March 28 marks the 11th anniversary of the Jathika Namal Uyana (National Naa Park) in Dambulla, Galkiriyagama. In 1991, a solitary monk made his ashram in this ancient site then encroached by the dense forest. Eleven years after it was re-discovered by Vanavasi Rahula thera, now Namal Uyana is considered the largest Naa tree forest in the country and the home to the largest Rose Quartz Mountain Range in South Asia.
Legend has it that King Devanampiyatissa planned to set up a religious park somewhere near Dambulla, but the construction was delayed due to some unexpected reasons and the king was compelled to move the proposed site for his dream park to somewhere near Anuradhapura – in the heart of the capital of his kingdom. Ultimately he set it up, it was called Mahamevna Uyana. What happened to the abandoned site near Dambulla for the next few centuries was a mystery.
But the abandoned garden came into light in 924 AD, when the then King Dappula IV declared it as a human sanctuary. Thus the first ever human sanctuary in local history was set up.
Men who sought refuge from the persecution of the king and his officials had protection of the monks who controlled the monastery. No official could take them into custody without the permission of the monks who hardly consented to hand over their refugees. An inscription by the King Dappula IV declaring the religious site as a human sanctuary can still be seen at Adiyagala at the entrance to Namal Uyana.
It is said that the monks in the monastery asked these refugees to plant and look after a few trees of Naa in the sanctuary premises as an act of self retribution. Subsequently this simple act led to the largest Iron wood (Naa) park in South Asia.
With the time passed and the Sinhala kingdom moving further into the countryside for protection from the South Indian invaders, the monastery and the Naa park was abandoned. No detail of the monastery is available since it was abandoned.
But in March 1991, a solitary monk came to this isolated once religious habitat. He too was an enigma. Very little is known about his life before he came to this ancient religious site away from the human habitation. He had his hut 40 feet above in a tree top to avoid danger from freely roaming wild animals.
Now with 11 years passed since then, this once solitary monk now widely known as Vanavasi Rahula Thero recalls his difficult days with nostalgia. He is proud to call himself a the pioneer and the protector of this site of bio diversity.
According to him some Naa trees in the park are older then 1500 years. Two varieties of Naa – Diya Naa and Batu Naa can be seen there and the former is considered to be endemic to Sri Lanka.
According to the biologists the importance of the Namal Uyana is that it has 102 species of tropical plants of which 82 are herbal plants within 260 acres garden and the forest bordering it. The greater part of plants are considered endemic to Sri Lanka and at the danger of extinction. 18 bird species and a number of mammals including elephant, leopard, monkey and deer also dwell in the park and its proximity. Archaeological findings of stone tombs, ‘Sandakada Pahana’, and inscriptions reveal that the history of this site goes back to 300 AD.
Biodiversity is not the only distinction of the place. The Rose Quartz mountain range which encompasses 500 acres has added geological importance to this isolated garden 160 km from Colombo.
According to Prof. Shiran Daraniyagala, the Rose Quartz Mountain Range is over 500 million years old and white, rose and violet colour quartz deposits can be seen in the mountain range. It is said that pieces of rose quartz of the mountain range had been used for the graving structures of the Taj Mahal.
The geological importance of the Rose Quartz Park was further highlighted last January, when the tree fossils considered to be belonging to pre-historic era were discovered by Sri Lankan archaeologist Bandu Weerawardene.
According to him fossils are about 10-15 million years old. Though many animal fossils have been found in Sri Lanka this is the first ever discovery of tree fossils in the country and according to Weerawardhane no place with such a wide spread of fossils like in rose quartz range in Namal Uyana was ever discovered. Fossils can be seen in 20-30 acres of the mountain range.
Monk Vanavasi Rahula is happy with the fact that his stay in the garden has reduced the intensity of deforestation and hunting in the site. But it does not mean all challenges to the protection of the religious site have been won.
The monk laments that the exposure of human contact has endangered the fauna and flora of the site. According to him the threat arises not from the organised groups, but from the villagers struck by poverty. Hunting and deforestation are only a humble attempt for survival.
Vanavasi Rahula Thera advocates increasing awareness of villagers on environment protection and improving their income generation opportunities. Namal Uyana Environment Centre has taken steps to educate local children on environment protection and train youth in environment protection.
So when the Namal Uyana celebrates its 11th anniversary sustainable socio-economic development with the co existence of the environment should be the theme for the celebration.