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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Story of the white-clad Buddha

Story of the white-clad Buddha

And the man behind its making:

In the busy outskirts of the city there is a place for quietude. You probably pass it on your way to work. And you may even be the kind of Buddhist who stands up from your seat on the bus, to pay homage to this serene, white-clad statue. But did you stop to think who might have carved that tranquil smile on to the statue or painted-in those calm eyes?

“This is a rare type of Buddha statue, in it that it is a statue with the eyes displayed,” said Sama Vihara Chief Incumbent Ven Athapaththukande Ananda Thera. Built in the 1950s by the Wellawatta Spinning and Weaving Mills, Buddhist Society, the statue in question, the Sama Vihara Buddha statue in Havelock Town, is one of the very few such statues by the roadside, not to mention the most lifelike.

Buddha statue at Sama Vihara. Pictures by Ruwan de Silva

Ahangama Baas Unnehe, now aged 81, is the only one alive of the three entrusted with the task of building the statue. He was working in the Bogala flats, at the age of 27, when the Loku Baas Unnehe, by the name of Eliveris, 70 years old at the time, commissioned him and another for the work. “We knew from the very beginning that this was going to be special” said Noris Ahangama reminiscing.

The statue is believed to possess special spiritual powers, its soothing whiteness inspired by the Samadhi Buddha Statue. Ahangama claimes that this is due to the fact that the building was done in keeping with the auspicious times. The construction was carried out with the utmost piety. “Even the sand used, was washed and sprinkled with turmeric.”

There is an unwritten tradition among the sculptors, that work on a Thupa or a Buddha statue should not conclude the same year it commenced. Eliveris, Ahangama and the other were able to finish its construction, without a hitch, within the time frame assigned.

That it is a very attractive statue is a plain fact. Eliveris has claimed that he intended it to be the lifelike statue it is. Ahangama who has always been a pious Buddhist has worked on Thupas and Buddha statues all his life. “This statue was different from anything else I have worked on before or since” said Ahangama.

A huge cobra had been seen on site just before the commencement of the construction. Eliveris apparently took this as a positive singe, because he promptly conducted the pooja required prior to the building of the statue.

Chief Incumbent Ven. Ananda Thera explained that the introduction of an open economy in the late 1970s tolled the slow but sure death knell of the Sri Lankan garment industry at the time.

“All the land was sold for a fraction of their worth. Not to mention the equipment and metal sold for scrap by the government.” But for some inexplicable reason they could not move the statue as was their original intention.

Ven. Ananda Thera explained that the Sama Vihara was born out of a revolution. “The Wellawatta Mills were a workplace for people of all races and religions. Everybody unanimously objected to moving the statue.”

Apparently the Trade Unions were no match for the authorities. He explained that the Maha Sangha also intervened with a huge protest, for which they were bitterly punished.

Noris Ahangama

In fact the Sama Vihara was built nearly two decades ago with the intention of protecting the Buddha statue as well as to represent Buddhist rights in a multi-religious setting. It may be a small place but do not be misguided. All the religious and cultural rituals are performed as in any other place of worship. Monks spend their rain retreat in the Vihara and the statue is white-washed annually.

According to Ananda Thera many a pedestrian, students of the adjacent Lumbini Maha Vidyalaya and even foreigners prostrate before the statue.

It is believed that the statue possesses such power that it would bring any passer by to his knees. Even devout Hindus are known to stop and prostrate at the feet of the statue, on their way to the kovil.

“This is because we live in such religious harmony” said Ven. Ananda Thera. Nestled between several places of religious worship, such as the nearby Mayurapathy Kovil and the mosque, Sama Vihara stands for Buddhist identity.

Ananda Thera claimed that although the Vihara and the Buddha statue is in fairly good condition, it requires the immediate attention of the public as well as that of the Ministry of Buddha Sasana. “Nowhere else will you encounter such a statue that would soothe your mind.”

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