The forgotten Buddha statue | Sunday Observer

The forgotten Buddha statue

25 September, 2022
The rock-hewn recumbent Buddha statue  at Ataragalleva in Elahera
The rock-hewn recumbent Buddha statue at Ataragalleva in Elahera

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

A journey of rediscovery

Although I had a long-cherished dream to visit Ataragalleva, I couldn’t realise it due to lack of time. However, I had an opportunity to visit this Buddha statue en route from Polonnaruwa and it turned out to be somewhat of an adventurous and fascinating journey of rediscovery.

We drove on the Giritale-Elahera narrow road, leaving the farming villages and a canal, and came across a few edandas (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.

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 the 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.

Relics of the past

The area was dotted with guard stones and stone pillars that emerged out of the earth –relics of a forgotten past. Some of the artefacts 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 statue.

Recumbent statue

The ruined dagaba and stone structure found at the site

Carved out of the rock, forty feet in length, the Ataragalleva or Buduruwayaya statue, in the recumbent Parinibbana posture, has lasted over the rolling centuries, and where time and the elements failed, human stupidity has succeeded in damaging this priceless recumbent Buddha image.

Marks of mutilation

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 dagaba, which had been badly breached in search of treasure and now has been restored by the Department of Archaeology.

Gal Vihara statue

The statue reminds one of a similar but better known recumbent Buddha image at the Gal Vihara in Polonnaruwa.

The size of the bricks, the lack of folds in the robe, and an inscription discovered at Maluveyaya, have helped to tentatively fix this massive Buddha statue’s date as the 10th century.

This statue was, therefore, probably the earlier of the two and was 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 carving is known as Chandrakanthipasana gal and belongs to the limestone variety.

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