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.
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.
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.
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.
I won't even try to describe the view... it literally speaks for itself.
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.
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.
The entry wall to the interior of the larger cave gives a taste of what is to come...
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.
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.
The interior of the smaller cave (to the right of the dagoba) also contains colorful mural paintings and sitting Buddha statues.
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 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.
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.
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.