Kumarakanda Vihara: a Buddhist temple with Dutch influence | Sunday Observer

Kumarakanda Vihara: a Buddhist temple with Dutch influence

The attention of any visitor to the Southern Province is immediately drawn to the city of Galle and its maritime heritage of Galle Fort. Being a maritime province, it has lived through 350 years of colonial rule by first, the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally, the British. Inevitably, contemporary artistic and architectural styles were strongly influenced by European standards and values, which are clearly mirrored in the buildings, especially, in Buddhist temples in this maritime region of the 18th to the last quarter of the 19th centuries.

Among these buildings, the most awe-inspiring and intrinsic Buddhist architectural finds are in the small hillock, widely known as, Kumarakanda, a couple of kilometres past Hikkaduwa on the land side of the Colombo-Galle highway at Dodanduwa, a picturesque tourist sea resort area close to the southern capital of Galle.

Dutch architectural style

En route from Kataluwa, our next destination was Kumarakanda Vihara or Kumara Maha Vihara, another such temple with Dutch architectural style buildings. Having parked the vehicle in the car park at the foothill, we trekked through the flight of steps under the scorching sun to visit the temple, with great enthusiasm.

The day we visited the temple being a Sunday, a large number of students were attending the Dhamma School in the temple and a few elderly female devotees were gathered in front of the Avasa Ge. When we asked them where the Viharadhipathi (chief incumbent) stayed, they told us that the Chief Incumbent had attended an alms giving ceremony in a nearby village and would arrive soon. Then we looked for other Bhikkus at the temple, but couldn’t find any as there were a cluster of buildings scattered in the surrounding area. However, we met a teacher of the Dhamma School as she prepared to leave the place after the School, and she briefed us on the historical background of the temple.

As the name of the temple indicates, ‘Kumarakanda’ denotes a hill, meaning Hill of the Prince. The temple is nestled on a rocky hillock with a flight of steps. The outer protective walls have a Dutch flavour. In fact, these structures give the temple the look of a Dutch Fort.

The Dutch look is evident no sooner one gets a first glimpse of the temple. Being on the summit of the hill, it could be seen from a distance. The magnificent white washed arched-entrance at the top of a steep flight of steps is very impressive. Two animals, a lion and a horse are depicted on the upper part of the arch, reminding one of the coat-of-arms at the entrance of a Dutch Fort. The flight of steps is divided into two parts and ornate half walls virtually serve as a protective railing for devotees who make the steep climb.

European invaders

According to the historical notes, this temple dates back to 1765 AD, but, scholars believe, the origin of the temple dates back to much earlier days. They believe the original temple was totally demolished by the European invaders who occupied the south western coastal line in the 16th Century.

After consolidating their rule, the second invaders, the Dutch, introduced Protestant Christianity and showed more hostility to their predecessor’s Roman Catholicism, than to Buddhism.

Having been influenced by the European architecture, and being on friendly terms with the Dutch, Buddhist devotees rebuilt the Kumarakanda temple in mid-18th Century. Lying a few feet away from the entrance is an image house where the architecture is reminiscent of the European church style with its arches.

There are three chambers within the image house and at the time of my visit, only one image house was kept open. The blue painted wooden doors leading to the inner chambers are typically Dutch style doors, and are all double panelled.

The door panels are narrow and one of the panels in the second inner chamber which is somewhat bigger, is divided into two with the upper part serving more like a window. In this window like panel, a horoscope chart like design has been created. All the door frames and panels are painted in blue.

After gazing at the splendour of the image house, we learnt that it is believed to date back to 1784. In the left corner of the image chamber is a statue of a reclining Buddha. Most of the ancient murals have been destroyed and a new set of paintings done on the surface of the earlier ones. But, a square feet of the oldest remnants of a mural has been left, to show visitors how the walls looked originally.

Since it was kept closed when we visited, we learnt that two marble statues donated by the King of Myanmar are exhibited with two other statues in the middle chamber. The walls carry the modern paintings of Buddha’s life and the 16 prominent Buddhist places of worship in Sri Lanka. The third chamber displays statues of 24 Buddha statues and the walls are embellished with murals depicting the Vessanthara Jathaka Story. A few yards away from the image house, we came to the open courtyard where another glistening arch-entrance, resembling Dutch style stood, along with a temple belfry (Gantara Kuluna) and a glistening Dagoba. The belfry in the centre of the courtyard was also typically Dutch, with intricately carved floral designs and motifs. This belfry has a unique look compared to other belfries in temples, elsewhere. In the early days, the ringing of the temple bell was a call to the villagers to gather at the temple. It could be an emergency when the Bhikkus needed some assistance. Today, the bell is rung during the temple rituals and offerings.

Buddhist revival

The old tile thatched building with the arched-entrance is said to be a well-equipped library, which had earlier been housed in a Dutch style building. These buildings have been reconstructed from time to time and the roof tiles have been changed a couple of times. A priceless collection of books, manuscripts and other documents written by scholarly Bhikkus and laymen during the Buddhist revival in the late 19th and early 20th century had been placed in the library.

We next came to the lower terrace after climbing down a short flight of steps to the preaching hall where the devotees gather to listen to sermons by the Bhikkus.

The wooden pillars which stand from the middle of the wall have three rounded wooden pillars up to the roof, decorated with carvings of a group of rings and painted in orange. The remnants of a Dutch style podium where the Bhikkus sat and preached sermons can be seen in a corner. This building is also used as a classroom for the Dhamma School, where we saw a group of students clad in white sarongs.

The value of Kumarakanda temple and a few other Buddhist temples scattered in the Southern Province which boast a unique art and architectural style with strong European influence must be recognized.

If the state wishes to revive and promote the indigenous art of the country it would be wise to expedite some sort of legislation to preserve historical and ancient monuments, as well as create some Ordinance for the protection of indigenous art and architecture, especially, in the coastal belt of the Southern Province. 

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