There was a hint of rain in the air as we drove
into the spacious garden of the Lenawara Raja Maha Vihara in Akerawita.
The drive way was through an old decorated cement bridge, built over the
paddy- fields that surround the temple building. Huge trees threw long
shadows of shade on the clean sandy garden adding to the serene atmosphere
of the old temple. A one story building, with cracked plaster and peeling
paint was almost hidden in the shade of a fruit laden rambutan tree. The
main abode of the high priest of the vihara, was a high-roofed building
with a large amount of delicate wood-carving and trellis, overwhelmed again
by a mass of greenery. A black and white cat came padding out of the building
and sunned herself on the veranda as we conversed with the younger priest,
the disciple, as the high priest was away at the time.
The mellow-voiced young priest explained to us why this
temple was historically important. This was, apparently one of the hiding
places of King Walagamba, who fled invaders capturing the ancient kingdom
of Anuradhapura and hid in the jungle clad southern parts of the island
until it was safe for him to emerge and re-establish kingship.
The area we stood, was not the oldest part of the temple.
These buildings were added sometime during the last three centuries. The
older, more historical parts were across the road from the bridge, which
we had just come through. So we crossed over, barefoot in customary respect
for religious ground, and walked over to see glimpses of history, traces
left behind by a fugitive king.
The temple proper with the dagoba was on a small hill,
which is visible to those travelling the road from Salawa turn off on Highlevel
Road upto the Hapugoda Ferry, through the green rubber trees of a nearby
estate. The steps that lead upto the temple are made of granite slabs and
depict curious carvings on them. The names of various donors to the temple
are carved on the rock. At the first landing-like space, the steps branch
out to the left and right, apparently into shrub jungle. But the priest
tells us that they were used long years ago as paths for villagers to come
upto the temple. An old sal tree with its lower trunk over laden with big
red-pink flowers hung over a large cave at the entrance to the temple.
The statues and paintings were inside a larger cave, plastered and made
to look more modern by recent renovations. Inside the cave was a large
statue of a reclining Buddha, the roof of the cave was painted in brick-red
and ochre traditional flowered design. The inside of the cave itself was
not large, but the white painted walls gave it an air of spaciousness.
Outside there was a small devale, devoted to the ethereal gods.
The dagoba although small in size was beautiful to look
at. It looked old, with the ravages of weather taking a toll through the
years. It was surrounded on one side by a low slung wall which had a sturdy
granite-block foundation. The entire garden area was laid with clean yellow-white
river sand, swept clean by the caretaker.
Most intriguing was the entrance to a large tunnel, which
it is said, runs underground for miles, even crossing the Kelani river.
But the entrance to this tunnel, is blocked off with concrete . This we
are told is because, the last people to explore the tunnel from this end
never came back. A long time ago, so the story goes, a junior priest, a
caretaker and a dog in the temple decided to explore the tunnel and see
how far it really extends. The story does not have a happy ending. Only
the dog came back. What happened to the priest and the lay caretaker is
not known to this date.
Another story has it that a young boy who very recently
tried to explore the tunnel from another entrance, about five miles from
the temple, was demented when he returned. He had spoken of seeing a white
snake and was cured of his agitated state only after he came to the temple
and received blessings from the priest there. We are told that there is
evidence of a treasure inside the tunnel and this is why it is jealously
guarded by a white snake.
We climbed on to the Hewisi Gala. "This is where the hewisi
drums are played on important days to summon the entire village to the
temple." The priest explained. No wonder too. The place was the highest
point of the rocky outcrop around the temple premises. From this vantage
point, one could see far into the mountainous horizon, a gently rolling
landscape of varied shades of green - the Hatton mountains. On clear days
you can see the Sri Pada range to the East.
The rocks here sport another interesting feature. Little
stone ponds that do not dry up! The ponds look like small gaping cracks
on the rocky surface, but, the priest said, they are quite deep. According
to the description of the priest and the caretaker, the large rock is tunnelled
inside and the cavities are waterlogged. There are blossoming water-lilies
in the little ponds.
The temple is also known to be the only place in the island
which could boast of a natural elephant kraal. Elephant kraals were used
to trap wild jumbos for domestication. The kraal at Lenawara Raja Maha
Vihara is situated in a crevice between the rock we stood and an adjoining
rocky hill. The deep sharp and now overgrown crevice was used as a trap
into which roaming elephants were forced in. The narrowness of the kraal
prevented the animals from as much as turning around. A few days in the
narrow hole, which is blocked off by granite on one side and man-made contraptions
on the other is said to have tamed the jumbo sufficiently for a start.
Of course, this exercise is no longer practiced.
The Bana Maduwa (prayer room) of the temple was also a
relic, but of a later period. It has an exquisitely carved wooden dais
for the praying priests and a high roof. The octagonal shaped building
with small glass windows at the top. The spacious maduwa is used as a class-room
by village children.
The temple has been declared a conservation area by the
Department of Archaeology, as much for the buildings and the history behind
them and for the large amount of ancient literature and ola leaf inscriptions
that are housed there. How to get there: Travelling approximately 45 minutes
from Colombo, on the Colombo-Avissawella Road, turn off at Salawa and proceed
to the Lenawara Raja Maha Vihara. The return journey fare by taxi from
Colombo will be around Rs 1,550 (US$ 28).