ELOQUENCE IN STONE: The magnificent Sasseruwa Buddha carved out of a single rock rises to a height of over 42 ft.
I first came to know Sasseruwa in the early 1980s through the now defunct ‘ISURA’- a monthly Sinhala magazine, published by the then Land, Land Development and Mahaweli Development Ministry, to educate the people on Mahaweli development projects. This colourful magazine was much sought after by me as a student. In one issue, it featured the restoration of a tank of the Sasseruwa temple with photographs of the Buddha statue, in the Mahaweli “H” System in Meegalewa. Now, visiting this place after three decades, I recalled some nostalgic memories of my student days.
Sasseruwa is situated in a quaint village in Meegalawa, in a deep corner of the Kurunegala-Anuradhapura border, off Galgamuwa town in the North Western Province, and is one of the most sacred sites for Buddhists. This ancient place is known by different names; such as, Sasseruwa, or Res Vehera, as “Budu Ras” (Buddha’s halo or rays) had emanated on the occasion of planting one of the 32 saplings of the Sri Maha Bodhi tree at this place by King Devanampiyatissa. Another opinion is that King Walagambahu gathered his troops here, which in Sinhala means ‘Senaga Reskarapu Viharaya’ that resulted in the name Res Vehera. According to historical notes, the temple has the patronage of several kings, in various eras. King Devanampiyatissa first established the temple; King Walagambahu was exiled from the capital and sought refuge at Res Vehera from foreign invaders and built Len Vihara (cave temples); King Dhatusena, a great tank builder, was believed to have commissioned the sculpture of a rock cut statue of the Buddha. It is because of this statue that the temple is famously known as Sasseruwa. Though Sasseruwa had been abandoned for some time, the renaissance began during the Kandyan era under the patronage of King Veera Parakrama Narendrasingha.
Spreading over 1,400 acres on a rocky outcrop, the temple complex is said to consist 99 rocky caves with drip-ledges, of which only nine could be seen today. Sasseruwa is of great spiritual significance to Buddhists, as it was home to a Buddhist hermitage with over 300 Arahat Bhikkus, but today, what remains is only a fraction of its past. It is one of the places in the country where the workmanship of ancient Sinhala sculptors is clearly visible. Sasseruwa Buddha has a special place in our annals. The over 42 feet high unfinished image has been cut in the living rock carved between 750-850 AD, depicting many features similar to the nearby Avukana Buddha. As the morning light beckons, the temple exudes a tranquil ambience.
Though other remains of antiquity are present, the jewel of the temple is definitely the stone cut Buddha statue. Climbing to the upper level of the hill through the stone flight of stairs, one could not help but look up to catch a glimpse of Buddha’s serene face, which looks upon the world with kindness and compassion. One can only be humbled by its presence.
According to historical notes available in the temple, Sasseruwa was the first place chosen to build the Buddha colossus by the great tank builder, King Dhatusena. As the work proceeded the monarch had a suspicion about the strength of the rock. He therefore abandoned the site midway and chose another at Avukana, 14 kilometres away.
However, the sculptor, undaunted, continued his work and created a masterpiece of the Buddha image at Sasseruwa. He sculptured the most beautiful image into the living rock. He had reportedly sent his pupil (some say it was his brother) to do the monarch’s bidding. The rock was found to be good enough despite the misgivings of the King. So now, we have the original statue chiseled in stone by the master and the Avukana statue done by the Master’s pupil.
These two masterpiece creations are one of the few remaining rock-cut Buddha statues in the world, after the Taliban destroyed the magnificent Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan, a few years ago.
The main path to the top lies through a flight of stairs made of stone. At the base of the steps are the Dhamma Salawa (preaching hall), an ancient dagoba and a natural tank. The Dhamma Salawa resembles Kandyan period architecture, while the dagoba is built in the shape of a bubble. Some stone pillars that lie beside the main path indicate the antiquity of the site.
We began our descent, and halfway down we stumbled upon a magnificent ancient Bodhi tree, rising majestically, surrounded by a Bodhigara consisting of a huge stone wall. The massive branches of the ancient Bodhi tree spread far and wide.
A few yards away is a sign board directing us to the Maha Viharaya which lies inside a drip-ledged cave. It has a beautiful image chamber with a massive reclining Buddha statue. The unique feature of this statue is that an actual cotton robe was draped round the statue prior to plastering it. Even today, this ancient robe is visible in some sections of the statue. Fascinating wall paintings, in intricate designs adorn the walls depicting several Jathaka stories, and the entire ceiling of the image house is decorated with the artistic narration of the defeat of Mara (Agent of Death) by the Buddha.
A vibrant Makara Thorana (dragon arch), a breathtaking creation also adorns the entrance to the image chamber in the cave. Inside the image houses of the caves are nine Buddha statues in various sizes, sitting and standing. Outside the cave on the rock surface there is an ancient inscription and the drip-ledges prevent rain water from seeping into the cave. This is visible in almost all the caves in the temple. Although Sasseruwa is hidden deep inside the foliage, very few visitors to Avukana would miss Sasseruwa during their pilgrimage. For years, devotees stepped on the rock surface of the sand at the temple premises of the Sasseruwa Buddha statue, their footprints erased by time, giving way to many more.
Their footprints may have been erased but the magnificence of the resplendent Sasseruwa Buddha statue will undoubtedly be etched in their minds forever. It is rich in history, with a natural beauty, and its secluded environment radiates a sense of peace. It remains one of my favourite photography destinations.
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