Swarnamali Maha Seya and the forgotten monk


by Upali Salgado

The story of the Maha Seya, the most venerated and mighty Dagaba at Anuradhapura, which is said to be larger-than the third pyramid at Gizza in Egypt, - both in content and height, is associated with the Mahavamsa’s great king and hero of the Sinhalese, King Dutugemunu.

History records, Arahat Mahinda had informed King Devanampiyatissa that, at Anuradhapura there was a spot consecrated by four previous Buddhas, and in time to come a beautiful and large Dagaba would be built, one hundred and twenty cubits high to enshrine several relics of Sakyamuni Gotama Buddha. The king hearing of this, was anxious to proceed with the ambitious construction work himself, but the Arahat had stayed him, and foretold that one of his descendants, a mighty king loved by his people, named Dutthagamini Abhaya (161-137 B. C), would six generations later be the destined one to construct the said Dagaba. Thereafter, King Devanampiyatissa had caused the prophecy to be engraved on a stone pillar which exists today on the North side of the great Dagaba.

What the chronicles say

The MAHAVAMSA and the THUPAVAMSA, two Pali Chronicles of ancient times, state that King Dutugemunu mustered support from over a thousand villages of his kingdom. To build this enormous Dagaba in honour of the Buddha. In the Pali Chronicles it is recorded that the King ordered that all his subjects who perform numerous deeds in regard to the construction work were, to be paid. They performed their tasks in accordance with their caste. For the building of the Maha Seya the king supplied barbers free of charge, and 1500 wagon loads of clothes rolled in bundles, honey, clarified butter and sugar were provided. The soldiers were ordered to bring rounded stones, whilst the samanera monks brought clay. As revealed in the DIPAVAMSA (Oldenberg’s translation) Dutthagamini built the Maha Stupa (also known as the Ruwan veli Seya, the Swarnanmali Chetiya or the Hemamali Cheitya), at the foundation of which the following materials were used: Chunam work, clay bricks, pure earth, a plate of Iron, gravel, eight layers of rock stones, crystal, copper and silver. Present at the time of the laying of the foundation were the clever Indagutta Maha Thera, Dharmasena Maha Thera the great preacher, Mahadeva, Uttara Thera and the learned Dhammarakkitha Maha Thera who had all come from Jambudeepa. The king with great joy had enshrined in all foul corners of the Mahaseya, where Wahalkade’s were built valuable treasures, including gold and silver found in two villages, Archaragama in the North East and at a cave to Amutota in the South. Amutota is now known as Ridigama where the Ridhi Vihare stands. (12 miles East of Kurunegala). Although King Dutugemunu started to build this Maha Seya, he could not live long enough to see its completion. The Mahavamsa vividly portrays the Great Kings dying moments. It states thus "Lying on a Palanquin, the King went thither and passed round the great chetiya paying homage and was surrounded by the brotherhood of monks. The work was completed by his younger brother Saddhatissa, who had placed as the crown of the Maha Seya, a glass pinnacle. Subsequently, several other kings who ruled in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa had maintained the great Dagaba. Particular mention has been made of King Aggabodhi 1 who fixed a stone chattya (umbrella) to the crown of the Maha Saya. King Dhatusena (of Kalawewa fame) (AC 459-477) had also gifted another chattya to this great Maha Seya. Two other well known Kings were Parakrama Bahu I and Nissanka Malla. When the South Indian marauder, Maggha invaded the northern territory of the island, he plundered the treasures enshrined and destroyed places of Buddhist worship. Thereafter, with the spread of malaria, the population drifted to the south. The Maha Seya became neglected until it gradually crumbled down, to remain as a 189 feet tall large heap of bricks and stone, overrun with jungle and brushwood.

Sumanasara Unnanse

It was in this background of utter neglect that the now forgotten Monk Venerable Naranvita Sumanasara Thera appeared at this historic and much hallowed site in the Mahamegha Uyana. With great piety and stoic determination, without any financial or human resources backing him, the monk firmly resolved in 1873 to commence restoration work all by himself. The Devas were to protect and guide him in his enormous task. Now, who is this forgotten monk who set the ball roll to restore completely, the Maha Seya that was in ruins? Was he God Vishnu’s Agent sent with a warrant to commence restoration work, and inspire and awaken, Buddhist Society in Ceylon?

