Sasseruwa: Place of the original statue of the Avukana Buddha
The difference between the Buddha statues in Sasseruwa and Avukana are:
- The Avukana Buddha statue is slightly taller than the original in Sasseruwa.
- The Sasseruwa statue has no headdress. The Avukana statue has a headdress known as the Siraspathaya. This feature was introduced recently.
- The right hand mudra of the Sasseruwa image is different from the Avukana statue.
- It is said that adding a headdress to the Avukana Buddha statue was the fulfillment of a wish made by some workers who built the railway line through Avukana.
Kurunegala, the capital of the North West province, has a historical name Hasthishaliyapura (city of elephant rock). It was the capital of Sri Lanka and is full of legends, romance and history. Straddling the province are vast complexes of ancient rock cave temples, forest hermitages and natural reservoirs that date back to the medieval kingdom of Anuradhapura.
Most impressive is the Buddha statue at Resvehera or Sasseruwa where the first colossus stands majestically amid the dense jungle in a deep corner of Wannihatpattuwa bordering Anuradhapura district. Coming from Kalawewa and taking Avukana Road, we reached Sasseruwa Temple after about 30 minutes drive.
We continued along the part-tarmac, part-gravel road to the temple, which was bordered on either side by lush green jungle, shrubs and rice fields and dotted here and there with small houses. Passing a pathway lined with shady trees and a reservoir full of pink lotus flowers, where village children pick flowers to sell to visitors, we entered the temple premises.
Elephant infested area
I felt lucky to visit the little-known historic cave temple of Sasseruwa, also known as Resvehera Rajamaha Viharaya in Kuda Kathnoruwa. The temple is in an elephant-infested area called Meegalawa, on the edge of the Mahaweli System-H, overlooking the Kalawewa Reservoir. What drew me here was my lifelong love for archaeological sites and sacred places that are so important to the history of Sri Lanka. Places like these have been central to much of my work as a photographer. This cave temple is of immense archaeological importance given its historical value.
Rising to prominence after the Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Yapahuwa periods, the Sasseruwa Cave Temple has a history that spans 2100 years, dating back to the period of King Walagamba. The king was the architect of the temple. The extent of the zones is 1,468 acres. It is famous for the Dethispala Ruha Bodhi planted by King Devanampiyatissa in 247 BC.
Legend has it that Budu Res (rays of light) emanated from the Buddha statue when the Bo tree was planted. The site’s century-old Bo tree spreads its branches and stands majestically in front of the shrine’s grotto. A 10-foot-high stone wall is erected around the Bo tree. This is a rare feature in Sri Lankan temples.
Sasseruwa is important in many ways. One is the main shrine cave containing an image of the reclining Buddha statue where the original robe, which covered it, is still visible in some places. It is the only Buddha statue in a cave temple that a pilgrim could walk around in reverence.
The other unique is a 42′ 4” tall colossus that sits majestically atop a rock amidst a canopy of forest. It was carved into a rocky outcrop, resembling Avukana’s most famous statue.
History reveals that the benevolent chariot builder King Dhatusena, who built the mighty tank called Kalawewa, wanted the Supreme Being to neglect his worldly endeavors. He wanted to build the Buddha image as big as his work, on the bank of Kalawewa.
Then the Avukana Buddha statue was commissioned to be built. Sasseruwa was the first place chosen to build the colossus Avukana Buddha. As the work progressed, the monarch had doubts about the solidity of the rock. He therefore abandoned the site and chose another at Avukana, near Kalawewa. However, the sculptor continued his work and created a masterpiece of a Buddha image in Sasseruwa. He carved the most beautiful image in the rock. He sent his pupil to do the monarch’s bidding. The Avukana Buddha statue in Kalawewa is slightly taller than the original in Sasseruwa.
During my stay of a few hours in Sasseruwa, I began to realize the wonderful craftsmanship of our ancient sculptors and to see their creations in stone. There are also about 99 rock caves scattered around the rocky mountain of Sasseruwa which once housed Arahat Bhikkhus, according to the chronicles. Today, most of these caves are home to wild animals.
Considering the ancient value of Sasseruwa Temple, its wall paintings in the cave sanctuary seem to belong to the Kandyan period. A flight of rock-cut steps leads to the Poya Geya where a Makara Thorana adorns its entrance.
The furnishings of the temple have immense antique value. I also found a heavy wooden bed, ancient and still intact, made of Ma Vevel which was supposedly donated to the temple by a carpenter. It was placed in the corner of the sanctuary room in the cave.
On one side of the temple is a small rock enclosure called Pattini Devale. Here a replica of the symbol of the goddess and an anklet can be seen. The door of the Devale is closed on the day of the anointing with oil.
The villagers stop all activities in their homes after giving wishes to the Devale and cooking rice pudding after cleaning the floor of the Devale with fresh cow dung. There is also a belief among the villagers that a cobra had guarded the temple. Villagers say an abandoned 14ft outer snake skin was found in the rock cave sanctuary in 1980.
The archaeological department had undertaken construction work on the roof of the halls of the sanctuary and had also renovated some faded wall paintings in the cave. The temple’s old preaching hall is also badly damaged by rainwater dripping from the roof.
The current development work on the temple was initiated as a result of the Mahaweli Accelerated Development Program, which began in the early 1980s. Since Sasseruwa Temple belongs to the Mahaweli System-H, the entire area has developed and the temple has become a religious site for pilgrims visiting the most famous statue of Avukana, just 12 kilometers from Sasseruwa.
A notable activity in this religious site is the Daham Pasala (Sunday School) which is attended by around 50 village children. Enthusiastic villagers participate in temple activities and offer their wholehearted support to make every effort a success.