|Saturday, 12 April 2003|
The Kusta Raja Gala at Weligama
by Derrick Schokman
On the way from Galle to Weligama, the broad new southern highway skirts the spectacular Weligama bay with its red ironstone (cabook) cliffs, which have given it the name of Red Bay.
As a result of this new road development, travellers miss seeing an imposing rock sculpture considered to be the finest of the Mahayanist period in Sri Lanka, between the 6th and 10th centuries when this form of Buddhism was popular in the country. It is a sculpture well worth seeing, even if you have to go a little way out of a direct run on the new highway. You should take the old road before you reach Ahangama across the railway track. You will see the sculpture on your right just before the second railway crossing.
It is a more than life-size carving in high relief in the style of a royal or high born person of ancient times. Commonly known as the "Kusta Raja Gala" or "Rock of the Leper King" it is traditionally thought to represent a king smitten with a skin disease ("Kusta" - probably leprosy), who was prompted in a vision to take coconut pulp and water for three months for a care.
His vision fulfilled and his health restored, the king had his figure carved on the rock to commemorate this miraculous cure.
That is the legend. Experts are of a different view. They believe the image to be a Mahayanist Bodhisatva. A Bodhisatva was thought to be a saintly person who had qualified to achieve Buddhahood, but opted out to remain within the cycle of rebirth to help others on the way to spiritual bliss.
One time commissioner of Archaeology, Senarath Paranavithana identified the sculpture as Avalokitesvara by the Dhyani Buddha Amitabha figure on the head-dress and the lotus held in the hand.
Also known as Simhanada Lokesvara, Avalokitesvara was considered by Mahayanists to be the healer of all diseases, particularly invoked by devotees to cure leprosy. It was this aspect of the Bodhisatva that probably gave rise to the distorted legend about the leper king.
This sculpture is believed to be all that is left of the old Agrabodhi Vihara that was located there.
The present railway track is supposed to run through the old site. In the course of construction large quantities of brick and stone debris were unearthed.
The vihara it seems was bounded by four temples, one of which was dedicated to Natha. Avalokitesvara and Natha are considered to be one and the same.
The world "Natha" means "Lord". It is the short form of the full name Lokesvara Natha, which is one of the most familiar of the names for Avalokitesvara.
Produced by Lake House