Tantirimale - as old as Buddhist Lanka
by PADMA EDIRISINGHE
Clusters of granite monoliths sprawling languorously on rocky beds....Statues and statuettes, some half done .... Bodhigaras...shrine rooms hoary with age whose vaulted interiors are dark as midnight.... These compose a massive Buddhist shrine sited in Maha Villachchi Korale of Anuradhapura district.
Clockwise - The Bodhi traces its antecedents to the Sri Maha Bodhi;Ancient Buddha Statue; Reclining Buddha; and the Chaitya
Its chief incumbent, Ven. Tantirimale Chandaratne Thera would tell you rather boastfully that the vast panoramic site spans an area of almost 150 acres. But the Venerable does not standstill. As he talks he keeps on moving about almost restlessly, pointing at something here and there and arranging and disarranging his dark orange robes. Frankly the placid and serene demeanour one expects from a disciple of the Buddha is not manifest in him. For he is not living in the 6th or 5th century BC at the base of the Himalaya range, but he is living in the post-ethnic strife period of Lanka at the dawn of the 21st century. He has seen much and suffered much. There is so much left to do to resuscitate the age old shrine and his restlessness signifies that he himself is in a quandary where to begin it all and how to accomplish it all.
The monk has seen only the civil strife of the 20th Century staged in the island but the gigantic shrine he rules over has seen much more. It had been one of the main victims of the Magha invasion that led to its almost total destruction. Its golden period was the 7th to 8th Century, but came the demon Magha from South India on his way from Mantota towards A'pura and the sculptors and artists putting the final touches to many works of art simply fled.
Actually it is no exaggeration to state that Tantirimale now neglected and forlorn, is as old as Buddhist Lanka. In fact, it was one of the first colonies that the Aryan group that came over in 6th century BC established. The chief Incumbent likes to identify it with Upatissagama. Of course it could be in the vicinity of Upatissagama. It was a main junction on the road from Mantota to A'pura and soon zoomed into a commercial venue. Naturally it became thickly populated though today you can drive miles around the area without sighting a single human being. The area is starkly depopulated.
But even after the conversion of the king and the capital's people to Buddhism, Tantirimale had remained Brahminic. The main figure in the area had been Nivattaka Brahmana who however had made a visit to Tantiri the capital during Devanampiyatissa's time that resulted in his embracing Buddhism. He returned with a bo sapling of the Sri Mahabodhi, that is Tantirimale's most sanctified object of veneration today. Soon the sheen of yellow robes began to spread all over the area.
Tantirimale does not exude only a religious aura. There is something inexplicably mysterious about it. It is as if you are visiting a cavern of a phase of long bypassed time, as it lies there swathed in some inexplicable primeval aura.
As you stand on the rocky bed and feast your eyes on the gorgeous panorama all around, it is as if the two and a half millennia of time lapsed since the 6th century BC just disappears and leaves you right inside that time cavern, to ponder on the marvels of the world.
Meanwhile, the chief monk walks about talking of many a plan to develop not only the shrine but the undeveloped community denizening the area around. The prosperous have fled the area minus the comfortable amenities of living. It is only the helpless who opt to make the area their permanent residence.
Banks, NGOs, and the thera has tapped them all. Some of his envisaged plans are almost Quixotic as the project to divert the medicinal plants on distant Ritigala mountain to the Ayurvedic venues mushrooming in foreign sponsored hotels and guest houses in the Yapahuwa-Sigiriya area. It is an economically viable project, he said.
Strength oozes from him, the strength drown from defending himself and Tantirimale inhabitants from many an adversary during the border skirmishes.
So one has to forgive him even if his imagination runs loose on these projects. But he needs genuine help, help of many a person placed in more fortunate circumstances Tantirimale, his domain, running down through millennia of our history, basking there in the golden rays of the setting sun, under the shadow of many a statue of the Thathagatha too beckons that help
Daya Dissanayake's Photos - Tantirimale