Girihandu Seya: Jewel of Tiriyai | Sunday Observer

Girihandu Seya: Jewel of Tiriyai

ELOQUENT EXPRESSIONS IN STONES: The Girihandu Seya Vatadage (circular image house) at Tiriyai
ELOQUENT EXPRESSIONS IN STONES: The Girihandu Seya Vatadage (circular image house) at Tiriyai

We ascend a hillock surrounded by a panoramic view in Tiriyai and experience the unique architectural marvels of the ancient Buddhist shrine of Vatadage (circular image house)

I had always wanted to photograph and see the ruins of Girihandu Seya in Tiriyai, so I jumped at the opportunity when a group of my relatives offered to organize a trip. It was Pramod, my previous editor at the Sunday Observer, who first told me about the Girihandu Seya, a few months back, after visiting it.

The pillared circular shrine or Vatadage is reckoned to be the characteristic architectural form of ancient Sinhala Buddhism. There are well-known vatadages at Polonnaruwa, Thuparama in Anuradhapura and Medirigiriya. The Vatadage at Nitupatpana known as Girihandu Seya in Tiriyai, is one of the historical and archaeologically important Buddhist sites, which lies in the Yan Oya estuary in the North-East of Sri Lanka.

Tiriyaya or Tiriyai in Tamil is a predominantly Tamil speaking village located some 42 kilometres north of Trincomalee along the Nilaveli-Kuchchaweli-Pulmoddai road. It can be reached by more than one route. The other route from the inland is via Pankulam on the Horawapotana – Trincomalee road. Tiriyai is 39 kilometres from Pankulam. However, we reached it by the more scenic route via Nilaveli alongside the beach of Trincomalee.

Different eras

After a comfortable drive down from Trincomalee, when we reached the site during late morning, it was enveloped by white puffs of clouds. It presents a pretty picture against the blue canvas of the sky. The shrine itself lies on the top of a hill surrounded by a dense green forest with the blue water of the Bay of Bengal to the East. The principal approach to it commences between two imposing ponds with water lilies in one of them. We started to ascend through a pathway which becomes a flight of steps. The stone steps, which are interrupted by short flat stretches, have been efficiently restored, as has been the greater part of this shrine, by the Department of Archaeology. These stone steps led us up to the summit which has been artificially levelled and is enclosed by a surrounding stone wall.

The winding climb through foliage takes about half an hour and at the top of the flattened hill the massive granite Vatadage comes into view. We reached the top, and oh, words cannot express the serenity and the beauty of the place. Girihandu Seya stood at the centre enclosed with what remains of the Vatadage. In the past, it is said, there were seated Buddha statues placed in front of four flower altars. But they are missing now and small statues of the Buddha have been placed instead, for worship. We clasped our hands and bowed our heads in worship. Open to nature without any modern construction, the environs calm one’s senses and even if you may not be the spiritual kind the environment is such that you cannot help but wonder.

The Department of Archaeology first surveyed the Tiriyai ancient site in 1930. An inscription on one of the caves near the Vatadage tells us that this area was occupied by Bhikkus some centuries before the Christian-era.

Walking around the Vatadage, we observed and found some of the fascinating stone carvings. Four entrances, each flanked by intricately carved guard-stones and paved by a moonstone are seen at cardinal points. At the entrance of each of these are stone doorways.

The balustrades, as in similar structures in other sites, have Makara (dragon) carvings. Opposite each entrance are large stone slabs which are the flower altars. In the centre of the Vatadage are the remnants of a brick dagoba.

From the above description it is apparent that the Vatadage at Tiriyai conforms to the essential features of similar shrines elsewhere. However, the Vatadage at Tiriyai has certain unic characteristics. The capitals of the stone pillars at Tiriyai in contrast to those at Thuparama or at Medirigiriya, form a monolith with the shaft. Again, the ornamental carvings seen in other sites are absent in the capitals at Tiriyai. The simplicity is even more striking in the moonstones. These have only a single motif: A row of lotus petals at the periphery.

However, it was during the 8th century that it reached the peak of its fame, becoming a great centre of pilgrimage. At a later date the dagoba was enlarged and during the 8th century it was encircled by a wall and two sets of concentric pillars. Around it are the remains of six image houses, the largest of which houses a massive recumbent Buddha, now in a heap of brick mound.

The stone paving inside the Vatadage has been beautifully restored and the view from the shrine is unique and awe-inspiring.

Towards the East the Bay of Bengal is seen while on the opposite side is the luxuriant ever green forest and farming villages dotted with tanks. Remnants of shrine rooms outside the Vatadage are also to be seen. In one of these a fallen standing limestone statue of the Buddha lies separated from its pedestal.

It is evident that the shrine at Tiriyai has been built or renovated at different times. It was probably abandoned by the 12th or 13th century when invasions from South India caused the residents to move southwards.

Fascinating legends

According to the ancient narrative chronicle Pujavaliya, the original name for Nitupatpana at Tiriyai was Girihandu which is identical with Girikanda. The latter name could well have undergone phonological changes to become Tiriyai.

The Mahavansa records that Girikandasiva, an uncle of King Pandukabaya, (the founder of Anuradhapura) lived in the Girikanda Mountain and drew his revenues from this district. According to Buddhist scriptures, a sacred lock of the Buddha was enshrined at the Tiriyai Dagoba by two South Indian merchants, Tapassu and Bhalluka. They have been given this hair relic by the Buddha after they gave Him the first meal after Enlightenment.

The Pujavaliya states that the two merchants landed on the coast of Sri Lanka, at Girikanda or Tiriyai. Thus, it is said that Girihandu Seya is the first dagoba in Sri Lanka.

However, in the 13th century, Tiriyai had fallen into decline when the Sinhala people abandoned the Eastern coastal strip and fled to the South. The Vatadage was gradually forgotten. This ancient site became overgrown with jungle.

In 1955, the chief incumbent of the temple Ven. Gandara Sri Ananda Thera, strove to restore the Girihandu Seya, having formed the Girihandu Seya Temple Restoration Society.

Once again, from 1980 to 2009 some parts of the Eastern Province were under LTTE control and the Girihandu Seya was deserted. The LTTE demolished almost all the new buildings including the residences of Bhikkus except the ancient Vatadage on the top of the hill.

At the same time, the temple’s Bhikkus were also chased away. Eventually, after the defeat of LTTE terrorism in 2009, Tiriyai once again thrives with a peaceful environment and has returned to normalcy with the drastic development of road networks. Today, the journey to Tiriyai is much more comfortable. Nowadays, more and more pilgrims throng to Tiriyai as one of the popular Buddhist heritage destinations in the Eastern Province. A pilgrimage to Girihandu Seya is of course, a great spiritual experience for Buddhists. 

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