According to chronicles, prince Giri-aba and princess Somawathi (sister of King Kavanthissa) lived on a small community called “Somapura” on the beds of Mahaveli River. Price Giriaba constructed Somawathi Chethiya on the request of his wife who wanted to engage in religious activities. Upon completion of the Stupa, the prince requested a monk named Mahinda for some “dathu” to be kept in the relic chamber of the stupa. Maha Thera Mahinda gave him the right tooth relic of Lord Buddha.
According to history this tooth relic was received by a “Na” (serpent) king Jayasena when the remaining relics from the Buddha”s cremation site were distributed. He took this to the “Naga Lokaya” (the kingdom of serpents) and deposited it in a stupa made out of gold for worship. When the prince Giriaba”s request was made, the maha thero Mahinda visited the “Naga” Kingdom and brought this tooth relic to be deposited in the stupa built by the prince.
Upon completion of the stupa and five viharas the prince and princess handed over the temple to Mahinda maha thero and sixty other monks. Thereafter many kings have contributed to this centre in many ways.
According to the historical documents the Somawathiya was built on the eastern bank of the Mahaveli River. But today it is about ½ km from the west bank of the river. Though this caused confusion whether this is the real Somawathi Stupa described in the chronicles, it was later realised the river has changed course during the last 800 years and in fact the current sandy road leading to the Somawathi was the path of the river some 800 years ago.
The site was rediscovered in 1940’s and in ’48 renovations were started by group of enthusiasts. In 1964 archaeologists started excavating the site. While excavating the main stupa, a smaller stupa at a depth of 5 feet 5 inches in to the main stupa was found. It is believed this smaller stupa was the original Somawathi Chethiya build by prince Giriaba in the 2 nd century BC and the latter stupa build around the original was the work of King Kanittha Tissa in 164 AC.
Archaeologists also found four moonstones and flower pedestals after excavating the earth for 5 ½ feet around the stupa. They also unearthed six 3 ½ feet long “siripa gal” (rocks carved with the bottom of the feet of Buddha). In addition to these many buildings has been unearthed including a wall surrounding the stupa.
Nine stone inscriptions have been found around this site and the most popular is the four inscriptions found on the Eric Swan rock. This rock can be seen few metres away from the gravel road, about 100 metres before the main entrance to the temple. This rock got its name because a photographer called Eric Swan who was killed by a wild elephant near this rock.
Today Somawathi is popular for three main reasons.
- Somawathi holds one of the only two tooth relics of Lord Buddha existing in the world. The other tooth relic is kept at the “Dalada Maligawa” in Kandy.
- Incredible unnatural phenomena which has been accruing around the stupa .These have been witnessed by thousands of pilgrims
- The remoteness of the location. This site is located deep inside the jungle infested with elephants and other wild animals.
LTTE Terrorist Attack on Somawathi in 1987
In 1987 a group of LTTE terrorists attacked this holy grounds hacking to death a Buddhist monk and seven civilians who were residing in a close by temple. Learning this news from a Muslim civilian the pilgrims and the monks in Somawathi went in to hiding in the jungle and after several days walked to a temple on November 13, 1987. The terrorists came to the Somawathi and found it deserted. They stole the “Chuda Manikya” (the large gem stone placed at the very top of the stupa) and the dug a hole of about 1 ½ feet deep in to the stupa in search of valuable relics. Then they marched in to a Sinhalese village nearby where a man called S. Dissanayake lived. He was the caretaker of the holy site since 1966. The (LTTE) terrorists hacked to death 10 civilians in this village including S. Dissanayake and his four children. On the same day the leader of this terror group died at the stupa by mistakenly firing his own weapon. For some mysterious reason they also couldn’t take the “Chuda Manikya” they stole which was later found by the archaeological department.
After these brutal murders, this site was left unattended due to fear of further terrorist attacks and was in this state for the next 15 years. After the ceasefire agreement between the LTTE and the government, the gravel roads were reconstructed and open to the pilgrims in 2002.
