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.
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
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
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
“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
5 Ven Karagampitiye Jothirathana Anunayake Thera (1929-1958)
6 Dr Rajakeeya Panditha Kahapola Sugatharathana Nayaka Thera (1981
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
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
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.
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.