A timeless past, through Hettigama | Sunday Observer

A timeless past, through Hettigama

6 December, 2020
 The Nillakgama Bodhigaraya at Kithalawa, Hettigama in Galgamuwa
The Nillakgama Bodhigaraya at Kithalawa, Hettigama in Galgamuwa

The Nillakgama Bodhigaraya is a true Bodhigaraya near the Hettigama tank at Kithalawa, Hettigama in Galgamuwa. Six kilometres from the Galgamuwa town on the Moragollagama road, you approach the Bimpokuna junction. Turn left and proceeding around three kms to Hettigama is the site of Bodhigaraya. Another route to this site lies through the Polpitigama-Madagalla road to the Saliyagama junction and from there to the Gallewa junction and proceeding through Kithalawa, is the Nillakgama Bodhigaraya.

In 1895 H.C.P. Bell, the first Commissioner of Archaeology of Ceylon, with the help of the villagers examined the ruins buried deep under the forest and penned a report with a brief description, supplemented by some fine drawings. However, the place was again deserted and after six decades, renowned archaeologist, Prof. Senarath Paranavithana unearthed the stone structure for the sake of posterity. The stone slabs adorn beautifully carved floral motifs, elephant, swans and lion figures.

The renovations of the structure were completed in 1956 and the caretaker position handed over to Muthubanda Wanasinghe, a farmer by profession, and a native of Hettigama. When I first visited the Bodhigaraya in 2000, we met Mutubanda, the caretaker, who lives on the road to the site, and cannot be missed by any visitor.


While photographing the carvings during my recent visit to the site, he came to the site with several files in one hand and a crutch on the other as he had been disabled a few years ago. He could not recognise me and I introduced myself. He protects the site more than his life, he said and even though disabled, he visited the site every morning and evening.

“We were small children in the latter part of 1940 when this was a dense forest with nothing but a heap of mound. When my father walked near the tank, he had seen a person attired in white Vetti (sarong) searching something in the forest. A few days later he had cleared the site and put up a hut with the help of villagers and dug out the heap of mound and found the stone pillars, carved stone slabs and stone doorways. Later on, my father had learnt that the excavations had been done by Prof. Senarath Paranavithana. After handing over the caretaker position of the site to my father, he had told my Appachchi, if any one inquired about the place to say that this is Nillakgama Bodhigaraya”, he said.

Sitting on a stone slab under a shady tree he related his story. “Every morning I come here, sweep the compound and the interior and offer flowers to each of the four altars in the Bodhigaraya and worship. If I see a visitor, I narrate to them the story of the place. It is my duty,” he said. However, a month ago I heard the sad news that Muthubanda had passed away and the caretaker position had been handed over to his son Wanasinghe Bandara by the Department of Archaeology. Legend has it that this Bodhigaraya was constructed to protect the Sacred Tooth Relic from foreign invasions during the Anuradhapura period.

A bhikkhu taking the Sacred Tooth Relic disguised as a Hettiya (Upper caste person) had walked through this village to Maya Rata (Hill country). During his journey, he had stayed a night at the site.

Later, he related to the king that due to the tense situation, he took the initiative to protect the Tooth Relic staying at this place one night with the Relic. Hearing this, the king had constructed the Bodhigaraya and built a roof over it.The site does not attract any visitors today except a few university students, who research on archaeology. However, during its hay day, it had been a main spiritual hub as a sacred Bo-tree worshiping site. The noteworthy feature that fascinated us was the structure of the granite monument which may be divided into two compartments. The outer shell, in reality the lower platform, has a parapet wall with two entrances on the east and the west, giving it the appearance of a square building.

Stone door frames

The most striking feature is that the stone door frames are elaborately carved with floral designs on both sides. A structure on which so much of artistic effort was lavished must have been dedicated to an object of great religious veneration. Prof. Paranavithana said that there are no door frames so elaborately ornamented as those found at Nillakgama.

The inner platform is a 13 ft. square and 6 1/2 ft. high. It is sculptured with lion reliefs, placed right round the upper part. At the bottom is a row of swans and in between are lotus petal mouldings. Four stone altars 4 ft. by 2 ½ had been placed on each side for the purpose of offering, one of which is now missing.

The floor below the actual terrace is paved with irregular stone slabs. Here, too, there are stone pillars which had supported the roof of the structure.Scanning the surrounding vicinity of the site, there is no sign of the building except the deserted tank. But, we met a villager who told us that there is an ancient dagoba buried a few yards from the Bodhigaraya. It had been dug out by treasure hunters and remnants such as, bricks, stone pillars, stone slabs and carved monuments strewn everywhere.

It is the duty of archaeologists to dig out the place and find the monuments of a bygone era. A proper survey must be carried out at the site to unearth the buried ruins and protect them for future posterity.