Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya

Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya (Sinhala: කැළණිය රජ මහා විහාරය) is a Buddhist temple situated in Kelaniya in Gampaha District, Sri Lanka. Local devotees consider this place one of the most sacred 16 Buddhist sites (Solosmasthana) in the country.

Ancient Kelaniya
The name Kelaniya (or Kalyani) is found in ancient chronicles such as Mahawamsa as one of the abodes of Nagas who, according to chronicles, is a class of super-humans taking the form of serpents living in a subterranean world (Paranavitana, 1961). The name is also found in a pre-Christian inscription in Mandagala in Hambantota District and in a 5th-century Inscription at Diyagama near Kalutara (Nicholas, 1963).

According to chronicles, the Buddha in the eighth year after his enlightenment visited Kelaniya in Sri Lanka with his followers on the full moon day of Vesak and this visit was done upon the invitation by the Naga King Maniakkhika. It is said that the king built a Stupa here by enshrining the gem-studded throne on which the Buddha was seated while preaching Dhamma to the king and his followers. The Stupa in the present Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya is believed to be the monument that holds this sacred gem-studded throne.

Foundation of Kelaniya Viharaya
However, the exact history of the foundation of Kelaniya Viharaya is obscure (Nicholas, 1963). Local Pali chronicles are silent about the foundation of Kelaniya Viharaya but Sinhalese chronicles say that Yatalatissa (reigned in the 2nd century B.C.) constructed Kelani Viharaya and a palace and reigned there (Nicholas, 1963). However, the details revealed by the Pali chronicle Mahawamsa that Yatalatissa ruled in Rohana and not at Kelaniya are confirmed epigraphically (Nicholas, 1963). The Pujavaliya (a Sinhalese classic written in the 13th century) mentions that Kavantissa of Ruhuna (205-161 B.C.) was the builder of the Stupa of Kelaniya Viharaya (Nicholas, 1963).

Royal patronage
Kelani Viharaya is said to have existed during the reign of King Dutugemunu [(161-137 B.C.) Nicholas, 1963]. According to historical sources, King Kanittha Tissa (167-186 A.D.) built an Uposatha-House in Kelani Viharaya and King Voharika Tissa (209-231 A.D.) erected a parasol on the Stupa of the temple (Nicholas, 1963). After the 3rd century A.D., there are no references in chronicles or epigraphs to the Kelaniya Viharaya until the 12th century A.D.

The inscriptions by King Nissankamalla (1187-1196 A.D.) record that the king had visited Kelani Viharaya and effected repairs there (Nicholas, 1963). The Kelaniya Stupa which had been destroyed later by Tamils (Magha of Kalinga) was restored by King Vijayabahu III (1232-1236 A.D.) with further repairs on other buildings (Nicholas, 1963). King Parakramabahu II (1236-1270 A.D.) also effected major restorations at Kelaniya Viharaya (Nicholas, 1963).

According to the Kelani Vihara slab inscription established in 1509 A.D., the temple which had been in a dilapidated state for a time was repaired by King Vira Parakramabahu VIII [(1490-1509 A.D.) Rohanadeera, 2007]. However, in the 16th century, the Kelani Viharaya was destroyed by the Portuguese who arrived in Sri Lanka in 1505 A.D (Sarma, 2007). In the 18th century, under the patronage of King Kirti Sri Rajasingha (1747-1782 A.D.), the temple was repaired and improved (Ranawella, 2015).

Reformation of Burmese Buddhism and Kalyani inscriptions
During the reign of King Buvanekabahu VI (1470-1478 A.D.), the ruler of Burma (present Myanmar) King Dhammazedi (1471-1492 A.D.) sought the assistance of the Sinhala kings to re-institute the Theravada ordination in his country. In 1476, a group of Burma monks and their disciples were sent to Sri Lanka, where they were re-ordained at the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara (Ko, 1892). When they returned to Burma King Dhammazedi was very pleased and he built a chapter house and named it Kalyani-sima (Kalyani ordination hall) and recorded the history of this mission on slabs of stone. These slabs are preserved to this day and are popularly known as Kalyani inscriptions (Ko, 1892).

