Saturday Magazine
The pristine glory of Dighavapi

by Walter Rupesinghe
Some thirteen miles east of Ampara is the ancient Buddhist shrine of Dighavapi hallowed by the visit of Lord Buddha.

According to the University history of Ceylon in the legendary accounts of the landing of Vijaya and his followers it has been recorded that the earliest arrivals founded settlements in places where water was available. One such settlement was at Dighavapi in the Gal Oya valley.

The Mahawamsa states that in the 3rd Century B.C., Uparaja supervised the construction of a wewa and that subsequently a prince holding the office of Uparaja resided at Dighavapi to superintend the cultivation and harvesting of crops in the eastern district. Thus since the days of Vijaya irrigation and food production were activities over which important members of the royal family exercised direct supervision.

The visit of Lord Buddha

According to the account given in the Mahawamsa, when the Blessed one paid his third visit to Sri Lanka (the visit to Kelaniya) he had gone to Samanakuta (Sri Pada) and after he had spent the day as it pleased him at the foot of the mountain with the brotherhood he set forth for Dighavapi. When he had arrived there, he had seated himself with the brotherhood at the place where the Cetiya (thereafter stood) and given himself up to meditation to consecrate the spot (chapter one). Since the visit of the Buddha several Buddhist communities had lived in the area and Dighavapi had become an important place of pilgrimage and worship.

Dighavapi as a strategic staging post

In later years, Dighavapi, which is 9 yojanas or 81 miles from Mahagama, the capital of Ruhuna, was made an important staging post for Dutugemunu’s armies proceeding northwards to attack the fortress of Vijitapura on their way to Anuradhapura. The following passage from the University history of Ceylon makes very interesting reading:

"Dutthagamani anticipated the greatest military genius of modern Europe by acting on the principle that an army marches on its belly for his first act after gaining control of affairs in his own principality was to entrust to his brother (prince Saddhatissa) an intensive campaign of food production and to store provisions at Dighavapi, a base from which his advancing forces could be supplied with ease. The idelogical factor was duly taken into account. It was instilled into the minds of the soldiers that they were risking their lives and fortunes, not in their self interest, not for the aggrandisement of their king not even for their wives and children but solely for the glorification of the faith so dear to them for Dutthagamani and his advisers knew that men would give up their lives for a noble cause more readily than for personal gain".

We can well imagine what a hive of activity Dighavapi must have been in those memorable days with the ploughman giving court orders as he steered the plough through the fertile fields, comely maidens filling the air with their harvest songs, company commenders shouting orders to the troops being trained by them and everyone of them congregating in the gathering dusk on this consecrated ground to join the chaplains accompanying the armies to pay homage to the Blessed one. We can almost hear the haunting melody of the worshippers as they chant "sadhu, sadhu" expressing their gratitude for the blessings of another day now drawing to a close.

Little wonder then that Prince Saddhatissa who loved this place very dearly did so much to develop Dighavapi when he ascended the throne.

Building of the Dighavapi Cetiya

On the death of his brother, King Dutugemunu the mantle of Kingship fell on prince Saddhatissa. The new king ruled for eighteen years. He was a deeply religious king and a greater builder. Apart from completing all the construction work that had been undertaken by his late brother he built vihares all the way from Anuradhapura to Dighavapi at intervals of around ten miles.

He founded the Dighavapi vihara together with the Cetiya. For this Cetiya he had a covering of network made set with gems, and in every mesh thereof was hung a splendid flower of gold large as a wagon wheel. In honour of the eighty four thousand sections of the dhamma he also commanded eighty four thousand offerings (Mahawamsa Chap. xxxiii)

He also developed the environs of Dighavapi by constructing shrine rooms, dharmasalawas, monasteries, rest rooms, hospitals and all the attendant facilities which make up a great religious complex. By doing all this he enhanced the glory of Dighavapi which had found favour with the Enlightened One and the fame of Dighavapi spread far and wide.

Tragically with the passage of time Dighavapi suffered the fate of several other sacred shrines and went into decay. One is almost tempted to say that while other Buddhist shrines were kept alive in the memory of the people even in their ruined state Dighavapi was almost forgotten.

Restoration work

In recent years with the limited funds available the Archaeological Department made some attempt to undertake the restoration of this shrine but progress was very very slow. The department has located 35 archaeological sites in the Dighavapi complex. The archaeological area is a mere 42 square kilometres in extent. The area declared under the Archaeological department is only four hundred yards in radius of each site leaving the other areas unprotected under the Antiquities Ordinance No. 9 of 1940. As a result of this there has been a great deal of illegal excavations, sand mining and enroachments in the open areas.

In a draft concept plan prepared by the Urban Development Authority a few years ago for the development of the Addalaichenai Divisional Secretary’s Division within which Dighavapi is situated a proposal was made for the declaration of the Dighavapi archaeological area under the UDA Act No. 41 of 1978 which would give the UDA power to control these unauthorised activities. At a conference held on 11th January 2000 presided over by the then Minister of Religious and Cultural Affairs it was decided that the Dighavapi archaelogical area will be constituted as a Special Development Area in consultation with the Archaelogical Department, all infrastructure agencies, the Local Authority, the Town and Country Planning Dept. and the UDA. Two high powered Advisory Committees were appointed to implement this programme. Not much progress has been made. It would appear that powerful forces have intervened to thwart the development of Dighavapi.

There are several ancient inscriptions in the area. In 1986 a gold leaf inscription 14 cms in length and 1.5 cms in width had been unearthed. The inscription had been deposited inside a reliquary made of thick gold sheets. The text of the inscription was as follows:

"Hail. The stupa (reliquary) of King Mahitisa (Kannittha Tissa) son of King Naka".

King Kannittha Tissa reigned from 164 — 192 AD.

The current status of Dighavapi is a great tragedy not only for the Buddhists but for all Sri Lankans. It is sincerely hoped that at least this Government will take positive and meaningful steps to restore Dighavapi to its pristine glory. If this is not done, I dread to think of what might happen when the proposed Interim Council takes charge of the administration of the northern and eastern provinces.

In recent months the electronic media has done much to highlight our ancient shrines in their Poya Day programmes. I would appeal to them to include Dighavapi hallowed by the visit of the Buddhist in one of the Poya Day programmes to provide more information to the Buddhists on one of the very important sacred places in our country.