Thanthirimale Rajamaha Viharaya – location of pre-historic frescoes – By Arundathie Abeysinghe

Thanthirimale Rajamaha Viharaya – location of pre-historic frescoes – By Arundathie Abeysinghe

Thanthirimale Rajamaha Viharaya – location of pre-historic frescoes – By Arundathie Abeysinghe

Arundathie AbeysingheSurrounded by huge boulders and thick forest, a prominent Buddhist sacred place situated approximately 40 kilometers north-west of Anuradhapura, peace and serenity prevail in Thanthirimale Rajamaha Viharaya (Viharaya meaning temple in Sinhala). Constructed in the 3rd century BC and utilized by *King Devanampiyatissa as a one-day shelter for *Arhath Theri Sangamitta on her way to Anuradhapura, the Temple has developed from a small temple to a large monastery by the end of the *Anuradhapura Period. The easiest access from Anuradhapura is to travel along Mahavilachchiya road.

The Temple and the surrounding area are full of ruins including two stone statues and several stone ponds. There is also an archaeological museum at Thanthirimale.

Initially, known as “Upastissa Gama” as the area was first occupied and developed by Upatissa, a minister of King Vijaya (c.543-c.505 BCE) who chose the location surrounded by Malwathu Oya (Oya meaning stream in Sinhala) and Kanadara Oya by three sides to construct his future town, “Upastissa Gama”.

According to a rock inscription near the ancient *Bodhi tree at the location, during the era of King Devanampiyatissa, the King had visited the Temple in Thanthirimale and it was known as “Thivanka Bamunu-Gama” and has planted a Bodhi tree at Thanthirimale from the first shoots of *Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura. Hence, the Bodhi tree is approximately 2300 years of existence and is still in good condition. Thivanka Bamunu-Gama and the adjacent village had been home to a sage known as “Thivanka”.

The most attractive sights at Thanthirimale are Samadhi and reclining Buddha Statues carved from large rocks. Samadhi Buddha Statue located in close proximity to the Bodhi Tree displays characteristics of the late Anuradhapura Period. The Statue has an unfinished appearance with two rows of unfinished and uncarved outlines of Buddha Statues by the sides of the main statue which confirms the fact that the Statue has been constructed during the last stages of Anuradhapura Period prior to the invasion of *Kalinga-Magha and the artist had left the location without completely finishing the construction of the Statue.

The invasion of Kalinga-Maga had created a great migration from Anuradhapura Period to *Polonnaruwa Period and left many a great monastery and palace abandoned to the forest. The Buddha Statues were also left to destiny with only statues of gods and lions to protect them. The roof and its stone pillars had given away centuries ago exposing the statues to adverse weather conditions, yet the worst damage had been done by treasure hunters.

For centuries, Thanthirimale Rajamaha Viharaya had been engulfed by thick forest until it was re-discovered in early 1960s, by Venerable Kudakongaskada Wimalagnana Thero who pioneered revamping this place of worship for the general public. The Thero is considered as the leader of the contemporary temple. In 1992, the Thero was assassinated by terrorists. When the Thero rediscovered the Temple, the reclining Buddha Statue and the Samadhi Buddha Statue had been badly destroyed by treasure hunters who had burrowed and mined into the statues in search of valuable treasures. Although, the Samadhi Buddha Statue had been re-created to its initial appearance. attempts to re-create the reclining statue since 1974 by the Department of Archaeology with the assistance of skilled craftsmen has been a failure, to date.

Several stone containers originally created to contain gems had been scattered around the monastery premises and are piled up at the museum at the location. The library at the monastery known as “Pothgula” situated on a rock and 12 meditation caves have escaped the attacks of treasure hunters.

Spread over an area of approximately 101 hectares (250 acres), the *Padhanagaraya structures are the only buildings within the monastery site which had served as meditation or living areas for meditating monks. These Padhanagaraya structures had been surrounded by water and had also been used for pohoyakarma (punitive rituals).

Thanthirimale Rajamaha Viharaya – location of pre-historic frescoes – By Arundathie Abeysinghe

There are also five meditating caves scattered inside the deep forest of Thanthirimale, which according to archaeologists, date to the 1st century BC with *Brahmi inscriptions with details of donors.  Many scholars are of the view that these inscriptions, some as old as 4000 years, suggest the presence of a civilization in Thanthirimale, older than Buddhist Civilization.

Directions: There are two routes to reach Thanthirimale Rajamaha Viharaya.

Route One – Route through Anuradhapura – Mahavillachchiya is the most popular route among tourists. Travel approximately 20 kilometers along Sri Wimalagnana Road to reach Thanthirimale Raja Maha Viharaya.

