WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka

Seruwila – the temple of reconciliation

by Walter Rupesinghe

Some 30 kilometres south of Trincomalee on the coastal road from Trincomalee to Batticaloa, is an ancient temple which is one of the sixteen holiest Buddhist shrines in Sri Lanka. Seruwila Raja Maha Vihare is also accessible from Kantalai on the 45 kilometre long road froma Kantalai to Allai.

According to the late Dr. R. L. Brohier tradition harks back to a period where the principal factor in the Seruwila region was a vast swamp or villu where the flood waters of the Mahaweli Ganga collected. He added that one could imagine in the circumstances that this villu was the home of large flocks of teal (seru). That perhaps was how the place came to be known as Seruwila ( Seeing Ceylon by R. L. Brohier).

The origins of the shrine

During the reign of Kavan Tissa (2nd century B.C.) there was a real possibility that the Tamil invaders from the north would eventually march into the kingdom of Ruhuna in order to subjugate it. The king had to evolve a strategy to prevent a disaster or this nature. He was very well aware that there was a buffer state of Seru on the north eastern seaboard of Sri Lanka which was ruled by a prince by the name of Siva. He had to win Prince Siva over to his side at all costs.

However he had a big problem. Kavan Tissa’s brother in law, Prince Abhaya had fallen out with Dutugemunu (the king’s elder son) owing to a dispute as to which of their families was superior. In order to avoid a military confrontation, as was the custom in those days in settling a dispute of this nature, Abhya left Ruhuna with his wife Somadevi and went to his friend Prince Siva of Seru. Having listened to Abhaya’s story, Prince Siva built a city and called it Soma (after Somadevi) and welcomed them to settle there. As the friendship of these two princes grew their hostility to wards Kavan Tissa increased. In these circumstances Kavan Tissa had a gnawing fear of the Tamil invaders who could exploit this estrangement to obtain the support of the two princes to march into Ruhuna. He had to act quickly and decisively. He had to choose between the force and negotiation to win over Princes Siva and Abhaya. If he used the force, Siva and Abhaya could very well enlist the support of the Tamils who were hell bent on marching into Ruhuna. He therefore decided to adopt a two pronged strategy — a veiled show of force and more importantly peaceful negotiation. He knew that he could make use of the loyalty and respect the Sinhala nobles and the populace had for Buddhism to win over Princes Siva and Abhaya. The Word was spread by religious teachers that a Sacred Relic of the Buddha which was in the possession of Kavan Tissa was destined to be enshrined by him personally in a stupa to be built at Seru and that Lord Buddha had prophesied this would happen. According to the University history of Ceylon "Significantly the prophecy of the Buddha is said to have been brought to the notice of Kavan Tissa by a great Thera who was a nephew of Vihara Devi (wife of Kavan Tissa) and also of Prince Abhaya the ally of Siva of Seru. No doubt, the story must have been propagated by the preachers in the domains of Siva and Abhaya". Once the groundwork had been laid, Kavan Tissa had marched with his army towards Seru proclaiming the purpose of his visit asking all the landowners in and around Seru to come to his assistance. The Thera who had propagated the story about the Relic of the Buddha had also accompanied him.

The building of the Dagaba

The narrative from the University history of Ceylon which is based on the account given in the Dhatuwansa —

"The kinglets of Seru and Soma must have found themselves in the horns of a dilemma. If they received Kavan Tissa in a friendly manner it would have amounted to acknowledging him as their suzerain. If they did not do so they would have alienated the sympathies of their own subjects, for the declared purpose of Kavan Tissa’s visit was one which the people as a whole would have approved. Besides Kavan Tissa was accompanied by a powerful force and the spiritual mentor who had accompanied him on this expedition was the one who commanded the respect of the local rulers as the prince of Mahagama. The outcome was, the kinglets of Seru and Soma and their retainers received Kavan Tissa with honour due to an overlord and assisted him in the building of the shrine. Thus Kaven Tissa achieved well described as a Dhamma-Vijaya which ultimately was of benefit to all parties concerned".

The Sacred Relic which was a frontal bone of the Buddha was enshrined in the stupa.

Having extended his authority to the Seru district Kavan Tissa had caused the marsh in the vicinity of the stupa to be drained and converted into a lake. Having done this, he had dedicated the lands around the shrine to a distance of eleven miles for cultivation so the harvests could be used for the maintenance of the sacred shrine and the 500 monks who were the residents there.

Reconciliation had brought in its rewards. The stratagem adopted by Kavan Tissa helped him to unify the entire portion of the country to the south of the Mahaweli and Kelani rivers and establish his capital at Mahagama. Meanwhile, the fame of the Seruwila shrine had spread far and wide and it became a great place of worship and pilgrimage.

Over the years, the dagaba fell into decay under the pressure of the Tamil invasions from the north. It was only at the beginning of the last century that the dagaba was restored to its pristine glory by the Archeological Department. The remains of ancient structures still survive around the dagaba. There are also ancient caves in the area. Two Buddha figures seated under the hood of the Naga king Mucalinda are also found here.

In the vicinity of the dagaba is an ancient inscription which goes back to the second century. It states -

"Bata Gutaha Lene Caduke" which when translated means - "The cave of Lord Gutta is dedicated to the Sangha of the four quarters."

In view of the importance of this sacred shrine and to attract more pilgrims to the area, the Department of Town and Country Planning has drawn up a plan for the development of a new town complete with pilgrim rests, market areas etc. Because of the problems of the past nineteen years no progress has been made and now is the time to implement the plan.

Meaningful and urgent measures are necessary to upgrade this holy shrine and its environs so that pilgrims would not be inconvenienced after a long journey. It is vital that we should keep Seruwila in that far off corner in north east Sri Lanka in the minds and hearts of our people especially those of the younger generation.

WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka