ANCIENT MYSTERIES – by Bernard VanCuylenburg

When I peruse the Mahavamsa and the Culavamsa priceless records that documents ancient Ceylon’s cultural heritage, it marinates my soul in the grandeur  of the island’s rich civilization that is almost legendary. In art, architecture, hydraulic engineering, hydrology and irrigation/ water management, ancient Lanka is on par with the classic civilizations of imperial Greece and Rome, the great Aztec and Mayan civilizations of Central America, and that of the Incas in Peru.  And, as in all great records of a country’s history, many questions remain unanswered which will to us forever remain tantalizing mysteries. In this article I will deal with two, one of which I experienced personally, over thirty five years ago. 



A few miles from Monaragala lies the village of Maligawila.  At least it was a village when I visited it many years ago. I have no idea  what it looks like today with the pace of progress. In 1930 a sensational discovery of a colossal Buddha statue was made in thick elephant infested jungle. The statue was badly damaged and ancient records state that it was King Agaboddhi the first, who commissioned the carving of this statue around 600 AD. The discovery of this statue gave rise to a two fold mystery. The ancient stone masons first cut and extracted a massive chunk of rock in one whole block from a quarry located half a mile away. This alone was an effort requiring superhuman strength not to mention the fact that they had to haul this rock to Maligawila where they erected it in an upright position. It was after this was done that the sculptors got to work and produced this masterpiece. The department of archaeology began restoring this statue in 1965, and I visited the site a few years later. I recall an officer from the department  telling me that they were at a loss to understand how this massive chunk of rock was transported through dense jungle. The slightest mishap would have resulted in the rock being cracked which would have rendered it worthless. What method of transport was used ?  But those ancient workmen were more than equal to the task. Today fully restored, the Maligawila Buddha stands resplendent in majesty in lush countryside, forty five feet in height. I have seen ancient statues of the Buddha in Thailand, Cambodia, China and India. But the statues of ancient Lanka are some of the best in the world.



Not far from Wellawaya, there is a carving of three figures on a rock face in Buduruvagala. The eminent historian Professor K.M.De Silva, who was once the Vice president of the International Association of Historians of Asia, dated these statues to the 9th century AD. In this complex there is a statue of Lord Buddha in the centre flanked by a Bodhisattva on either side.  Thirty two years ago I visited Buduruvagala and was privileged to “witness” and experience a phenomenon which some told me bordered on the supernatural, but which I prefer to think of as spiritual. Let me set the scene. To reach Buduruvagala, one has to branch off the Wellawaya – Ella road and journey along what was then a rough jungle track till suddenly, in a beautiful glade in the forest one comes across these giant statues standing majestically tall and imposing in a serene jungle setting in silent splendour as they have stood for over a thousand years. In the stillness of this site amidst the beauties of nature, there is an atmosphere  which is mystical and defies explanation. As I came upon the site a cultivator from a nearby plot of land he was working on,  noting my interest, came up and  introduced himself to me. He said his name was Sirisena, and although his home town was Nuwaraeliya, he told me he often visited this area hoping to start cultivation. We spoke for a long while, and during our conversation Sirisena revealed an astounding fact to me. He told me that every Maha Poya day, the statue of the Bodhisattva on the left of the rock face emanated a sweet scented oil. I must have been blessed by the Gods because  by some beautiful coincidence I  happened to be there on Maha Poya day. Of course, I decided to test the veracity of Sirisena’s words. I went up to the statue and was surprised to see a liquid substance  oozing from the head of the statue right down to its feet. I touched this liquid which resembled a light oil and then I smelt it. It had a fragrance which I had never experienced before. A pure beautiful scent which soothed the senses and seemed to heal.  This deeply moved me and I stood for sometime in stunned silence gazing in awe and reverence at the face of these statues, spiritually fulfilled and enriched. I then applied the oil on my hands and forehead, and my driver Samarasinghe, and Sirisena did the same.


Sirisena told me that the oil ceases flowing when the Maha Poya day ends. But the mystery deepens. I was informed that every Maha Poya day towards nightfall , as Buduruvagala stands silent in its enchanted atmosphere, the sound of drums beating, conch shells blowing, and cries of “Sadhu…..Sadhu” can be heard in the immediate vicinity of these statues. The few villagers listen to these sounds in awe and wonder. There are greater things in life than we dream of in our philosophy, and I hold the belief that in this sacred and hallowed place,  these are voices from the past.  Parting the impenetrable veil of time, they reach out to us through the ages in some way strengthening the bonds between their lives and ours. I left Buduruvagala reluctantly, but spiritually uplifted. Just as these statues are carved out of living rock, their beautiful images remain engraved in my mind forever. I subsequently published an article in the  “Ceylon Daily News” regarding my experience. Today, over thirty five years later, I wonder if this phenomenon still occurs, keeping the mystery alive. More archaeological treasures must lie buried in the ruins, and at the time of my visit the area was largely unexcavated.  I hope one day archaeologists will breathe life into the past of this magnificient complex so that Buduruvagala will come into focus not only for its sculpture, but in the full scope of its history.


At the end of a road less travelled, a new journey begins………

Bernard VanCuylenburg

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