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Kudumbigala : an aranya senansanaya in the pre-Christian era

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(by Wimalasena Ihalagama, Pics: Nayanaka Ranwella ,Translated by Malinda Seneviratne/ Island)

Panam Pattuwa is one of the most neglected areas of the Eastern Province. Kudumbigala, which is located in the Panam Pattuwa, is a hundred times worse.

There is a thick jungle covering thousands of acres. No road worth its name runs through it. And in the middle, rising above the tree line is a rock. This is Kudumbigala.

Resident in this vast area, almost totally devoid of human beings, are trees that would be unfamiliar to many. The trees and vines and the natural canopy their intertwining has produced, blots out the sky once you enter the jungle. There is a certain enchantment and coolness that accompanies anyone creeping through the thick foliage towards Kudumbigala. This is perhaps one reason why yogis of a bygone age chose this place to reflect on the eternal verities. Many of these blessed beings whose journey through sansara had seen them enter the irreversible process of liberation that comes with the securing of marga pala, we are told, reached the final stage of realisation in the monastic complex called Kudumbigala, made up of over 200 rock caves.

The inscriptions in brahmi script and other evidence in the recently discovered cave, Maha Sudharshana Lena, shows that Kudumbigala was established as an aranya senansanaya in the pre-Christian era. A stone inscription has it that the Maha Sudharshana Lena was built and gifted to the Arahats by Nandimitra Yodaya, one of King Dutugemunuís "Dasa Maha Yodayas".

kudum2.jpg (14548 bytes)But today, there is no human habitation around this historic aranyaya. Kudumbigala stands, towering in silent splendour, a solitary landmark and witness to the untold stories that get written into landscapes, buried, unearthed and erased yet once again as is the order of the earthís natural processes.

Kudumbigala lies eleven miles from Panama. Seventeen miles away is Kumana Village. Just eleven miles from Pottuvil, it is a sacred place pregnant with history.

It had first been established as a refuge for the meditative bikkhu during the time of Devanampiyatissa. In recent times, with the help of an upasaka named Maithree who had made Kudumbigala his home, Rev. Thambugala Anandasiri Thero initiated its rehabilitation. Maithree Upasaka, apparently, had been a Catholic hailing from Negombo who later embraced Buddhism.

When Maithree Upasaka arrived in Kudumbigala it had been a dangerous place ruled by the elephant, leopard and bear. And yet, none of these fearsome beasts had troubled either Maithree Upasaka or Anandasiri Thero.

Maithree Upasaka is said to have claimed that Kudumbigala, which was home to Arahats, was a place which had strange powers. Once a group of treasure hunters had come to Kudumbigala disguised as pilgrims. They had been planning to plunder the nidahan that was supposed to be buried there. They had started digging the dagaba late in the evening, just as night descended upon the rock, when a cobra as thick as an arecanut tree had slithered towards them. The group had got excited and so had the cobra. The snake had raised its hood, said to have been as large as a winnowing fan. The men had fled immediately, leaving their tools of destruction behind. They had come back the following morning, begged forgiveness from Maithree Upasaka and vowed never to engage in such sinful projects thereafter.

It was in 1994 that darkness once again enveloped Kudumbigala. This was a gloom that was unlike anything that time, abandonment and the encroaching jungle can produce. Terrorists belonging to the LTTE had hacked to death 17 innocent civilians in Panama. Kudumbigala was abandoned. No one came to Kudumbigala. The yogavachara bikkhus were left behind, to be all alone in the jungle. They moved to the Tharulengala aranya senansanaya. The only visitor to Kudumbigala was Rev. Sivuralumulle Dhammasiri Thero, who made it a point to go there every now and again.

It was on account of Seva Lankaís efforts that we got to hear of Kudumbigala again. Once again those ancient, sacred and secret ways saw saffron robes colouring the landscape. Not only did yogavachara bikkhus take up residence in Kudumbigala, but there were enough upasakas and upasikas to offer them alms.

Today the murderous LTTE has professed to observe ata sil. Given their track record and the troublesome evidence filtering in from the North and East about their various activities which can hardly be classified under the term "peaceful", no one can say when they will revert back to their sinful ways. Therein lies the future or otherwise of Kudumbigala.

The skeletal remains of Maithree Upasaka had recently been found upon Kudumbigala. After "peace" dawned, these remains have disappeared.

In ancient times, it is believed, Kudumbigala had been peopled by a tribe of stunted people. Folklore describes them as "Nittawo". Said to have been no more than four feet tall, they are now extinct. The legends from Panama have it that this fate befell them because they had carried torches fired by swine-oil on a pilgrimage to Kataragama. Consequently they had attracted the wrath of the gods.

"Peace" has not had only positive effects. Racketeers have been quick to catch the scent of riches obtainable by razing the jungle for timber. Wild animals are being hunted without mercy. We saw at one point a veritable mountain of deer remains. It was also apparent that in some places deer and elk had been killed, roasted and feasted upon on the spot. Today, it would be a rare sight indeed to spot a hare or a porcupine. The day when treasure hunters start digging Kudumbigala cannot be far away.

From the top of Kudumbigala, about 10-12 miles away, can be seen another ancient site, Okanda Devale. It is said that this devale was built on the spot where an arrow used in the legendary sura-asura war had fallen. There is also a story that the god Skanda and his consort Valli Amma had arrived in a golden vessel and had frolicked on this spot. The Sinhala term for experiencing happiness, "okanda veema", had given the place its name.

From ancient times pilgrims travelling from Jaffna to Kataragama had stopped at this place. This ancient practice has not stopped.

Kudumbigala is once again a place where the devoted and the meditative can visit, tarry awhile and look back in peace. Time will see the jungle encroach and leave, very much like the sea. Sacred places do not lose their aura. They survive great upheaval. They survive because of human beings and their relentless search for perfection. They survive in spite of this too. This is the story of Kudumbigala. And other such places.

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