Monday, September 1, 2014

Travel Monday: Bodhi Puja at the ancient rock cave temple of Bambaragala Rajamaha Vihara

Eva Stone photo, View, upper level, rock cave temple, Bambaragala Rajamaha ViharaOne of the things I quite enjoy about traveling (somewhat randomly at times) around this teardrop island is discovering new and amazing places rich in history and sometimes off the beaten track. A word of warning, "off the beaten track" usually entails trekking through the forest, potentially getting a little lost, working up a sweat, and inevitably (after all that hard work), discovering a sweet spot!

This time around, I found myself tagging along with friends who were going to offer bodhi puja at Bambaragala Raja Maha Vihara. It's located off Teldeniya (around 20 miles from Kandy) and can be reached via the main road leading to the Victoria Dam and Victoria Golf Club. It's probably easy to access by car, though some of the roads leading to the vihara are pot-holed and uneven.

Prior to this visit, I knew next to nothing about Bambaragala Raja Maha Vihara. It can be quite a good thing seeing things with fresh eyes without prejudice or preconceived ideas. I say this, because since returning from this visit I've done some research and found out some intriguing theories about the place. However, we'll come back to that later!



According to historical documentation, Bambaragala Raja Maha Vihara dates back around 2000 years (based on Brahmi inscriptions etched on the apex of the ancient rock caves). In ancient times, it was said to have been a place for meditative practice, and provided necessary fortification and safety to the kingdom during the Kandyan era. According to sannasas or copper plate grants, the Kandyan King Keerthi Sri Rajasinghe (1747-1782) attended to the construction of the vihara complex.

Eva Stone photo, entrance, rock cave temple, Bambaragala Rajamaha ViharaEva Stone photo, entrance, rock cave temple, Bambaragala Rajamaha Vihara

Upon arrival, the main entrance sticks out like a sore thumb. There's a bit of a climb up stone steps to reach the temple area where the monks mainly reside, but the setting is natural, quiet and pleasing to the eye.

Eva Stone photo, path, rock cave temple, Bambaragala Rajamaha Vihara

We paid respects to the head monk, who was very welcoming, and we had a brief chat about the history of the Bambaragala Raja Maha Vihara and its main highlights . He indicated there are 59 rock caves within the bounds of the vihara. In four of the rock caves, incised just below the drip-line, are Brahmi inscriptions.

We also asked permission to wander around for a few hours after our bodhi puja. Soon after our audience with the head monk we took our leave and ascended climbing up more stone steps.

Eva Stone photo, steps, rock temple, caves, Bambaragala Rajamaha ViharaEva Stone photo, steps, rock temple, caves, Bambaragala Rajamaha Vihara

These stone steps lead up to a platform with stunning views of the panoramic Dumbara Kanduvetiya or Knuckles Mountain Range, the Victoria Dam and the Bambaragala Raja Maha Vihara's main building structures below.

Eva Stone photo, view, Knuckles, Bambaragala Rajamaha Vihara

I won't even try to describe the view... it literally speaks for itself.

Eva Stone photo, view, Knuckles, Victoria Reservoir, Bambaragala Rajamaha Vihara

An entrance made between the gap between the rocks leads to the main Bambaragala Raja Maha Vihara rock cave, where we could undertake the bodhi puja.

Eva Stone photo, caves, Bambaragala Rajamaha Vihara

A small altar stands in front of the covered dagoba and this is where flowers can be offered. To right of the dagoba there is an oil lamp stand for offering lit oil lamps. There are also other altars and oil lamp stands near the bodhi tree.

Eva Stone photo, stupa, rock temple, caves, Bambaragala Rajamaha Vihara

The entry wall to the interior of the larger cave gives a taste of what is to come...

Eva Stone photo, frescoes, caves, interior, Kandyan period, Bambaragala Rajamaha Vihara

Within the interior of the cave there are fairly well-preserved and colorful frescoes or mural paintings of the Kandyan period on the cave walls that share similar characteristics to those found in the Dambulla Rock Temple. They depict some Jataka stories as well as Buddhist motifs or patterns, including lotus flowers. There are also three sitting Buddha statues and a reclining Buddha statue.

Eva Stone photo, frescoes, caves, interior, Kandyan period, Buddha statues, Bambaragala Rajamaha Vihara

As this ancient rock cave temple is off the beaten track, you won't find large crowds visiting (unless its a poya day). Therefore, I took the opportunity to sit quietly inside the larger cave for a few minutes and the silence was deafening.

