BOOK REVIEW: Swim against a current to wrest the truth, an academic adventure | Sunday Observer

BOOK REVIEW: Swim against a current to wrest the truth, an academic adventure

Mandalaramaya and Alokalena
Author: G.R. Gunawardana Banda

‘Knowledge advances by steps, and not by leaps,’ wrote Lord Macaulay. Through the passage of several centuries, mankind boasts of a knowledge of which it prides today. It continues to advance and innovations are not stifled and stilled. Out of the billions who breathed air and dust, only a tiny coterie ventured into innovations to widen the ken, facilitating mankind to fly afar. G.R. Gunawardene Banda is one such adventurous flier, who indulged in research on the venue of transcribing the Tripitaka from memory on ola leaves.

The fruit of his effort is the relocation of the site, obliterating the entrenched view that the event occurred at Aluvihare in Matale.

He shifts the venue to Alulena situated in Hatarakorale (Kegalle district). He attempts to substantiate and buttress his view quoting from apt reliable scriptures of ancient origin in contrast to the later authorities which have burrowed information from hazy sources. He greatly relies on the Mahavansa, the greatest historical record which omits to mention Aluvihare as the venue of writing.

The sources refer to the venue of writing as Alulena in the Dakkhina desa. The author, referring to credible authorities, attempts to convince the patient reader that Matale, the accepted venue, did not fall within the Dakkhina desa but in Uttara Malaya or Rajarata.

The historical site of recording the Tripitaka, the author adverts to, lies at Alulena near Karanduponme in the Kegalle district, which was in the ancient Dakkhina desa. Alulelna, in Matula danawwa to which the sources refer, is in Attanagoda in Karandupne. Matula is the old name for the Sinhala word attana.

Attanagoda is a congenial capacious location to accommodate five hundred Bhikkus and the cave temple is spacious enough to house them with a stream running by and overflowing wells in the vicinity to provide water as common amenities.

The author traverses through the labyrinthine maze of literature on the spread of Buddhism in the island to paint a comprehensive picture of the introduction, history, development and travails. The craft of writing, taking its origin in Mesapotamia travelled to Egypt and spread to India and by the time of the Buddha writing was extant in India.

However, the noble doctrine had not been reduced to writing and the author dwells upon a few reasons for continuing it in the oral tradition: 1. Dearth of writing material 2. Absence of learned men to read and understand 3.

By oral transmission the teacher could reach a wider audience. 4. Oral discussions were lively and listeners could question, verify and confront, for it is the core of philosophical teaching.

Hence, what was imparted by Arahant Mahinda was transmitted in oral tradition, for there were erudite Bhikkhus with a marvellous memory power to absorb and retain the Dhamma. The author presents a graphic description of transmitting the canon imparted by Arahant Mahinda to successive generations of Bhikkus through oral tradition, until a threat posing extinction loomed in 1st century B.C. by the ravaging severe famine – beminitiyasaya, which lasted 12 years.

The sun-baked earth was scorched and cracked, trees were barren of foliage, water sources run dry. Many succumbed to starvation. Although ardent devotees, they were so hapless they could not offer alms to the monks. Some monks left for India to sustain their lives with the sole objective of preserving the doctrine that dwelt in their memory. When the famine was over normalcy was restored and the country experienced prosperity.

The monks returned from India and all the learned monks gathered at Vattarama (in the Kegalle district) and deliberated on the possibility of a re-emergence of a similar calamity, which could result in the extinction of the doctrine.

They decided on an alternative mode of preserving and perpetuating the Dhamma. Thus they hit upon the idea of transcribing on ola leaves – rather committing to writing: which they did. Now we are the proud inheritors of this invaluable asset – i.e. written Tripitaka.

It is commonly believed and publicized that the venue where five hundred monks assembled and transcribed the Tripitaka on to ola leaves is Aluvihare in Matale.

The central theme of the instant publication is the disputation and challenge of the author, where he questions the veracity of the entrenched view when his bold incisive attempt shifts the locale from Matale to Kegalle.

In this attempt, though he has to combat an overwhelming majority of scholars holding adverse views, he is not cast to a solitary battle for great authority on archaeology, Dr. Senarath Paranavitana, Ven. Naulle Dhammananda Thera and even western scholars, like Hugh Neville come to his aid. The ancient chronicles state that the Tripitakaya was committed to writing at Matula danawwa in Dakshina desa. The author illumines that what befuddled the minds of some old writers was that they misidentified Matula danawwa in the dakkhina desa as Matale in Malaya desa. Therefore, the crux of the matter is to correctly identify Matula danawwa in Dakkhina desa, where transcription to ola leaves took place.

The author explains that Matula is a synonym for attana (name of a local tree) and presently the site which the author claims to be Matula is called Attanagoda, near Kegalle.

Further, the author shows that Matale does not fall within Dakkhina desa, according to ancient delimitation but Satara Korale (Kegalle district) did fall within the Dakkhina desa.

He shows that the cave at Matale is a narrow dingy short strip where amenities were lacking in contrast to the Kegalle site at Karandupone (Attanagoda) which is 180 feet long, 25 feet wide and 56 feet in height: allowing the sun’s rays to fall into the cave and thus name it, Aloka lena, which later changed to Alulena.

He describes the physical environment of Alokalena where a gushing stream, a tributary to Maoya runs by, closer to it and overflowing wells too are found there, thus providing a conducive atmosphere for five hundred monks to reside without inconvenience.

He buttresses his theory by narrating a series of cogent reasons for the discerning reader to clear the fog in the misty scenery.

He has dwelt deep into contents in numerous ancient and modern publications of historical and archeological value to enlighten us on the vicissitudes in propagating Dhamma, such as royal patronage, seats of learning, the influence the clergy exerted over the rulers and setbacks.

His commitment, sacrifice and selfless effort in digging deep to unearth buried treasures to apprise the present and the future generations of our noble traditions and culture, should be commended. 

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