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Tracing the origins of Rankoth Vihara

At its inception ‘Rankoth Vihara’ was known as ‘Galkande Vihara’. In village parlance it was called ‘Galwale Pansala’. It was when the pinnacle of the Dagoba of this vihara was anointed with gold around 1890 AD, it became famous as ‘Rankoth Vihara’.

Regarding the origin of this temple, there is an interesting story enshrined in folklore. In the area below the sacred Bo-tree, there was a large abandoned rock quarry which flanked the old Galle road and on the opposite side was a night-parking lot for laden carts. During the rainy season this quarry got filled with water and soon became the habitat of myriads of frogs.


Rankoth Vihara

Thereafter cobras began to lurk in the vicinity to prey on them. One day misfortune befell one of these cobras. The frogs attacked the cobra and the cobra succumbed to their attack.

There was a gentleman of importance from Panadura who happened to watch this fight between frogs and the cobra and this unusual happening prompted him to conclude that this was a ground blessed with victory and that if a temple was erected at this place it would assist greatly in the advancement of Buddhism. He accordingly got his friends and relations interested and built ‘Rankoth Vihara’ about 1810 AD.

During this time the pupils of the Most Venerable Sri Kathaluwe Gunarathana Maha Nayaka Thera, who was the founder of the Amarapura sect, were ministering to the religious needs of Buddhists all over the island. Ven Gunarathana’s senior pupil was Ven Batapola Kalyanatissa Thera. It was he who found Rankoth Vihara. After the demise of Ven Gunarathana Thera (1832-1841) he became the Maha Nayaka of the Amarapura sect.

The first contributors

As the great historian Weber has pointed out towards the end of the 18th Century, vast changes took place in the living conditions of the people of Sri Lanka. The humble agrarian lifestyle changed into an affluent one.

Among this new rich, who also had the blessings of the powers that be, were persons dedicated to Buddhism who because of their wealth, learning and influence were able to make a decisive contribution to the founding of Rankoth Vihara. It is presumably one of these persons who would have witnessed the fight between frogs and the cobra.

In the old ‘pedigree chronicle’ preserved in the vihara the following account appears:

“Experiencing the serene joy emanating from the abounding holiness of the three most venerables Kathaluwe Gunarathanatissa, Batapola Kalyanatissa and Walpita Sumanatissa, who deigned to grace the town of Panadura with their presence, on the solemn invitation of Messrs Varusahennedige Fransiscu Sovisa Patabendirala, Ponnahennedige Lawrenthi Dias (teacher), Ponnahennedige Moses Dias, Mahawaduge Bastian Perera (renter), Varusahennedige Peduru Sovisa Vidane, Varusahennedige Juan Sovisa, Thelge Joronis Pieris (renter), the task of establishing this holy site was undertaken in the year 1810 AD with the help and support of other people of the locally.”

The first meeting to construct the present two-storied building for the residence of monks was held on the June 27, 1821. The dagoba has been constructed on a huge rock. Surrounding this a parapet wall about 30 feet in height has been built and filled with sand so as to enable the enclosed sanctum of the dagoba and vihara to be constructed.

Below this situated the sanctum of the sacred Bo-tree also enclosed by a parapet wall. Rumour holds it that to obtain the sand from the sea shore, a procession of devotees was formed stretching from the temple to the shore and the sand was passed in vessels from hand to hand.


Entrance of Rankoth Vihara

The dagoba was built in 1863 and relics were interned in 1865. A letter sent by the Malwatte Maha Nayaka Thera regarding the accompanying ceremony states as follows. “To all those lay and priestly devotees who have inaugurated the construction of a dagoba in the Galvala Vihara at Panadura, greetings: unceasing donations without stint to the triple gem will invariably bring the blessings of both worlds. Ven Madagama Dhammarakkitha Mahanayaka Thera of Pushparama Vihara, Kandy.”

The building of the vihara also took place at this time. The inauguration ceremony took place in 1894. Jeremias Dias made a large contribution to the building fund of the vihara which was carried out under his auspices.

The preaching hall was constructed in 1930. The land for this purpose was donated by Jeremias Dias’s wife.

The persons who played a prominent part in its construction were P C H Dias and Jahannes Anthony Rodrigo. The Sri Pada building and the old water tank were built by my grandfather Walter Salgado his brother, Richard Salgado, Dick Dias, Robert Dias, Edmond Soysa, Charles Dias, Hugh Gunawardena and Theadore Gunawardena at the request of Meeripenne Jothipala Nayaka Thera of the Buddhist Ecclesiastical Court. The new parapet wall of the sacred Bo-tree was built under the auspices of the Maha Prajapathie Gothami Society in 1981.

On 1987 February the international library building in the name of Ven Sri Sasanarathana Anunayake Thera was opened. The priests who held the position of Chief Incumbent of the temple are as follows:

1 Ven Batapola Kalyanatissa Maha Nayaka Thera (1810-1841)

2 Ven Walapita Sri Sumanatissa Nayaka Thera (1841-1857)

3 Ven Walpita Gunarathanatissa Maha Nayaka Thera (1857-1920)

4 Ven Pandithacharya Panadure Gnanawimalatissa Nayaka Thera (1920-1929)

5 Ven Karagampitiye Jothirathana Anunayake Thera (1929-1958)

6 Dr Rajakeeya Panditha Kahapola Sugatharathana Nayaka Thera (1981 onwards)

When Ven Karagampitiye Jothirathana Anunayaka Thera was old and infirm Ven Abhidammika Somarathana Thera of Panadure looked after the affairs of the temple as Managing Chief Incumbent.

The present improvements to Rankoth Vihara commenced during the period of Ven Walpita Gunarathanatissa Maha Nayaka Thera, Pulinathalaramaya of Kalutara, Patalirukkaramaya of Pinwala, Nagananda Vihara of Kovilagodella were also temples that came within the purview of his tenure as Chief Incumbent. A news item in the ‘Lakmina’ of June 17, 1920 states as follows about him:

At the end of his Viharadhipathiship, this most venerable and famous place of worship complete in every facility, stood out in stupendous splendour not incomparable with Rankoth Vihara constructed 740 years ago by King Parakramabahu the great, at Polonnaruwa. To this day temple keeps improving proclaiming the past meritorious services rendered by this most venerable priest.....”

The appointment of Buddhist Marriage registrars

Among the great religious and social activities carried out by Ven Gunarathanatissa Mahanayaka Thera, particular mention must be made of the fact that it was he who was instrumental in bringing about what came to be known as ‘The Great Panadure Debate’ and also of the appointment of Buddhist marriage registrars. The aforementioned newspaper also refers to these matters as follows:

“As a result of registering the marriages of Buddhists in churches under the law then prevailing a tendency was observed by the brother of Mudliyar Sri Chandrasekera, Mututantrige Lewis Fernando Alias Lewis Bass, that Buddhists became converts to Christianity.

He thereupon spent Rs 207 out of his pocket, visited 75 villages and collected 33,000 signatures and persuaded the British Government to install the present system of Marriage Registrars for Buddhists. Had this not been done, by now the Buddhist population would have been decimated to a handful.

The one person who was behind Lewis Bass giving him advice and encouragement was none other than Ven Gunarathanatissa Maha Nayaka Thera.”

The Great Panadure Debate

Ven Gunarathanatissa Maha Nayaka Thera was also the architect of the “Great Panadure Debate.” Reverend David de Silva preached a sermon on June 12, 1873 in the Wesliyan Church situated in close proximity to Rankoth Vihara, criticizing the fundamental tenets of Buddhism.

This came to the knowledge of Ven Gunarathanatissa Maha Nayaka Thera. After a discussion with P Jeramias Dias and Cornelis Perera Appuhamy, two chief contributors of the temple, he invited Ven Mohottiwatte Gunananda Nayaka Thera for a discourse at Rankoth Vihara and got him to reply to Reverend David de Silva. After this, he started a series of competing discourses in absentia both in the Wesliyan Church and at Rankoth Vihara.

This culminated in an agreement to hold a public debate on this matter. The proposal for a debate was sent by Peter Daniel, proctor of the Panadura Courts and by one Mathes Suwaris Gunawardena to Jeramias Dias (renter) and Kurukulasuriyage Cornelis Perera Karunaratne Appuhamy. This hand-delivered letter is preserved to this day at Rankoth Vihara.

In pursuance of this letter on and August 26 and 27 1873, this debate was held on the private property called Dambagahawatte belonging to Jeremias Dias. Ven Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera was the chief debator for the Buddhists while the Christian faction was represented by both Reverends David de Silva and Sirimanne Kathiresu.

Prior to the debate, for several days data were collected by a series of discussions that took place on the upper floor of the residence of monks at Rankoth Vihara. It is stated that for this purpose several versions of the Bible, Sanskrit books and books containing the Thripitaka were made use of. Outstanding people of learning assisted.

Among those who participated at these discussions were the most Venerable Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera, Weligama Sri Sumangala Thera, Bulathgama Dhammalankara Thera, Ratmalane Sri Dhammaloka Thera, Waskaduwe Sri Subhuthi Thera and Pandit Sri Devarakkitha Batuwantudawe.

The land Dombagahawatte, in which this debate was held was later gifted by the wife of Jeremias Dias to her daughter Rosalin Emaly Rodrigo, on July 9, 1954 at the request of Karagampitiye Jothirathana Anunayaka Thera, who was then the Viharadhipathy of Rankoth Vihara, this property was gifted by her to the Panadura Buddhist Society.

Under the auspices of the Panadura Buddhist Society and at the behest of Ven Dr Moratuwe Sasanarathana Anunayake Thera, on August 26, 1973, at the centenary celebrations carried out with the participation of all the Buddhist temples and organizations it was decided that a commemorative edifice should be erected at the spot where the debate took place and for this purpose the foundation stone was laid by the Governor General William Gopallawa. After spending a great deal of money the Buddhist Society laid a concrete foundation.

