Bambaragasthalawa Naga Pabbata Monastery Ruins in Kumana (බඹරගස්තලාව නාග පබ්බත විහාරය)

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The destination was Bambaragasthalawa in Kumana (Yala East). I was part of a five-member group on this journey. After a hectic nine-hour drive from Colombo, in our Mitsubishi 4DR5 jeep, we approached the Kumana National Park. The sound of a bell was heard in the distance, coming from the famous Okanda Devala. The journey was tiring, but the morning breeze blowing across the rock boulder of the Devala soothed our weary bodies on this warm and sunny day.

The Yala East National Park, better known as Kumana, lies on the South East coast in the Eastern Province, 12 kilometres south of Panama, the most distant village in the area. Kumana is renowned for the variety of its wildlife, largely characteristic of a dry zone tropical forest. The world-famous mangrove swamp of Kumana provides a particularly important habitat for birds. Kumana is also named a Ramsar Wetland, the name given to ecologically important wetlands around the world.

Most visitors to Kumana go there to watch birds, but there is also an extensive number of ancient Buddhist monuments. Many of the ancient monuments and artefacts scattered throughout Kumana have now been vandalised by treasure hunters.

For years, the Kumana bird sanctuary remained a no-man’s land, occupied by LTTE terrorists. It had become a safe haven for poachers, treasure hunters and LTTE activities. Thankfully, now no one needs fear to travel there.

The Wildlife Department has set up a fully furnished office including sanitary facilities and a new circuit bungalow, overlooking Kiragala Bay. Visitors are also allowed to pitch camp within the park.

At the entrance to the park, we were provided with an experienced guide, Gayan. A young man, he knew every nook and corner of the Kumana sanctuary and was also quite knowledgeable; to name every bird and ancient site that we came across in the park.

We accompanied Gayan to bury some turtle eggs in the hatchery which had been set up in the park. The turtle breeding project had been set up by park officials mainly to increase the number of turtles which is dwindling due to the turtle eggs being destroyed by wild boar after the eggs are laid on the beach. Park officials have also taken steps to protect the eggs in a specially built hatchery on the beach of Kiragala Bay. We also witnessed the breeding process of the turtles in Kumana.

Tracks damaged

Passing the iconic Yoda Lipa in the park, we drove along the main track, which was severely damaged due to heavy rain, for over two kilometres and turned right to the jeep track leading to Bambaragasthalawa. We travelled another 14 kilometres on rough terrain, through an animal-infested jungle to reach Bambaragasthalawa. Many were the sights to behold! We passed magnificent lush green areas where water buffaloes and deer were grazing and small tanks and rocky water holes where water lilies were blossoming.

We had a glimpse of sun-bathing crocodiles, peacocks, painted storks waiting for prey in the water holes and hawks flying over the trees, searching for prey. After about two hours of an arduous journey, we reached the end of the track by a small hill.

Then we walked another 500 metres to reach the cave where the Bambaragasthalawa Buddha statue lies. We were cautioned not to make any noise and follow tracker Gayan, so as not to disturb the sloth bear which roamed the place. It contained many rocky boulders and caves, an ideal setting for bears to make a home, Gayan said.

In the distance, I saw an egg-shaped rock standing majestically amidst the forest canopy. I was standing in front of the Bambaragasthalawa Buddha statue, the place which we had been longing to see. I could see the ancient brick wall and the huge reclining Buddha statue of Bambaragasthalawa. The head of the statue was missing while the statue itself had been damaged due to various acts of humans and nature. I could imagine how it would have looked like when it was in pristine condition in a bygone era, venerated by Bhikkhus and pilgrims alike.

Today, the Bambaragasthalawa Buddha statue is in a pathetic state. The rare and precious statue had seen the worst kind of vandalism. The head of the statue lies smashed alongside the body, also damaged by vandals. The beautifully sculptured 26-foot-long reclining statue would most probably date back to the ninth century AD and had been designed in the Anuradhapura tradition. The statue had been vandalised from time to time by treasure hunters in search of valuables.

Few statues

A very few statues made of bricks, sand and lime plaster still exist. Similar statues could be found in Pidurangala, Tharulengala and Mailla in Kotiyagala. The Bambaragasthalawa sacred site comprises drip-ledged caves, ruins of stupas and ancient bricks scattered in vast areas in the jungle of Kumana. Archaeologists believe that in ancient times, the place would have been called Naga Pabbatha Vihara.

