I had a cherished ambition to photograph the massive Buddha statue of Maligawila and adjoining Bodhisatva Avalokitesvara statue which is considered as a Mahayana site. We travelled on Buttala-Okkampitiya road, and saw the rural folk bathing in the Kumbukkan Oya. It is an area of tranquil beauty with lush paddy fields and tall trees that span out across the plains.
Only about 45 minutes’ drive from Wellawaya-Buttala is the massive Maligawila Buddha statue similar to the Auvkana and Sasseruwa statues and said to be one of the tallest free-standing Buddha statues in the country. The 7th century colossus dominates a 40-acre land-mass and was the centre of a huge temple complex.
Similary Bodhisatva Avalokitesvara statues and other Bodhisatva images had existed in ancient times, beside those remains found at Buduruwagala. Among them is the well-known Bodhisatva Avalokitesvara statue, a colossus icon at Dambegoda in Okkampitiya (close to Moneragala). This gigantic Bodhisatva Avalokitesvara statue which had fallen down many years ago, tattered in fragments lying in the tentacles of the dense jungle, was restored and brought to the upright position it had stood on September 1, 1990.
It was unveiled by the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa. This Avalokitesvara Bodhisatva statue is 16 metres high. It appears to date back to the same period of the Buduruwagala Bodhisatva statues around the 9th – 10th century AD. The other Mahayana sites where similar Avalokitesvara Bodhisatva statues exist are at Weligama in Matara, the well-known Kustarajagala, next at Situlpauwa, Yala National Park where two such Bodhisatva statues are found, one is headless.
Lord of Compassion
The belief in a Bodhisatva (future Buddha) is in the doctrine of Mahayana. Avalokitesvara appears to be the Lord of Compassion worshipped by Mahayana Buddhists. He is the guardian of the sick and according to Mahayana school of Buddhism, he is the Bodhisatva Avalokitesvara.
The Buddha Amittabha is denoted by its head-dress as worn on his head. In Mahayana Bodhisatva statues, the face is directed towards Heaven and not towards the earth as Heavenly guardian of the sick and infirm. In the precincts of Dambegoda Bodhisatva Avalokitesvara, according to archaeologists, a hospital for the blind and sick was built in a blind man’s village called Kanagama which had been to be around Maligawila, Dambegoda.
Such beliefs were on par with the doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism, as Avalokitesvara was the saviour of Mankind and the healer of the sick and the disabled. The restoration of the Bodhisatva statue had been done with the assistance of experts from Thailand, France, Germany and Sri Lanka.
Within easy reach of Dambegoda is another priceless archaeological site named Maligawila where a standing Buddha statue 36 feet in height was lying in fragments, fallen down and was restored to its original position on September 1, 1991 which was unveiled by the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa. The statue and its face was repaired by the artistic bhikkhu, late Ven. Mapalagama Vipulasara Thera.
The Maligawila Buddha colossus was said to have been carved out of a solid block of dolomite marble which was not carved out at the site, but was made from somewhere else and transported to that site. It would have been a herculean task for our ancient sculptors to have made it at some place and then transported it here and the means of transportation remains a miraculous feat.
The pedestal which holds this gigantic statue made out of stone is 16 feet in diameter and 4 feet in height and there are artefacts too that had been transported from elsewhere to this site. This is yet another ingenuous piece of work executed by our ancient kings.
This restored Maligawila Buddha statue is 36 feet high, and higher than the well-known and world renowned Avukana Buddha colossus. According to historical sources, it is said that the builder of the Maligawila Buddha statue, Bodhisatva statue and the complex of the image house has been attributed to King Aggabodhi III of the 7th century AD.
The authorities say that the Maligawila Dambegoda Buddha and Bodhisatva statues belong to a single monastic complex identified as the Patima Viharaya in Kanagama and that Aggabodhi, the ruler of Ruhuna of the 7th century AD had been responsible for these construction works.
Others versed in archaeology say that the Maligawila-Dambegoda monastery complex of Buddha and Bodhisatva statues has been identified as Ariyakara Vihara.
Some others attributed it, (Ariyakara) to be found in the Eastern province in the present Gal Oya valley, close to Ampara which is known as Malwatta and the builder to be Dappula I of the 7th century AD. Maligawila was known as Ruhunu Mala Madulla in Rohana Mandalaya.
It was only in 1990/91 that this important archaeological site saw the light of day in restoring it to its pristine state. As in other archaeological heritage sites of old Lanka, both Maligawila and Dambegoda sites too were plundered by treasure seekers.
Dambegoda Bodhisatva complex
Restoration work on the Dambegoda Bodhisatva complex commenced in 1988 and was completed by the 1990’s. Until 1988, this gigantic Bodhisatva and Buddha statues were lying prone on the ground devoured by the jungle tide. In 1970’s, some attempts were made to lift the fallen Buddha statue, but were met with failure.
After the restoration of the Maligawila-Dambegoda archaeological sites, this historic place has become very popular as there is an influx of pilgrims and visitors enroute to Kataragama detouring here. The place has been developed and there are stalls and rows of boutiques teeming with activity.
These sites lie close to the Northern boundary of the Ruhuna National Park where the ruins are excavated and restored. They lie amid the untouched jungle which has provided a parkland of forest canopies. Every restored site has been named according to its history and the period to which they belonged.
Pathways leading to these two sites Maligawila and Dambegoda are well maintained and afford copious forest shade. Most visitors take the route through the Kataragama-Buttala road and head towards these sites which are on the Wellawaya – Moneragala road, turn off at Kumbukkana junction. From there, the distance is 17.5 kilometres. Along this carpeted road, there is a regular bus service plying between Moneragala-Maligawila. Either side of this stretch of the road for one or two kilometres is line with rubber woods, while the area is dotted with rice fields nourished by the waters of the Kumbukkan Oya.