About in 1850, when much of upper Gampola - Galaha districts were covered with virgin jungle, and was the home for roaming wild elephants; at an age when the motor vehicle was unknown, the Bullock Cart was the common mode of transport and for travelling with perhaps, the Horse and trap that plied between major towns, there lived at Naranvita, two miles towards Doluwe, a boy who was the adopted son of one Ratnayake Appuhamy and Menike. The lad used to often visit the village temple. By listening to the monks who daily recited Pali stanzas and suttas, he was able to memorise and recite long stanzas with absolute clear diction. He was intelligent, industrious and bore a strong character. Before long, he was ordained a Bhikkhu by the Venerable Karaliyadda Gnana Tissa Thera, the chief incumbent of the Temple, but due to a displeasure incurred with his superior, he migrated to Dumbara. In 1873, he joined a pilgrim cart caravan that left the hill country bound for the sacred city of Anuradhapura. On reaching the Maha Megha-Uyana the monk saw to his sorrow the Maha Seya appeared as a huge shapeless mass of naked bricks in ruins. Recalling the glory there was in the times of the Sinhalese Kings, he was deeply moved and resolved that, he himself’ must restore the great stupa, though it appeared to be a "Herculian task". Naranvita Sumanasara "Unnanse", as he was popularly known, thereafter for years lived like a Gypsy under a huge Na-tree, within 50 yards of the Maha Seya and slept in an abandoned Bullock Cart, with a lantern and a mongrel for company. The dense jungle around looked frightening to live with, as it was the home of the bear, the wild boar, deadly poisonous snakes, scorpions and the malarial mosquito. Yet, the monk braved them all and commenced work at an age when there were no mechanised earth movers, and lumberjack’s saws. To assist him, at that age there were no Buddhist leaders. Anagarika Dharmapala was then nine years old, and Harischandra Walisinghe helped him about thirty years later, until his early demise in 1913. As the "Champion of Buddhist Causes" Harischandra Walisinghe was always busy spearheading the Buddhist revival locally, and agitating for the establishment of Anuradhapura as a Sacred City. A generation of wealthy Buddhists was just then in the offing, with contracts were taken for the building of the Colombo Port Breakwater, the Museum and the Old Town Hall, the establishment of the Tea and Rubber plantations, the handling of transport services of produce, making of high class furniture at Moratuwa, and the grant of official licences for Arrack renting. It were these business minded upper class Buddhists who later gave a hand for the Buddhist revival that took place between 1890 - 1940. Who were they? To mention a few notable names, Mudaliyar Henry Amarasuriya of Galle, Mudaliyar Francis Jayawickrama of Matara, Gate Mudaliyar Samson Rajapakse of Balapitiya, Mudaliyar Adrian Sahabandu of Balapitiya, Sir Baron Jayathileke, Mudaliyar Sri Chandrasekera of Moratuwa, Mrs. Helena Wijewardane of Sedawatte, Mrs. Jeromias Dias of Panadura, Sir Bennet and lady Sara Soysa of Kandy and Mudaliyar D. D. Weerasinghe of Wellawatte. In this background on Poya full moon days, when there arrived by cart, small groups of pilgrims. Ven. Sumanasara the pioneer monk solicited their help to perform shramadana. This was always gladly given. Pilgrims seldom stayed long, because of the presence of the Malarial Mosquito.

