Saturday Magazine
Velgam Vehera – the Buddhist shrine of the Tamils

by Walter Rupesinghe
Some ten miles north west of Trincomalee off the Trincomalee - Horowupothana road, is an ancient Buddhist shrine with origins dating back to the years before the second century.

I first visited this shrine in 1975 in the company of a villager from the area who seemed to know its history. He informed me that Velgam Vehera also known as Natanar Kovil was a unique shrine because it had been protected by both Sinhalese and the Tamils. This aroused my interest and made me study the history of this shrine in some detail.

It is a historical fact that among the many ancient Buddhist shrines in Sri Lanka Velgam Vehera also called Natanar Kovil by the Tamils stands out as the only known example of a "Tamil Vihare or Buddhist Palli" or as the late Dr. Senerath Paranavithana described it in his delightfully informative book "Glimpses of Ceylon’s Past" as a "Buddhist shrine of the Tamil people".

An inscription on a rock halfway up the hill on the summit on which are the remains of a stupa belongs to the reign of Batiya Maharaja or King Bhatika Tissa II (circa 149 A.D.). It records the gift of revenue from certain fields to the Abagara Vihare (Abhagiri or Amaragiri Vihare) at Velgama by a General named Abaya. Dr. Paranavithana was of the view that this record proved that the name by which the shrine was known in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. As Velgam Vehera, had come down from the second century at the latest. It was his view that the date of the original foundation of the vihare was no doubt considerably earlier than the reign of King Bhatika Tissa II.

The coming of the Cholas

When the Cholas came to Sri Lanka on their campaign of conquest in the reign of King Rajaraja I (circa 992 A.D.) they unleashed a ruthless strategy of destruction. The Cholas were the inveterate enemies of the Buddhists. They laid waste the ancient Buddhist shrines with great relish in order to demoralise and subjugate the Buddhist communities that had grown around these beloved places of worship. But when they came to Velgam Vehera even the fanatical and cruel Cholas could scarce forbear to treat this ancient shrine with the utmost respect. They extended their patronage and protection to this Vihara, renovated the buildings and renamed the shrine after the greatest of the Chola Monarchs (Rajaraja I) as Rajarajaperum Palli. To quote Dr. Paranavithana " The inscriptions mostly in Tamil which were noticed at the site when it was buried in jungle gave its old name as Rajarajaperum Palli. It was thus clear that the Buddhist vihare at this place was fortunate enough in securing the protection and patronage of the Cholas. Many historic Buddhist monasteries at Anuradhapura and other places in the island were pillaged and destroyed or neglected or abandoned but this Vihara on the eastern seaboard had not only been suffered to exist but had also been renamed after the great Chola Emperor who added Ceylon to his domain. The earlier Sinhalese name had not been forgotten. Where reference is made in Tamil inscriptions to the shrine the Sinhalese name - Velgam Vehera - precedes the Tamil."

Some of the Tamil inscriptions found at the site record donations to this shrine and are dated in the reigns of the Chola Kings, Rajaraja and Rajendradeva. One eleventh century Tamil inscription records the gift of 84 cows for the purpose of maintaining the perpetual lamps in Velkamvehera alias Rajarajaperumpalli by an individual named Adittappera-raiyan. During the course of the excavations carried out by the Archeological Department a bronze standing lamp 2 1/2 feet in height with an inscription in Tamil characters was found. The inscription on the base of this lamp read as follows "the sacred perpetual lamp, donated by Eranadan Yakkan". Other inscriptions found on the premises refer to donations made for the purpose of maintaining perpetual lamps in the shrine of the Buddha.

Excavations by the Archeological Department

Velgam Vehera was first inspected by the Archeological Department in 1929. It was declared an archeological reserve in 1934 but it was only twenty years later that clearing was undertaken. Attention was focused on two conspicuous mounds at the site. One proved to be a stupa in ruins and the other a brick built image house. As clearing was extended to the other areas the ground plan of a fascinating building complex and architectural remains of an impressive character were uncovered. Everywhere there had been much evidence of meticulous vandalism and the cruel work of treasure hunters determined to take away everything that was worthwhile.

It was clear that the original image house had been redecorated by the Cholas and in doing so they had been influenced by their own architecture rather than by the traditional indigenous styles of this country.

