Many of the rivers flowing through our country have been named in Pali, as mentioned in our chronicles such as the Mahavamsa, and Culavamsa. Among them is the Bentota Benthara River flowing through the deep south. About 38 miles away from the Colombo-Galle-Matara highway, this river is named in Culavamsa (Part 1) as Bhimathitha. It is derived from the Pali word ‘Bhima’, which means fearful/dreadful, while ‘thitha’ means ferry/port. Legend has it that the river is said to be haunted by a demon lying in its murky depths, ready to prey upon anyone crossing. Old timers living along the banks of this river have recalled how their ancestors before they crossed the river, invoked the blessings of the guardian deities such as Kataragama and Vishnu for a safe crossing. Close to this Bentota river lies an ancient temple named Benthara Galapatha Raja Maha Vihara. Associated with this river, this temple is also aptly named Bhimathitha Vihara.
Carvings in stone
The pathway leading to this temple goes through a stone archway off a stone doorway having two upright monolithic pillars on either side and another two above and below. On those standing pillars are carved elaborate, Nari Latha motifs. These decorative carvings of great aesthetic value date back to the Kandyan period. These fascinating Nari Latha carvings come out of a hoary myth spun around the Rishis of the Himalayas, linked to a fabulous climbing creeper named Nari Latha, which when it blossoms, takes the shape of an enticing damsel. These clusters of flowers are said to have even mesmerised the Rishis, disturbing their meditation. [h] The stone door frame and its standing pillars had been originally installed at the Bentota Udakotuwa Raja Maha Vihara in the Kali Devale. In later years, it was brought to the Galapatha temple.
Rare archaeological find
Surpassing them all is a unique archaeological object – Galperanaya (stone water filter), made out of some quality stone having porous properties to absorb the water filled into it. It is oval in shape, like a basin, having its mouth at the top. Its depth is about 18 inches. There are two small arm-like appendages attached on its left and right hand sides. There are also two oval stone pillars with circular rings lightly carved on them. The Galperanaya is kept under the two arm-like appendages serving as pedestals. The Incumbent of the temple, Ven. Bentota Assaji Himi demonstrated how this Galperanaya worked when water was filled into it from its mouth. After about 15-20 minutes, I noticed the outer surface of this stone vessel gradually getting damp. Thereafter drops trickled down into the small basin kept under it. I examined the underside, but there were no incisions made for the water to filter down. Ven. Bentota Assaji disclosed that Dr. Roland de Silva, as Director–General of the Department of Archaeology had visited this temple and been quite amazed to see this marvellous piece. Ven. Assaji said that this Galperanaya was kept exclusively in the Pilimage (image house) to be used for sprinkling ‘pen’ (water) on the flowers offered to the Buddha. He was of the opinion that its age cannot be determined, but it had been kept at this temple from time immemorial when arahats had lived in this monastery.
Close to the stone gateway down on a rock outcrop is etched a line of inscriptions supposed to date back to the reign of Parakramabahu the Great of the 12th Century A.D. or that of the Dambadeniya period of King Parakramabahu I of the 13th century. These inscriptions have been enclosed with a protective metal fence by the Department of Archaeology. The gist of the inscriptions is as follows: In the 31st reign of Parakramabahu king, he had directed a Dravidian chieftain named Mahendra, with the assistance of Dravidians to build the Galapatha Vihara for which labour, lands, gamvaram and other land donations have been decreed. This noble, a chieftain of high rank and prestige is named Kahambalkulu Mahinda, a Dravidian chieftain, thus decreeing lands, gam vasam to the temple, the people and other relatives. (This extract in brief is taken from the Sinhala book titled ‘Bentota Paradisaya’ by Albert Kannangara (2005).
Where a Queen bathed
Down by the Bentota River lies another historic landmark in the shape of an oval rock. It is named ‘Nissankamalla Raja Bisawa Isnanaya Kala Istanaya’ (The spot where King Nissankamalla’s Queen had sat to bathe). There is an inscription here that King Nissankamalla of the 2nd century A.D. had stayed in his travels around Bentota at a place called Maha Pelane. Hence it is locally named Nissanka Gala.