Sir William

Mr. Dickson, the Government Agent at that time, had seen for himself the great strides the monk was achieving in restoration work. In an official despatch to the Colonial Governor, Sir William Henry Gregory K.C.M.G (1872-1877) he said, "The Maha Seya looked a beauty in purdah. As guardian of this damsel, we need to give support to unveil the beauty of this". Sir William, was a lover of the ruins. He visited the indefatigable monk and saw what had encouraged the pioneer monk in his work with a personal donation of Rs.1000/- (which at that time was considered a handsome sum), and also brought Naranvita Sumanasara Thera’s efforts to the notice of Lord Carnavon, Secretary of State. This move later, resulted in the appointment of H.C.P. Bell, CCS (1893 - 1912), though not a trained Archaeologist, to frequently visit the site. Mr. Bell CCS, functioned as the island’s first Archaeological Commissioner, and was assisted in his work by S. Montague Burrows, CCS. At that time, John Still with his writings spotlighted the glory there had been in the buried cities in the jungle.

"The Ruwanveli Maha Chetiya Wardana Samitiya" - (the Ruwanveli Seya Restoration Society) was founded by the Venerable Naranvita Sumanasara Thera, in August 1902, without any newspaper publicity. The pioneer monk had by then won over the hearts of the Colonial Administrators. He knew that the required finances would pour in eventually because results by his efforts were visible. Earlier, Sir William Gregory, Governor who was impressed with the work done, had given the monk a testimonial, which went a long way to create in the minds of the Sinhalese that, this was a worthy cause.

The "Sein Bu" Crystal

It is not known when the pioneer monk Sumanasara "Unnanse" died, but, the restoration work continued unabated throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s. Enshrinement of Buddha relics in the "Sataraskotuwa" took place in December 1932, and eight years later, the Pinnacle laying (crowning) ceremony with the installation of a CHUDA - MANIKKA (Seinbu Crystal), gifted by the Burmese Buddhists took place on 17 June 1940. The Venerable Vinyalankara, Sanghanayake of Burma arrived at the Mahamega Uyana, along with a group of Burmese monks. Amidst cries of "Sadu, Sadu" from thousands of Buddhist devotees who had assembled, the Seinbu Crystal was laid into position atop to crown the Maha Seya. A sea of saffron coloured robed Bhikkhus chanted the three suttas. Present at this historic occasion were several Mahanayake Thera’s, D.S. Senanayake, Sir Baron Jayatilleke, C.W.W. Kannangara, Sir Ernest and Lady de Silva, Henry Amarasuriya, Gate Mudaliyar, R. J. Wijetunge, D.S.A,R. Weerasekera and several other notable Buddhists of yesteryear. At the auspicious time, a twin seater Aeroplane circled above the Maha Seya and dropped Jasmine flowers, whilst a squadron of swallows dived low from their dizzy heights, in salutation and circled around the Maha Seya, thrice. This certainly was an unusual happening! Especially on this auspicious day.

Sixty seven years

One of the greatest Buddhist events in our history had taken place without some of the principle persons associated with this restoration work being present. Sadly, the Venerable Naranvita Sumanasara who conceived the great and grand idea of restoring the Maha Seya had passed away. His friend, Bulankulama Kumarihamy supplied labour gangs for many years, Situge Don Hendrick Silva (Henegama Appuhamy-the millionaire of Ruhuna) donated Rs. 250,000 - a handsome donation at that time; Averiwatte Kumarasinghe Ransirinel Perera (Averiwatte Vedamahatmaya) was another great philanthrophist, Brahmachari Harischandra Walisinghe and D.S.C. Jinadasa were not among the living to witness the grand finale. It had taken 67 long years for this gigantic task to be accomplished!

On that Poya starry night, thousands of devotees went in procession around the Maha Seya Maluwa for many hours, reciting the Maha Mangala, Ratans and Karaneiya - Metta Sutras, each one of the devotees carrying a lighted torch, whilst over 10,000 oil lamps had been lit. Sweet smell from smoke of lighted incense filled the air. The Ruwanveli Maha Seya was electrically flood lit. Colourful flags and bunting were seen all over. With all that mass of human activity, and religious devotions taking place, there was heard in the background, the sound of over 250 drums and flutes reverberating deep into the stillness of the night. It was a spectacular scenario, never witnessed before (or even after) and lifted high the hearts of Buddhists gathered there, in their many thousands.

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