Ancient Cities & Temples in the Kurunegala District

At Ridi gama, (“silver village” evidently derives its name from the temple Ridi Vihare, or “silver temple.”) 11.06 miles from Kurunegala (that is, 2.25 miles along the road to Kandy, turn at Mallawan pitiya to left, 7.81 miles along the minor road to Matale, turn to right at Rambukkan deniya, thence a mile to the south east) stands Ridi Vihare. The most celebrated temple, not only in the Kurunegala District, but in the whole of the North Western Province. The greater part of the approach thither from Rambukkan deniya lies through a delightful shady avenue, the path increasing as you advance till a dilapidated building is reached. On the left rises a high wall, which hides the temple premises from view, and entrance into the temple yard is obtained through a wooden doorway in the wall. The temple is called Rajata lena (Sin, Ridi-lena) in the Pali works. The ancient name of the place was Ambatthakola lena (Muller found “several fragments of inscriptions on the fiat rock near to an old dagaba, but only one is well enough preserved that at least a part of it can be made out. It begins Siddhisaddhamakesiri……. After this comes most probably the name of the king, which is not quite legible on the stone, and in the second line I believe I have deciphered a part of the ancient name of the place, Abattha (kolalena).” Ancient Inscriptions, p. 39..) It is referred to as Rajata vihare in the Mahawansa, as having been built by King Dutugemunu (164-140 B.C.) (Chap. C, 239. In a note to chap. XXXV. of the Mahawansa it is stated that Amanda Gamani Abhaya built the Rajata lena.) and the tradition current in the place supports this statement.

The following legend explains the origin of the name. When Dutugemunu reigned at Anuradhapura (164-110 B.C.) a man by the name of Weparaya (Vyapara, “petty trader”), who went about selling curry stuffs, came to the spot where the cave stands, and saw there the branch of a jak tree on the ground with a large ripe fruit. Finding it to be a sweet jak fruit of an extraordinary size, and unwilling to partake of it without giving a portion to the priesthood, he sounded the kalaghosa (the call of refection), when three Rahats (Buddhist saints) instantly arrived on the spot through the air. After having served out portions of the fruit to the Rahats, he partook of the rest. One of the Rahats suddenly disappearing, he went in search of him and found him seated in the adjoining cave, engaged in abstract meditation. He discovered near the spot where the Rahat sat a column of silver springing up from the ground, and reported the circumstance to the king, who repaired thither and removed the silver column, and built a vihare on the spot where the Rahats partook of the jak fruit, which received the name of Waraka velandu vihare, “the vihare in which jak fruit was partaken of” (Reports on the Inspection of Temple Libraries, by Louis de Zoyza, Maha Mudaliyar (Sessional Paper XI of 1875).

A small building of stone, but of no architectural pretensions, is still pointed out as the identical temple above alluded to.

Another legend is to the effect that when Dutugemunu was building the Maha Thupa at Anuradhapura, he was short of funds to pay his hired labourers, and the workmen clamouring for payment, he fled into the jungle, and wandering about reached the cave, where he saw a column of silver miraculously springing up from under the ground. He chopped off pieces of silver with his sword, until he got enough to pay the labourers, when the silver column disappeared (Reports on the Inspection of Temple Libraries, by Louis de Zoyza, Maha Mudaliyar (Sessional Paper XI of 1875).

According to the Mahawansa the vihare seems to have long been in a state of decay, and King Kirti Sri (1747 A.D.), in order that it might be repaired, furnished the necessary materials, artificers, painters, and much refined gold for gilding the statue of Buddha, and gave over charge of the temple to the novice Siddhattha, who accordingly commenced the repairs and improvements. The name of “Siddhattha” has since been adopted by the priests who officiate here.

He (Siddhattha) removed everything that was old and decayed in the vihare, and made the thick and high wall thereof of solid stone to shine, and the floor and the outer wall also. And he caused a picture of the Supreme Buddha, as he was engaged in the battle with Mara, to be painted on the roof of the rock, and divers flowers and creepers also.