We saw numerous rock caves with inscriptions and ruined structures in the rocky boulders in the vicinity. All these ancient structures had been damaged by treasure hunters and are in ruins today. People call it Bambaragasthalawa now because of the huge trees found around this sacred site with Bambara (giant bee) hives. Bricks and stone-carved slabs are scattered everywhere.

We were taken to another rock cave close to Bambaragasthalawa where we found numerous rock inscriptions and drip-ledged caves. Gayan showed us a small cave where a sloth bear had made its home.

From atop the rock, we could see a fascinating sight of a large number of rock boulders standing out from the forest canopy of Kumana. The rocky caves were ideal for Bhikkhus to meditate in.

Kumana has several rock caves in areas such as Mandagala, Mayagala, Thalaguruhela, Dematagala, Bowattagala and Kiripokunahela with evidence of ancient rock caves and ruins, stupas, stone pillars and rock inscriptions.

It is believed that this area had been a monastic complex during the Anuradhapura period. We were disappointed that we couldn’t explore all the sacred sites, but according to Gayan, it would have been a hectic task.

“Practically, it is impossible to cover many places in one day because these sites are situated far from each other,” he said.

It took us over one hour to descend the rock and reach the main gate at Okanda, on our way out.

By Mahil Wijesinghe

The extensive ruins at Bambaragasthalawa consist of several caves with drip ledges hewn on the brow of the entrance. According to a pre-Christian cave inscription on one of the caves, its original name has been Nakapavatha. Therefore Nicholas has concluded that this monastery is probably the Naga Pabbata Viharaya built by King Gotabhaya, ruler of the Rohana kingdom very early in the 2nd century BCE.

According to Medhananda Thero, this complex spreads in an area of over 500 acres. Ten stupas are found at peaks of various rocks, all of which have been destroyed by treasure hunters. Among many other ruins of buildings, a building with 36 stone pillars can be seen. In addition, Image Houses, moonstones, broken Buddha images and stone seats are found scattered around the site.

The centrepiece of the monastery ruins is the great cave with ruins of a massive reclining Buddha statue. Brick walls have been built dividing the cave into many rooms. The northern side of the cave has been used as a dwelling house for the monks which later has been converted to a shrine room.

A vestibule has been built in front of the cave, measuring 16′ x 48′. Ten square holes were dug in the brow ridge of the cave so that wooden beams could be inserted into them. Stone pillars on the front side supported those beams at the front. The stone footsteps on two sides suggest that there were two entrances. A wooden door frame and one wooden pillar were recorded by Medhananda Thero.

The archaeological Department has copied 20 inscriptions here. Medhananda Thero has recorded another 14 cave inscriptions and 3 more rock inscriptions..

List of Archaeological Sites inside Yala and Kumana National Parks

References

  • C. W. Nicholas, 1963. Historical Topography of Ancient and Medival Ceylon. Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, New Series Volume VI Special Number, p.20.
  • E. Medhananda, 2005. The Sinhala Buddhist heritage in the East and the North of Shri [i.e. Sri] Lanka. 1st ed. Colombo: Dayawansa Jayakody & Co, pp.62-64.

Also See

Map of Bambaragasthalawa Naga Pabbata Monastery – Kumana

Please click on the button below to load the Dynamic Google Map (ගූගල් සිතියම් පහලින්)
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The map above also shows other places of interest within a approximately 20 km radius of the current site. Click on any of the markers and the info box to take you to information of these sites

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Travel Directions to Bambaragasthalawa Naga Pabbata Monastery – Kumana

This rocky outcrop lies inside the Kumana National Park.

Entrance to Kumana is from Okanda. Although the fastest route is through the Southern Expressway, The route through Balangoda – Beragala is very scenic.

Route I from Colombo to Kumana Park Entrance at Okanda Route II from Colombo to Kumana Park Entrance at Okanda
Through : Southern Highway – Mattala – Thanamalwila – Wellawaya – Monaragala – Potuvil – Panama – Okanda
Distance :420 km
Travel time : 7.30 hours.
Driving directions : see on Google map
Through : Balangoda – Beragala – Wellawaya – Monaragala – Potuvil – Panama – Okanda
Distance :345 km
Travel time : 9.30 hours.
Driving directions : see on Google map
Route from Potuvil to Kumana Park Entrance at Okanda
Through : Potuvil – Panama – Okanda
Distance :32 km
Travel time : 1 hours.
Driving directions : see on Google map

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