Hundreds of miles to the east, buried in vengeful jungle, is a historic Buddhist shrine. Few, if any devotees, worship there. Fearful of the bear, leopard and wild elephant, nobody lives in the surrounding areas. The only footsteps on the sandy soil outside are those of a bold father and son pair who refuse to let Sasthrawela temple die.
Panama Wimalaratne Thera often cooks his own meals because alms are nowadays hard to come by. The young priest is in his early twenties and lives at the temple with his 55-year-old father, S.K. Kiribandara. Life is hard. At night, wild animals pose a distinct threat, encouraged by the absence of other human beings. Mosquitoes swarm by the dozen, often making sleep impossible. By day, the only sounds which break the silence are that of birds, leaves and the sea nearby. Yet, Wimalaratne Thera and Kiribandara will not leave the temple which was abandoned years ago, in the eighties, when the LTTE swarmed into Panama village and helped themselves to its inhabitants.
Situated on the Panama-Pottuvil road in the north-east, Sasthrawela temple is falling to ruin. It is only six kilometres from the Panama village and can be reached through a dilapidated track which turns off near the Panama STF camp. But thick jungle and a demanding road have discouraged visitors while years of war and terrorism have instilled fear even in the most daring. Bit by bit, people have forgotten Sasthrawela.
Panama is recognised as an area of great importance in terms of Buddhist heritage. There are two shrines which are thought to be more special than others. One is the nearby Magul Maha Viharaya where, it is said, Vihara Maha Devi was married to King Kavantissa. The other is Sasthrawela temple. Unfortunately, both have been grossly neglected due to war.
The road to Sasthrawela is rocky but soothing to the senses. Sunlight filters through verdant foliage and the sound of birds lighten the atmosphere. Only broken branches and droppings alert a visitor that wild elephants are fond of the track. Meeting one on such a road would be no joke.
The first sight of Sasthrawela is a white bell-tower installed on a stone boulder. It offers a beautiful picture, rising out of the jungle. There is a modest shrine room with a lamp glowing reverently within. A stupa and the monk’s dwelling complete the temple: small and delightfully lacking in fuss or frivolity.
Wimalaratne Thera greeted us with a smile. He pointed out a small pond or “pokuna” near the bell tower as well as some old stone columns which indicated that an impressive structure had once stood there. Kiribandara, meanwhile, explained that the stupa was called “Lanka Seya” and had been built during the period of King Kavantissa.
Nearby was an ancient stone stairway, now overgrown with grasses and weeds. Halfway up, we discovered a cave which had once been used as a priestís refuge. There was a Buddha statue inside and a few more stone columns at the entrance.
After walking around the charming premises, we told the priest and his father the real reason for our visit. We wanted to go to the place where Vihara Maha Devi was said to have landed in Sri Lanka. We knew that it was close to the temple.
The tale written about Vihara Maha Devi recounts that the princess, the daughter of King Kelinitissa of Maya Rata, had been offered as a sacrifice to the sea-gods in the hope that she would appease their wrath and prevent the seas from swallowing villages. She had been placed in a gilded canoe and released into the sea. The waves drifted her towards Sri Lanka, where villagers in what is thought to be Panama (more precisely, Arugam Bay) had spotted the glinting vessel and alerted their king, Kavantissa.
Kavantissa, who was told that a beautiful maiden was in the boat, hurried to the beach but the boat was gone. Legend has it that she had sailed towards the village of Komarigama in Arugam Bay where the king met her. Kavantissa, upon learning that she was Kelanitissa’s daughter, married her on a “magul poruwa” which can still be seen in the vicinity of Magul Maha Viharaya.
We went to Sasthrawela to visit the area where Vihara Maha Devi’s boat was first observed and to stand on the spot from which Kavantissa had strained to see her. It was already late when we arrived at Sasthrawela and Wimalaratne Thera advised it to wait till the morrow to make the short trek. “After six in the evening, this area belongs to the bear, the leopard and the elephant mahattaya,” said Kiribandara.
However, we wanted to set out immediately because we had scheduled our return journey for early the next day. This information prompted the young priest to light a torch and make his way through jungle, beckoning us to follow him cautiously. His father also accompanied us as we walked through thick shrubbery towards the sound of the sea. Wimalaratne Thera’s information that crocodiles were aplenty in the area did nothing for our beating hearts but we marched ahead bravely.
We finally reached a steep, stony peak. The sea was spread out before us. Taking off our slippers and shoes, we clambered down around 100 feet and entered a large, old, funnel-shaped cave. A few old bricks were scattered inside. It was clearly very old.
“This cave dates back to around 2 BC, said Wimalaratne Thera. ìIt is from here that King Kavantissa waited for Vihara Maha Deviís boat.
The priest complained that there was no conservation done at the site and intruders had even thrown some of the precious bricks in the sea below. There was also an old stairway where there had been a “mandapaya” in ancient times.
After hastily glancing about the dusk was rapidly turning to night, we clambered a further 200 feet where we saw the Heda Oya, a lake which Wimalaratne Thera said was usually infested with crocodiles. Needless to say, we didnít wait long there. It was evident that although the young priest made an effort to keep our spirits high, he, too, was scared of the night and its dangers.
Many villagers in those areas knew charms to calm down animals or to “tame” them but Kiribandara had not taught many of them to his son. “That’s because most villages use the mantras to trap or kill animals,” Wimalaratne Thera said.
A wild bird took flight in fear as we reached the temple. Sometimes, a solitary elephant – a loner – comes to the temple pond to quench its thirst at night, Kiribandara said.
The air was cool as we left but the swarms of mosquitoes took away any enjoyment we may have had. It struck us that Wimalaratne Thera and Kiribandara were not only living perilous lives but sorely uncomfortable ones.
We turned to look at them as we left the temple. Their eyes seem to say, don’t pity us. We are performing a service to the nation willingly. If not for us, who will give life to this forgotten shrine?
The Island March 16, 2003