Poson Day Historic Reflections and Buddhist Activity in the Colonial Time


By Upali K Salgado

Ancient chronicles the Mahavansa and the Deepavansa records that before the Maha Parinibbana (demise) of Sakyamuni Gothama Buddha at Kushinara (modern Kashimagar), He foretold to his disciples who were present that, "two hundred and sixty years later, a Thera named Mahinda will arrive with splendour (in the sky) to shine in Lankadeepa. There will be a beautiful place named Thuparama, and the Island will be known as THAMBAPANNI. They will deposit a relic of my body in that most excellent place in the island. The Mahavansa states that Thera Maha Mahinda, with four others, on a full moon day (Uposatha), in the month of Jetta, will, with wondrous powers, alight at the mount Missaka on the Sila peak, at Ambastalle (now identified as Mihintale). This historic event that took place in the 3rd century B.C. could be considered as the greatest historical went in Lanka, and its significance is manifold. The King, Devanampiya Tissa (247-207 BC), that time happened to be engaged in deer hunting spots had met the great sage Mahinda. In a brief conversation that took place, to check the intelligence an comprehension of the monarch, the sage then delivered Chulla Hatthi Padopama Sutta, which is the essence of Buddhism. At the end of the historic discourse, king Devanampiya Tissa and his entire retinue readily accepted the noble Buddha Dhamma, and became followers of Buddhism.

This historical event is important because it brought a new religious and social revolution in ancient Lanka. It could rightly be said that it was the beginning of Sinhala Buddhist culture, which though in later years, with the advent the Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial powers was able to withstand their missionary designs. The historic event also marked the founding of the Buddhist monastic order in Sri Lanka and paved the way for the arrival of the sage Maha Mahinda’s sister, Sanghamitta Theri, the daughter of Emperor Asoka of India (273-236 BC). She brought with her a sapling of the Bo Tree from Buddha Gaya with great devotion and ceremony, to be planted at Maha Megha Uyana in Anuradhapura. Sangamitta Theri and several Bhikkunis, who arrived with her, were also responsible in establishing a Bhikkuni order (Buddhist nuns). With these happenings, there ushered in the island an effervescence of art and culture that is outstanding. Buddhist and oriental Art with "liyaveli" and lotus motiffs, beautiful Guardstones and Moonstones had adorned Vihares, Vahalkadas and large buildings which are now in ruins. The visit of Maha Mahinda Thera also is important as it cemented a close relationship with India during Emperor Asoka’s time.

No story about Mihintale would be complete without a reference to two men who left an indisputable record of achievements. Prof. Senerath Paranavithana, the Epigraphist and Archaeologist of fame who toiled in malaria infested dense jungle habitats with inadequate manpower and finances is one of them. The other is Walisingha Harischandra whose reverberating loud stentorian voice was heard to thunder without the aid of a microphone, for devotees to hear on poya days, decrying what the colonial Britisher moved to do in 1923, by taking over unjustly vast tracts of Mihintale Temple property under the Waste Lands Ordinance. He often went to jail because he was the "champion" of Buddhist causes.

With the arrival of the western powers, the status of Buddhism in the island was challenged. At first there was a decline in the spiritual aspect of the preservation of the Buddhism "with ganin-nansays" residing in temples. During the reign of King Keerthisri Rajasingha of Kandy (with the help of the Dutch who controlled the Maritime Provinces of Ceylon, two sailing vessels were provided), Ven. Welivita Pindapathika Asarana Sarana ,Saranankara Maha Thera (1753-1777) sailed from Trincomalee to Siam (now known as Thailand) to bring to Lanka, a valid Upasampada (Higher Ordination), held at Pushparama Temple, now known as the Malwatte Maha Vihara in Kandy. Thus was born the Siyam Maha Nikaya with an Upasampada that took place on 10th July, 1753. Subsequently, in 1803 the Amarapura Maha Nikaya was established at Ambagahapitiya Mula Maha Vihara, Welithara, Balapitiya. The Ramanya Maha Nikaya was also established in 1807. In the backgound of all these happenings during the colonial rule, the historic Panadura Debate took place around 1875 with the Wesliyan Mission. This was followed by a Buddhist renaissance. Several large stupas and temples, which were in ruins were restored and new Buddhist schools were established all over the island. Ananda College, with early benefactors, namely Gate Mudaliyar Samson Rajapaksha, Peter De Abrew; Mahinda College Galle had Gate Mudaliyar Henry Woodward Amarasuriya, and his son H W Amarasuriya as benefactors. Dharmaraja College, Kandy had Anagarika Dharmapala and Sir D. B. Jayathilake as founders with H. Billimoria (a Parsee) as a pioneer educationalist; Mueseus Girls’ School was helped by Sir D. B. Jayathilake and had Mari Higgins as the Head: Visakha Vidyalaya was founded by Mrs. Jeramios Dias (Celestine Rodrigo), Mahamaya Girls’ School had Sir Bennet and Lady Sara Soysa as founder philanthropists. The Tissa Maha Seya was renovated around 1908 with the leadership of Mudaliyar Sudurukku Farancis Jayawickrama of Matara and N Amarasingha of Tangalle; the Seruvila Maha Seya was renovated in 1915 with the leadership of Mudaliyar D. D. Weerasingha of Wellawatte. The Kelani Raja Maha Viharaya was renovated between 1935 and 1948 having beautiful wall paintings of Solis Mendis, with the wealth of Mrs. Helena Wijewardena and her children; Sir Ernest De Silva was a philanthropist who founded Devapathiraja College Ratgama, the Walana Katunayake Boys’ School and the Buddhist Orphanage. He also donated in 1911 Polgasduwa island in Dodanduwa to be a hermitage for Buddhist monks. Dr. W. Arthur Silva and his wife Kathrene donated in 1922 four acres of land at Wellawatta to establish the Sri Lankadara Society Orphanage. In 1920, the Pedris family of Colombo donated to the Maha Sangha the Isipathanaramaya in Colombo. Over 100 years ago Sir D. B. Jayathilake founded of the YMBA, a powerhouse to hold dhamma classes, seminars and other Buddhist activities. The Buddhist renaissance made the Tower Hall Maradana a hive of activity with song and dance. The Jathaka "Vessantara" was seen on the boards of the theatre, and the immortal song "Danno Budunge" was sung for the first time in 1917 under the leadership of the celebrated playwrite, Proctor John De. Silva. Restoration of the Ruwanveli Maha Seya, Anuradhapura, took place in 1938 and was a major event in the Buddhist calender. The ancient hermitage of King Valagamba’s time, known as Salgala Aranaya situated near Warakapola, was again founded by H. Sri Nissanka K. C. The Vajiraratna temple in Bambalapitiya became a great seat of learning and was founded in 1905 by the most Ven. Sri Vajiragnana Maha Navaka Thera. Other scholar monks associated with this temple were Ven. Narada Maha Thera, Ven. Soma Maha Thera, Ven. Keminda Maha Thera, Ven. Piyadassi Nayaka Thera. Notable monks of the British colonial period were Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera, Ven. Weligama Sumangala Nayaka Thera, Ven. Soratha Thera, Ven. Balangoda Ananda Maitriya Thera, Ven. Heenatiyana Dhammaloka Tissa Maha Navaka Thera, Ven. Renukane Chandavimala Thera, Ven. Gnanatiloka Maha Thera and Ven. Gnanaponika Maha Thera.

Whilst this story has unfolded itself with an array of interesting facts, beginning with the arrival of Arahant Maha Mahinda and Sanghamitta Theri, the people of this hallowed island continue to cherish and be enriched with the noble Buddha Dhamma, and Buddhist culture.

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