The Legacy of Yatala

Yatala Stupa – where Prince Yatala was born.

Situated along the Debarawewa-Tissamaharama route, Yatala holds a key position in the history of the Ruhunu Kingdom. Dating back to 300 BC (i.e. almost 2300 years ago), Yatala was the place where Prince Yatala was born. They say that the Yatala dagoba marks the place of his birth, which took place when his father King Mahanaga and his consort were fleeing from Anuradhapura. King Mahanaga, the brother of king Devanampiyatissa (307 -267 BC) took to fleeing in fear of his life, as the queen consort of king Devanampiyatissa wanted to murder him. When he left Anuradhapura king Mahanaga was the Yuva Raja (Deputy King) and second in line to the Throne. The story goes on to say that the Queen in an attempt to poison Mahanaga, killed her own son, for whom she wanted the Kingdom to pass directly after king Devanampiyatissa. King Mahanaga who valued his life more then the kingdom fled from Anuradhapura, and arrived in Ruhuna and founded the Ruhunu Kingdom. Opinion is divided as to who actually built the Yatala monastery complex. Some believe it was King Mahanaga while others believe it was built by king Yatala Tissa his son, to mark the place where the prince was born.

The famous Guard Stone of Yatala

The small museum in Yatala displays some of its historical treasures. This un-assuming little museum, where entry is free of charge, holds an intense aura of the past within its walls.  The curator of the Museum is well endowed with knowledge of this period in history and is ever ready to share insights and information with visitors about the artefacts on display. There are many treasures within, ranging from ancient statues of Lord Buddha that have been dated at over 2000 years old, to carvings of granite benches, sculpted urinals and may other items from this bygone era. The Stupa is bubble-shaped (bubulakara), one of the six standard shapes of buddhist stupas. The curator of the museum believes that the statue inside was manufactured locally in Sri Lanka rather than imported from India, as was the practice at the time. He rationalizes this conclusion by identifying nuances in the wrapping of the robe (‘sivura’ in Sinhala) as well as in the gesture of the hands.

Guru-pilima statue of the Lord Buddha

The Statue is believed to be the ‘guru – pilima’ (the master works) which later guided the construction of the more popular Avukana statue in Anuradhapura. The similarities are obvious except for the missing “Urna Roma Dhatu” – i.e. the single coil of hair on the forehead called the Eye of Wisdom, and the crown or headdress depicting the ray of light from the “Ushnisha” – a symbol of Lord Buddha’s great spiritual power and luminosity as well as his wisdom and knowledge. Bodhisattwa (aspiring Buddha) statues are also present

Bodhisattwa Statue

The keen observer will notice the “demon head” at the top of the urinal (below), a reminder to its user of the evils of existence and a caution to refrain from misdeeds.

Carved urinal

The Yatala stupa is but one component of a large monastery complex. Its stone pillars can still be seen today, and takes the visitor back in time to the ancient past, to when those magnificent buildings decorated the town of Yatala. If only those pillars could talk, we would hear the echoes of the past and its inhabitants.

The remains of the Yatala monastic complex

The priests in those days received donations, and the tradition continues to date. The museum displays several  granite benches thus donated to Bikkhunis (female monks). Carved on them are images depicting the owner and sometimes their name in Brahmi script.

A granite bench believed to have been owned by Bikkhuni reflects on life and decay.

During the South Indian invasions, many monasteries in the Ruhuna kingdom were destroyed. Many valuable statues and sculptures were broken into pieces and later found by archaeologists buried deep underneath the earth. These were painstakingly restored and tagged. Some of the valuable findings, such as relic caskets, are exhibited at the National Musuem in Colombo.

Statues destroyed by South Indian invaders and vandals. The head and torso of the Lord Buddha belong to two different statues.

This ‘Shirsha’ or Head Carving is from a whole sculpture believed to have been destroyed by South Indian invaders. Made of moonstone which “glows” in the dark, it is a world famous archeological artefact that has graced many international exhibitions.

The ‘Shirsha’ or head sculpture of the Lord Buddha.

Yatala is well worth a brief stop on your next visit to the deep south.

Story | Nilu Rajapakse
Photography | Nilu Rajapakse

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