Route Two – The second route is traveling along Madavachchiya-Mannar road. Turn left from Gajasingha Pura and cross Malawattu Oya to reach Thanthirimale Raja Maha Viharaya.

Image courtesy –

  • Anuradhapura Period – This was a period in the history of Sri Lanka from 377 BC -1017 AD when the Anuradhapura Kingdom was established as the first kingdom in ancient Sri Lanka. King Pandukabaya (474 BC – 367 BC) was the first monarch to rule Sri Lanka from Anuradhapura from 377 BC. Buddhism played a major role during the Anuradhapura Period.
  • Arhat – According to Buddhism, an Arhat is one who has gained insight into the true nature of existence and achieved *Nirvana.
  • Arhat Theri Sangamitta – The historical arrival of Arhat Sangamitta Theri was in the 3rd century B.C. shortly after the official introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka by Arhat Mahinda, the brother of Arhat Sanghamitta. Her arrival also paved the way for the establishment of the Order of Bhikkuni (Bhikkuni Sasana) in the country. Under the auspices of Emperor Asokha, Arhat Sangamitta Theri and retinue had arrived in Dambakola Patuna port with the *Bo sapling which was placed in a golden bowl.
  • Bo sapling – The sapling of the Bodhi tree or Bo tree is the specific sacred fig tree (Ficus religiosa) under which the Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) sat when the Buddha attained Enlightenment at Bodh Gaya in Bihar, India.  Ficus religiosa is a species of fig tree native to the Indian subcontinent.
  • Chola conquest – This was a military invasion of the Anuradhapura Kingdom by the Chola Empire of Southern India, one of the longest ruling dynasties in world history. Initially, the Anuradhapura Kingdom was invaded in 993 AD and absorbed it into the Chola Empire of Southern India.
  • Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi – A sacred Bodhi tree (fig tree, or Ficus religiosa) located in the Royal Gardens Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka (Royal Gardens also known as “Mahamewna Gardens”), a treasure trove of rustic greenery along with many other ancient religious monuments. This Bodhi Tree is the southern branch of the historical Sri Maha Bodhi at Buddha Gaya, in India under which the Buddha attained *Enlightenment. Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi is considered as the oldest planted tree in the world and dates to the 3rd century BC. The sacred fig tree signifies the religion of Buddhism as the official religion of Sri Lanka.
  • Kalinga Magha – Also known as “Gangaraja Kalinga Vijayabahu” was an invader from the Kingdom of Kalinga (a historical region of India, the core territory of Kalinga). He usurped the throne from Parakrama Pandyan II of Polonnaruwa (a Pandyan king who invaded the Kingdom of Polonnaruwa in the 13th century and ruled from 1212 to 1215 CE), in 1215. During the reign of Kalinga Magha, a largre number of Sinhalese migrated to the south and west of Sri Lanka as well as the mountainous interior of the country to escape his power.
  • King Devanampiyathissa – (Reign: 247 BC – 207 BC) – Tissa who later became Devanampiya Tissa was one of the earliest kings of Sri Lanka based at the ancient capital of Anuradhapura. Considered as the Great Buddhist Monarch of the Anuradhapura Kingdom, his reign was noteworthy due to the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka under the aegis of the *Mauryan Emperor Ashoka.
  • Mauryan Emperor Ashoka – Also known as Ashoka the Great was an Indian Emperor of the Maurya Dynasty who ruled almost all of the Indian subcontinent from c. 268 to 232 BCE. Emperor Ashoka ruled the vast and diverse Mauryan Empire through a centralized policy of dharma which favored peace and tolerance. Ashoka also promoted the spread of Buddhism across ancient Asia.
  • Nirvana – Refers to a release from the cycle of death and rebirth, the ultimate spiritual goal of Buddhism.
  • Padhanagaraya – A special type of Buddhist structure unique to Sri Lanka and constructed for meditating Bhikkus. Padhanaghara (meaning the house of meditation in Pali) were constructed according to architectural tradition and were usually located at a distance from the main monasteries and human settlements. This type of structure was popular and developed into large scale complexes during the latter part of the Anuradhapura Period.
  • Polonnaruwa – The Kingdom of Polonnaruwa or the ancient city of Polonnaruwa (also known as Pulastipura) was the second capital of Sri Lanka for three centuries from 11th to 13th centuries. After the *Chola conquest of Anuradhapura Kingdom, the center of administration was shifted to Polonnaruwa until 1232. Polonnaruwa has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Thanthirimale Rajamaha Viharaya – location of pre-historic frescoes – By Arundathie Abeysinghe

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