A Sacred Tooth
In the temple premises on a rock outcrop, stands the Dagoba where the Sacred Tooth Relic of Sri Anubuddha Maha Kassyapa Arahat is said to have been enshrined.
In front of the temple premises lies the first image house (Pilimage). At its entrance lies a plain moonstone. The murals are adorned with episodes of Jataka stories, while the ceiling is studded with paintings of lotus flowers, while on either side sit Bahirawa figures. Inside the shrine room is a reclining Buddha statue. The next image house is also a relic of the past. The original image houses were destroyed by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Here too are seated and recumbent Buddha statues and mural paintings. The Avasa (Monks’ residency), is a commodious one. It has a touch of colonial architecture, having arched windows, and other colonnades. The annual perahera is held on a grand scale in August. It is a great tourist draw, as the temple is located in the heart of the Bentota tourist complex.
Three hundred meters passing the Bentara Bridge, there is a road to the left called Circular Road which goes around the horseshoe shaped river. Five ancient Buddhist temples can be found along this route.
- Udakotuwa Bodhi Sameepa Rajamaha Viharaya
- Vanawasa Rajamaha Viharaya
- Bodhimalu Rajamaha Viharaya
- Galapatha Rajamaha Viharaya &
- Bemvehera Gane Rajamaha Viharaya
Although now operating as five different temples, it is believed that these 5 temples belonged to one large temple complex covering over 6 square kilometres in the ancient past. Based on archaeological studies, this temple complex has been found to be built by King Devanampiyatissa (250-210 BC) according to Mr. R. Ayrton, Commissioner of Archeology (1912-1913). During the reign of the Polonnaruwa kingdom, all five temples have been under the Galapatha Viharaya.
During the Portuguese occupation of the low country (1505 to 1658), this temple too faced the same fate as all other Buddhist temples in the coasted areas. Demolished and looted of all valuables by the Portuguese, this temple stayed hidden inside the jungles until it was re-discovered in mid 1800’s.
The Bodhi Sameepa Viharaya is the place where a secondary Bodhi Tree was located, Vanawasa Rajamaha Viharaya is where the Bikkus residential ‘Kuti’ was located, Bodhimalu Rajamaha Viharaya is where the sapling of the Sri Maha Bodhi was planted, the main image house and the relics of Maha Kasyapa Thero were enshrined at Galapatha Viharaya and Gane Rajamaha Viharaya is where the main Vehera (stupa) was located.
Mr. R. Ayrton, Commissioner of Archeology (1912-1913) has also stated that the Tooth Relic of the Maha Kassapa Thero was brought to Sri Lanka during the reign of King Dutugemunu and it was brought to Bentota Galapatha Temple by King Saddhatissa and it was he who developed this temple with all the necessary facilities.
Maha Kassapa Thero was physically almost identical to Buddha so much that the devotes used to worship Kashyapa Thero thinking it was Buddha and sometimes mistook Buddha for Maha Kashyapa Thero. Therefore Thero decided to live an isolated life in the jungle until the passing away of the Buddha. The Maha Kashyapa Thero lived to be 120 years and passed away in the middle of 3 rocks called Kukkuta Pada and it is said that the rocks joined together enclosing the thero’s body. It is said that one of the relatives had held a tooth fallen off of Maha Kashyapa before his death. It is this tooth relic which was brought to Sri Lanka at a later date.
Map of Bentota Galapatha Rajamaha Viharaya
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Driving Directions to Bentota Galapatha Rajamaha Viharaya
|Route from Colombo to Bentota Galapatha Rajamaha Viharaya||Route from Bentota Galapatha Rajamaha Viharaya|
|Via : Panadura – Kalutara – Aluthgama – Bentota|
Distance : 65 km
Travel time :1.5 hours
Driving directions : see on google map
|Via : Bentota|
Distance : 5 km
Travel time :10 minutes
Driving directions : see on Google Maps