By Gamini Jayasinghe
In the legends there is the story of king Kelanitissa who in the second century B.C. angered over an alleged love affair
between his wife and his brother executed an Arahant by burning him alive in
a cauldron of boiling oil. The king had completely misunderstood the Arahant who had not helped the King’s brother and the queen in the alleged love affair, having no lust remained in him to have an inclination to worldly life. The story continues that guardian deities of Sri Lanka were angered by this rash act and caused the sea to flow inland. This was indeed a Tsunami situation in the past. The land area which was about seven Gawwas (28 miles) from, the coast was reduced to about six Gawwas (24 miles) which means that a stretch of land about four miles in the sea coast had been washed away.
King’s daughter, Vihara Maha
Devi floated in the sea
to appease deities
According to legends the king had to float his daughter, Vihara Maha Devi in the sea to appease the guardian deities. The boat carrying Vihara Maha Devi was washed away to the Southern coast of Lanka and was recovered by the Rohana King, Kavantissa at Magama and he had married her. Their son, Dutugemunu fought against the Chola King, Elara and unified the country. There is historical evidence to the effect that there were many bhikkhus in Kelaniya during the time of the unification of the country by king Dutugemunu and more than five hundred bhikkhus from Kelaniya participated in the Relic depositing ceremony of Ruwanweliseya. According to chronicles king Kavantissa (164-1992 A.D.) had constructed a poyage (house set apart for Buddhist monks ‘private confessions) at Kelaniya Viharaya, King Voharatissa had constructed a parasol over the dagaba.
Kelaniya has a very interesting history going back to more than 3,000 years. The earliest mention of this historic city, known then as Kalyani, is made in Valmiki’s great epic “Ramayanaya” where it is recorded that Vibhishana who ascended to the throne of Lanka after his brother, Ravana was slain by Rama, an Indian prince. Rama is believed to be an incarnation of Vishnu who had descended to the earth to subjugate Ravana. Vibhishana was deified and a shrine consecrated to him was built later within the Kelani Viharaya.
Viharaya picturesquely situated
The Viharaya is picturesquely situated on the bank of Kelani River and it contributes immensely to the beauty of the ancient city. It is believed that the first Chethiya of the Kelani Vihare was built by king Maniakkhika himself on the sacred spot where the Buddha preached Dharma, seated on the gem studded throne. The precious throne which was offered to the Enlightened One had been enshrined itself in the dagaba.
Kelaniya declared a sacred city
Kelaniya was declared a sacred city in 1952 and today the area around the temple has been well developed. Daily hundreds of pilgrims flock to this ancient shrine to pay homage to the Exalted One and thousands of devotees on poya days. Duruthu poya is of special significance because Kelaniya is the place where devotees flock most during this period.
The shrine of Kelaniya is built on a rock platform and the external part of the foundation has three rows of carved figures. There is a row of swans and the middle row is of carved Bhahirawayas- the terrible ones holding up the entire edifice with ugly expression in the faces that shows anger, disgust and pain. The third row is of elephants. Above these rows of figures on the outside walls are statutes of Hindu deities , Gana Deviyo, (god of wisdom), goddess Ganga, god Vishnu and god Vibhishana (Rawana’s brother), god Natha (Maithri Bodhisattva) and god Skanda Kumara (Kataragama deyyo- god of war)
At the entrance of the temple there is the traditional Sandakada Pahana or Moonstone flanked by two Gajasinghe images with the body of a lion and head of an elephant. Inside the halls the walls are painted depicting Jathaka stories, myths and legends including the execution of an Arahant by King Kavantissa in his fit of rage.
The eighteen cubits long reclining state of the Enlighten One is the main focus of the temple. It is in a darkened hall. The only light during the day is the steam of light peeping from the entrance to the shrine room. There are statues of Buddha including the Buddha statue in the meditating posture in the main hall adjoining the shrine room of the reclining Buddha statue.
To the right hand side of the shrine there is the dagaba built in the shape of a heap of Paddy. This is incidentally the best example of the Dhanyakara style of Dagabas. At the request of the Naga King this dagaba is said to have been built to mark the place where the Buddha sat on a gem studded throne to preach Dharma. The golden throne inlaid with precious stones is believed to have been enthroned in the dagaba.
To the left of the shrine is the Bo-tree of the same species which provided shelter to the Buddha during His meditation.
Thus Kelaniya is one of the most important and valuable sacred places with “Thun –Bo”- Sharirika Dhathu, Maha Bodhi and Buddha Rupa of special significance. This is an attractive tourist resort especially during the Perahera season falling at the beginning of the year.
Exotic pageant second only to Esala Perahera in Kandy
Duruthu Perahera held at Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya annually during the month of Duruthu (January) is very colourful and is only second to Esala Perahera held in the hill capital- Kandy. The exotic pageant has taken place annually since 1927 and celebrated the Buddha’s first visit to Sri Lanka more than 2,500 years ago. This procession is held for three nights with elephants, dancers, drummers, whip crackers and thousands of spectators.
It comprises three perahera (processions) featuring costume actors, dancers, musicians, torch bearers and acrobats, stilt walkers devotees dressed in white and caparisoned elephants. A variety of religious festivities take place for more than a week. On the first day of the perahera the casket of relics is ceremoniously handed over and is placed carefully on a colourful cushion on the back of a caparisoned tusker.
The first day procession is called Udamaluwa Peahera which starts on the upper terrace of the temple with the ritual handing over the casket. Cannon fire marks the beginning of the parade. This cannon fire is also a signal of placing the relic casket on the cushion spread on the back of the Chief tusker of the temple. On the first day the perahera parades only the upper terrace (Udamaluwa)
On the second day the procession proceeds to the lower terrace or the Pathamaluwa and it is more colourful. It is customary to improve the procession by adding the number of elephants, dancers and other performers. The number of spectators is also increased as the Perahera covers a broader area. This day procession is called, Pathamaluwa perahera and it continues with the tuskers carrying the casket and the divine in sigma.
The festivities reach the climax with the Randoli Perahera, the most magnificent of the procession held on the day prior to the Duruthu Full Moon Poya day. The Kelaniya Duruthu Perahera is now confined to the temple premises and the roads surrounding it but in the nineteen sixties the Perahera paraded the streets starting from the temple premises and proceeding along the Biyagama road and Pattiya junction along Kandy road to Thorana junction and back to the temple. The curtailment of the Perahera is presumably due to security reasons.
The significance of Kelaniya
As mentioned earlier Kelaniya Duruthu perahera is second only to Kandy Sri Dalada Maligawa Esala Perahera. It should be mentioned that while Kandy Sri Dalada Maligawa perahera continues for ten days Kelaniya Duruthu Perahera is confined to three days and a limited area is covered on the first two days. It is the most magnificent low country perahera and can be compared well with Kandy Sri Dalada Maligawa Esala perahera. Further since Kelaniya is not far away from Colombo thousands of people including a large number of foreigners come to watch the perahera and for religious rites at the sacred place which had been visited by the Exalted One.