A few slab and pillar inscriptions have been unearthed from the temple premises. Besides these inscriptions, a copper plate charter issued by King Kirti Sri Rajasingha in Saka year 1701 (1780 A.D.) was also in the possession of the Kelaniya temple (Ranawella, 2015).

Kelaniya Vihara slab inscription of Vira Parakramabahu VIIIKelaniya Vihara slab inscription of Vira Parakramabahu VIII
Period: 16th century A.D.
Reign: Vira Parakramabahu VIII (1490-1509 A.D.)
Script: Sinhala
Language: Sinhala
Content: This inscription is dated to 2051 B.E. (1509 A.D.), the 19th regnal year of King Vira Parakramabahu VIII. It records that the king involved in repairs and restoration works in Kelani Raja Maha Viharaya which was in a dilapidated state for a time. According to the inscription, the Stupa, the 5-storeyed Pasada (Pas-mahal Paya), and other structures such as the Trivanka-geya, Thel-katara-geya, Samadi Pilima-geya, Na Pilima-geya, Sala-pilima-geya, Sivuru-dageya, and toilets of Kelaniya Viharaya had been repaired under the patronage of the king. A stone parapet and a flight of steps with a Sandakada Pahana (a moonstone) had also been added to the temple newly.
References: Rohanadeera, 1996; Rohanadeera, 2007.

Kelaniya Vihara slab inscription of Mapitigama BuddharakkhitaKelaniya Vihara slab inscription of Mapitigama Buddharakkhita
Period: 18th century A.D.
Reign: Kirti Sri Rajasingha (1747-1782 A.D.)
Script: Modern Sinhala
Language: Modern Sinhala
Content: This inscription is dated in 2322 B.E. (1779 A.D.). It records the work of repairs and donation of lands to the Kalyani Chaitya by Mapitigama Buddharakkhita Thera, incumbent of the temple as the successor of his teacher Attadassi Thera. It further says that the temples of Kitsirimewan Kelaniya and Doranagoda Vihara (probably Doranagoda Sumathindarama Viharaya) which had been in ruins for a time were also repaired and improved. According to the inscription, the support of the Kandyan King (Kirti Sri Rajasingha) had been obtained for this benevolent deed.
Reference: Ranawella, 2015.

The temple
Located near the bank of the Kelani Ganga River, the temple has been built on a raised terrace that can be accessed via four flights of steps set in four directions. The main entrance to the temple premises has been given a majestic appearance by the construction of two large decorated pandols. A large Stupa, a Bodhi tree, an image house, and several other sacred edifices are found within the temple premises.

The temple was refurbished during the first half of the 20th century, under the patronage of philanthropist Helena Wijeywardena.

The image house
The image house of Kelaniya Viharaya mainly has two parts, viz: the old shrine and the new shrine. Both shrines are presently in one building but under two roofs. The image house is roughly 150 ft long and 90 ft wide and stands on a stone plinth 3 feet in height. Its outer walls are adorned with ornamental friezes and Vimanas (the mansions of gods).

Kandyan era paintings
The image house can be entered through a flight of stone steps leading to the verandah and then to the middle chamber or the vestibule. The walls of the middle chamber contain paintings and sculptures belonging to the Kandyan tradition. Jataka stories (stories that tell about the previous 550 lives of the Buddha), life incidents of the Buddha, the Sath-sathiya (the first week after the enlightenment), Solosmasthana (the 16 sacred shrines in Sri Lanka), and other Buddhist murals and sculptures are found drawn in horizontal strip of panels. Besides the walls, the wooden ceiling of this section contains paintings such as the planetary gods and the twelve zodiac signs.

To the right of the middle chamber is the inner chamber or the sanctum of the old shrine. It contains a large reclining statue of Buddha and two seated Buddha statues. The statues are gold painted and the walls of this section are decorated with the figures of deities (Natha, Saman, etc.), and other Buddhist themes such as Suvisivivarana (24 assurances predicting Buddha-hood). The middle chamber and the inner chamber are considered the oldest part of the Kelaniya image house and both sections contain murals belonging to the Kandyan tradition.

