Dust rose in greeting from the parched asphalt as we travelled on the Hambantota main road towards Bandagi-riya, a remote village nestled amongst rocks and lush greenery in the historical Giruva-pattuwa so idyllic and sans the semi modern features of many a village of today.
Yet Bandagiriya is an underdeveloped area, with people having to walk miles to reach the main road, and their main source of imagetransport still being the bullock cart. Their singular source of income is vegetable cultivation which is often destroyed by the prevailing weather conditions or wild animals. Facilities are few and electricity is still a dream, and during the drought, water becomes scarce driving the villagers to despair.
Bandagiriya is also a veritable garden of rare herbs and other plants which belies its thorny appearance. Despite nature’s bounty, it is a village struggling for survival and the preservation of the semblances of its glorious past. Its history is hidden by the thick folds of poverty in the area.
Bandagiriya’s rich heritage dates back to King Mahanaga’s reign. But the ancient temple of Badagiriya is in ruins with little protection from the beating of weather, though there still lurks the splendour of the bygone era when kings dwelled and generously contributed to the perpetuation of Buddhism and the construction of temples.
The Viharaya lies in a sprawling 100 acre plot of land, donated to the clergy by King Mahan-aga. Today, the jungle has eaten Ven. Kamaburuganuwe Deepanandainto over 80 acres, and the rest is often threatened by floods. As we made our journey upwards, rabbits occupying the tiny caves at the bottom ran away in fear, as did the monkeys perched on tree tops.
The ancient viharaya has been constructed by joining two massive rocks; hence the name Banda-giriya or Banda-giriya. When the vihara-ya was constructed, there were two chaityas and a small shrine room, all of which is in a state of ruin today. According to the chief incumbent of the Bandagiriya Maha Viharaya Ven. Kamburugamuwe Deepananda, the two massive rocks known as the Viharagala and Chaityagala were joined together to construct the viharaya.
At the bottom of Viharagala, lies a weather beaten Sanda-kadapahana with its designs fast becoming obscure. The “Piyan Pokuna” used by devotees to sprinkle water on the flowers still exists. It is believed that during the drought, a reflection of a crocodile could be seen at the bottom, an indication of rainfall in the near future.
There is interesting folk lore woven around this temple-stories reflecting the human faith in their little temple. The chief prelate of Bandagiriya told us that some time ago, construction workers attempted to cut across Banda-giriya without making any offerings to the ancient place of worship. When they wanted to bulldoze the area, the engines did not start. The workers paid homage to the temple praying for success. Upon completion of their work, they built the mal asanaya and offered it to the temple.
The priest recalling one of his own experiences said that once a group of armed people from Gonnoruwa, the nearest village, tried to pass Bandag-iriya. They lSost their cattle and were stranded. They visited the viharaya without their arms, and upon their return found the cattle.
Bandagiriya was the chosen location when “Beddegama” ,”Village in the Jungle” was shot way back in the 70’s. The faded walls of the temple are adorned by several photographs, one being that of the chief priest posing with veteran actor Joe Abeywickreme who did the lead role for the film.
“This place should be improved. From experience we know that if the temple is improved, the benefits would obviously spill to the people. These villagers are fighting for survival- and strengthening the temple would ultimately strengthen them,” says the chief priest.
With difficulty, the prelate has restored a partially destroyed statue which has been considered invaluable, and started a dhamma school for 200 students from the village. He said that he would be happy to receive assistance from able and willing people to restore the ancient Bandagiriya Maha Viharaya to its pristine glory- a task open to the generous public who would like to preserve a small viharaya which is being quietly eaten away by the wilderness.