Varana Rajamaha Viharaya – වාරණ රජමහා විහාරය

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Varana Rajamaha Viharaya
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It was one of those glorious early mornings, and as we reached the Caves of Varana Rajamaha Viharaya, the first rays of the sun were lighting it up, highlighting its peculiar formation. The paddy fields around it were glowing green after the rains and from its flat plains rose a splendid but modest rocky outcrop. At the bottom of the rock facing the road was a cave with an impressively high drip ledge cut high on its brow. This was enough of a landmark that we had arrived at the Varana Raja Maha Vihara

The Varana Rajamaha Viharaya can be reached by turning right at the Tihariya junction on the Colombo- Kandy road. The temple itself is vast and is built on three different levels (maluwas) with shrine rooms on each and a small dagoba at the summit. On the way to the Meda maluwa is a rock pool full of fish and at the summit on a slight descent is another. The view from the top is rewarding with endless paddy fields forming a foreground to other neighboring rocks, and a horizon filled with blue-gray hills.

[wp_ad_camp_1]The rock cut steps to the summit pass through luxurious tropical vegetation of tall trees bushes and creepers. There seemed to be a number of caves scattered around in the area with their unusually high drip-ledged brows distinguishing these caves. Many showed traces of wattle and daub walls built between the ground and the rock roof, which is evidence of their being inhabited in early times. The rock formations were delightful. The surface of the overhanging rock sometimes strangely resembled vertical waves. It was as if an unknown sculptor had painstakingly chiselled its design and oddly reminding me of the soft ripples of a marshmallow topping.

I wondered how the name Varana had come about to indicate this awesome rock scape, and was told that it appeared to be the combination of two members “va” and “arena”. Va being a kind of tree not known to us today, and Arana evidently meant forest. Hence the meaning – forest of Va Trees. But typically and so delightfully this is only just one of the legends of the area. Varana had first come into existence as a meditation centre for the Sangha and its origins date back to the time of King Devanampiya Tissa of Anuradhapura, during whose reign Arahat Mahinda visited Lanka to preach the Buddhist doctrine. A stone inscription found here believed to be written in Asokan script reads that: This is donated to Tissa Dhatta Thero, the brother of Majjhima Thero. Tissa Dhatta Therro was the first pupil of the Venerable Mahinda. It is of Varana again we hear, amongst many others, that King Valagamba chose to hide, when he was fleeing to escape the Cholan marauders.

It is believed that during his stay here he caused the construction of the drip ledges on every rock where there was a habitable cave. When King Valagamba regained the kingdom, in a gesture of gratitude, he built a shrine at every place that had given him sanctuary, and that included Varana. As such it is believed that he placed a statue of the Buddha in the largest cave at Varana, and transformed it into a small shrine room. Again we hear of Varana during the reign of King Parakrama Bahu VI of Kotte. It is said that he re decorated the Varana shrine adding the statue of God Vishnu, the statue of the Bodhisattva, statues of numerous Buddhas and the walls were painted depicting episodes from the Jathaka stories. An eighteen-foot reclining statue of the Lord Buddha was constructed inside the main shrine room of the Varana temple. And it is said that the King and Queen came personally to offer the first flowers to the image. The King also gifted by royal edict vast sprawling acres of highland and paddy fields for the maintenance of the Sangha. The venerable Kahambiliye Sendipperumere was given the incumbency of the Vihare.

During the distressing reign of King Rajasinghe of Sithawaka when Buddhist monks were persecuted the monks at Varana like everywhere else fell on bad times and had to flee their abode, until once again in the reign of King Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe of Kandy, when we hear of the Varana temple. Varana is also famous for its historical association with treasure buried in its precincts, and many are the stories that are related of it. Varana today is a stunning rock gallery set in the splendor of the Siyane Korale, a place of worship, a setting of tranquility, a feast to the eye and a buffet for the photographer in you.

by Kishanie S. Fernando
Daily Mirror

Varana is a famous rock temple in Sri Lanka. The main building of the temple is situated in a cave. Most of the paintings on the rock belong to the king Walagambahu period of Anuradhapura civilization. Brahmin scripts belong to 3rd B.C. are found in the temple’s inscriptions. The following tourist attractions are important in the premises.

