Road to Saliyapura - II


By Prof. J. Sarath Edirisinghe

Part one of this article appeared
in the SATMAG of Oct.16th

Before I came to work in Anuradhapura I never even imagined that there would be a time when I would go to work every morning along a route that is reeking with history. I have never felt tired spotting the archeological sites we pass on our route. Our route to the Saliyapura Medical Faculty, every weekday morning, from the circuit bungalow is along the Airport road (KB.Ratnayake Mawatha) to the hospital junction at Kada Panaha. At the roundabout we take the right turn along the Harischandra Mawatha up to the Provincial Council junction and then along the Dharmapala Mawatha on the right. We go past the Market Place taking the right turn once again on the A 12, cutting across the Tholuvila Monastic Complex past the Nivanthaka Chethiya ruins and the Maha Vidyalaya. At the Jaffna junction we cross the railway tract and at the clock tower we take the delightful flat road to Saliyapura on the A 2. Before we come to the faculty we pass the historic Puliyankulama monastic complex.

Just across the faculty circuit bungalow on the airport road and behind the recently built boutiques and houses is the ‘ismaththa’ of the ‘Nuwara Wewa", the mighty City Tank. A mere hundred meters from our house one can see the shimmering waters of the largest reservoirs of Anuradhapura, almost merging with the Irrigation Department Recreation Grounds. It is only natural that one feels so proud of being part of that ancient tradition of tank builders who left us the marvels of an advanced irrigation system that are functioning to this day. Brohier says of these works of irrigation, that the remains of ancient monuments, palaces and temples in these, now deserted provinces of Ceylon are indeed wonderful and it is doubtful if anything is more impressive or is more likely to attract one to the study and consideration of early Sinhalese history than these great works of irrigation. Writers on Ceylon over the years have commented on the beauty of these ancient reservoirs but only a few devoted a comment of the engineering skills of the tank-builders. Robert Knox (1680) had the courtesy of mentioning that these were,"…works of much art and immense labour". Nuwara Wewa is one of the three historic reservoirs that gave the name ‘Nuwarakalaviya ‘to the ancient Kandyan Sinhalese District; the other two being (Kala) Weva and Pada (viya). This is the very tank whose extensive bund gave refuge to fleeing Robert Knox in 1679. While on a fact finding mission to work out an escape plan, Knox had seen and gone past the Malwatu Oya on a previous occasion.. Knox with his fellow Englishman Stephen Rutland rested on the banks of Nuwara Weva in 1679 on his journey to freedom..

The builder of this magnificent tank is not clearly known. But traditionally the honour goes to king Watta Gamini Abhaya in the first century BC Parker, in his book, "Ancient Ceylon’ mentions that the dating of the construction of the tank had been made based on the size of the bricks, which are similar to that of Abhayagiri Stupa. Based on the same evidence the reservoir it is evident that the tank had been repaired in the third and the fifth centuries AC. The bund of this great reservoir is three miles long and has a height of 37 feet. The water height is 32 feet and covers an area of about 180 hectares confining a volume of water amounting to about 1500 million cubic feet of water. Brohier quotes Sir Henry Ward as saying, about the building of this tank, that this marvelous work which must have occupied 50,000 men for many years to complete. Although the tank was named Nuwara Weva, part of its waters was used for cultivation of rice and only some for the needs of the city. The location of the tank is in the shallow valley of the right bank of the Malwatu Oya. It is believed (see Brohier) that the water for the city proper was conducted over the Oya on to the left bank by way of an aqueduct. Not long after the building of the tank it was realized that the catchment area failed to fill the reservoir and the only possible answer was to divert water, along an artificial canal from the Malwatu oya. This was accomplished at the site of the ancient anicut built across the Oya close to where the present Matale – Anuradhapura road passes. According to Brohier nearly all the dressed stone slabs of this construction were removed by the British bridge builders for the road-bridge that spans the Oya at the 74th mile post.

