Nalanda Gedige. Somewhere in the Middle of Sri Lanka

Vastly ignored and hardly appreciated, the Nalanda Gedige, once the most central point in ancient Ceylon is a remarkable archaeological site with an interesting story, some fascinating carvings and historical significance.  

According to former Commissioner of Archaeology, Prof. Senerath Paranavitana, there is inscriptional evidence that this was built during the 8th and 9th centuries as an ancient Hindu temple. The Dravidian-style (Pallava) architecture is dedicated to a Mahayana cult with Tantric learning. Subsequently, it is believed to have been used by Buddhist monks. 

During this period there was great turmoil in the island, with south Indian kings making inroads into this country with the decline of the Sinhalese monarchy. It is possible that Nalanda Gedige was a bold attempt at a fusion of Tamil and Sinhalese cultures. 

Yet there are no signs of Hindu gods except for erotic Tantric carvings, much like the famous ones at Khajuraho in India.

One such piece of sculpture that has escaped the ravages of time is a stone carving of a man and a woman striking an erotic posture leaning on a lioness.  

In the southern section is a semi-circular niche with the squat figure of Kuvera, the god of wealth, seated on a lotus plinth – an image that is only found in Sri Lanka. 

Roland Raven-Hart, writing in Ceylon: History in Stone (1964) describes this hybridisation: “Elsewhere there are plenty of Hindu buildings, and plenty of Buddhist ones, and some muddled mongrels; but here the styles are interwoven. The ground-plan is Buddhist, the vestibule pure Hindu and so is the little windowless shrine: the plain moonstone and crocodile balustrade and rivers of dwarfs and architrave of the doorway are Sinhalese, and jambs Tamilian; even the sculptures are fairly shared. The whole effect is charming and for me unexpectedly classical, nor did I find the exterior “over-richly decorated” as did Bell, though it is crowded with pilasters and horseshoe false windows and more jolly dwarfs. And the dome must have been a worthy climax when all its four faces were present, each with horseshoe niche and statue, instead of the one only which was found.” 

Then, for many centuries this region was neglected, covered by forests, swallowing this sanctum and hiding it from view. Until 1893, when the British Archaeological Commissioner at the time, H.C.P Bell discovered this edifice. In one of his journals he wrote; “land was acquired round this little-known and solitary shrine of granite construction, popularly styled gedige. It is situated on raised ground in paddy fields, picturesquely surrounded by low hills and wooded hamlets. In 1911 a small gang was detached from the labor force at Sigiriya to thoroughly root out all the jungle growth upon and around the ruin besides cutting still further back the earth silt hiding the bold stylites upon which the fane stands. Very special importance attaches to this unique temple, as it is the sole example yet discovered in Ceylon of composite styles of architecture judiciously blended to form a delightfully homogeneous edifice.” 

Bell also had plans to dismantle and relocate the entire structure to a more viable location. He felt that the temple was in a precarious location; an elevated area that might become unstable at any moment, causing Nalanda Gedige irretrievable damage. However, his plans did not materialize until many years later, when he had long since moved on from the position of Archaeological Commissioner.

In the 1980s, when the waters of the newly created Bowatenne Tank threatened to flood the shrine, researchers took the opportunity to dismantle the ruin and rebuild it on the retaining wall of the tank, high above the waters. It was reconstructed beside the tank. 

Today, it is easily accessible by car with a short walk from the carpark. The surrounding area is covered with rich foliage bordering the tank. It has a mandapa, an entrance hall, a short passage to a bare cello, and an ambulatory round the holy center.  

At the entrance to the middle sanctum above the doorway is a stone carving of the Hindu Goddess of Wealth, Lakshmi flanked by two elephants. Inside the sanctum is a broken statue of Lord Ganapathy, the Hindu God of Wisdom lying on the floor next to a standing Buddha statue. Next to it is a broken Buddha statue with the upper part missing. On the side is a stone carving of a figure considered to be a depiction of a Bodhisathva, which has the appearance of having served as a guard stone at one time of the temple’s unknown history. 

Today, it is a peaceful, serene place with absolutely no tourists. I sit on the small half wall and contemplate on bygone years; the life and times of ancient kingdoms, the thought and effort put into making these amazing pieces of art, the historical presence that we take for granted.  

Nalanda Gedige is situated one km to the east of the A9 route 20 km north of Aluvihare near Kandy. Entrance is free to visitors with a request to remove shoes before entering the sanctum. And please do not despoil this beautiful place or litter.  

2 Comments on “Nalanda Gedige. Somewhere in the Middle of Sri Lanka

  1. Excellent article. Knew nothing about the Nalanda Gedige until reading this article. Thanks for increasing our knowledge about our motherland.

    • Hi Saro. Thank you. Yes, as mentioned it is hardly heard of, yet so easily accessible en route to Dambulla or Sigiriya or even Passikuda. Make sure to stop by. And share your thoughts.

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