Priceless repository of Kandyan art | Sunday Observer
Buddama Raja Maha Vihara

Priceless repository of Kandyan art

10 October, 2021
The exterior of the cave temple
The exterior of the cave temple

The bookshops near the Gamini Hall in Colombo, close to my office, are a favourite hunt of mine. I go there once a month, not so much for the rich variety of books offered at reasonable rates, but for the rare books that one can find on various subjects.

During my most recent visit, one of the bookshop owners, knowing well my penchant for rare books, gave me an old magazine titled Ceylon Today, published by the Ceylon Government Information Department in 1965. It was a February issue, but what drew my attention to the magazine was its cover photograph depicting the wall painting of the ancient Buddama Raja Maha Vihara. The caption merely said, ‘Temple painting, Buddama, Moneragala.’ But I knew its importance and decided to visit the historically significant site that has been central to much of my work as a photographer and explorer.

The morning sun cast a warm glow as the vehicle slowly made its way to the outskirts of the city. Instead of taking the main road, we took the Mari Arava-Ritigahawatta secondary road to reach Buddama, which is the shortest way to the site.

Uva-Wellassa rebellion

We drove down the Mari Arava-Ritigahawatta road, past maize, peanut and cow-pea fields, turned right at the Ritigahawatta Junction and travelled past 10 kilometres of picturesque rural Uva-Wellassa to get to Buddama. This region, which in the past, was marked as a battle ground, was home to Sinhala villagers who fought against the British rule in the 1818 Uva-Wellassa rebellion.

Buddama is a sleepy village bordering the Gal Oya National Park, and is within shouting distance from many places such as Wadina Hela, Govinda Hela, Buddama Hela, Muthukandiya and the Meeyagala mountain range from the North. Chena cultivation is the main livelihood of the people of Buddama who experience drought through most parts of the year. The region is a roaming ground for wild elephants, illegal loggers and treasure hunters who ravage the remains of temples and forest reserves.

Having travelled around 25 kilometres from Moneragala, we reached our destination and came upon the awe-inspiring sight of the historic Buddama Raja Maha Vihara standing majestically on the foothill of Buddama Hela. At the temple, we met Jayasuriya Banda, a secretary of the Devotees’ Society of the temple, who agreed to give us a guided tour in the absence of the chief monk, who was out on official work.

Kandyan art

Jayasuriya, whose knowledge of the temple was extensive, took us around, with the first stop being the main rock cave. It is a drip-ledged cave not much in height, but a priceless repository of Kandyan art. The entrance to the cave is decorated with the magnificent and colourful Makara Thorana (dragon arch), built using clay. It is flanked by guardian deities and lion figures, once painted in vivid shaded, lying discoloured now.

Entering the dimly-lit main chamber, we glimpsed a reclining Buddha statue belonging to the Kandyan period. This main statue is believed to have been constructed by King Rajadhi Rajasingha of Kandy. The statue had been damaged by treasure hunters on several occasions.

The rock ceiling of the cave is decorated with beautiful floral motifs, while the murals offer a rich tapestry of Buddhist Jathaka stories. The murals are discoloured and have been left to the mercy of the elements.

The cave paintings at first glance do not seem to be professional work, with the brush strokes ink lines showing it to be the work of novices. However, we found similar paintings in the image house in the Udaganawa temple in Buttala, which had the same style as that of the Buddama temple paintings. This leads one to believe that the paintings were a modified form of the Kandyan style, which had spread around Moneragala.

While looking at temple paintings in the main Buddama cave, I looked for the painting carried on the cover of the Ceylon Today magazine in 1965, and surprisingly found the painting intact.


One of the most striking features of the Buddama temple is its Velipeella (the long narrow clay box strewn with sand). In ancient times, the Velipeella was used by bhikkhus to teach letters and letter writing to pupils. Archaeological evidence is scant regarding the Velipeella in Sri Lanka. However, the largest Velipeella is found in the Buddama temple. Lying in a rock cave close to the main cave, the 18-feet-long, two-feet-tall Velipeella is a unique feature of the temple.Seeing the Velipeella, I couldn’t help wonder about the hardships pupils in the past must have undergone to become scholars, unlike today when information comes at a push of a button.

Pointing towards the rocky outcrop, Jayasuriya said the temple comprising more than 20 caves in the vicinity of the mountain had been a vocational training centre for craftsmen before it became a monastery, after the advent of Buddhism during the Anuradhapura period.

The early Brahmi inscriptions found in the temple indicate that the cave was a donation to the bhikkhus by a teacher named Gupta, a grandson of the village councilor, Vasaba, son of Sumana in the 3rd Century. Although the temple has been renovated from time to time, it is attributed to King Rajadhi Rajasingha of Kandy.