Monday, 11 April 2016 12:05

A Forgotten Deity

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An enigmatic statue on the southern coast reveals a past that has been kept out of the ancient chronicles.


The Kushtaraja-Gala statue stands isolated by the old Weligama main road. The visitor gets the feeling that time has rushed past leaving the statue forgotten. It is a statue of the Mahayana sect, long since defunct here and considered heretic. Carved in a tombstone-shaped niche in a large rock, the Kushtaraja stares on at the middle distance, impervious to those who want to prise open its ancient secrets. And indeed, folklore is the only source that throws some light on this figure's mysterious past.

To reach the statue, you have to leave the Galle-Matara road at its most scenic. Just before you turn to the old Weligama road, you will see across the shore that romantic little island known today as Taprobane and in another age as Count de Mauny's island: a secluded, exotic holiday hideout for the privileged and a tantalizing sight from the Galle Road for the others.

Today, Weligama is seen as a quaint, peaceful and drowsy little sea town. This belies the fact that in ancient times it was a highly prosperous centre of foreign trade; for all we know, it may have been the biblical Ophir. Today, only a few relics remain above ground to proclaim that erstwhile importance, and the Kushtaraja-Gala is arguably the most important among such relics.

In the statue's elaborate crown sit four miniature Buddhas meditating, indicating that this is the Mahayanist god known as the Avalokiteshvara bodhisattva. The Avalokiteshvara is regarded the healer of mankind - a detail that authenticates the old legends about the Kushtaraja-Gala.

The Sinhala name, Kushtaraja-Gala means the ‘rock of the king with a skin rash'. It is said that such a king once vowed to a god that were he cured, he would build a likeness of the deity here. This and other versions of the story throw open a window to an age, strange to us today, when Mahayanism was practised in the island alongside the older sect of Theravada.

For the traveller, the most puzzling question about Kushtaraja-Gala is its unlikely location, as it appears rather incongruous by the side of a road. To see the full picture, you have to piece together a history that has been literally fragmented.

It is said that a king with a rash once vowed to a god that were he cured, he would build a likeness of the deity here. Other versions of the same story have also attached themselves to this old rock

The name Agrabodhi Raja Maha Viharaya may ring no bells for anyone today, but in the third century BC, this temple was important enough to receive the very first of the 32 saplings of the Sri Maha Bodhi tree. Kushtaraja-Gala is said to have been part of this vihara at the time, though some other traditions would also have it that it was part of an old Avalokiteshvara-Natha temple that used to stand on this spot.

When the statue was completed is not known, beyond the vague estimate of between the 6th and 9th century AD.

This lack of any detailed history may be due to the statue's Mahayana origins. The competition between Mahayana and Theravada became a veritable war at one point in Sri Lanka's history. In the end, the original sect of Theravada prevailed. With time, memories of Mahayanism were blown away so completely that most Sri Lankans today consider Mahayanism an exclusively foreign sect, associated with such countries as Tibet or China.

However, it seems Mahayanism had permeated the fabric of Sri Lankan culture too deeply for its memory to be completely effaced: villagers still come to the Kushtaraja-Gala to pray and request relief from diseases. Whether they regard the statue as a Mahayanist bodhisattva or some other god of their own, an atavistic memory of a healing deity clearly lingers in their minds.

Words Yomal Senerath-Yapa Photographs Mahesh Bandara & Vishwathan Tharmakulasingam

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