The splendour of Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara
Polonnaruwa or Anuradhapura may be the very first places that would
enter your mind when you begin to think of Buddhist religious sites in
Sri Lanka. But the next moment you may remember that the most sacred of
all is situated just a six miles away from Colombo, beside the Kelani
River stretching over an area of ten acres. Kelani Raja Maha Vihara
which is never devoid of Buddhist devotees was filled with Upasaka,
Upasika as usual last weekend. Of all twelve poyas, Vesak Full Moon Poya
is of the greatest importance to Kelani Vihara as in the Buddhist era of
2531, it was on a Vesak Full Moon Poya Day, the Buddha had visited
“Out of His three visits to the country, His visit to Kelaniya is
considered the most significant one as this was the first instance the
Enlightened One had set his foot on the ground, before leaving for
Sripada to place His foot imprint.
On other two occasions the Buddha had preached Dhamma while staying
afloat,” Viharadhipathi Ven. Prof. Kollupitiye Mahinda Sangharakkita
Nayake Thera explained to us.
During its over thousand years of history, Kelani Vihara has always
attracted the attention of devout Buddhists, becoming a popular subject
for numerous books, newspaper articles and documentaries. As Ven.
Kollupitiye Mahinda Sangharakkita Thera says the history of Kelani
Vihara can be analysed in two ways - as mentioned in Mahavamsa and in
Ramayana.According to Ramayana, the King Vibeeshana who ruled Kelaniya
had supported Prince Rama to take Princess Seetha (who was abducted by
King Ravana) back to India. As Rama defeated a King of Lanka, Ravana,
the former crowned Vibeeshana as the King. Later he was elevated to God
- like status.
As Mahavamsa says, on the 8th year of His supreme Enlightenment, the
Buddha visited Kelaniya with 500 Arhats on the invitation of the Naga
“As mentioned in `Vansa Katha Atuwa’, Naga King Maniakkika had been
both in Mahiyangana and Nagadeepa, when the Buddha visited these places.
It was during the Buddha’s visit to Nagadeepa that he was invited by
the Naga King to visit Kelaniya.
“Naga King had brought the gem-studded chair over to Kelaniya from
Nagadeepa and had placed it in a gem studded Mandapa. It is from there
that the Buddha had preached to the crowds after partaking alms .That is
where the Cetiya (pagoda) was built.”
Referring to the pagoda which stands on the other bank of the Kelani
river, the thera said it was built enshrining the `Jala Sateeka’ which
the Buddha worn while having a bath in the Kelani River.
In 1970, Ven. Prof. Kamburupitiye Vanarathana Thera of Vidyodaya
University who was engaged in excavation work at Kelaniya, came across
an inscription carved on a stone pillar of the Vibeeshana Devala in the
It says that King Kanishka had offered a pooja to the pagoda which
enshrines the `Jala Satika’ (Uda kasda) of the Buddha. According to the
inscription it is clear that both pagodas had been there during the
Next, it was during the reign of King Yatalalatissa, brother of King
Kelanitissa that the Mahavamsa talks of Kelani Vihara. He is the one who
reconstructed the Vihara. His successor was Kelanitissa.” Devotees
largely used to visit the temple during that time, in the 3rd Century
When Princess Devi, daughter of king Kelanitissa was offered as a
sacrifice to the `sea-gods’ she safely arrived in the shores of Magama
and later became the Chief Queen of King Kavantissa. By the time, the
Kelani Kingdom had come to an end and Kelaniya was ruled from Magama.
Kelaniya again becomes a subject of interest in Mahavamsa during the
reign of Chola King, Kalinga Magha, an invader who ruled the Polonnaruwa
“It was king Vijayabahu III who organised an army against Magha while
dwelling in this area. In response to Vijayabahu’s army, Magha
dispatched a powerful contingent of troops towards Kelaniya which caused
severe damage to the temple. “ Anyway King Vijayabahu could defeat
Magha’s army and ensure his power in Polonnaruwa kingdom. Subsequently
he rebuild the temple.”
Mahavamsa also mentions how King Parakramabahu, King Agbo and King
Mihindu IV of Anuradhapura performed Poojas at this Vihara.
Kelaniya Vihara reached the peak of its glory in the Kotte era.
During the reign of King Buwanekabahu IV, monks who arrived from Myanmar
(then Burma) were ordained in Kelaniya. “Unfortunately the Portuguese
who arrived here in 1505 caused much havoc to the temple. In 1510 they
destroyed Kelani Vihara.
For about ten years it had been a `forbidden zone’ to Buddhists. The
Bo-Tree which is there today is a sapling sprouted from the original Bo
tree, which was mercilessly destroyed by the Portuguese.
Anyway in 1767 during the Dutch rule, King Keerthi Sri Rajasingha of
the Kandyan Kingdom reconstructed the Vihara. he old pagoda was
renovated while a new Dharmashala, Makara Thorana (which is on the right
side), and a Poya Geya were added to the precincts.
Referring to the developments in the 20th century, Ven. Sangarakkitta
Thera paid a compliment to the late Ms. Helena Wijewardene who
constructed the new Vihara in 1927 encircling the old Vihara which was
constructed by King Keerthi Sri Rajasingha in 1767. Paintings of New
Vihara were done by the veteran artist Solius Mendis and are known for
their originality and diversity .
From earlier times the practice has been to paint the walls of
temples with pictures of the Jataka stories (Old paintings of Kelani
Vihara too repeat Jathaka stories).
But the new paintings had taken a novel turn by depicting a series of
historical scenes that are connected with the birth, rise and progress
of Buddhism in Sri Lanka....
Today the Kelani procession is composed of the processions of the
Buddha Relics and those of the three devalas of Vibhishana, Vishnu and
The procession has been conducted for centuries, it was stopped
during the time the country was under the control of the Portuguese.
Afterwards it was with the help of Mrs. Helena Wejewardene that the
procession was started again. To this day, Duruthu Perehara of Kelani
Raja Maha Vihara parades through the streets in the month of January.