Gangaramaya Temple: Oasis of serenity in the heart of Colombo | Sunday Observer

Gangaramaya Temple: Oasis of serenity in the heart of Colombo

2 April, 2017

There are quite a few well known temples in Colombo, but only one of them is famous worldwide. You see it in picture postcards, on travel blogs and religious websites. The Perahera conducted every February is equally well known and attracts the faithful and tourists from across the globe. It may be located in one of the busiest areas in the city but once you go inside, it is a picture of serenity that greets you.

The Gangaramaya Temple in Colombo needs no introduction. If you live in Colombo you most probably have visited it at least once, regardless of religion. If you live outside Colombo, you must have come here to see the Perahera or witness an exposition of sacred relics of the Buddha. And if you are a foreigner, visiting the Gangaramaya is probably on your wish list, if you have not done so already. Such is the fame of Gangaramaya. On Poya days, devotees come here from all corners of the island for Sil, meditation and worship. The temple is open to all – from the President and the Prime Minister who visit the temple frequently to the man on the street, this tranquil abode of the Sangha is for everyone, regardless of faith and community.

The temple was built by Most Ven. Sri Sumangala Thera in 1885. Legend has it that he planted a Bo sapling and the temple began as a small hermitage. The erudite Thera, who also built the Vidyodaya Pirivena was responsible for designing the Buddhist flag and has performed a yeoman service to Buddhism, as well as arts and literature. The current Chief Incumbent of the Gangaramaya Temple is Ven. Galaboda Gnanissara Thera who has infused new life to this temple with his dynamic leadership.

One can say that the Gangaramaya Temple is similar to other temples because of the Pagoda, the Bo tree, Buddhist shrines and preaching halls. But there is one thing that sets it apart from most other temples and indeed, other places of worship. The temple has very deep ties with the community and engages in a lot of social service activities. Long before the term Corporate Social Responsibility became fashionable, the Gangaramaya Temple has been doing something similar for decades.

Ven. Dr. Kirinde Assaji Thera of the Gangaramaya Temple says the temple’s outreach program has two components – religious and social. The Sri Jinaratna Training Centre which offers vocational training programs was started by the Gangaramaya Temple. Ven. Assaji Thera says: “We are enabling young people to improve their skills. We are training them through skills development programs. The Jinaratna Vocational Training Centre was started especially for that purpose. Thousands of students have passed out from this institution. There are more than 2,000 students currently enrolled in these courses. We are also giving them English education and IT education. We don’t ask students about their community or religion. That is immaterial to us.”

The Seema Malaka on the Beira Lake, although located around 150 metres away from the main building, is an integral part of the Gangaramaya Temple and was restored and designed by the internationally acclaimed architect Geoffrey Bawa. He was not a Buddhist, but he was able to capture the nuances of Buddhist teachings perfectly in designing the Seema Malaka which evokes the serenity of many ancient hermitages in the country. The Seema Malaka is often depicted in picture postcards as a temple in its own right and is used mostly for meditation. It has a large number of Buddha statues depicting various Mudras (poses) on all three platforms. The Bo Tree at Seema Malaka was grown from a sapling from the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura, Interestingly, the Seema Malaka was part funded by donors from other communities and religions in a nod to the temple’s affinity with people from all communities.

The Gangaramaya Temple also upgrades the facilities of other temples especially, in the outstations. Ven. Assaji explains: “We help other temples to upgrade their facilities. We are establishing facilities for the temples as well as facilities for monks and raising funds for the young monks to go to Pirivenas.”

The Chief Priest of the Gangaramaya Temple, Ven. Gnanissara Thera has collected many historic and religious artifacts which are preserved in the temple museum. Having a museum is rare for a temple, which is another aspect in which the Gangaramaya differs from other temples. The temple also has its own printing press and publications.

Although the Gangaramaya Temple is located in the heart of Colombo city, it has a calm environment. The architecture of the temple bears testimony to influences from both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. Many foreigners visit the Gangaramaya Temple to experience Buddhist culture as it is open to everyone who conducts himself or herself peacefully.

The temple fosters religious harmony because it is tolerant of other religions, and nearby, one can see a Kovil, Church and a Mosque.

The annual Navam Perahera, conducted by the Gangaramaya Temple in February draws large crowds which include both locals and tourists. The Navam Perahera is very similar to the Kandy Perahera and the Kelaniya Perahera. Vesak is celebrated by the Gangaramaya Temple with the “Buddha Rashmi Pooja” which will be held this year on a grand scale for five days during the Vesak season in the temple’s vicinity in association with the Prime Minister’s Office.

This will include religious activities as well as pandals and Bhakti Geeta (Devotional Songs). This year’s Vesak celebrations have an added significance since Sri Lanka is hosting the UN Vesak Celebrations after a lapse of several years. Many foreign dignitaries as well as religious leaders are participating in events connected to the UN Vesak celebration.

The Gangaramaya Temple also celebrates the Sinhala and Hindu New Year every year with a Pirith ceremony and other religious activities. The temple intends to broaden its religious and social initiatives in the future.

PiX: Wimal Karunathilake