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Wednesday, 11 April 2012






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Tantirimalai - centre of trade and tranquility

The sacred precincts of Tantirimalai, has witnessed tranquility as well as, turmoil in different eras of history. The site can be reached by turning right near the thirty second kilometre post at the Halabawa junction on the Anuradhapura-Mahavilacchiya road and proceeding further about 20 kilometres.

The land belonging to the sacred centre covers an area of about 200 acres; and the rocks and boulders spread all over add scenic beauty to the locality. The placid surfaces of the ponds, lakes and streams in between some of these rocks and boulders, when lighted by the morning sun reflect varied forms of the clumps and trees on the promontories.

Religious monuments

Many of the religious monuments are concentrated in an area of about 25 acres within which ruins of about 12 separate constructions are visible. In the Eastern side are several caves, two of which contain remnants of pre-historic drawings. These drawings of the pre-historic Austro-Negroid man are some of the earliest extant drawings in Sri Lanka. The artists have drawn sketches of the deer, leopard, peacock, crocodile, the bow and the arrow indicating that they were primarily a community of hunters.

Tantirimalai Viharaya

The drip-ledges and early Brahmi inscriptions in the caves clearly demonstrate that with the dawn of civilization they became the abodes of Buddhist monks.

One of the early Brahmi inscriptions inscribed on the drip-ledge of a cave states that a lady called Naga dedicated that cave to the monks. Such donations by female disciples recorded in several Brahmi inscriptions all over the Dry Zone point to the higher social standing of women in ancient Sri Lanka in contrast to the position of women in India at the time. According to another Brahmi cave inscription a person by the name Barata had donated his private pond to a Bhikku named Tissa.

Buddha image

Tantirimalai located close to the ancient main road that connected Jambukolapattana (Modern Sambiliturai) with Anuradhapura was a centre of habitation from pre-Christian times. The road was frequented by traders, and like many other religious centres in Asia, the religious complex at Tantirimalai was a centre patronized by traders and trading guilds. The role of mercantile communities in the establishment and development of religious complexes is in fact, a fascinating subject which needs greater attention.

On the highest point of the main rock at Tantirimalai are vestiges of an ancient Bodhigara. The ‘Bodhi Tree’ in this complex according to folklore, is supposed to have been planted at the time when the sapling of the Srimahabodhi was taken to Anuradhapura by Theri Sanghamitta in the third century B. C. the tradition also attributes that this place was in the village of Brahmana Tivakka mentioned in the Mahawamsa as a place where the sapling of the Srimahabodhi was honoured with rituals.

Rajarata kingdom

The stone footprints in situ symbolizing the Buddha indicate that the Bodhigara is of great antiquity at least earlier than the first century A. D. It was only in that century that the Buddha image was carved and used in place of symbols representing the Buddha such as the Dharmacakra, the lotus and the footprint.

An important building complex presently known as the ‘potgula’ or the library is found within a short distance of the main reservoir. But the ground plan of the complex does not indicate that it was a library. It looks more like a Tantric place of worship. Perhaps some of the important religious texts were placed in this building. The Terra-cotta sculptures such as the female figures displaying breasts under transparent clothes, found at Tantirimalai also indicate that the whole complex was a centre of Tantric Buddhism in the eighth, nineth and tenth centuries. The name Tantirimalai itself may denote the rock (Malai) where Tantric priests lived.

There are also ruins of at least seven buildings with padmasana which were used by monks for meditation.

In the Northern slope of the rock is an image of the recumbent Buddha carved out of rock. This image is about fourteen and half metres in length. In order to carve out the image the rock has been cut deep for about two metres. Nandadeva Wijesekara is of the opinion that the image is a worthless imitation of the Galvihara recumbent Buddha statue at Polonnaruwa.

On the right hand side of the earlier mentioned Bodhigara a Samadhi Buddha stature has been carved on the middle of a rock. It also looks like an imitation of the sedant Buddha at Galvihara, Polonnaruwa. Artistically it does not match the Polonnaruwa statues. On either side of the Samadhi Buddha, there are four half completed statues - two on the left side and the others on the right hand side. Of the 19 footsteps carved out on the opposite rock to reach these statues, the last one has been partially completed. The vestiges of some of the buildings also indicate that they were never completed. All this point to the fact that Tantirimalai was suddenly abandoned due to some calamity.

Monastic complex

Kalinga Magha having invaded the country with 24,000 soldiers in 1215 A. D., conquered Rajarata and ruled from Polonnaruwa adopting an intolerant and hostile attitude towards Buddhism and Buddhist establishments. He persecuted Buddhists, ransacked and plundered monasteries at Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and elsewhere. Tantirimalai was not spared in the process and the religious complex there was obviously abandoned by monks during Magha’s atrocious rule. In fact, the invasion of Magha was one of the factors that brought the downfall of the Rajarata kingdom.

Thereafter, like many other places, Tantirimalai fell in to oblivion and the jungle encroached upon its environs. Towards the end of the 19th century and the early 20th century this important religious centre was rediscovered by British Civil Servants like H. C. P Bell, Henry Parker and John Steel. The monastic complex was renovated by the Department of Archaeology and gradually a new monastery was established by some dedicated Buddhist monks. Presently in addition to ruins of historical importance this modern monastic complex contains a library and a parivera where about 30 novices study.



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