ANCIENT TREASURES OF THE EASTERN SEABOARD – By Bernard VanCuylenburg
There is a treasure trove of archaeological wonders in the Eastern seaboard of Sri Lanka and one specific location is the Kuchchaveli, Pulmoddai and Tiriyaya district of Trincomalee. And that brief introductory line is the genesis of this article.
I walked through the desolate track through patches of thick shrub and dense forest, my curiosity aroused by some stone slabs and granite pillars which lay scattered in disarray on the forest floor. Ocassionally I came across ancient brickwork which I surmised may have once been part of a wall. The villagers in the area told me that further on, in deep jungle there were statues of the Buddha badly damaged. This did not surprise me because there is an inscription that this whole area was occupied by members of the Buddhist clergy since the 3rd century B.C. It was late in the evening and having been warned that leopard and bear were seen in the vicinity, I ventured no further. I was in Kuchchaveli about 14 miles from Trincomalee, on the Trincomalee – Pulmoddai road. On one side lay the ocean, and on the other the jungle, bisected by the road. The jungle track which I was on branched off the main road.
The year was 1974, and I was employed at Nilaveli Beach Hotels Limited. It was the year the hotel opened for business. Whenever I had time off I would visit this area and heal my soul in the silence and solitude of this place which must have once been a place of spiritual grandeur. To the best of my knowledge these ruins were never classified and no archaeological excavations were undertaken. The intervening ethnic conflict made this task impossible. My heartache then was that these ruins would surrender to the grip of the strangling jungle. Reclaiming them for posterity was a forlorn hope. My heartbreak today 44 years later from a different time and place, is that they may have disappeared from the pages of our history forever.
Fortunately, there is one special treasure which has been restored and will forever have a special place in my heart. This is the TIRIYAYA VATADAGE, a further twenty four miles from Nilaveli. Historically the Vatadage has been dated to the 7th century A.D. although there is a brahmin inscription which states that the Buddhist clergy occupied this site since the 3rd century B.C. What is most important is that there is a record of two merchants named Tapassu and Bhalluka who visited Tiriyaya during Lord Buddha’s lifetime and enshrined hair relics of the Buddha at this shrine. I visited Tiriyaya often. Surrounded by thick forest the Vatadage stood majestic in beautiful countryside. The total isolation and solitude of the place was interrupted by sweet birdsong and the sounds of the forest, which enriched its spiritual atmosphere. I would spend hours here listening to the music of the wind and the sounds of silence. Inspired by the fact that this shrine could be traced back to the lifetime of the Buddha, I left each time, enriched in spirit with a deeper level of consciousness which enabled me to see and understand life more clearly. My fervent hope is that this sacred shrine is well preserved as it was when I first visited it over thirty years ago and has not suffered any damage in the ethnic conflict. In the Kuchchaveli area there are caves along the seashore with Brahmin inscriptions dating from the 3rd century B.C. There had to be a centre of learning, perhaps even some monasteries in the vicinity. Given the vagaries of the weather, I fear these inscriptions will be lost forever.
About seven miles from Trincomalee, on the main Trincomalee – Anuradhapura road, there is a track which branches off into the forest (It was a track then. It is a road now). About three miles down this road is a jewel in the crown of Sri Lanka’s archaeological sites – the ancient temple complex of THE VELGAM VEHARA. When I first visited it I wondered why nothing had ever been written about it, and it did not even feature in any tourist brochure. Neither could I find reference to it in the Mahavamsa or the Culavamsa. It has to be in the Mahavamsa, or maybe I am missing something. Relatively unknown then, this beautiful complex is as magnificient as any in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. There are ruins of many buildings near the Vehara, and elegant pillars cover a wide area in what once may have been lush gardens. It is a precious gem, and the venerable Chief Priest of the temple was my mentor each time I visited this site. He told me that the Velgam Vehara is over a thousand years old but could not provide me with any historical information. Perhaps in perusing the Mahavamsa, the information I seek stares at me from the hallowed pages of this ancient chronicle, and my spiritual thirst and enthusiasm blinds me. I can only hope that this site will be preserved for future generations. In her long and glorious history of over 2500 years, a once proud civilisation chose to build her spiritual heart here. The stillness of the woods and the mystery that surrounded the site intrigued me then, as it does now after all these years.
Sadly, the description of this site in the preceeding paragraph is confined to the past tense. When I visited this site in September 2014 I was shattered to find that many of the statues had been destroyed and vandalised. This once beautiful temple complex in lush gardens did not in any way reflect its past glory and is only a pale shadow compared to when I used to visit it in the mid seventies and early eighties. When I expressed my disappointment to the high priest, he told me that it is a miracle that he and his assistant priest escaped with their lives during the dark days of the ethnic conflict.
Fortunately the archaeological sites in Sri Lanka have not been attacked by the Thyo – Bacillicus which causes a disease of stone. This vicious bacillicus crumbles any stone surface thus erasing its beauty forever. It is the scourge of archaeologists, the world over and has been prevalent in Cambodia and other sites around the world. However, some consolation can be taken from the fact that advances in modern restoration techniques have proved a timely antidote. There are surely other ruins buried deep in the jungles of the eastern province which will never be retrieved. We owe a debt of gratitude to the people who gave us monuments like the Tiriyaya Vatadage and the Velgam Vehera. Since there is no record of their names, they remain among the many unsung heroes who took ancient Lanka to first world standards. But their monuments are a testimony to their skill, and will keep their legacy alive, while helping us to widen our window into the past.