Enjoy the bus ride down the picturesque road from Suriyawewa to Mahagal Wewa in the Northern part of Hambantota District. The sight ahead, through the bus’ windscreen of the shrub plain against the mild rays of sun is beckoning. Coming from Embilipitiya, my mood changes like the weather as I pass by acres of lush green fields on either side of the newly built tar road. Paddy fields and banana plantations fill up the landscape. The gentle breeze rejuvenates as I head for Migahajadura, which however is not my destination. It is a scenic locale, an area of tranquil beauty with paddy fields and tall trees that span out across the plains and provide much need shade.
A little beyond the village of Migahajadura, my destination is Mahagal Wewa where the historic Padikemgala Buddhist monastery rises majestically against a backdrop of lush greenery. The site is another sample of ancient grandeur of the Ruhuna Kingdom, situated on a rocky boulder in boundary of Mahagal Wewa, irrigation tank which provides water to the farming community in the area. The monastery covers 50 acres of thick forest where numerous stone ruins have been buried.
When I entered to the monastery’s main entrance, I saw the chief monk, who was under a shady tree supervising the man who was cleaning the garden. I entered the Avasa Ge with the chief monk and sat on the verandah. The place was cool due to a thick forest canopy. Through the windows of the Avasa Ge I saw huge trees such as tamarind, ebony, woodapple, palu and weera.
Five decades ago, the whole Mahagal Wewa area was in thick jungle and if anyone ventured there it was for hunting. In 1958, a pious Buddhist called Ven. Lunama Gnanananda Thero 71, (who is the chief monk of the temple today) came upon an enchanting monastery buried in the thick jungle of Mahagal Wewa.
The temple, called the historic Padikemgala Raja Maha Viharaya, belongs to the 3rd century BC period, and was the work of king Mahanaga, who ruled the kingdom of Ruhuna. During his reign, he built numerous temples, irrigation tanks and canals throughout Ruhuna, giving priority to agriculture and Buddhism.
Padikemgala, the temple has got its name from a huge water hole in the cavity of a rock surface with a flight of steps carved out of the boulders in the temple believed to have been used by meditating monks in the past. The young two men in the temple took me to the water hole lying in the rock boulder. A pair of vertical rocks stand sentinel as they have been doing for centuries.
The shrubs abruptly disappear allowing me a glimpse of a vast stretch of forest plains of Mahagal Wewa. Suddenly, a water hole with a flight of steps zoomed in to my view. When I climbed down, I saw a placid tank on the slope of the rocky boulder through the forest.
The footpath which leads to the tank under the forest canopy of the temple, have been used by monks in the past.
When the foreign invasions began, this temple was also destroyed by Cholas followed by treasure hunters and then it was completely eaten away by the jungle before the chief monk found this historic site nearly five decades ago. There are ruins of several structures. Numerous stone pillars are scattered over an extensive area and indicate that in the past this has been a reputed Buddhist monastery.
The historic Padikemgala is unique for many reasons. It is renowned for its Bodhigara or repository. There are only two Bodhigaras in Sri Lanka. A square one is in Nilakkagama in Galgamuwa. The other, oval shaped, is this one in Padikemgala, built by King Mahanaga. The ruins of the Bodhigara were scattered all over the area before the Department of Archaeology undertook conservation in 1988.
The Bodhigara is constructed in marble and in the middle there is a stone plaque that was used to place the Bo-sapling in a bowl. Around the Bodhigara, Sath Sathiya or the seven weeks spent by Lord Buddha after he attained enlightenment was intricately carved out of marble rock .Even today, one can see the figures, although many of them have faded due to the prevailing weather conditions. According to the chief monk, in the early days, there was a roof on the top of the Bodhigara. As you proceed along the left side of the temple under a forest canopy, you can see several stone ruins of guard stones, a broken Buddha statue, ruins of a Dagoba and stone pillars of a huge structure are all covered by the forest and many more ruins are believed to be buried under the earth.
If you climb up to the rock boulder, you can spot the massive Mahagal Wewa tank through the plains. It was built by King Mahanaga and the later reconstructed by a local king called Mahasen. At present, the farmers of the Mahagal Wewa farming colony receive water from this tank for their paddy cultivation in the Maha season. When they experience drought, they have to travel miles and miles in search of water.
Despite many difficulties, the chief monk of the temple conducts Dhamma school each Sunday in order to provide better Dhamma education to the children of the area. According to the chief monk, getting text books on time and severe shortage of teachers in the area are problems they face. “If the government gives some sort of help for these Dhamma schools in remote areas like ours, that will certainly improve the education of rural children,” the chief monk said.
Padikemgala is a place of cultural value and part of a rich heritage we are fast losing. The need today is to have this ancient temple steeped in history properly conserved and to carry out a thorough archaeological survey of the area.