As already mentioned this great city has had its more than fair share of travails and trepidations. But the resilience of the city, its rulers and the people is proved by their ability to repair and reconstruct the irrigation system and the religious edifices to their former glory following each pillage and sacking. This resilience continued up to the shifting of the capital to Polonnaruwa by King Wijayabahu 1 in 1055 AC. The decay and desolation of the great tank and the once magnificent city in subsequent centuries is exemplified by the comments of the British officers in the 19th Century. I. Liesching, the Assistant Government Agent of the Nuwarakalawiya District, wrote in his 1869 Report that the city of Anuradhapura was emphatically a city of the dead. He went on to say that, "…. scarcely a step could be taken, but the eye fell upon some memorial of the past and the mounds one carelessly passed were the sepulchers of kings; the bricks that the foot struck were the remains of the palaces. Amidst a silence as profound as of the grave, rose the colossal remains of a city whose walls 64 miles in circumference once echoed with the merry voices of children, while processions of kings and priests wound along the broad pavements of the now deserted courts, and prostrated themselves before the richly endowed shrines". In spite of all this Liesching said particularly regarding the ruined tanks, that the repair and improvement was the task and duty of the British. The British restored the ruined Nuwara Weva in 1889.

As we progress on the Airport Road we can see the great reservoir once again opposite the office of the Deputy Inspector General of Police. The bund of the City tank continues on our right hand side coming into clear view behind the old bus stand, as we pass towards the market place. On taking the first right we see on the left hand side the directions to the sacred area going past the railway station. We then take the A 12 and approach the historic Tholuvila Monastery Complex. Sadly the earlier road that skirted the extensive archeological site has been barricaded for security reasons and a new road heartlessly bisecting the centuries of history has been constructed. Almost immediately on entering the new road (A12) our eyes greet the scattered ruins of the monastery complex on both sides of road. Although the area is signposted as a protected archeological site encroachment of the site is visible to every one as we see barbed wire fencing of ‘private’ properties side by side strewn stone pillars. Tholuwila, among others like Pankuliya and Puliyankulama are pabbata viharas that are found in the outer circle of the city. These monasteries have several features in common. They are all moated and inner to the moat they usually had bamboo fences. The dwellings of the monks with areas for ablutions came next. The other essential features were the presence of the image houses, cetiyas and the bodhigaras. Each of these structures were precisely placed facing the appropriate direction. The moat that surrounded the Tholuwila complex are obliterated by modern day activities but water logged marshy areas are still visible indicating the moat site. Some scholars believe that the main object of veneration at the complex was the bodhigara while others consider the bodhigara and the four Buddha statues on the four sides of the bodhigara were the seat of veneration. The bodhigara is seen in an elevated terrace with steps leading to it from the bottom. The aesthetic creativity of the architects that built this complex is demonstrated by the long avenue or the stone paved ambulatory with a decorative curb that extend from the central structure for nearly hundred meters. The new road heartlessly goes right across this magnificent creation while hundreds of vehicles including trucks, buses, motor cars and armoured vehicles traverse the site day and night desecrating our proud heritage. It is really sad to watch this historic site being vandalized systematically. Today I see numerous push cycle and motor cycle tracts crisscrossing this historic site and towards the Market Place end I see a family living in a makeshift hut very close to a ruined shrine room with guard stones. Tholuvila is a household name among the thousands of Buddhists of this island. Mere mention of the name is enough to fill one’s heart with karuna, muditha and upekka as one takes his mind back to the infamous Tholuvila Buddha statue which is second only to the Samadhi statue in its serene beauty. The Statue, first discovered by HCP.Bell, now adorns the entrance to the National Museum in Colombo. It is interesting to note that the Nuwara Weva and most of the Tholuwila area was once claimed as personal property by a claimant who was supposed to have been a direct descendant of the ‘Suriya Kumara’ clan that accompanied the sacred Bo sapling. There have been a few letters in the popular press in the recent past by other individuals on this subject.

We see scattered ruins merging with private properties as we negotiate the bend near the Nivanthaka Chetiya Maha Vidyalaya. There is no historical evidence to denote the northern part of this complex as the site where Arahant Mahinda spent the night of his very first visit to the City of Anuradhapura after meeting the king at Mihintale. At the next bend, almost at right angles, we meet the old road going towards the Jaffna junction, parallel to the railway tract. On the right hand side, across the paddy fields, we see the mighty bund of the Nuwara Wewa. As we approach the Jaffna junction the Nuwara Wewa bund takes a sharp turn towards right, parallel to the Mihintale road.