The image house was 86’ long and 38’ in width. It had characteristic Dravidian mouldings at the base.

During the course of the excavations a Buddha image of limestone 6’9" (6 feet 9 inches) tall with finely modelled features had been unearthed from the bottom of a cistern which evidently had been built to contain drainage water. The statue had been at the bottom completely covered by earth and debris.

The Dagaba

The platform on which the dagaba stood measured nearly 70 feet north to south and 64 feet east to west and was 4 1/2 feet above ground level. The stupa had a diameter of thirty six and a half feet at the base. The bricks with ornamental designs, the terra cotta figures of various types and the coral stones elaborately carved found among the debris suggest that the superstructure had been profusely decorated.

Adjacent to the main shrine there had been a building which housed a recumbent statue of the Buddha. Outlines of this statue were to be seen. Archeologists have noted that the bricks used in the shrine of the recumbent Buddha were of the same type as those used in the main shrine and it appears to have been a work of the 11th or 12th centuries. Stones from buildings of an earlier date had also been used in the construction.

King Vijayabahu I

After the great King Vijayabahu I liberated Sri Lanka from the yoke of the marauding Cholas he set about the task of restoring several shrines including Velgam Vehera alias Natanar Kovil. As the University History of Ceylon has recorded during the reign of King Vajayabahu I "the revival of religion, the restoration of temples which had fallen into decay, the grant of revenues to monastic institutions the provision of necessities for monks and the performance of numerous acts of piety and charity all formed a highly important part of the king’s activities!’ There is no doubt that Velgam Vehera also benefited from the royal munificence.

King Nissanka Malla

By the time King Nissankamalla (A.D. 1187 to 1196) ascended the throne Velgam Vehera had become a great centre of pilgrimage so much so that he had visited this holy shrine. To quote Dr. Paranavithana "The fame of the religious establishment at this site was not confined to the immediate neighbourhood. Nissanka Malla as recorded in the Pritidanaka - mandapa rock inscription at Polonnaruwa included Velgam Vehara among the sacred shrines to which he went on pilgrimage. The other places mentioned in the same record being Mandalagiri, Mahagama, Devinuwara and Kelaniya. Thus it appears that in the 12th century the shrine, at Periyakulam viz. Velgam Vehera was considered as holy as those at Kalani and Devundera which today attract thousands of devotees." The University history of Ceylon asserts that the very fact that his pilgrimages covered the whole country and that he built alms houses wherever he went provides incontrovertible evidence that he held sway over the whole island. This included the northern and eastern provinces which were also the traditional homelands of the Sinhalese people.

Velgam Vehera is therefore too holy a shrine to be left in a pile of heartbreaking ruins. The Government and the people of Sri Lanka must think of more meaningful ways of finding the finance to restore these holy places perhaps a call for public donations to supplement the funds allocated to the Archeological Department might produce the desired result.

Domestic tourism

The Government is committed to the promotion of domestic tourism which of course includes pilgrimages. It should encourage people who visit the Anuradhapura and Trincomalee districts to include places like Tiriyay, Velgam Vehera, Kuchchaveli and Seruwila in their itineraries. There are many people in this country who are not aware of the existences of these sacred places. The younger generation should see these places and learn to Cherish and venerate them.

Basic amenities should be provided under a programme for the development of domestic tourism by way of pilgrims rests, water, cooking and sanitary facilities. The trouble with all of this is that the implementation of such a programme is overwhelmed by a mass of red tape and a lack of commitment and urgency. This is where the Ministry of Cultural Affairs should crack the whip and ensure that the work gets under way under the canopy of the ceasefire agreement.

For those interested in finding out more details of Velgam Vehera, I would recommend "Glimpses of Ceylon’s Past" by Dr. Senerath Paranavithana, the University history of Ceylon ,the relevant reports of the Archeological Department and the Epigraphia Zeylanica.

We Sri Lankans should all be proud of our rich religious and cultural heritage which even the Cholas were not able to destroy. How then can the pocket dictators do it when the weight of the indelible stone inscriptions is behind us. It is therefore up to the national minded Sri Lankans to save these holy shrines for the generations to come.