  • Ruins of five storied building of 3 B.C
  • Ruins of moon stone
  • Stone door frames
  • Carved rock scripts

Pilikuttuwa, Maligathenna and Attanagalle temples are located in the vicinity of Varana Rajamaha Viharaya

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Map of Varana Rajamaha Viharaya

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Travel Directions to Varana Rajamaha Viharaya

Route from Colombo to Varana Rajamaha Viharaya

Route II from Colombo to Varana Rajamaha Viharaya

Through : Kadawatha – Miriswattha – Kalagedihena Distance : 40 km Travel time : 1.5 hours Driving directions : see on google mapThrough : Kaduwela – Weliveriya – Miriswatta – Kalagedihena Distance : 49 km Travel time : 1 hour Driving directions : see on google map

Varana [2] : Dagabas, giant rocks and caves

By Sirancee Gunawardena
Sunday Times

… We next visited Raja Maha Vihara, Varana, which is approximately 20 miles from Colombo. It has got its name from the Va trees which grew in its vicinity – Va Aranaya – a place where lots of Va trees grew. This too is a rock temple on a high elevation where King Walagamba sought refuge from the Cholas. Varana was a meditation retreat from ancient times and the dates back to King Devanmpiyatissa. There is a Brahmi inscription which reads “This is donated to Tissa Dhatta Thero, the brother of Majima Thero” and it is most likely that it refers to Tissa Dhatta Thero who was the first pupil of Ven. Mahinda who came to Sri Lanka to spread Buddhism. The area where the inscription is was over-grown and we were not able to see it though a monk told us that it is there.

In later years, this temple became known because King Walagamba hid in one of the caves here during the Chola invasion. He later gifted a shrine room. To the left of the temple was a large hall with a very beautiful ornate wooden covered Pirith Mandapaya. To the right there were steps leading to a high elevation where there was an 18 ft. reclining Buddha statue and in the quadrangle outside was a Bodhi Tree. Varana, after King Walagamba’s time had gone into oblivion and was covered in jungle.

After many centuries, during the Kotte period, King Parakrama Bahu VI who ruled in Jayawardanapura, reclaimed Varana Temple, endowed it with a Buddha statue as well as a standing Vishnu statue and Bodhisathva and also gave a grant of temple lands. It is said that the king and queen came personally to open the shrine and make offerings to the Buddha. We were taken up by the tranquillity of this place. Large forest trees and shady groves and large boulders surround the temple premises. There is an outcrop of giant rocks and caves.

 Varana [3] : Discovery of clay coffins attract visitors

By D. B. Kappagoda
Daily Mirror – August 30, 2001

Close to the Warana Raja Maha Vihara in the Attanagalla electorate, two clay coffins were unearthed by workmen when they began their work on the Kalotuwawa-Banagala Road.

One can this place by travelling on the Colombo-Kandy Road and then proceed along Warana Road for nearly two and half kilometres. At the first mounds did not show any signs of archaeological interest buried for centuries.

The site has become the biggest tourist attraction in the area and most of the local and interested parties visited this site.

The discovery was made by accident when the mounds were levelled to make the Hemachandra Pathirana by-lane broader for the vehicular traffic to flow smoothly.

Apart from Warana Maha Vihara there are other Viharas in the vicinity, namely, Warana Koskandawela, Pilikuththuwa and Maligatenna dating back to the time of (103 BC) who reigned from Anuradhapura.

The excavation on the site was begun by the Archaeological Department. The Commissioner-in-charge, W. H. Wijepala under whose instructions, the officers headed by Nimal Perera began the excavation in 1996.

Five days later two frames of the lids of clay coffins were found. One was slightly curved and the other was square. The clay coffins were similar in size to the present day coffins.

When the clay coffins were removed from the ground where they were buried, it was found the coffins were well burnt and red in colour. Along with the coffins there was a small clay pot, a heap of charcoal, human skull and bones. The coffins were made out of layers of clay as thick as cement plaster.

Close to the findings, there was another third clay coffin with ancient words and symbols. The burials of the Aryans, were made similar to the present day. But in the case of Kalotuwawa the head of the dead was placed facing south. This indicated the funeral rites were different to that of the Aryans.

The discovery shows the existence of an ancient civilization dating back to 1,000 years BC. The dead bodies were buried in 4 feet deep pits inside clay coffins. On top of each clay coffin, logs of timber had been placed to lit the funeral pyre. Afterwards coffin covers were made out of clay to keep the burnt dead bodies intact.

To determine the exact period of the clay coffins, samples of remnants found were sent to USA. According to Archaeological Commissioner General Dr. Shiran Deraniyagala, the clay pots found belonged to 4th and 5th century BC. There are no other findings similar to the findings at Attanagalla.