However, due to various objections the matter came to a standstill thereafter, and the place is now covered with grass and scrub jungle.

A report of the Great Panadura Debate was published by John Caper in the ‘Times’. Thereafter it was published in book form in America by J M Sibles. A copy of this reached Colonel Henry Steel Olcott. It was this book that induced him to come to Sri Lanka. It is stated that he delivered a lecture in the lecture hall of Rankoth Vihara.

Sir Edwin Arnold

Sir Edwin Arnold, who was the author of ‘The Light of Asia’ visited Rankoth Vihara in 1886. In his book ‘India Revisited’ an account is given at pages 267-274 of a long discussion he had with Ven Weligama Sri Sumangala Maha Nayaka Thera. The tenor of this account reflects the esteem and veneration in which he held Weligama Sri Sumangala Maha Nayaka Thera. It was at this discussion that for the first time it was mooted by the said Sumangala Maha Nayaka Thera that Buddha Gaya should be in the charge of Buddhists.

About the demeanour of the Sinhalese, Sir Arnold has stated thus: “I was received on behalf of Sri Lanka by a large number of Bhikkus clad in saffron robes residing in the temple presided over by the learned Weligama Sri Sumangala Thera by their speeches and pamphlets. These well-wishing Buddhists had decorated the large hall with coconut fronds and the path leading to it with flowers and multi-coloured leaves. The hall arrangements to welcome us and the hospitality accorded to us proclaimed the rare benign quality of the Sinhalese.”

As disclosed in the aforementioned book of Sir Arnold, even as far back as 1886 there had been a teaching Pirivena at Rankoth Vihara.

According to existing temple records however the present Pirivena was inaugurated on September 17, 1896.

The prime mover behind this was Jeremias Dias. According to the eighth administrative report of the Sri Saugatha Vidyala Pirivena of 1904 a great deal of information surrounding this pirivena is disclosed. Weligama Sri Sumangala Mahanayaka Thera was the first principal of this Pirivena.

He was succeeded by Ven Panadure Gnanawimalatissa Nayaka Thera. Several distinguished Mahanayaka Theras of the Amarapura sect studied in this Pirivena. Agga Mahapanditha Beruwala Sirinivasa Mahanayaka Thera, Rajakeeya Panditha Kahandamodera Sri Piyaratane Nayaka Thera, Rajakeeya Panditha Ambalangoda Dhammakusala Nayaka Thera, Dr Moratuwe Sasanarathana Nayaka Thera passed out of this Pirivena. At the initial stages, the Mahanayaka Thera, who was invited to examine the students at this Pirivena, was Ven Hikkaduwe Sumangala Mahanayaka Thera.

Pandithacharya Panadure Gnanawimalatissa Nayaka Thera was a monk well versed in Sanskrit. A large number of students, both lay and priestly, have studied under him. The most venerable Karagampitiye Jothiorathana Anunayaka Thera was proficient in Pali and the Vinaya doctrine. He translated into Sinhala the Pali book on Vinaya called the Mahvaggapali with explanatory annotations and did a great service to Buddhism. Besides this, he is the author of a large number of other works.

Ven Dr Moratuwe Sasanarathana Anunayaka Thera was a monk of great erudition who graced the 20th Century. Men of learning refer to him with awe for the depth of knowledge with which he has presented the Mahayana doctrine. Dr Needham (1978), Dr Trewalin (1976), Dr U M Bromley visited Rankoth Vihara because of his esteemed reputation. In the book of names of the world’s most learned men published in Germany, Dr Moratuwe Sasanarathana Anunayaka Thera’s name has been included. This is not only a credit to Rankoth Vihara but to the whole of Sri Lanka.

Dhamma School

The School of Dhamma was commenced at Rankoth Vihara on April 22, 1903. Its patrons were Ven Walpita Gunarathana Tissa Mahanayaka Thera and Pandithacharya Panadure Gnanawimalatissa Nayaka Thera.

Arthur V Dias, T Jeramanis Peiris, W Daniel Fernando, P C F Gunawardena, B Paulis Perera, B W Munasinghe, W C Fernando, L B Fernando, B C Perera, Arthur Salgado, John Cooray, J R Sri Chandrasekera, Albert A Fonseka, Oliver A Gunawardena are its early benefactors. From 1915 to 1945, for a period of 40 years Gilbert C Fernando rendered an unforgettable service to this Dhamma school. At present about 14,000 children are taught the Dhamma at this school. The first two Buddhist schools to be registered, Upadyaya Vidyalaya and Sri Sumangala Maha Vidyalaya were both started at Rankoth Vihara. The present incumbent Viharadhipathy of this historic Rankoth Vihara is Ven Professor Rajakeeya Panditha Kahapola Sugatharathana Thera.

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