Rambadagalla Buddha statue: Sublime expression of compassion

The towering rock-cut Samadhi Buddha statue at Rambadagalla
The towering rock-cut Samadhi Buddha statue at Rambadagalla

Kurunegala, or to use its historical name- Hasthihaliyapura and the modern name- ‘Ethu-gal-pura’ literally translates to ‘Elephant-Rock City’. Kurunegala was the royal capital of Sri Lanka from 1293-1341 AD and is steeped in legend, romance and history. The city is also the gateway to many places of historic significance.

Everywhere you look around Kurunegala, Buddha statues and glistening Chaityas rise up crowning the rocks, silently competing for attention. Right in the centre of the bustling town, a statue of the Buddha atop what is known as ‘Ethu Gala’ or Elephant Rock serenely glances at the happenings below. When you drive away from the town, you look over your shoulder to see if the Buddha’s glance is still cast upon you and no matter which direction you drive, you can be assured that the Buddha’s blessings are upon you.

If you travel North East of Kurunegala, 20 km away lies the historic Ridhi Viharaya, a temple that dates back centuries. It is 15 km down Keppetigala road from the Mallawapitiya junction on the Kurunegala –Kandy road. Just five kilometres down the same carpeted road was our destination- Vidyasagara Piriven Vihara at Moneragala, Rambadagalla, where the enchanting Samadhi Buddha statue has been hewn out from a single rock boulder. We saw how this massive single rock boulder has been transformed into a peaceful Buddha statue. It was like witnessing history being etched in stone right before your eyes.

Rock-cut statues

We have witnessed the tradition of rock-cut Buddha statues in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa where ancient kings’ creations are considered among the best examples of rock carvings and sculpture of the ancient Sinhalese. Even today, these mid-12th century stone carvings rank among the true masterpieces of Sinhalese art. Rock-cut statues are rare and the rock-cut Buddha statue at Rambadagalla is therefore unique, in contemporary times.

It was almost seven in the morning when we reached the temple premises and parked the vehicle. A few yards from the car park we came across the Avasa Ge of the Chief Incumbent of the temple Venerable Egodamulle Amaramoli Thera and from there a flight of steps across a rock boulder led us to a higher elevation where the Buddha statue is carved out on a granite rock facing the east.

After gazing at the splendour of the surrounding landscape with a misty range of rolling hills, we moved further until we came upon the enchanting Samadhi Buddha statue of Rambadagalla. The early morning rays of the sun directly shining on the rock-cut statue added a golden hue to its surface. The granite laden compound and rock-cut pond at the site lend an enchanting atmosphere to the Buddha statue.

The brainchild behind the creation of this Buddha statue is the Ven Egodamulle Amaramoli Thera, the chief incumbent of Vidyasagara Piriven Vihara, Moneragala, at Rambadagalla in Kurunegala.

I once visited this statue when it was being built in 2008. I have the unforgettable experience of climbing to the middle of the statue through ladders and ropes to photograph the Indian sculptors who engaged in the construction.

Rich culture

Sitting on a stone slab in front of this statue in those days, I saw Indian sculptors smoothly chiseling rock, and labourers removing and drilling the stone. I imagined how the monarchs who lived in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, had built magnificent statues in the days of yore. We, Sri Lankans, have always been proud of our rich culture and artistic heritage. Today, after centuries, we relive the pride and glory of sculpturing through the making of another majestic Buddha statue under the supervision of Ven Amaramoli Thera and the craftsmanship of highly skilled South Indian sculptors. They all worked according to the instructions of the world famous Indian sculptor, Padmasri Muttiah Sthapathi who had been awarded the ‘Padma Sri’ honour by the Indian government.

While I was at the temple that day in 2008, I talked to Ven Egodamulle Amaramoli Thera, the chief incumbent of the temple. He told me that he had decided to build this huge statue in an effort to recreate a 1,500-year-old Bamiyan Buddha statue in Afghanistan which was demolished by the Taliban terrorists in 2001. The statue was commissioned to be carved on September 13, 2003.

He said most people had praised his effort. Ven Amaramoli Thera added that many dignitaries had helped him financially and added that he acknowledged the unseen force behind this work.

We visited the Buddha statue once again a couple of weeks ago and it is being worshipped by devotees who throng to the site. An experienced guide is also on hand to educate the people on the history of the Buddha statue. The guide told us, the idea of building this massive Buddha statue first came from a village boy who attended the Dhamma School in the temple.

The boy rushed to the temple to meet the Chief Incumbent to tell the sad story of the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha statue in Afghanistan. The Dhamma School students of the temple, made a till-box to collect money to build a Buddha statue with the advice of the chief incumbent Ven Egodamulle Amaramoli Thera. Then he had an idea of building a statue not second to the tallest one that had been destroyed in Afghanistan.

The then Chief incumbent had a trepidation whether he could finish this effort successfully, and realized it was going to be a massive task. Yet he made a firm resolution to construct a 50 foot tall seated Buddha statue rather than replicate the Bamiyan Buddha statue in Afghanistan. On the other hand, the chief incumbent wondered who could undertake this task of hewing out a Buddha statue in a single rock.

South Indian sculptor

Ven Amaramoli Thera then met a well-known Colombo Businessman, D. Easwaran of Easwaran Brothers. He facilitated a meeting with a South Indian sculptor to perform this task. Eventually, after a series of meetings, the Chief Incumbent agreed to go up to 67.5 feet.

We next came to the spot where the ancient shrine room and Chaitya stood. It was on another rock boulder facing the Buddha statue. We came upon a horizontal rock. From that elevation we were able to get a glimpse of the landscape all around, comprising a seemingly never ending range of rolling hills. A few yards away from this rock were several ponds with water lilies.

Although the work of the statue was completed and it was officially unveiled on April 30, 2015 by President Maithripala Sirisena, there are minor details that are still in the process of completion under the expert craftsmanship of a team of Indian sculptors.

This 67.5 feet tall rock-cut Samadhi Buddha statue took more than a decade to complete and is now one of the most prominent Buddhist statues in Kurunegala.

Tourists and Buddhist devotees come to the Moneragala temple daily to witness this massive rock-cut Buddha statue of modern times and they don’t forget to make a generous financial contribution to the temple since a large sum of money is needed to complete the rest of the work around the statue.

There were a few Indian sculptors still doing the final touches to the statue when I visited the temple recently.  

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