Monday, 11 April 2016 11:58

In the Shadow of the Mountain of A God: A Visit to the Temple of Saman

Rate this item
(1 Vote)

Adam's Peak is Sri Lanka's most famous mountain, known locally as Siripada, or the Sacred Foot, because of an indentation at the summit that Buddhists believe is the footprint of the Buddha.

Tens of thousands of devotees, tourists, and adventurers, of all ages, make the 900m climb to the mountaintop each year. The period of pilgrimage is traditionally from December to early May, ending on Vesak, the annual celebration of the Buddha's birth, enlightenment, and passing away.

Siripada has other names too. Sumanakuta and Samanalakanda are two of them. While the latter name is often connected to the mysterious migrant hordes of butterflies (samanalu, in Sinhalese) that flock, in their thousands at the end of the year to cluster in the trees around the Butterfly Mountain, both names are also derivations of Sumana Saman, a uniquely Sri Lankan Buddhist deity.

Buddhism is not a theistic religion with the worship of divine beings, and while the Buddha is widely venerated, he is not a god from whom favours or blessings may be requested. This benefactory role, therefore, has been sensibly bestowed on the pantheon of Hindu gods that have, over the centuries, found a place for themselves in the homes, temples, and lives of Sri Lanka's Buddhists. In this deva-worship, they are regularly showered with offerings and prayers for a multitude of things - from the blessing of a new home or business, to support during a student's examinations. These overworked beings, however, remain Hindu in origin, and, therefore, quite different to Sumana Saman.

Saman means the Morning Sun, and he is thought to have been a 6th century BC chieftain or provincial ruler (a Mahasumana) of the Devas, one of the four clans that made up Sivhela, the original name for Sri Lanka, from which is derived the word Sinhala. When the Buddha visited Sri Lanka for the first time in 528 BC, Saman became a disciple. Asking the Buddha for a few hairs from his head, Saman enshrined them in the Miyuguna Seya, Sri Lanka's first stupa, in what is today Mahiyanganaya. By the time of the Buddha's third visit to the island, three years later, Saman had become a sotapanna, one who has achieved the first of the four stages of enlightenment. Sumana Saman then invited the Buddha to visit Sumanakuta, or Saman's Mountain, on which he left his footprint.

The Miyuguna Seya was of relatively demure stature at the time of its creation, just three metres in height but on the Buddha's parinibbana (passing away), the Arahat Sarabhu recovered a collar bone or portion of cervical vertebrae from the funeral pyre and brought it to Sri Lanka where it was added to the hairs already enshrined in the stupa which was raised to 5.5m. Successive kings then added to the stupa until in the 2nd century BC, King Dutugemunu of Anuradhapura raised it to 37m.

Adjoining this is the Mahiyanganaya Maha Saman Devalaya, the oldest of the Saman worship sites. The main devalaya, or shrine, was built in the 1950s, but most of the shrine outside is over 2,500 years old. Pilgrims, local and foreign, visit both the viharaya and devalaya as it combines the centre of Saman worship with the first of the Solosmasthana, the 16 most sacred Buddhist sites (places hallowed by Buddha's visits and relics).

The legends disagree on the exact method in which Sumana Saman became a god, but what is clear is that on his death, he began to be worshipped as a god by the Devas of Sabaragamuwa. Eventually, this veneration spread further abroad, until Sumana Saman became one of the protecting deities of Sri Lanka and the Sinhalese people. Adam's Peak, or Siripada, is believed to be his earthly home, and the centre of his influence and protection. Saman is usually depicted in art holding a red lotus and accompanied by a white elephant.

Over the centuries, Buddhist pilgrims setting off to Siripada, often from distant parts and usually on foot, would first visit a devalaya of Saman to receive blessings on what would have been a dangerous journey through heavy jungles, braving wild animals, warring armies, and bandits. These devala in the foothills of Adam's Peak still remain popular waypoints on a pilgrim's journey today, and Saman is the deity to see on the subject of safe travels.

The biggest and most famous of these is the Saparagamu Maha Saman Devalaya in Ratnapura. It is unclear when this site first became a place of worship, but the Mahavamsa mentions monks from a Saparagama Viharaya attending the opening ceremony of the Ruwanwelisaya in Anuradhapura around 137 BC. Built in 1270AD, by Aryakamadeva, a minister of King Parakramabahu II, the shrine was destroyed in 1618, when the Portuguese conquered Ratnapura. The devalaya was rebuilt in 1661, when King Rajasinghe II recaptured Ratnapura; but not having the finances of his predecessors, the monarch settled for a much simpler design than the original shrine. Like many Saman devala, the main shrine must be accessed up a steep set of stairs that is meant to mimic the climb to Siripada.

The most accessible Saman devalaya from Colombo is the Sri Sumana Saman Devalaya in Deraniyagala, close to Avissawella. Not as architecturally interesting as the Ratnapura shrine, it is, however, a good example of the heavy influence of Hinduism on Sri Lankan Buddhist tradition. Completed in 1586 by King Rajasinghe I during the Sinhalese-Portuguese War, the devale is built on twin hills overlooking the Seetawaka River. The main Saman shrine is on the steep-sided flat-topped western hill, which can be climbed by stairways on opposite sides. Again, the replication of Siripada is unmistakable. The main Saman shrine room in the centre of the flat summit is surrounded by a circle of smaller shrines to the Buddha and several uniquely Sri Lankan Hindu deities such as the Kataragama god. The eastern hill has a multitude of shrines to the Indian Hindu gods, which are accessed via a winding set of stone steps. The Deraniyagala devalaya too saw a true revival during the reign of King Rajasinghe II, with even a perahera being held annually.

While Mahiyanganaya warrants a journey of its own due to its location east of the Central Highlands, the devala below Adam's Peak can all be visited on a daytrip from Colombo. Ratnapura is itself an ideal location to base oneself to visit the mountain and the Saman shrines, as well as interesting caves such as Batatotalena, Batadombalena, and Wahulapane.


Ratnapura Perahera


An interesting addendum to the history of this shrine is that because of the Sinhalese-Portuguese War, the Tooth Relic of the Buddha was moved for safekeeping from Kotte to the Delgamuwa Temple in Kuruwita. The annual Dalada Perahera - which carries the relic in procession for public veneration - would wind its way from the Delgamuwa Temple to the Saman Devalaya in Ratnapura. It was only when all of lowland Sri Lanka had fallen, first to the Dutch, and then the British, that the Tooth Relic was removed to its present home in the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy where the Dalada Perahera is held today. However, in memory of the Tooth Relic it once protected, a symbolic perahera continues to be held in Ratnapura each September.

Words and Photography David Blacker

See more at: http://serendib.btoptions.lk/

Images of Ceylon

Sri Lanka In Brief

sl 1

Sri Lanka in Brief

Stats

There are 28560 listings, 863 categories and 102 owners in our website