Gadaladeniya, Lankatilake and Embekke. 14th century temples. Made of rock, brick and wood.
It’s a nice Sunday morning. Too good to be spent lazing around the house. So I’m off, heading towards Kandy. I have waited too long to visit three famous temples: Gadaladeniya, Lankatilake and Embekke.
About 2.3 hours later and approximately 108 kms from Colombo, just past Pilimathalawa, is a turn off to the Gadaladeniya rock temple. The large car park is empty at this hour of the morning and apart from a few other visitors, I am left alone to wander around this quiet and serene rock temple.
Built in 1344 by the first king of Gampola, King Buwanekabahu IV, this temple was constructed according to South Indian design, and according to an inscription found here, was known as the Dharma Kirthi Viharaya, which is the name of the founding monk.
As I enter, I first come across a secondary stupa with four small shrine rooms extending in cruciform angles. Each of these shrine rooms is decorated with delicate, yet ornate paintings and statues of the Buddha.
The main shrine room, (situated about 20 feet away) built upon a rocky outcrop at the edge a monastic site has an imposing statue of Buddha seated under a ‘makara thorana’ (dragon arch), decorated with faces of the Brahma, Suyama, Santhusuta, Natha and Maithree and two attendants.
People speak in whispers in this shrine room and reverently place flowers at the foot of the statue and drop coins into the collection box. I linger longer to take my photographs and take in the beauty of this shrine. As I exit, I walk around to the back of the temple to see the huge vee atuwa (rice box) that was used to store paddy in ancient times.
About a kilometre down the road is the Lankatilake temple built on the summit of the rock Panhalgala. Like the Gadaladeniya temple, this one also belongs in the 14th century during the reign of King Buwanekabahu IV but is constructed out of brick. A panoramic view of the city below acts as a backdrop to the foreground of this lush garden with the massive Bo tree and of course, the temple.
A flight of steps cut into the rock leads to the main entrance of the temple. A massive door with stunning ancient brass locks and two elephant-lion sculptures welcomes visitors. I remove my shoes and enter the main shrine room.
An arched passage with the makara thorana on the exterior wall, leads to the pavilion and through to an inner chamber. The 24 Buddhas that preceded Gautama Buddha are exquisitely painted on the walls and ceiling. In the chamber is a colossal statue of the seated Buddha under another dragon arch. Images of deities Upulvan, Saman and Vibhisana occupy the niches on the south, west and north respectively. The deity Skanda is accommodated to the north of entrance separated by a wall.
A young monk, clothed in bright saffron robes, eyes bright with curiosity, smiles and welcomes me. He gives me a brief history on this beautiful temple but scrambles off shyly when asked to pose for a photograph!
The third temple is the world-renowned Embekke Devale, approximately six kilometers down the same road. Like Gadaladeniya and Lankatilaka, this temple dates back to the 14th century. But while Gadaladeniya is made of stone and Lankatilaka of brick, Embekke is carved out of ironwood (mesua nagassarium), the national tree of Sri Lanka.
UNESCO has identified the Embekke woodcarvings as having “the finest products of woodcarvings to be found in any part of the world.”
The vahalkada or the entrance porch of the temple has 16 wooden pillars with some of amazingly intricate woodcarvings, including the famous mother and child carving.
About ten yards away is the dig-ge (drummers’ hall). The dig-ge has 32 intricately carved wooden square-shaped pillars, 53 feet long and 26 feet wide and is decorated with no less than 128 carvings.
An old caretaker acts as my guide and explains some of the best masterpieces: the hansa puttuwa (entwined swans) double headed eagles, and entwined rope designs, soldier fighting on horseback, female dancing figures, wrestlers, women emanating from a vein, bird with human figure, combination of elephant-bull and elephant-lion. Every inch of this wooden structure is elaborately carved.
Another fine example of medieval carpentry and a remarkable feature of this dig-ge is the high-pitched roof, comprising 26 rafters, held together by a single giant wooden pin or madol kurupuwa. The ingenious example of classic carpentry resembles spokes in the wheel of a cart. The giant pin is also carved with traditional designs.
The shrine at the rear is closed to the public.
It has been a good day. My entire tour took less than four hours and I cannot be thankful enough for such fascinating history that makes this country so wonderful.