nature. Thousands of devotees from many religions gather at Saman Devalaya to pay their homage to a once great leader of Sabaragamuwa, who aroused himself to the status of a god. The Esala Perahera of the Saman Devalaya is held every August in honour of god Saman, the god in charge of the Sabaragamuwa Province and the Samanala mountain which holds the footprints of the Buddha.