Art and history of Kathaluwa Purana Viharaya

The Nation
Chamara Sumanapala
04 May 2014

Art and history of  Kathaluwa Purana  Viharaya

Southern Sri Lanka is dotted with many Buddhist temples with long histories and unique features. One such temple is the Kathaluwa Giniwella Purana Viharaya. It is located about a kilometer inland from Koggala, on a high ground overlooking the Koggala Oya. The temple is known for its unique dagoba (stupa), 19th Century murals and a mystery surrounding a historical printing machine.

The temple is said to have been founded in the 19th Century by Bulathgama Sri Sumanathissa Dhammalankara Thera. The temple later had to be divided due to a dispute between Asgiri Chapter and Amarapura Nikaya. It happened because the Chief Incumbent of the temple chose to leave Asgiri Chapter and join the Amarapura Nikaya. Afterwards it had been agreed that the dagoba and the Sacred Bo Tree of the temple will belong to both Nikaya. The Nawamuni Seya, or the nine dagobas of the temple is a unique feature of the temple.

The famous murals of the temple are seen inside the old Budu Ge. Photography is not allowed, out of concern for the protection of the paintings. Most of the murals are preserved in good condition. The Vessanthara Jathaka and the Life of the Buddha have been drawn on the walls of the circular building. These are the works of local artists who have used local material to produce the inks and colors. The paintings follow the artistic tradition seen in the southern coastal belt. It is a blend of the Kandyan style and Western influence. The costumes and traditions seen in the Kathaluwa murals closely resemble those of the Mulkirigala Temple.

However, in Kathaluwa, there are two unique paintings. One of them depicts a group of European soldiers dressed in European attire carrying guns, taking part in a Buddhist procession. The other paining shows Arhath Kashyapa Thera paying last respects to the Buddha at Maha Parinirvana.In mid 19th Century when Buddhism was in decline, a nascent Buddhist revival movement emerged. Bulathgama Thera also played a key role in this revival. He understood the necessity for a Sinhalese publication to revive Buddhism in the country. Through his efforts, Bulathgama Thera was able to raise money to buy a printing press. The king of Thailand also made a contribution to this project. The printing machine was imported from England.

In 1860, the first Sinhalese newspaper in Ceylon, Lankalokaya, was published in Galle by the newly established Lankopakara Press. The first editor was a lawyer, William Perera Ranasingha. Mudliyar DWK Jayawardena was the publisher. The Lankalokaya was priced at six pence and was published on the 10th and the 24th of each month.

This historic printing press which played a significant role in the Buddhist revival in Ceylon, later ended up at the Kathaluwa Purana Viharaya. It is unclear as to when the machine was brought to the temple. However, the Archeology Department and other institutions had been concerned about the safety and preservation of the machine. They had been worried that the temple would not preserve it in the proper order. Over the past decades, the authorities have asked permission to move the machine out to a museum to properly preserve it. However, repeated requests had been refused by the Chief Incumbents of the temple and the Dayaka Sabha. On some instances, the Dayaka Sabha had demanded exorbitant prices for the machine, which had prompted authorities to give up the endeavor.

According to locals, the rationale behind demanding such prices has precisely been to prevent authorities from attempting to take the machine away. The Dayaka Sabha has been worried that the printing press would not be given due prominence when it is exhibited in a museum. The Dayaka Sabha wanted to exhibit the machine at the temple.

However, nothing constructive was done to exhibit the printing press in the temple until a fire destroyed the building in which the printing press had been housed. It occurred in November 2012. Although it was said that an electricity leak caused the fire, some locals say that there is considerable doubt about this explanation.

Although the printing machine was damaged, it is said to be in a repairable condition. The Dayaka Sabha is reportedly planning to house the printer in a new building, finally giving the due respect to the historic artifact.

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2 responses to “Art and history of Kathaluwa Purana Viharaya

  1. Ranwella Temple was never a part of Giniwella temple. They existed as two temples on the same land belonging to one family. When the land was devided among the family members a wall was built seperating two temple premises.

  2. Image building is not circular but hexagonal. Murals depict Buddha chritaya and Ummagga Jathkaya not Vessanthara Jathakaya.

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