All this is yet to be seen in the interior of the “Maha vihare,” as the larger edifice is designated in contradistinction to the smaller temple, which is called “Uda vihare,” and is situated on a rock of higher elevation.

He caused also the great sleeping image to be made with fine brick and mortar and clay, and many other images of Buddha also, sitting and upright. And in the inner wall he caused about a thousand beautiful pictures of the Supreme Buddha to be painted with exquisite art. At the foot of the great sleeping image he caused to be made in due order beautiful images of Ananda. The constant attendant of Buddha and the preserver of the Law, of Metteyya Bodhisatta, of the excellent Natha Deva, and of the King Dutthagamani.

The sleeping image, which is 12 cubits in length, occupies nearly the entire length of the left wing of the interior. In addition to the images of Maitri Bodhisatva, Maha Vishnu, Maha Kassapa, and King Dutugemunu, there is a figure of Tibbotuwawe Maha Nayaka Unnanse, one of the earliest incumbents (The head of this monastery has, from its foundation, been a member of the Tibbotuwawe family. This is the most important of the numerous private livings in Ceylon. When one of these becomes vacant before one of the family to which it belongs has been ordained here, as in England, a temporary incumbent is put in, who generally serves as tutor to the young heir (Administration Reports, North Western Province, 1870, p. 285); at the foot of the great image. In front of the platform on which the sleeping image lies are set two rows of glazed tiles, with various pictorial representations on them. These tiles, it is said, were the gift of the King of Siam to King Kirti Sri.

In the right wing of the temple there are ten images of Buddha in a standing posture, a large figure of Buddha in a sitting, and another in a standing attitude about 8 feet in height. In the centre of the building stands a gilt figure of Buddha, which it is said was modelled after the grateful Dutugemunu, and marks the site whence the view of silver sprung up. In front of this image there is an oblong wooden table for offerings.

Two Chinese lamps, which are suspended from the roof, are said to be gifts of a penitent Buddhist after his return from penal servitude at Malacca, whither he was transported !

And he (Siddhattha) gilded with gold the five large images of Buddha and completed the other works that had to be done inside. On the outside wall also he caused to be painted a beautiful row of figures of Devas and Brahmas carrying flowers in their hands, as if they had come to worship. He caused also to be made a large arch, beautiful and pleasant to the sight, and two figures of lions on the two sides of the door, and figures of demons on the spaces between in the walls.

Nearly all this is in a wonderful state of preservation ; and in addition thereto are at each of the two entrances to the inferior of the temple a pair of tusk holders, one on each side, on which magnificent elephant tusks are fixed on festival days.

He also had pictures made of the sixteen principal shrines consisting of Mahiyangana and the rest, and a likeness of the excellent foot print (of Buddha) on the Sacca baddha pabbata (a mountain in Siam), and many scenes also painted with exquisite art from many Jatakas, showing the ten fold Parami, the three fold Cariya, the five great self denying sacrifices and other virtues (of the Bodhisatta). And in the hall he caused many pictures to be painted : lions, elephants, and swans, in rows ; likewise flowers and creepers also.

To the right of the Maha vihare is a small budu ge, the framework of the door leading into which is of exquisite workmanship, elaborately inlaid with carved ivory, and said to be a present from King Kirti Sri.

The following description refers to the “Uda vihare,” and applies with equal fidelity to the interior and other buildings as they exist at the present day, the painting being as fresh as new :-

Then in the beautiful cave that is on the top of the self same rock he made a fine, large, and excellent image house pleasant to the sight, and many works in stone that were wrought to perfection. In it he made a large, beautiful, and life like sitting image of Buddha, pleasant to behold, and on both sides thereof two fine upright statues. He also caused to be made there the images of Metteyya Bodhisatta and of Uppalavanna and many images of Buddha, and hundreds also of arhats. Likewise there were figures of the twenty four Buddhas (before Gautama), many Bodhi trees, the (events of the) twenty and four predictions, pictures of the sixteen principal shrines and of demons and of other evil spirits, of the five different venerable convocations, and divers other paintings of exquisite beauty. In that very place he placed relics of Buddha and built thereon a cetiya and adorned it with a pinnacle of gold. And on the top of the image house in that excellent rock basin he caused a delightful picture to be made of the Sage, seated amidst his five hundred disciples, with Sariputta at their head.

