Inspiring Buddha statues on the bank of Wila Oya | Sunday Observer

Inspiring Buddha statues on the bank of Wila Oya

13 September, 2020
The Kumbuk Poottuwa (Arch) across Wila Oya
The Kumbuk Poottuwa (Arch) across Wila Oya

Last week I watched a news telecast in a TV channel that showed an archaeological team engaged in an exploration of the archaeological site of Budupatuna in Wila Oya at Lahugala-Kumana where rock-hewn statues of the Buddha have been vandalised by treasure hunters in the forest reserve in the Ampara district. The team headed by Prof. Raj Somadeva who had visited the site recently claimed that they found these ruined statues of the Buddha of Mahayana sect for the first time in the area.

I visited this site with some friends in 2018 and found the place vandalised by treasure hunters, which stood deserted in the middle of the jungle. Having watched the news, I reminisced my arduous trek which was not an easy task.

The legendary photographer, the late Nihal Fernando of Studio Times, might have been one of the first visitors to the site. His team of photographers from Studio Times such as Lakshman Nataraja had captured the three moss-laden statues of Mahayanist Buddha which were published in a pictorial book.

Our destination was a mysterious and deserted place where rock-hewn images of the Buddha and two Bodhisattva Avalokitheswara were the symbols of the Mahayana School of Buddhism. Budupatuna, in the thick wilderness on the banks of the Wila Oya in the Lahugala-Kumana forest reserve, surrounded by clumps of greenery and jungle, gets no pilgrim or visitor today. It is silent, save for the sudden winds that take a fancy to howl through the trees. But in its heyday, this was a main spiritual hub and part of the ancient city of Ruhuna.

Two experienced villagers in jungle treks from Kotiyagala, Bandara and Raja guided us to the site which lies 15 kilometres from Kotiyagala to the west of Siyabalanduwa.

We drove the jeep through a chena cultivation of just harvested maize. An elephant’s skeleton, bleached white from years of exposure to the elements, zoomed into view. Finally we entered the dense forest surrounded by the basin of the Wila Oya.

We followed Bandara and Raja along the footpath, making our way through the jungle, along twisting tracks so narrow that you can hardly turn.

There is something magical about walking in the jungle early in the morning. The whole place is filled with bird song. The cries of Changeable hawk-eagle and laughing thrushes filled the morning air as we followed the narrow jungle trail. A sloth bear paused for us, while a herd of elephants crossed our path. The landscape kept changing with every turn on the path.

Dense evergreen forests, little muddy pools followed us wherever we walked. It was not just the beauty of nature that fascinated us; it was also the absolute silence everywhere.

From the Kokkumbay junction, we began our eight kilometre trek along the dried-up river bed of the Wila Oya. Finally we reached the bed of Wila Oya, a sea of white sand bleached by drought

We walked on the sand dunes, and sometimes waded through the shallow water. We had not met any ferocious animal during our trek except a lone sloth bear. Elephants, leopards and wild buffaloes had just crossed the river bed as their footprints were sighted on the sand dunes of the river.

We trekked on until a bend in the Wila Oya brought us to a great arch of Kumbuk trees (Kumbuk Poottuwa) which was one of the most striking features in our trek. Curving like a Thorana, (Arch) two Kumbuk trees grew on either side of the river, stretching over the riverbed to meet above our heads.

Further away from the Kumbuk arch, is another peculiar formation of a rock called Goyamkolaya, in the shape of a dagoba in the middle of the river. It is a landmark and the termination of the trek. A few yards away on the river bank, is a cluster of rocky boulders, where the Budupatuna ancient site is located. The Budupatuna Mahyanist site was first discovered in 1985 jointly by the Archaeological Department of Sri Lanka and a Japanese expedition team from Hosei University, who described the statues depicting the Buddha flanked by Bodhisattv Maitreya and Avalokiteswara sans any damage.

The awe-inspiring ancient Mahayanist site, probably between 650-750 AC was hewn out of a rocky cliff and three figures carved in relief, on rock measuring 6 metres in height and 5 metres in width. All three statues stood on pedestals. The Buddha in the centre was on a lotus pedestal, while the others stood on two layered plinths. These fascinating statues had long been forgotten and left by treasure hunters.When the Japanese team re-visited the site in 1993, they found these statues damaged slightly. Today, most of it is broken, dug and blasted.

We had to get across by clinging onto the remains of the statues, as there is a deep hole beneath in front of the rock. The dagoba had been vandalised beyond recognition by treasure hunters.

The head of the carved Buddha statue had been completely gouged out and parts of the hands, arms and a section of the upper part missing. The Bodhisattva Avalokiteswara statue too had been almost completely destroyed. Only the green moss-covered statue of the Bodhisattva Maitreya remained intact.

However, Budupatuna might have a hidden connection with other Mahayanist sites scattered around Ruhuna such as Buduruwagala in Wellawaya, Kustarajagala in Weligama and Mudu Maha Viharaya in Pottuvil, as the Buddha stands in the centre flanked by Bodhisattva statues.

The Budupatuna has not been fully explored by the Archaeology Department yet, as it is hard to reach the place in the wild animal infested jungle, which is a dreadful experience.

The exhaustion and fatigue we experienced during our trek is impossible to express in words. Having returned to Kotiyagala, ending a 15 kilometre trek on foot, we decided to go back one day, as the journey was a great adventure.