It is seen that this was the first time a planned excavation has been made. Earlier in 1942, the unearthing of clay coffins in the Southern Province did not receive due recognition. In the Kegalle district, at Dorawaka cave the authorities found pieces of clay coffin and grains while excavating.

If the findings at Kalotuwawa are similar to Dorawaka, the history of the findings will go back to 7,000BC. This will no doubt prove the existence of an ancient civilization.

 Varana [4] : Varana Rajamaha Viharaya

By Gamini G. Punchihewa / Sunday Times
Source :

Warana is a majestic, rocky mountain close to Veyangoda, off the Colombo-Kandy road at the Thihariya junction. From Thihariya junction off Nittambuwa, this winding mountain road leads to Kalagedihena where it runs through sprawling rice fields interlaced with coconut plantations. Looming over this is a prominent mountain called Warana in the shape of an elephant’s head with its wrinkles carved in the rock. Warana is another name for the elephant. The mountain on its right facing this rock temple is called Miriswattagala.

Varana Rajamaha Viharaya
Warana the rocky mountain in the shape of an elephant’s head which harbours this len vihara

In front of this Warana Rajamaha Vihara is the Avasa (Priests’ residency), a rambling old building with prominent gables.

I was introduced to the Incumbent of this Rock temple – Ven. Dompe Punjananda, a learned Buddhist monk who related the history of this len Vihara (cave temple). There are altogether 12 rock cave-shelters in this boulder and besides this Avasa, there are two other viharas.

A commodious Dharmasala (Preaching Hall) stands in the foreground. Though the Tamba Sannasa (a decree inscribed in granting lands by the king) shows many acres of lands gifted to the temple, only fifty acres are now left. A few feet away from the rock temple on its right is a rock outcrop on which are etched a line of faded away Brahmin inscriptions dating back to the 2nd-3rd century B.C. Overlooking this boulder is another prominent mountain called Miriswattagala.

Dr. S. Paranavitana in his book Inscriptions of Ceylon, Part I interprets the Brahmin inscriptions thus: (page 86 – No. 1102 – Warana).

“Bata Maj himas batikabata Tissadatta dne”. In English: “The gift of Lord Tissadatta, brother of Lord Magji hima”. It appears that Tissadatta, a Rahatanvahanse (an Arahat) who had gifted the lena is a brother of Ven. Mahinda Maha Thera who brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century B.C.

Varana Rajamaha Viharaya
Stone steps leading to the Uda Maha Vihara

The cave shelters are divided into two sections – the Meda Vihara and Uda Vihara (the lower and upper terraces). The Meda Vihara, according to local traditions, was said to have been built by King Valagamba of the first century A.D. In our chronicles like the Mahavamsa, it is recorded that King Valagamba had to go into exile when the country was over-run by Chola invaders from South India.

He had taken refuge in ancient rock caves like this one, where he built viharas, Buddha and other statues. Later he raised an army to fight against these invaders, and draw them out of the country.

In the Meda Vihara is a gallery of 24 finely sculptured Buddha statues – representing the Sivisu Buddha (past and future Buddhas). Its constructions are attributed to Nissanakamalla’s reign of the 12th century A.D. On his way to Sri Pada, he is said to have stopped here and offered this Sivisu Pooja in stone.

This Meda Maha Vihara stands on 12 stone pillar capitals having Pecadas of wood (brackets). In it is a recumbent Buddha statue. Its ceiling is adorned with lotus flowers while the murals depict colorful paintings from Jataka stories.

The four devales dedicated to gods like Kataragama, Vishnu, Saman and Ganesh are enshrined in a separate cave.

The summit of this Warana Gal Lena Vihara has to be reached by a flight of steep stone steps. It is called the Kande Uda Vihara (the Vihara on the top). Atop Kande Vihara one has a commanding view of the whole of the Siyane Korale studded with rice fields, small but beautiful tanks and coconut estates interlaced with lush jungle vegetation.

According to the temple chronicles preserved at this Warana Len Vihara, its ancient construction works are attributed to the reign of the following kings:-

  1. Devanampiyatissa – 2nd -3rd century BC.
  2. Valagamba – 1st century A.D.
  3. Nissankamalla – 12th century A.D.
  4. Parakrama Bahu – VI-Kotte Period -15th century A.D.
  5. Kirti Sri Rajasinha – 18th century A.D. (Kandyan period.)


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