And even in the different courts (of the vihare) he built walls and open halls and divers gates also, and rows of steps and other excellent works. He repaired many old walls and also built many new ones ; and completed all in a beautiful manner.

The ceremony of setting the eyes of the images was performed under a lucky star and at a favourable hour, the place having been adorned with many continuous rows of arches, the king sending his ministers with apparel and ornaments to conduct the feast.

The following has reference to the structure herein before mentioned, which is the first to attract the attention of the visitor on his entering the temple yard, and which is popularly identified as Waraka velandu vihare :-

And on the courtyard without an open hall is built on stone pillars with seats prepared (for priests). And the great body of people assembled themselves together there, and were instructed in the rules of moral conduct, such as the five precepts and others ; and they had everyone the opportunity daily of hearing much of the law expounded to them. Moreover, he (the priest Siddhattha) in his great loving kindness did often invite preachers of religion, and make them to discourse to the people all through the three watches of the night.

The following refers to the temple generally :-

And he (the king or priest) caused that vihare named Rajata to be completed, and that great feast to be held in the 2,301 of the Parinibbana of the Supreme Buddha.

And on the south side of this vihare there was a beautiful cetiya that was built (in former times) on a beautiful broad and flat rock ; but it had gone wholly to ruin, leaving only a, mound of earth. And for the purpose of restoring it he collected lime and bricks and stones and other materials from divers places. And he built a beautiful square foundation, wherein he placed a relic of the glorious Sage. And, while the cetiya was yet building, he invited priests and caused a consecrated boundary to be set upon a beautiful plot of land in the neighbourhood thereof, and built thereon an Uposatha house and a Arama for priests, with tiled roofs and the like. And he made the grounds around it into a large park, containing many ponds, and adorned them with divers trees and creeping trees that bear flowers, and trees that bear fruit and the like. And in this monastery he caused the sons of Buddha to take up their abode, and earnestly exhorted them to conform their behaviour to the doctrines and precepts of religion. And this place, which was restored by the authority of the king, was the resort of great saints, and was had in great honour by the ancient rulers of Lanka. An when the great king had heard thereof, he ordained that the boundary of the vihare should be the same as had already been defined (by the priest) ; and he offered the land thereto, and increased all the ceremonial offerings and alms to the priesthood in this vihare and thus gained a store of merit.

And the king, who was endued with faith and other virtues, worshipped at the Rajata vihare also and acquired much merit.

Having long heard of the fame of the temple library, the late Maha Mudaliyar L. de Zoyza paid a visit thither, with a view to report thereon, and was greatly disappointed with the small number of manuscripts found there, among which, however, he came across some rare ones.

The books are contained in a wooden box, curiously painted and set with what appears to be precious stones. There are three Pitakas and their ancient Atthakathas, or commentaries. These works are superbly got up. The boards are composed of plates of ivory exquisitely carved, and either set with precious stones or ornamented with flowers of gold.

Among other curious objects is a gold paatra, or begging bowl, some short manuscripts executed on silver plates, and a manuscript on ola written in the smallest Sinhalese characters possible. The box, the ornamented books, and the gold vessel were, it is said, the gifts of King Kirti Sri.

Deposited in this box are also copies of Childers’ Pali Dictionary (presented by the Ceylon Government) and Muller’s Ancient Inscriptions of Ceylon.

The incumbent, if in good humour, exhibits to the visitor, with pardonable pride, a gaudily worked cushion, the cover of which consists of pieces of variegated cloth stitched together. This wonderful cushion, it is alleged, was used by King Dutugemunu and his successors to recline on when they came to the temple to pray.


-F. H. Modder