The new shrine can be entered directly by walking forward through the middle chamber. It houses a gold statue of Buddha in the meditation posture. Large-scale paintings depicting the birth of the Sinhala nation ("The Buddha entrusting the protection of Buddhism in Sri Lanka to God Sakra, Landing of Vijaya") and other important events of the history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka such as "King Devanampiyatissa presenting the Mahamegha Park to Arhat Mahinda by marking boundaries, Transcription of the Tripitaka into books at Alu Viharaya, Buddhagosa's presentation of the Visuddhimagga to the Sangharaja of Maha Vihara, King Kirthi Sri conferring the title of Sangharaja to Weliwita Saranankara Maha Thera by presenting him the ivory fan as the emblem of office, and the bringing of the Bodhi-tree by Theri Sangamitta, and the Tooth Relic of the Buddha by Prince Danta and Princess Hemamala" are found in this section.

To the left of this section is the outer chamber of the new shrine. It contains murals depicting the important events in the life of the Buddha as well as the history of Kelani Viharaya. The paintings include "Buddha's three visits to Sri Lanka (to Mahiyangana, Nagadeepa, and Kelaniya), The murder of the Maha Thera of Kelaniya-the consequent floods and the sacrifice of Princess Devi during the reign of Kelanitissa, Theravada tradition of ordination on the Burmese monks, and the destruction of Kelani Vihara by Magha in early 13th century and by Portuguese in late 16th century" etc.

The new shrine is widely famous for its attractive modern painting drawn by the native artist Solias Mendis [(1897-1975) Dharmasiri, 1990]. His paintings are considered to be one of the most important 20th-century contributions to the Sri Lankan tradition of Buddhist mural paintings that expands for more than 2000 years (Dharmasiri, 1990).

Kelani Vihara paintings Kelaniya paintings
The Stupa of Kelani Viharaya has been built in accordance to the Dhanyakara shape (the shape of a heaped pile of grains).

Duruthu Perahera
The temple is popular for its annual Perahera pageant (a procession) held in January. It was inaugurated in 1927, by Don Walter Wijewardene to commemorate the Buddha's first visit to Sri Lanka in the month of Duruthu (January) and to mark the commencement of the restoration work at Kelaniya in 1927.

A protected site
The ancient image house, Dagoba, the rectangular two-story building known as Simamalakaya, the ancient preaching hall, ancient Vibhishana Devalaya, and inscriptions situated in Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara premises in the Grama Niladari Division bearing No. 264 in Kelaniya Divisional Secretariat Division are archaeological protected monuments, declared by a government gazette notification published on 23 February 2007.

Kelaniya .
1) Dharmasiri, A., 1990. Painting, Modern period (1815-1950). Nandadeva W. (Editor in chief), Archaeological Department Centenary (1890-1990): Commemorative series (Vol. V). Painting. Department of Archaeology (Sri Lanka). pp.132.133.
2) Ko, T.S., 1892. The Kalyānī inscriptions erected by King Dhammacetī at Pegu in 1476 AD: Text and translation. Superintendent, government printing, Burma. pp."Contents" page, i-vi.
3) Nicholas, C. W., 1963. Historical topography of ancient and medieval Ceylon. Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, New Series (Vol VI). Special Number: Colombo. Royal Asiatic Society (Ceylon Branch). pp.119-120.
4)  Paranavitana, S., 1961. The Arya Kingdom in North Ceylon. Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, New Series, Vol VII, Part: II. Colombo. p.181.
5) Ranawella, S., 2015. Archaeological Survey of Ceylon: Inscriptions of Ceylon: Vol. IX. Department of Archaeology. ISBN: 978-955-9159-98-8. pp.58-62.
6) Rohanadeera, M., 1996. Dharma Parakramabahu IX-The Fake King of Ceylon Inflated by Portuguese Historians-A Historiographical Perspective. Vidyodaya J. Soc. Sc., Vol. 7. 1 & 2. pp.13-45.
7) Rohanadeera, M., 2007. Archaeological Survey of Ceylon: Inscriptions of Ceylon: Vol. VIII. Department of Archaeology. ISBN: 978-955-91-59-64-3. pp.91-97.
8) Sarma, B.S., 2007. History of Munneswaram Temple. Sri Sankar Publications. p.21.
9) The Gazette of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. No: 1486. 23 February 2007. p.122.

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This page was last updated on 2 July 2022

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