The medieval Gangasiripura lies within the realms of the river Mahaweli close to Kandy. Its foremost “jewels” are the three temples located on the Gadaladeniya Road off Pilimathalawa junction, on the main Colombo-Kandy route. It is close to Peradeniya. Today, Gangasiripura is better known as Gampola. It was the location of the Gampola Kingdom, the capitol city of Lanka during a somewhat stormy era in the Island’s history. Gampola was established during the time of King Bhuwanekabãhu IV (1341 to 1354). According to historians, a salient feature of the Gampola kingdom was that there were several co-rulers reigning side by side. For instance, the King’s brother Parakramabãhu V (1344-1359) ruled in the nearby Dedegama area, while his son King Vikramabãhu III (1357-1374) co-ruled Gampola along with King Bhuwanekabãhu IV for a short period of three to four years. Another interesting observation during this era was that chief ministers were somewhat more powerful than the ruling kings. This is attributed to the fact that they took a leadership role in spreading the kingdom and defending their monarchs, when the kings themselves chose to flee from their enemies. Senãdhilankãra was one such chieftain who, incidentally, was also responsible for laying the foundations of the Kotte Kingdom. It is said that the King constructed several buddhist temples during the Gampola period such as the Lankathilaka Raja Maha Viharaya and Gadaladeniya at the request of his chief minister Senãdhilankãra. Both temples are close to the chieftain’s birthplace Singuruvana, in Peradeniya. Close to Gadaladeniya Viharaya and Lankathilaka Viharaya is the exquisite Embekke Devale, renowned for its intricate wood carvings dating back to the same period. All three places are favourite tourist attractions. The Gampola era was known for many such fine works of Temple art. Many temples were erected during this period and due to this reason, Gampola can also be referred to as a Temple City.
The politics of the period as mentioned afore was turbulent. The powerful South Indian Aryacakravartis were the biggest threat as they vigorously extended their cõla tentacles over the island even into the Gampola domain itself. Alakesvara, who descended from the eminent Alagakkonara family of South Indian origin, became the hero of the day during the reign of Bhuvanekabãhu V. As the King fled, the valiant Alakesvara defended the kingdom, rallying the Sinhala army and freeing many a cõla stronghold, thus regaining lost territory for the monarchs. After an astounding victory it is said that Alakesvara became the de-facto king until his death. The last king of Gampola was Bhuvanekabãhu V (1371-1406) who ruled from Gampola during the early part of his reign and later moved on to establish the kingdom in Kotte.
Of the three historic edifices that adorn the hamlet of Hiripitiya in the Udunuwara, Lankathilaka Viharaya boasts supremacy in architectural and artistic accomplishments. The vihãra consists mostly of brick structures built upon the massive Panhangala Rock. Built by chieftain Senãdhilankãra, under the auspices of King Buwanekabãhu IV in 1344, experts assert that the architecture is that of Gedige type originating from the Polonnaruwa era. The entrances to the temple are cut out of the bedrock. One of them traces back to the Gampola era, while the other is from a more recent time in the early 20th Century. Archaeologists believe that the temple originally had four stories.
Apart from worship of the Buddha, the temple is also a place of worship of some well known local and hindu deities such as Vishnu, Saman, Vibhishana, Ganapathi, Skandhakumãra and Kumara Bandãra. Incidentally, Kumara Bandãra is believed to be entrusted with the task of protecting the Lankathilaka. Rock inscriptions in the vicinity are in both Sinhala and Tamil and they tell the story of the temple. The designs of arches and sculptures are of Gandharva and Gaja Lakshmi art of 14th century origin. There are many unique features within the temple, starting with the Makara Thorana or the Dragon Arch at the entrance to the Buddha Image House. Whithin its walls, beautiful murals of the ‘Suvisi Vivarana‘ – the lives of 24 past Buddhas, are a mesmerising sight to see.
Situated in Diggala, the Gadaladeniya Raja Maha Viharaya is famous for its magnificent stone carvings and the beautiful but faded murals, which can be seen in its inner shrine room. Again built by King Buwanekabahu IV in the year 1344 Gadaladenya had since been improved by his successors, mainly King Vikramabahu III. The prominent features of Gadalaeniya are the stone carvings, however the 640 year old jack-wood doors with original painting are sure to be an impressive show piece. In later years the temple was largely neglected until it was handed over to Ven Welivita Sri Saranankara Thero by King Vira Parakrama Narendrasinha (1707 – 1739) during the Kandian era. A prominent feature is the main Dagoba that is housed under a roof, with four smaller satellite Dagobas. The adjoining natural pond with the Manel flowers add a graceful touch to the venerated structure. By the bo-tree, visitors can observe inscriptions carved into the bold granite. The chief architect of this temple had been a south indian called Ganesvarachari and as such it demonstrates Dravidian style found in South India.
The annexture of Hindu kovils to buddhist shrines was a sign of those times. According to Historian K.M. de Silva, ‘Nowhere else is the intrusion of Hindu practices with their tolerant accommodations within the ‘official’ version of Buddhism more acutely demonstrated than in these shrines‘. The four divine guardians of Lanka, Uppalavan, Saman, Vibishana and Skanda can be seen as the attendees of the Buddha at both Lankathilaka and Gadaladeniya. Later during the fifteenth century the supreme guardianship of Lanka was bestowed upon God Uppalavan or Vishnu as is popularly known, as the National god. Sadly, Gadaladeniya was subjected to damage during the Portuguese times as can be seen by the damaged art and inscriptions. It has since been restored and protected.
The intricate carvings of Embekke Devale (place of worship) is well known across the world as one of the most exquisite works in wooden sculpture. It was built by King Vikramabahu III, of the Gampola Kingdom (1357-1374). Embekke can be reached via the Kandy-Colombo main route approximately 7 km off Pilimathalawa. It is appropriately referred to as the ‘temple village’ with many other viharas in its vicinity. Embekke surrounds many legends. There are two main legends. One is of god Skanda and the other surrounds the Queen Biso Bandara, consort of King Vikramabahu III. Folklore and myth relates that she was an opapathika, (born in a beli fruit and of no human parents) and connects various miraculous incidents to her.
In terms of architecture, a unique sight is the union of the 26 beams via what is known as the Madol Kurupawa in the form of a giant ‘pin’. This has not been seen anywhere else. The original foundation of the Devale was done by King Vikramabahu III, and his successors have since improved it over the years. It is believed that the woodwork actually came during the later improvements. Visitors will pass ruins of the Embekke Ambalama on their way to the Devale.
All in all, the Gampola Kingdom was a chequerd one in Lankan history with the threat of South Indian invaders from one side, the Chinese empire from another and to top it all a looming Portuguese invasion. The Gampola era was an important one in terms of art and culture and saw the erection of many architectural and artistic marvels in the form of Buddhist temples. It will be remembered as a politically trying period with a cultural silver lining.
Story | Nilu Rajapakse
Photography | Danushka Senadheera