Unexplained phenomena on this holy ground
When it was discovered that the right tooth relic of Buddha was deposited in the relic chamber of this stupa, Diyawadane Nilame of the Kandy Dalada Maligawa (Appointed Guardian of the other existing tooth relic) Giragama Nilame, went in search of this stupa with four people from Kandy and four villagers from Pollonaruwa. They were guided by a Muslim man called Mutti. The purpose of this journey was to dig in to the stupa”s relic chamber and bring the right tooth relic to Kandy to be kept with left tooth relic already kept under his guardianship at the Dalada Maligaya. It is said that the Muslim guide lost his sight on the day they reached the stupa and the Diyawadane Nilame stated digging the stupa. After a little while a small cobra has come out of the hole. They killed it and started digging again. After digging a little further in, a large black cobra has appeared with a large number of wasps. Fearing an attack they ran and the Diyawadane Nilame later died of a wound caused when he fell over while running.
In recent times thousands of pilgrims have seen beams of lights originating from the stupa going towards the sky and colour of whole sky changing to a yellowish colour making all the white cloths worn by the pilgrims appearing yellow. One significant difference of these unusual occurrences in this site is that most of these happen on special ceremonial days where there are thousands of pilgrims at the site to witness these events. It is also said that the sounds of drum beats originating from the belly of the stupa can be heard on some days.
In 1977 (30 th June) similar beams of light were witnessed on the ceremonial day where special relics were to be deposited on the relic chamber of the stupa. This happened at 7.20 am and was witnessed by thousands including officers of Sri Lanka Radio Corporation who were there to report on the event.
Similarly on the July 4 th in 1981 the President of Sri Lanka Mr, J.R. Jayawardhana came to Somawathi to ceremonially open the “Kotha” of the stupa. As soon as they arrived at the site, at about 2 pm the whole sky became yellow and the sun looked like the moon. Multiple colours started appearing around the stupa. All the white cloths worn by the people appeared yellow. The president was supposed to uncover the “kotha” standing on the ground using a rope running to the top of the stupa. After witnessing this phenomena he decided to climb to the top using a temporary stairway built for workers and uncover the kotha.
On the 28 th April 2002, a similar occurrence happened in front of thousands of pilgrims. This time it was continued for over 45 minutes, the longest time this phenomena continued. This was also witnessed by the sister and the brother of J.R. Jayawardhana who were there to pay homage to the chethiya. Again the same thing happened on the poya day and continued for about 3 minutes.
These unexplained occurrences has made the Somawathi Chethiya even more mystic and holy to the Buddhists who flock to the site specially on Poya days.
Map of Somawathiya (Somawathi Chethiya)
The map above also shows other places of interest within a approximately 20 km radius of the current site. Click on any of the markers and the info box to take you to information of these sites.
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Travel Directions to Somawathiya (Somawathi Chethiya)
Until recently access to this site was restricted due to LTTE terrorist activity. It was the Sri Lankan Forces who protected this site when civilian were evacuated after brutal murder of the monk by the LTTE. But with the new ceasefire agreements pilgrims have started to flock to this temple in numbers. The gravel roads are now motorable during the dry season. During rainy season only tractors and large four wheel vehicles can travel on these roads.
Sungawila is the last town and border village you come across on the route to Somawathi. After this town you come to the Somawathi strict natural reserve and wildlife sanctuary. From here 12 kilometres you need to travel on a lonely dusty unpaved road which will take you through the jungle and villus to the great isolated dagoba. The last stretch is basically a elephant country. If you travel on this stretch during early morning or late in the evening, you are sure to come across few wild elephants. Wild elephants are a common site in the temple grounds during the nights. They have got used to visiting the garbage cans left by the cadjan stalls on the temple grounds. Therefore the owners of these stalls make sure to put at least a bunch of bananas in to the garbage cans. As long s there is some food in the cans they would leave the occupants of the stalls unharmed.
This site can be reached from Pollonnaruwa or from Minneriya. Coming from Minneriya, you have to pass the Higurakgoda town to reach Sungawila. From pollonnaruwa, you need to turn at the Hospital Junction (between pollonnaruwa and Kaduruwela towns). The distance to the stupa from both these towns (Minneriya and Polonnaruwa) is about 40 kilometres.
Route from Colombo to Somawathi Chethiya
Route from Polonnaruwa to Somawathi Chethiya
|Though : Kelaniya – Ambepussa – Kurunegala – Dambulla – Habarana – Minneriya – Hingurakgoda – Sungavila|
distance :250 km
Travel time : 5-6 hours.
Driving directions : see on google map
|Though : Sungavila|
distance :40 km
Travel time : 1.5 hours
Driving directions : see on google map