Eva Stone photo, reclining Buddha, statue, frescoes, Kandyan period, Bambaragala Rajamaha Vihara

The interior of the smaller cave (to the right of the dagoba) also contains colorful mural paintings and sitting Buddha statues.

Eva Stone photo, frescoes, caves, interior, Kandyan period, Buddha statues, Bambaragala Rajamaha Vihara

I noted both cave interiors as having a very grounded energetic feel. It is common for pilgrims to meditate near this rock cave and its dagoba. There is also additional access to uninterrupted views of the mountain range and countryside.

Eva Stone photo, views, Vicotria Reservoir, Knuckles, mountains, Bambaragala Rajamaha Vihara

Eva Stone photo, bell tower, caves, Bambaragala Rajamaha Vihara

Past the main rock cave structure is the main Bodhi tree, shrines, oil lamp stands etc. where bodhi puja can be offered. There are stories associated with the history of the Bambaragala Raja Maha Vihara that tell of past Kandyan Kings making bodhi puja offerings with an intention for illnesses to be cured. Present day Buddhists who hold a similar faith travel near and far to offer bodhi puja with similar intent.

Eva Stone photo, bodhi tree, shrines, oil lamps, Bambaragala Rajamaha Vihara

Bodhi puja is a popular ritual among Sri Lankan Buddhists. The entire offering is one of gratitude for the Triple Gem. It entails:
  • worship of the Bodhi tree by cleaning around the tree and altars and offering water to the tree. The Bodhi tree represents the Buddha, as well as the place under which he attained nibbāna or enlightenment.
  • offering flowers at the altars. This offering is a reminder of the Buddha's teaching on anicca or impermance, just as fresh, fragrant and beautiful flowers soon become withered, scentless and discolored
  • offering incense around the Bodhi tree. Incense represents the fragrance of sīla or upright moral conduct. Just as the fragrance of incense spreads it reminds to purify our conduct.
  • lighting coconut oil lamps (pahan-puja) around the Bodhi tree and dagoba. Light represents paññā or wisdom, which will dispel any ignorance.

We brought along new brooms to sweep around the Bodhi tree (we asked permission to clear the leaves fallen under the tree as it is not normally allowed to go near the foot of the tree), the rock caves and dagoba.

Eva Stone photo, bodhi tree, rock temple, shrines, incense, Bambaragala Rajamaha Vihara

Eva Stone photo, bodhi puja, shrines, oil lamps, flowers, offerings, Bambaragala Rajamaha Vihara

We also cleared the old flowers and offerings of the previous day. Then, we made offerings of incense, coconut oil lamps, flowers. It is also possible to offer milk-rice, medicinal oils and even fruits. And we offered panduru or coins, washed and wrapped in white cloth and tied them to the tree.

Eva Stone photo, stupa, shrine, oil lamps, flowers, offerings, Bambaragala Rajamaha Vihara

After our offerings were completed, we went in search of some of the ancient rock caves with Brahmi inscriptions. There is signage in sinhala that can help you navigate in the right direction (if you can read sinhala, that is).
 

It was a bit of a trek through the forest...


However, in about 15 minutes or so (or quicker if you're fast climbing over rocks and winding through the forest), you'll come to the cave that is inscribed "Indasala" in Brahmi script just below its drip-line.

Eva Stone photo, Indasala cave, Bambaragala Rajamaha Vihara

Eva Stone photo, Indasala cave, brahmi script, drip-line, Bambaragala Rajamaha Vihara

Eva Stone photo, Indasala Cave, Bambaragala Rajamaha Vihara

Irrespective of whether you believe these theories, the ancient rock cave is quite a remarkable sight and when you stand or crouch under the cave, it is surprisingly cool.

We also managed to see another ancient rock cave, which had further Brahmi script inscribed below its drip-line. It was different from the Indasala Cave given it had walls built and a small roof and windows put in to enclose the cave.

Eva Stone photo, caves, modern construction, inscription, brahmi script, Bambaragala Rajamaha Vihara


2 comments:

Yasela said...

just want to draw the attention to those artificial lines made by rock cutting visible in the last picture just above the brahma script. Those lines have been made with a purpose of breaking the water line and thereby protecting the underneath structure by wetting.

Eva Stone said...

Thanks for your comment Yasela. It is astounding the innovations of the past. These and other natural structures around the island are quite astounding.

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