At the Jaffna junction we take the left turn, cross the railway tract and at the clock tower take the right turn entering the Saliyapura road (Jaffna road). This road meets the A 9 at Rambawe. The straight road at the clock tower takes you to the sacred city. The wide, well maintained Saliyapura road gives us the pleasure of a delightful drive. As we pass the railway tract once again close to the turn to the Hatharaswela Maha Vidyalaya, we see the majestic parkland of the Pubbarama Monastery Complex. Pillaged and sacked on numerous occasions this site extending up to the opposite of the Faculty of Agriculture, Rajarata University at Puliyankulama. The site contains extensive ruins of a pabbata vihare with unique features. The main structure, the Bodhigara, is surrounded by thirty two kutis in mathematical precision. Unlike the rest of the monastery which is laid out in a square plan these buildings are in an eccentric position which is thought to be deliberately constructed according to a mystical (Tantric) formula. The complex is surrounded by a moat, crossed by draw bridges at four cardinal points. Outside the moat on the southern side are an excellently preserved hot-water bath and the remains of a refectory. Several scholars have written about the overgrown brick mound, belonging to the same Pulyankulama compex, across the Jaffna road which was excavated by HCP.Bell. According to him, a shaft dug vertically had led to a brick paved floor. Excavations along this paved area had led to a brick wall when extended to the sides appeared to curve from top to bottom like an egg shell with the top and bottom cut off. Some had conjectured that these were some sort of burial chambers and query whether this was the cemetery complex built by Pandukabhaya in the West side of the citadel. The site appeared to have been robbed and the only find had been a coin and a few fragments of bone. Part of the moat of the Pubbaramaya can still be seen just before passing the Agriculture Faculty.

About a kilometer from the Pubbaramaya ruins we come to the new Faculty of Medicine and Allied Sciences. I was unable to find much information on the historicity of Saliyapura. A recent reference to a village named Saliyapura was made by S.B.Atugoda in the Saturday magazine (The Island on line). He says that Princess Hemamala handed over the sacred tooth relic to King Siri Megavanna at the Kida Galgama Dalada Viharaya at the end her journey from Kalinga. The information further reads that the sacred tooth relic journeyed through Sema Madu, Ransi Madu, Ma Madu and Maha Kidagama to Saliyapura Dalada Viharaya. It is not certain whether this refers to the same Saliyapura where our faculty is located. .Our return journey back to the circuit bungalow in Airport road takes us through the same route in reverse order.

Every Friday evening we return our families in Kandy. We start our journey home from the Saliyapura campus, past the Puliyankulama Monastery Complex and turn left at the clock tower. We then drive along the Mihintale road to Matale junction. Here we take a right turn to drive up to Galkulama to meet the A9. On our way to Matale junction near the Nuwara Wewa security barrier is the Pabbata Vihara archeological site overlooking the imposing bund of the Nuwara Wewa. It is an impressive moated Pabbata vihara. There would have been five gate houses on the four sides. The centre of the complex is rectangular and there are steps leading to it from four sides. The retaining wall has had sculptured elephants in front view. This is considered to be the oldest hasti prakara discovered in the island. The ruins of a dagaba, image house, bodhgara and a chapter house are scattered around the central platform. A draw bridge probably gave access to the complex across the moat. Inscriptional; evidence shows us that the complex was built by King Jettatissa (26 – 275 AC). The Mahawamsa mentions an instance of King Jettatissa moving an image of the Buddha from Thuparamaya to this site. It is also mentioned that the very same statue was transferred to Abhayagiri Vihara by King Mahasena (275 – 01 AC).

How many, I wonder, of the thousands of people that go past these ancient sites each day pause to ponder on the historic importance of the ground they are treading on. I have come across, during my rather short stay here, long term residents who are quite oblivious to the historical and religious significance of the land they live in. The feeling of immense joy and pride I experience day and night and every day of the week when I think of the land consecrated by the likes of Arahant Mahinda, Theri Sangamitta, Prince Danta and Princess Hemamala and hundred and nineteen kings and queens is indescribable. I consider myself blessed to have this wonderful opportunity to live and work in this historic city that had been the cradle of Buddhist civilization of this resplendent island.


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