During my two weeks stay in Sri Lanka, my second destination from Colombo was Habarana. Enroute this curious town, I halted by the Kurunegala Ridee Viharaya, a 2nd-century Theravada Buddhist sanctuary. Kurunegala is one of Sri Lanka’s major cities. Situated about three hours from Colombo, this ancient temple was set up by King Dutu Gemunu, the veteran hero of Sri Lanka. Legends have it that at the time King Dutugamunu did not have the assets to complete the Ruwanweliseya Stupa at Anuradhapura, he accidentally discovered a rich-fracture of silver at the Ridigma village. He then utilised this freshly discovered riches to continue designing Ruwanweliseya Stupa. Wherein, to express his gratitude to the divine being, he constructed a temple at the location of the silver ore.
Even though the entire neighbourhood is surrounded, by lush forests, it can get really, hot on some days. And the temple does not show itself until you do some walking. Before entering the Ridee Viharaya (Silver Temple), we stopped by a small house nearby. This place houses ancient artefacts from the bygone era. Here you will find objects like antique lamps, vintage wooden carvings, and paintings created in organic colours.
Subsequent to visiting this house, I went to the Silver Temple. A small white door marks the entrance of this temple. Crossover the door and a gigantic rock will show up with a majestic temple. Rising, against the backdrop of a stunning landscape, this legendary temple stands 200 feet high. The cave, however, is built under a rock outcrop that flaunts Brahmin inscriptions dating back to the 2nd century BC. One of the reasons why this cave evinces immense peace is that once upon a time, it was occupied by numerous Arahaths. An Arahath, in Buddhism, is a person who has achieved nirvana.
The historical chronicles of Mahavamsa narrate the story of King Dutugemunu’s commitment to building a temple at this location. The village also, received its name “Ridigama,” after King Dutugemunu developed the temple. When you arrive at the rock cave, it’s not unusual to question the history of its foundation. Like I was curious to find out, how, King Dutugemunu discovered this spot? I’m sure a question posed by many! So to answer it, here’s how the story goes. At the time, King Dutu Gemunu, couldn’t bear the expenses of the tremendous endeavour of building Ruwanweli Dagaba, a miracle turned around the events.
Around the same time, a ginger merchant was passing by Kurunegala and decided to stop for a while. He lacked wood for wagon whips, so he climbed a mountain to see what he can find. There, he saw a tree branch hauling down by the weight of a Jackfruit. So he plucked the fruit thinking he will offer the first food as alms. Almost instantaneously several Arahants arrived, to whom the merchant gave the fruit as alms. The merchant gladly cut away the rind of the jackfruit to pour its juice into the bowls of the Arahants. Next, he filled their bowls with the kernels. While most Arahants left after the meal, Venerable Indagupta stayed back to express his gratitude. Subsequent to eating the fruit, Venerable Indagupta demonstrated a path while uttering, “Go thou now also on this path, lay brother.”
Following in the steps of the Arahant, the ginger merchant entered a rock cave. Before long, he discerned that this cave was full of silver. Elated, he struck a piece of silver with his axe and took it to King Dutu Gemunu. The streak of silver made the King even richer. Thereafter King Dutu Gemunu sent 300 stonemasons and 700 artisans to the site to build a Vihara. He also completed building the Ruwanweli Maha Stupa with no obstructions. Almost two centuries later, in 29 AC, King Amandagamini renovated the Vihara. He added Rajatalena Vihara, the Royal Cave Temple and carved various inscriptions on it. These carvings imply that the King was a supporter of the Vihara before he scaled the throne. During the Kandyan rule, in the 17th-century, the entire temple was transformed into Rajamaha Vihara by King Keerthi Sri Rajasinghe. As, a matter of fact, all the frescoes, Buddha statues, decorative paintings, images of deities, and wood and stone carvings in the temple belong to the Kandyan period.
