Little-known, historically important: Rasvehera, built by King Devanampiya Tissa | Sunday Observer

Little-known, historically important: Rasvehera, built by King Devanampiya Tissa

Rasvehera statue
Rasvehera statue

There are many lesser-known places of historical importance to be explored in various parts of Sri Lanka. Some of them are located miles off the beaten track in deep jungle terrain. Tucked in the village of Rasvehera in Galgamuwa, in the North Western Province is one such historic place called ‘Rasvehera Rajamaha Viharaya’, also known as ‘Sasseruva’.

To reach this place, we had to take the road to Ehatuwewa from the Galgamuwa town and then proceed to Rasvehera. Passing several villages along the tarred road, we travelled a few more kilometres down a gravel path through thick jungle, infested with wild elephants. On either side of this road are electric fences erected to prevent elephants from entering the nearby villages. However, we did not see a single elephant as they are said to roam only at night. Travelling is possible only before dusk.

On entering the archaeological site, a desolate atmosphere prevails all around. No visitors had come at the time we arrived, except a few university students studying Archaeology, who were engaged in some kind of measuring activity along with some officers of the Department of Archaeology.

One officer told us that they had come to gather information on the Rasvehera sacred site for the purpose of making it a tourist destination by restoring the place. The restoration and excavation work would take place in the near future, he said. Indeed, it is a commendable action taken by the Government to preserve little-known, hidden archaeological sites such as this, scattered around the island.

Many of us would not know much about this place and may not like visiting it due to the difficulty in travelling. I too visited this site for the first time though I had known about it earlier. Especially, this ancient place – said to be originally built by King Devanampiya Tissa is well-known for a Buddha statue located there.

We climbed the stone steps the upper part of which seems to have been rebuilt. There, we saw the colossal standing Buddha statue hewn out of rock, which almost resembles the Awkana statue in appearance. The Awkana Buddha statue is located a few kilometres from this place. However, we cannot say that this statue is absolutely akin to the one in Awkana as there are some noticeable variances. The pedestal on which the statue stood is not decorated, and is only a square block of stone. Examining the face, one ear is not complete, whereas the Awkana statue is perfect in every way.

Some parts of the Rasvehera statue have been destroyed, may be due to North Indian invasions. The statue lacks the ‘Siraspatha’ at the top of the head that is seen in the Awkana statue. Also, the statue seems to be in an unfinished state, depicting the Abhaya mudra. In front of this statue are a number of polished stone pillars. The brick wall foundation at the foot of the statue indicates that there was a shelter encircling the statue.

According to chronicles, the 40 foot Rasvehera Buddha statue is believed to have been built by King Mahasen (276 – 303 AD) who ruled in Anuradhapura. Unfortunately, the King died before the final touches were done to the statue. The ruined dagobas, moonstones, stone inscriptions found here are all believed to date back to 2nd Century BC. It is also believed that this statue was a creation by the same craftsman who built the Awkana statue.

Scattered around the site are a number of caves, thought to have been used by meditating monks who resided here. Some of the caves are covered in jungle terrain while some are not easily accessible as they have become abodes for wild creatures. There is an eerie atmosphere around the uncleared caves in this forested terrain. Getting closer to them is not possible. So, we explored only a few and did not attempt to move further into the jungle which is said to be dotted with 99 more natural caves hidden inside.

Walking around the site, we entered the two image houses to view their interior murals. A resident monk opened the doors of the image houses built annexed to the massive rock caves. Often, the doors remain closed and are opened only at the request of visitors. The rock cave walls are full of various blurred images, most of them faded with time, related to Buddhist character. However no mention is made as to which era these mural paintings belonged to. In one of the two image houses, a large reclining Buddha statue is visible. The monk who accompanied us said that parts of some Buddha statues had been destroyed by treasure hunters, which have now been restored to their former state.

The bo tree in the premises is said to be one of the 32 saplings of Sri Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura, planted by King Devanampiya Tissa (250 -210 BC). Also, the stupa there is said to have been built by King Walagamba.

Now, modern structures including a small shrine have been built on the temple premises, and also a Makara thorana (dragon arch) at the entrance. This historic place which has been declared as an archaeological site by the Department of Archaeology is still little known and only a few visit it. On important Poya days however visitors thronged the place.

Beyond this site is a small tank and the whole area enveloped in dense jungle. It is a sanctuary, with a desolate landscape and no human habitation in the vicinity. Visitors are advised to visit this place only in the daytime as wild elephants are likely to roam by evening. 

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