It is not every day that you get a chance to spend a leisurely day in a place steeped in history, art, architecture and lore. My visit to the Ramba Vihara archaeological site with my son was one such rare, prized combination of the above factors.
A blanket of dark clouds and gusty winds eclipsed the morning sunray. A drizzle greeted us as we reached the archaeological site of Ramba Vihara and wherever we looked, acres of banana cultivation came into sight in every direction. In fact, the ancient Sinhala word “Ramba” means bananas.
We went straight to the Central Cultural Fund’s Ramba Vihara Project office to get permission for the photographs which had to be taken before the sun got harsh. At the site office we were greeted by officers who assisted us to find information about the site. Waiting at the site office was Lionel, one of the security officers assigned to guide us.
“The ancient name of the site is Mahanagakula,” Lionel told us by way of introduction. The entire site was spread over 250 acres, with the restored and conserved area occupying half and on-going excavation areas in the other half, he said. Lionel, a devoted worker with a love for history, took us to every nook and corner of the site, while outlining its historical background.
As we walked a few hundred metres to the mound of the excavated site, we were greeted by the monastic complex’s restored image houses, guardstones, moonstones, stone pillars and brick foundations in various sizes. The walls, partially dressed in sandstone blocks and a large number of bricks, rose steeply but sloped towards the top as fortification walls in monastic complexes do. This gave us an insight into the Ramba monastic complex’s amazing architectural layout connecting all buildings.
The Ramba Raja Maha Vihara itself lies on the bank of the Walawe Ganga in a tranquil setting of tall trees with a lush shrub forest canopy, just 22 Km off Embilipitiya on the Colombo-Ratnapura- Pelmadulla- Embilipitiya –Nonagama highway which is around ten Km from the Nonagama Junction. In fact, reaching the ruins is fairly easy as it lies hidden from view until one drives a few yards from the main highway.
Having entered the temple, we first glimpsed several rows of ruined stone pillars along with a Dagoba and a couple of massive flower altars on the ground. A noteworthy find of the site was a King Nissankamalla stone slab inscription which lies standing along with other ruins with some letters in Sanskrit. I am lost in an era that goes back several centuries. I take a deep breath as I look at the remnants of the ancient temple complex. Surrounded by green fabric, the ruins are spread on a vast expanse of land stretching from west to east of the bank of the Walawe. According to the historical notes, from the days of yore, the flourishing Ramba Vihara ancient monastic complex spread across a remarkable 800 acres, with a history dating back 2nd-3rd century BC (King Devanampiyatissa’s reign) and 4th – 10th century of the Polonnaruwa period and even the Ruhunu Rata period.
Taking further historical notes from chronicles like ‘Chulavamsa’ Part III, it has been observed that during the period of Ruhunu Rata of 10th -12th century AD that part of the country was divided between two brothers. Accordingly, the two regions named Atadas Rata and Dolosdas Rata were ruled by two princes, Sri Vallaba and Kirti Megha. Atadas Rata came under the Walawa Basin covering part of today’s Hambantota and Moneragala districts. The Ramba Vihara region came under the kingdom of Magampura founded by King Mahanaga of 2nd century BC that belongs to the Tissamaharama area.
Furthermore, The Ramba Vihara area at one time came under the sub-kingdom of Ruhuna Rata, called Mahanagakula or Mahavalukapura. Also, the site had been mentioned in a Sandesha Kaviya (message poem) called Manavalu Sandeshaya, written by a Buddhist monk called Ven. Nagasena Thera who had resided in the Ramba Vihara monastic complex.
The monastic complex was then the Royal Temple and during the war-torn years of King Vijayabahu I (1055-1110), the country was at war with the Chola invaders in the Ruhunu Rata region. It is believed, the King reinforced the army and established a fort with the patronage of Buddhist monks at the Ramba Vihara monastic complex.
After the dynasties crumbled down, this monastic temple complex in the jungle was soon forgotten, and it was only in the early 80s that excavation of its ruins began again. The Department of Archaeology has declared it as an archaeological reserve and now it is under the preview of the Department.
The Ramba Vihara Project sponsored by Central Cultural Fund has been the first such venture embarked in 2000, and so far it has conserved some of the monuments at the site. The project is overseen by Prof. Prishanta Gunawardena, Director General, CCF and the Officer-in-Charge of the Ramba Vihara Project is a young and energetic archaeologist, W.A. Sampath Prasanna who greeted us at the site. These dedicated officials attached to the project deserve accolades for their excellent work carried out meticulously.
“We discovered various priceless objects during excavations and kept them under protection. Some of the artifacts such as, urinal stones, grinding stones, torso of the Buddha statues and many more remnants have already been kept for display at our office,” Prasanna says cheerfully. “Now, my idea is to build an archaeological museum to exhibit these finds to attract more visitors to the site and develop it as a place of religious tourism. I have already suggested this to the Department of Archaeology,” adds soft-spoken Prasanna with enthusiasm. The several on-going excavation pits, meticulously dug by university students assisted by labourers from the village, are covered with roofing sheets . “There are around 90 university students and villagers who work in the Project,” says Prasanna.
Religion and nature
In the days when the monastic complex was still a refuge for ascetics on a spiritual journey, the whole complex sprawled over some 800 acres. Today, it has dwindled to 250 acres and villagers have encroached on the land, built houses and started cultivation. There is also a land grab for illegal sand mining on the bank of Walawe Ganga which belongs to the temple complex.
Archaeologists categorize this temple complex as a ‘Pancha Maha Vihara’ (five buildings constructed within a short distance of each other, covered by a rampart) which is a very large complex, comprising an artificial pond, a large Dagoba, a Bo-tree shrine, image house, the Janthagaraya where the monks bathed, the residences where they lived and the paths they used for meditation.
All around us lurked stone hulks of every shape and size. At the far end of the site, we came across a torso of a Buddha statue made of white sandstone, found during excavations. It had been refined and preserved. The image is different from what had been discovered at other sites as it is similar to the Buddha statue at Maligawila.
We walked under the lush forest canopy, across grid after grid of exposed foundations; ruined stone skeletons of buildings that criss-cross a good part of the surviving 250 acres. If you enter Ramba Vihara site half-heartedly, your interest will begin to pique as you walk into the heart of the complex and see the beautiful union of religion and nature.
Remnants of a bygone era can still be seen at the Ramba Vihara monastic complex premises, narrating the stories from history and what may have been. Much of it has succumbed to decay. But, what is left remains intact and safeguarded. Prasanna and his team’s task is to unearth the facts and preserve this ancient heritage monument for posterity so that future generations too can see how our ancestors prospered.