Monday, May 27, 2013

Travel Monday: A bumpy journey to the ancient Somawathiya Chethiya

We travel for many different reasons. Sometimes it's to unwind and relax. Other times, it's to seek out something new and different. And, there are times we are interested in something specific - maybe spiritual, adventurous, ancient, historical, or even just natural beauty.

My visit to Somawathi was a combination of ancient, adventurous and spiritual. It is commonly known that Sri Dalada Maligawa in Kandy, otherwise known as the Temple of the Tooth, houses the ancient relic of the tooth of the Buddha. More specifically, it is the Buddha's left canine tooth relic.

So, I had heard of another place in Sri Lanka situated close to Polonnaruwa that enshrines the right canine tooth relic of the Buddha. The Somawathiya Chaitya is located within the Somawathiya National Park on the left bank of the Mahaveli River, and is believed to have been built long before the time of Dutugemunu (a Sinhalese King of Sri Lanka who reigned from 161 BC to 137 BC). It is attributed to the reign of King Kavantissa - Dutugemunu’s father - who ruled Magama. Somawathiya is therefore much older than Ruwanweliseeya, Mirisawetiya or Jetawanaramaya.
The stupa is named after Princess Somawathi, the sister of King Kavantissa, and the wife of regional ruler Prince Abhaya. The prince built the stupa to enshrine the right tooth relic of the Buddha, obtained from Arahat Mahinda, and named the stupa after the princess. Upon completion of the stupa and other constructions, the prince and princess handed over the temple to Arahat Mahinda and other monks.

Finding your way to Somawathiya is a bit of a journey. It is approximately 40kms from Polonnaruwa, however it is one of the bumpiest journeys I've had to travel in awhile. Roadworks make up the majority of the stretch leading to Somawathiya. It is both a good and bad thing. Good becuase the road will be like a "carpet road" as they often say in Sri Lanka, as well as stretches of concrete road to counter the fact that the national park is set amidst flood plains and water-filled basins. The bad is that it will still take awhile (my estimate is at least three to six months) to complete the roadworks along the 40km stretch.

Work is being undertaken along different stretches of road by different maintenance crews (including some very capable workers!) so you experience quite different road conditions all along the way. Plus, you do get some respite from the maintenance work from time-to-time on your journey with sudden glimpses of lush rice paddy fields, herds of water buffalo soaking in the water basins or grazing teh fertile grasslands, and vast stretches of green flattish landscape and blue skies.

Initially, we had driven our car but the clearance was too low making it a very torturous drive with fears of damaging the car. So, after travelling about 10kms to 15kms, we stopped and hopped out at one of the smaller towns and negotiated a rate for a tuk-tuk to take us there and back. As a seasoned tuk-tuk traveler it never ceases to amaze me the type of terrain a tuk-tuk can travel through. You think you might get stuck or fall into one of the water basins, but it's a lovely surprise when the tuk-tuk carries you safely through! It makes for exciting journeys, and bumpy ones at that!

We arrived safely to Somawathiya. The road kind of tapers off as you approach the entrance. There are small stalls or shops to the left of the road that sell an assortment of refreshments like thambili, soft drinks, biscuits, plain tea with jaggery and more. There are also toilet facilities.

As you wander into the Somawathiya area you will mingle alongside other pilgrims and tourists and you'll also walk past a small army post that provides security for the Somawathiya Chethiya.

I enjoyed wandering around the chethiya, circumambulating the stupa, walking the steps up to see inside the stupa, looking around for ancient ruins and just being inquisitive.

People often visit Somawathiya Chethiya due to stories about pilgrims having witnessed beams of lights originating from the stupa that have colored the sky changing all things white to yellow, the sky turning yellowish and the sun looking white like the moon. There have also been stories about special poya days when the sounds of drum beats originating from the belly of the stupa could be heard. There are posters around the Somawathiya Chethiya and inside the stupa that show photo images of such phenomena. On this particular visit, I did not personally experience any such phenomena, but I did get a sense of groundedness and peace. 

I observed a lovely couple making their offering of flowers to the Buddha. They spent a really long time placing each flower into their basket, arranging them carefully, working in harmony and silence, and performed with so much faith and reverence. I couldn't turn away, it was like they had mesmerized me. When they offered their flowers to the Buddha, it was a genuinely special moment. I had seen the same couple when we had arrived earlier and they had been sweeping around the stupa and near the Bo-tree. Such simple acts of offering and undertaken with humility and grace. Stunning to witness.

We spent a couple of hours at Somawathiya. We didn't see any wild elephants on this visit, but the place is known to have frequent visits by wild elephants, particularly at night. And travelling to and from Somawathiya you can often see wildlife within the Somawathiya National Park area.

If you are interested in the ancient right tooth relic of the Buddha, unnatural phenomena around the Somawathiya Stupa and wildlife (especially wild elephants and water buffalo), then Somawathiya is well worth a visit.

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