KELANIYA.................and Pink Ice Fruit
A visit to Kelaniya was entirely Upali's idea. Our Sinhalese tour escort swept aside all our meek protestations of " oh no, not another buddha temple !" with a firm, almost dictatorial , remark : " You come to Colombo and not see Kelaniya Mahavihara ? We are going. "
Mercifully, it was only 8 kms. outside Colombo. And i was glad we visited. ...(And Upali was glad that i was glad)
The magnificent vihara complex, with a typical " heaped paddy" type of stupa ( called the Dhaanyakkara pattern ) , is spread over 1o acres of brilliant green grassland , the main shrines standing atop a mound -accessed by a flight of steps ending in archways that faintly resemble portugese architecture. The Shrine is built of sandstone which, in broad daylight looks creamy and smooth. The outer walls are encrusted with friezes showing frolicking Ganas ( dwarves), swans , elephants and the Devalas,( deities like Ganesha, Vishnu, Ganga, Katragama ( General Skanda), Vibesana ( !!!) etc borrowed from Hinduism and a bodhisatwa and a king.). While the Apsaras and Devas, found in niches all around, are attractive and graceful, the three tiers of frieze borders running all around the temple walls are intricate, playful, full of character - especially the row of Ganas ( called here as Bahiravayos) who are supposed to be holding up the walls. The effort and earnestness shows in each individualistic face, each unique grimace. Such lovable demons !!!
Upali, with great enthusiasm, narrated the story of Kelaniya. The temple we see today is a fairly modern edifice, but the site's importance goes back to the Buddha's time itself. The Buddha, after attaining enlightment, visited Srilanka thrice and it was during the last visit that fell on the holy Wesak day that he sat on a jewelled throne here and gave his sermon. The Original Stupa ( or dagoba) was built entombing that throne, buddha's hair and the utensils he used. Later kings expanded the temple complex and a whole city grew up around it, on the banks of River Kelani, and thrived till the Portuguese invaded, demolished and plundered the city and the shrine. Later, the Dutch invaders, with a view to humoring the kings for favours, helped rebuild the vihara. This also fell into disrepair and it was only in the 18th cent. that the buddhist groups in the country got together to restore its glory, as a mark of opposition to the influx of christian missionaries and christianity into the small island. Around end-19th Cent., a devout lady made it her life's mission to repair and refurbish the ancient vihara, giving it its present form.
Kelaniya Mahavihara enjoys the distinction of being the first place where the Buddha's preachings were written down by Buddhaghosha into volumes called Tripitika. Sanghamitra is said to have brought a cutting of the original Bodhi Tree and planted it here. The tree we saw was said to be the very same one.....i dont know if that is entirely true, but no questioning faith !
The most impressive part of the shrine is the hall of murals. Though the ancient murals have vanished, the hall has retained a few from the Kandyan period ( 18th cent.) The rest of the frescoes are the work of one artist, Solius Mendis, of early 20th. cent. Reportedly, he first studied in detail the Ajantha murals, in situ, and then spent 20 painstaking years adorning the walls with his inspired work - mixing his own organic dyes and personally painting each and every hair and leaf of the amazingly intricate murals covering a hall 150 feet long ! ( this was in the 1930s)..... If that isnt a penance or meditation what is ??!!!
An old painting
The 20th. Cent. mural
In Srilanka, most Buddha images are H-U-G-E. Here too, we saw a gigantic Avalokiteswara. The courtyards here are vast, open and cool.
And very peaceful.
How wonderful to sit there , in meditation, for ever !.......
But there was shopping to be done at the Odel Mall in Colombo !
And so, with a namaskaram, we left the holy spot.
Climbing down from the mound, moving towards the car park, we saw a line of kiosks towards the outer edge of the complex. Among the wares were incense sticks ( the kind that give off plenty of fumes but hardly any fragrance) small baskets of flowers as well as vases of artificial flowers, picture cards, votive offerings and beautiful amulets made of terracotta..........and ice-fruit. This last-mentioned is actually a fistful of crushed ice, poured over with some appallingly coloured syrup. The smell of rose essence is particularly strong in these kiosks.
Upali energetically persuaded us to try the rose ice, but we were chickened off . The florid hue looked neither appetizing nor like food colour. So, no thank you. He thought we were too fussy - after all, all around us people, including kids, were slurping away to glory and not exactly falling dead ! But , yet........
Winding our way through the village road, we saw a domesticated elephant taking a walk with his mahout. A line of five ochre robed monks glided by on measured steps. An old woman in native sarong, pushed a lit candle stick into a woven palmleaf lampshade which was fastened to the coloumn by her wicket gate. Dusk was falling. I took a look through the rear glass of the car. Only green treetops showed. But i knew that the sandstone shrine would by then be shimmering like gold, like an intimation of divinity.