Before you enter the temple, notice the ‘Dragon Arch’ above the Maha Vihara door. This artwork represents the creativity of the Kandyan period. Above the arch are four images of gods. You will find a similar dragon arch at the top shrine, as well. Beyond, this lovely door is Maha Vihara, or, the Main Shrine. Also, known as the Pahala Vihara, or, the lower shrine. This large Maha Vihara is an echoing cave packed with enormous, divine bodies of the Buddha. In the middle of this room, you will see a gold-coloured statue of the Buddha encased in glass. I was observing the right hand of Buddha, held sideways, when the temple keeper moved closer and said, “It’s Bhumis-Parsa Mudra, the pose of reaching the earth. The silver was discovered right here.”
On one side of the wall, you will find 5 fundamental Buddha statues built by King Keerthi. On the other side, is what magnifies the impressiveness of this cave – A large, reclining Buddha Statue against a stark background.
This 27 feet recumbent Buddha is the largest of all. When I asked the temple keeper about the building material of the 5 Buddha sculptures in a row, he said, most of these are built on a wooden core, coated with brick and mortar. Following the sculptures were plastered, and painted, in yellow, orange, red and black colours. Also gilded, to enhance their appearance. In this Vihara, you will also spot a crumbling wooden core of Lord Vishnu. The marble statue belongs to King Dutu Gemunu, the creator of this temple complex. In the Main Vihara, you will also find the alms bowl, used for Buddha Puja in the ancient days.
Yet, another interesting factor to observe in this cave is the presence of Jesus Christ. A trail of 100 Dutch ceramic tiles is paved on the flower pedestal, depicting the life story of Jesus Christ. You will find them near the feet of the reclining Buddha. After Maha Vihara, I stepped out to see the precious chamber where they store the ornaments of the gods. The door frame to this chamber is one of the greatest to have survived in this century. It exhibits some of the most sensational ivory carvings and marks the golden age of the Kandyan art. During the reign of King Keerthi, elephant tusks were hugely prized and were an exclusive preserve of the kings, the nobles and the great Viharas.
After a climbing a set of stone steps, I reached the 18th-century Uda Vihara or otherwise known as the Upper Shrine. It is located, over the Maha Vihara. This part of the cave is compact, yet decorated, with frescoes and elaborate paintings. King Keerthi Sri Rajasinghe had turned this cave into a Vihara. Inside this cave, I met with a beautiful 18 feet statue of the Samadhi Buddha. Legend has it that in Kandyan culture, this statue is deemed extraordinarily elegant, stunning and serene. Temple keeper told me that this statue symbolises King Keerthi’s support towards Buddhism. The Cetiya (on the side of the Uda Viharaya) underneath the rock was also, built during the Kandyan period.
I was impressed by the vibrant carvings in yellow, red and black colours. The fresco artists who designed this Vihara also added clever visual tricks to its interiors. For instance, what appears to be an elephant above the exterior doorway to the right, reveals itself to be a formation of nine maidens. As well the roof is painted in various patterns. Take a look at the top centre, where you will notice a carving of five interwoven female figurines. These are the Pancha Naari Getaya in the shape of a pot. Together, three chambers complete the Uda Vihara and are connected, with a single corridor.
The 1st chamber is dedicated, to Kumara Bandara Deviyo, the protector of the rock of Rideevihara. The 2nd chamber flaunts peculiar drawings by countryside artists. Like Tri Singha, the picture of three lions with one head, and Vrushaba Kunjaraya, the drawing with the entwined heads, of the bull and the elephant. On the same pedestal, I also noticed three soldier pictures, which I think was the depiction of Rama and Ravana battle. The first floor also houses a small Lakshmi temple.
While leaving, I took a last look at the hallway. It displays eight stone pillars with carvings of female dancers, very unusual for a Buddhist house but not so uncommon for the Kandyan period. On my way in, I had noticed a peculiar stone house outside the Ridee Vihara. On my way out, I took a short halt by it, to understand its significance. I found out that this stone house is Varaka Velandu Viharaya. It’s here, at this small temple is where the Arahant had eaten the Jackfruit. During my visit, this temple was under construction so I couldn’t look inside. On the whole, a great insight into a Buddhist temple of its kind.
P.S. I visited Ridee Viharaya as a guest of Sri Lanka Tourism Board, however, the views are my own.