The forgotten colossus | Sunday Observer

The forgotten colossus

5 July, 2020
The rock-hewn recumbent Buddha statue of Ataragalleva in Elahera
The rock-hewn recumbent Buddha statue of Ataragalleva in Elahera

The silence was broken only by the cry of the peacock in the desolate remote jungle beyond Ataragalleva where a colossal statue of the Buddha sleeps an eyeless sleep. A few are aware even of its existence. This unique heritage site is in the south west of the Wasgomuwa park, some six kilometres from the Elahera town, a road rarely travelled by the usual pilgrim or tourist.

Although I had a long-cherished dream to visit Ataragalleva, I couldn’t fulfil it due to lack of time. However, I had an opportunity to visit this Buddha statue as a first-time visitor in 2005, en route from Polonnaruwa which turned out to be a bit of an adventurous destination and a fascinating rediscovery.

It was well past four in the evening. The van driver was a bit skeptical when I told him that I wished to head to Ataragalleva. He tried to dissuade me. “The road is very bad, full of potholes. You may get late. The auto cannot go there,” he said. He warned me that it was rather isolated and there will be wild elephants around. But I refused to give up.

We drove down on the Giritale-Elahera narrow road, leaving the farming villages and a canal, and came across a few edanda (small foot bridges) here and there where villagers crossed the bridge to reach the main road. A detour took us to a few scattered homes as we watched the villagers flock around boutiques.

My second visit took place not so long ago, It was a surprise to see the wooded, tiny village in Mahaweli system ‘G’ turned into a full-fledged developed village with wider highways.

The journey began near Elahera. Here, if you follow the custom of the villagers, you will make an offering of leaves to the God of Minneriya and ask for his protection.

After crossing the Pallegama road we drove through the jungle till we reached the tiny village of Ataragalleva.

In the past, villagers called this statue Ataragalleva Buddha, and at present, it is widely known as Buduruwayaya. Beyond this village, passing two vast fields and more jungle, we descended to the rocky basin of the Namal Kumara Ela.

More jungle, a dried up river bed, and yet more jungle, until we came to a broad sweep of the Abanganga which is a boundary of the Wasgomuwa National Park.

The area was dotted with guard stones and stone pillars that emerged out of the earth – a relic of a forgotten past. Some antiquities found at the site had been placed under a tree. It was the end of the journey, for there, on a ridge of rock over-looking the river, lay the forgotten Colossus.

Carved out of the living rock, forty feet in length, this statue, in the recumbent Parinibbana posture, has weathered the rolling centuries, and where time and the elements failed, human cupidity has succeeded.

The statue bears marks of mutilation by treasure-seekers, or of an ancient invading army.

The face is completely obliterated and the headrest partly destroyed. A ruined stone plinth covered with thorny scrub, suggests the existence of a Vihara that once housed the statue. Behind the statue, among bushes, is a dagoba, which had been badly breached in search of treasure during my first visit and when I visited it for the second time it had been restored.

The statue recalls a similar but a better known one in the Gal Vihara recumbent Buddha image in Polonnaruwa. But the size of the bricks, the lack of folds in the robe, and an inscription discovered at Maluveyaya, have helped in tentatively fixing its date as 10th century.

This statue was, therefore, probably the earlier of the two and furnished the inspiration for the later one at Polonnaruwa.

The sun filtering through the delicate leaves gently touched the statue with a deep reverence. The rock used in the living carving is known as Chandrakanthipasana gal which belongs to the limestone variety.

Here was peace wrought in eternal stone, and here was a sense of contemplation from all that is worldly – of Nirvana achieved. I stood silently trying to take in the magnificence and majesty that seemed to radiate from the broken statue.

The chief incumbent of the temple told me of some ruins in the Wasgomuwa National Park, believed to be that of an ancient palace, and could be connected to Ataragalleva Buddha in the past.

In fact, I did come across a ruined temple complex believed to be the so-called ancient palace at a place called Sudu Kanda in the forest during one of my visits to the Wasgomuwa National Park.

Since no proper archaeological excavation is carried out at the site yet, archaeologists have every possibility to unearth the forgotten past of the Ataragalleva Buddha, without giving the chance to treasure hunters to dig it again.