Sunday, January 8, 2017

Indasararamaya: A temple, a story, and a chronicle

The history of a time is best obtained with reference to the people and places that inhabited it. It is also obtained by perusing the schisms, sects, and clashes which adorn particular epochs. The same can be said of the clergy (whatever the denomination) and of the various places of worship that witnessed their rise, fall, and shifting fortunes.

Sri Lanka is home to so many shrines and temples, the stories of which goes beyond texts and records, but it would seem that historians have marginalised many of them in their quest to record familiar sites, the Dalada Maligawa and the Bellanwila Viharaya being two of them. This is the story of one temple that seems to have evaded our notice, which rightly claims a history of its own.

Professor Kitsiri Malalgoda in his book Buddhism in Sinhalese Society: 1750-1900 (A Study of Religious Revival and Change) contends that until the advent of the British, the Kandyan Kingdom, which gave birth to the first order of monks ordained in Thailand (the Siam Nikaya), was involved in a cyclical historical process. That is, the politics of the Kingdom was volatile, prone to instability and shifting loyalties.

After 1815, however, this was replaced by a largely linear process, which in Professor Kitsiri’s words led to the “gradual concentration of power in the hands of the expanding British bureaucracy at the expense of the powers of the declining traditional aristocracy.” That aristocracy was anxious to preserve their privileges, and one way through which they could achieve that was by preserving their religion.

The problem, however, was that the clergy were driven by caste considerations, which got intensified when, even before the British conquest, rebel factions created their own sects to admit those from lower castes. Arguably hence, the drive to preserve a religion went hand in hand with a drive to preserve the caste hierarchies prevalent in its clergy.

So how does a temple from a far flung place bordering on Kalutara have a bearing on all this? The Indasararamaya Temple is in Aruggoda, located a good 90 minutes away from Colombo. Named after a monk who hailed from the Asgiriya Chapter of the Siam Nikaya, it is not exactly in shambles or threatened with neglect, but it certainly seems to have passed by the historian: attempts at looking it up online (in English and Sinhala) were, for me, to no avail. In such cases one must traipse to the place itself, to try and discern the history it’s been endowed with.

It all began at the turn of the 18th century when the Reverend Indasara Thero, on a pilgrimage from his abode at the Mathugala Raja Maha Viharaya, Dambulla to Galle, passed Aruggoda (which had no resident monks then). The residents implored him to stay, which he did for two weeks. During his stay, they had prevailed on him to become the Chief Prelate of a temple they’d planned on building. The Thero agreed with the proposal and their plan to build it on a hill, which overlooked a wel yaya on one side and from where you could see Sri Pada in the distance. Words turned to action, and for the better part of a decade, the people of Aruggoda toiled hard to complete the site.

Of course, it had not been easy. The most typically used material for the construction of such sites included pol leli and mati (more formidable than gadol), the latter of which had been transported from Kandy in carts. By 1863, it was all over, the temple was opened, and Indasara Thero moved in. Fittingly, it was named after him. It had contained a makara thorana, a reclining Buddha statue (the biggest such statue not only in the Western Province, but in the low country as well), and statues of Sumana Saman Deviyo (the divine patron of the Sabaragamuwa Province, close to Aruggoda), Vishnu, and Natha.

History has a way of eroding things and the Indasararamaya, it must be said, hasn’t been an exception to this: in 1983, when repair work was underway, the structure supporting the makara thorana had collapsed. The residents of the area hadn’t dared rebuild it, for fear of compelling the collapse of the rest of the Budu Madura. That explains the many blank, vacant spaces on the wall adjoining the statue of the gods. As for the reclining Buddha, suffice it to say that I was unable to take a single, all-encompassing photo of it no matter how far I was from it: it has been constructed so well that time hasn’t been able to erase those discernible marks of craftsmanship rare in such sculptures today.

The Indasaramaya elicits interest in other respects as well. It had been run as an “agency” of the Asgiriya Chapter, and naturally had been allowed to ordain only high caste priests. In keeping with practice though, those from low castes had been initiated as monks, but they were not allowed the privilege of the upasampadawa.

Moreover, it became the centre from which the Kotte fraternity of the Chapter operated. At the time there had been five paarshavas (or parties) in the fraternity, extending to 18 temples (there are more than 40 now). Out of all these, the Indasararamaya had taken historical precedence, which meant that it was at Aruggoda where the upasampadawa was meted out to the Asgiriya Chapter in the region.

On the other hand, it had also been witness to the rise of rebel sects. As Professor Kitsiri notes in that aforementioned book, a group of monks who aspired to organise a low country fraternity met at a temple in Kotte. Among its members was Panadure Sumangala (not to be confused with Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala) Thero, who hailed from the Indasararamaya.

The group had decided to gather about a year later at the Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya. However, when they could not because of the Chief Prelate’s disagreement with their objectives, they initiated their fraternity near the Kelani River. Among those present at this ceremony was Walane Sri Siddhartha Thero (1811-1968), who would later found the Parama Dhamma Chetiya Pirivena in Ratmalana. He too hailed from the Indasararamaya.

As mentioned before, the temple hasn’t exactly suffered neglect or squalor. Gazing around it on a Saturday morning, I was taken aback by the many Buddha statues that adorned the Budu Madura and the dagaba, donated by the Thai government in their bid to restore some of the site’s glory.

But, again as mentioned before, Aruggoda isn’t exactly in Colombo, and for this reason it seems to have evaded the notice of both the devotee and the historian. The fact that not even a quick Google search could bring its details up, one can conclude validly, speaks a lot.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, January 8 2017