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