It is a placid morning and my destination is Gothapabbatha Raja Maha Vihara, better known as Godavaya temple, on a rock boulder overlooking the Indian Ocean, in the ancient sea port of Godavaya, South of the estuary of the Walawe Ganga in the Hambantota District.
Godavaya, the ancient port is about 10 kilometres from Ambalantota, going past Dehigahalanda off the 142nd mile post from Colombo, towards the seaside. It harbours a quiet little bay which is now a popular fishing ground.
Godavaya is recommended for nature lovers looking to experience nature at its best. Entrance to the site is through a narrow road interspersed with small houses, in what appears to be a fishing village. The road ends abruptly at a white sandy compound covered by huge banyan trees.
The cooling shade provided by the thick adventitious prop roots and arching branches gives the approach to the temple proper a celestial feel, akin to a weary traveller being welcomed with a soothing embrace.
In chronicles, it is said that the ancient port of Godavaya had been on the Silk Route, where ships had called over here on barter trade to take precious stones, cardamoms, spices, ivory in exchange for clothing and porcelain. The creamy restored Dagaba lies on a rock outcrop which is very striking. The bhikkhu’s Avasa Ge (residence) which was built in 1987 lies in the sandy shore premises of the ancient site.
Religious and administrative centre
On the top of the rock overlooking the entire area lies the hermitage, the Gothapabbatha Raja Maha Vihara, which had been a religious and administrative centre since the reign of King Gajabahu I. The Brahmi inscription on a rock next to the ancient shrine is unique, being the sole evidence for the transfer of custom duties to a monastery in the past. Normally, only the king was allowed to collect taxes. In Godavaya, the tax fees were donated to the temple for its maintenance.
The little bay that marks the port is now a fishing ground. Towards the West, several boulders stand sentry against the turbulent sea, while the land behind is littered with numerous stone ruins, including stone pillars of buildings, a Dagaba and the torso of a Buddha. The recently restored Dagaba lies on one rocky outcrop, giving a majestic aura to the site. Some stone ruins, including a moonstone, a stone carved Buddha statue, broken into several parts and stone pillars have been restored by the Department of Archaeology.
Historical records indicate that the Godavaya temple was built by King Gotabaya of Ruhuna, in the third Century BC and that the Godavaya temple came to be called Gothapabbatha Raja Maha Vihara because of this association.
In the chronicle of Mahavamsa, Godavaya appears to be referred to as ‘Gothasamuda’: the name of the sea to the South of Ceylon.
Folklore says that Godavaya is connected with Kotagama, the birth place of one of the famed Dasa Maha Yodayas or 10 warriors, in the ilk of Gothaabhaya or Therapuththaabhaya of Dutugemunu fame, though history has recorded his birth place to be Kittigama near the mountain of Kotagala (in Rohana/Ruhunu Rata).
According to inscriptions in the temple, the ancient site of Godavaya had been part of the Silk Route, with ships anchoring here to take gem stones, spices and ivory in exchange for clothing, porcelain and other items.
The most striking feature of Godavaya is the estuary of the Walawe Ganga, which originates in the Horton Plains, Haputale and Kaltota-Balangoda escarpments, cascaded down the mountain slopes of Belihul Oya, Kaltota and meanders through Udawalawe, before finally joining the sea at Godavaya in Ambalantota.
The Walawe estuary is about 300 metres away from the site of Godavaya. Sand dunes seal the mouth of the estuary, but the strip of seashore that is flanked by the flowing Walawe Ganga is a fascinating spot, with its scenic deep blue sea and landscape.
The stretch of land sandwiched between the seashore and the bank of the Walawe Ganga is called Diyagasgoda.
The Brahmi inscription on the rock at the site, says the old port of Godavaya was also called Godapavita. Legends have it that the Buddha’s sacred hair relic had been enshrined at the Godavaya temple by a Brahmin called Bhalluka.
In ancient times, the Walawe basin was considered a prosperous rice production region and the Walawe Ganga was said to have been navigable for transportation.
It is said that the paddy harvest was transported by boats along the Walawe Ganga, which also had a ferry service, transporting goods to be shipped abroad from the port of Godavaya. Standing on one of the rock boulders of Godavaya, I looked towards the blue horizon, painting thousands of thoughts in my mind.
Witness to history
It was easy to imagine the bustling port of Godavaya of times gone by, when ancient ships with Arab merchants clad in white robes and turbans transacted with local traders. But now, only silence remains with the stone ruins as a witness to history.
Today’s visitors to Godavaya will notice a spacious cement abode built atop the rock boulder.
During the years of the World War II, (1939-45) a pious Dutch bhikkhu had lived as a recluse amid this haven of rock boulders by the seashore of Godavaya, with a fascinating view of the deep blue sea.
The abode is now in ruins, but the serenity and beauty that brought the bhikkhu to the site still prevails. The elderly people living the vicinity of Godavaya recall that their parents used to offer alms to the Dutch bhikkhu who was devout, and would always be immersed in meditation. The sea is very turbulent around this area.
But walking along the shore can be a beautiful experience, more so because of the copious and different verities of seashells to be found here. In 2003, The Department of Archaeology, in collaboration with researchers of Bonn University, in Germany, carried out extensive excavations at the Godavaya temple, and found several ancient coins, conforming that Godavaya was indeed an ancient port along the Silk Route.
It points to significant trade among foreign countries, and also that the Kings who ruled the country at the time, had patronised Buddhism, paying Customs duties to the ancient Gothapabbatha Raja Maha Vihara or the Godavaya temple.