Somawathie Chaitiya: place of mystery and miracles

The majestic Somawathie Chaitiya seen surrounded by shrub jungle in the Somawathie Sanctuary.
The majestic Somawathie Chaitiya seen surrounded by shrub jungle in the Somawathie Sanctuary.

Last week I had the opportunity to travel to the Somawathie Chaitiya and was pleasantly surprised by the large wildlife refuge surrounded by the road side. Travelling along the Hingurakgoda-Sungawila road, the shrub jungle and stretch of paddy-fields lie in the vicinity, a few kilometres to the right. On both sides of the road, for kilometres lie vast acres of lush green paddy, mature, and they all seemed to be doing well with no signs of drought or drying up.

We continue on our way to Somawathie Chaitya, and turning left from Higurakgoda town we pass through the Muslim dominated township of Sungawila, and take the road that was once a bumpy, unpaved track that loosely connected a number of dilapidated bridges. This time around, the road is carpeted and the bridges are new. Traversing this stretch is conveniently smooth.

We had aimed to reach Somawathie Chaitya late in the day because we had to take part in two Poojas, one in the evening and the other, Kapruk Pooja the following morning, and arrived somewhat early in the evening. There were already several buses with pilgrims from many parts of the country.

Known as a place of mysterious sights and miracle rays of light, wild elephants keeping a dusk to dawn vigil, even baffling reports of alien visitations continuing to enthrall thousands of pilgrims who throng the Somawathie Chaitya deep in the jungle of the Somawathie wildlife sanctuary, 40 kilometres north-east of Polonnaruwa, to worship and venerate the Buddha’s Right Tooth Relic which lay embedded in the Chaitiya.

Today, it is deemed as part of the Wasgomuwa Strict Natural Reserve, the floodplains of the Mahaweli Ganga and Trikonamadu Natural Reserve.

The Somawathie Chaitiya was constructed by order of King Kavantissa of Ruhuna on behalf of his sister, Princess Somawatie, who was a queen of King Giri Abaya, the sub ruler of the region. Princess Somawatie had a great desire to have a relic enshrined Chaitiya for the veneration of the people. Both, her husband and brother helped her fulfil her mission and found a place called Somapura, where Arahat Mahinda was said to have resided with 5,000 Bhikkus, to build the Chaitiya.

Stone inscriptions

Constructed in the 2nd Century BC, the relic chamber of the Somawathie Chaitiya is believed to have the sacred Right Tooth Relic of the Gautama Buddha enshrined within. Several stone inscriptions detailing the history of the Chaitiya have also been found at the site and inscriptions in Brahmi characters have been identified by scholars as dating back to the 2nd Century BC. In later years the Chaitiya was renovated by several subsequent rulers.

With the discovery of the Chaitiya in 1947, government archaeologists began excavation and restoration work which commenced a few years later. And, with every digging they made, more illuminating details emerged of its origins. The Chaitiya had been built 2,200 years ago in the floodplains of the Mahaweli Ganga. Though ancient records stated that the Chaitiya was built on the eastern bank of the Mahaweli, the archeologists however found that it was located on the west bank. This discrepancy was resolved when it was later found that the river itself had changed course through the long passage of time. During the rainy season, it is well known that the Somawathie Chaitiya and surrounding area are constantly inundated due to flooding.

It is apparent that the current road too lies on the river bed of the ancient Mahaweli Ganga. The archeologists found the inscription near the site mention a crossing point or ferry, which was on the course indicating that the river changed course within the 2,000 years. With the Chola and Pandyan invasions and the breakdown of the Polonnaruwa civilization, the Somawathie Chaitiya went into ruin and was enveloped by the jungle. It was resurrected in 1947 by a pious Buddhist Bhikku named Ven. Sirimalwatte Piyaratana and a few other Bhikkus, who trekked through the jungle canopy for many miles to discover the Chaitiya, having seen a miraculous light emanating from the jungle, in the sky.

Sacred Right Tooth Relic

They soon arrived at the site and stumbled upon a small Chaitiya cloaked in dense forest cover. They had discovered the fabled lost Chaitiya of Somawathie, in which, legend and lore has it, and ancient historical notes recorded, as the enshrine of the sacred Right Tooth Relic of the Buddha. The 2,200 year old Chaitiya had been finally found.

Ancient chronicles record that when the Buddha passed away in India, over 2,500 years ago, the right tooth relic had come into the possession of the King of the Nagas, King Jayasena, who in turn had gifted it to a Buddhist Arahat monk.

Another version states that the sacred relic was in the possession of the King of the Gods, Sakkra who had gifted it to Sri Lanka’s first Arahat, the Enlightened Aritta. The monk in turn had gifted it to Prince Giri Abhaya, a sub king of the area whose wife, Princess Somawathie was the younger sister of King Kavantissa who ruled the Ruhuna Kingdom of Sri Lanka. King Kavantissa was the father of King Dutugemunu who built the Ruwanwelisaya in Anuradhapura.

Known as the enshrine of the ‘Right Tooth Relic of Buddha’ the Somawathie Chaitiya remained unknown and deserted for over a thousand years in the thick jungle until it was discovered in 1947. With its discovery, archaeologists from the Department of Archaeology began excavations and restoration work of bringing the Chaitiya to its original glory.

There is no doubt about the antiquity of the site and the ancient stone inscription on the site reflects on the reign of King Kavantissa and is characterized by features from the era which include undecorated balustrades, four moonstones and surrounding brick walls.

Meanwhile, miracle stories abound, that photographs of mysterious light shows proliferate at the place. But, whether or not the miracles are true, whether they meet the test of credibility, whether they enchant, mystify or baffle the devotees who are treated to a surfeit of their occurrences, one thing remains clear.

The photographs of miraculous lights have been displayed at the site while some of the miraculous pictures have been shot by the Minister of Sustainable Development and Wildlife Gamini Jayawickrema Perera.

What really draws the thousands of devotees who throng this once long forgotten jungle Chaitiya is the inspiring sublime presence of the sacred Right Tooth Relic of the Buddha, enshrined therein. They come with zeal and fervor in their hearts to worship and pay their homage to the Dakunu Dalada of the Buddha, while the Left Tooth Relic of the Buddha famed as the Sri Dalada is enshrined in the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, today.

A deep clef has been left visible in the Chaitiya exposing the ancient bricks of the original Chaitiya. What is also unique about the Somawathie Chaitiya is that the altars are within the Chaitiya itself. Here, pilgrims have to climb the steps in single file to reach the small enclosure that accommodate about four people.

Scattered in the vicinity of the Chaitiya are a number of ruins, among them stone inscriptions, fallen and half buried stone pillars and stone carved Siripathul Gal (stone footprints) in the shrub jungle.

Being located within the Somawathie Wildlife Sanctuary, large herds of elephants roam the surrounding wilderness of the Somawathie Chaitiya and also some elephants stand near the electric fence, begging for food from visitors. However, the entire Chaitiya premises are covered with an electric fence preventing wild elephants entering the sacred area. 

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