Akerawita vihara: A historically important temple: by Tharuka Dissanaike (Explore Sri Lanka)

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).