The Ceylon Traveller – Somawathiya

Originally published on The Sunday Leader on 12/02/2012 (http://www.thesundayleader.lk/2012/02/12/ceylon-traveller-somawathiya/)

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I visited Somawathiya in early 2010 during a trip to Polonnaruwa. It was a much-anticipated visit because this area was inaccessible and dangerous during the war and I had never been there before. But another reason I looked forward to it was because Somawathiya featured heavily in one of my favourite books as a child and it was a childhood dream to one day visit the area 

The Somawathiya area consists mainly of the Somawathiya Chethiya and the surrounding thick forest, which is the Somawathiya strict natural reserve and wildlife sanctuary. 

How to get there 

I travelled by a private vehicle from Polonnaruwa but for the benefit of others who may travel differently, I’m quoting an excerpt from http://www.srilankantraveler.com

“It is possible to get Somawathiya on the A6 highway from Colombo, and then you have to take A11 Highway from Habarana Junction to Minneriya to your right side. From Minneriya, you should take left turn to the Higurakgoda. The distance from Higurakgoda to Somawathiya is about 40KM and you have to turn to the Sungawila road which was a dusty gravel road during the time I visited). The drive from Colombo is approximately 6 hours by a private vehicle. Buses travel along this highway but there are no buses from Sungawila to Somawathiya.”

It should also be noted that the gravel road is difficult to travel in during the rainy season and only heavy vehicles and four-wheel vehicles manage to make it across during such times.

Somawathiya National Park 

The Somawathiya strict natural reserve and wildlife sanctuary is under the purview of the Department of Wildlife Conservation. It is 37,645.5 hectares and was established first as a wildlife sanctuary in 1966 and then as a national park in 1986. The park is one of the four national parks belonging to the Mahaweli River Development Project.

It is home to a wide variety of animals, the most commonly sighted being elephants. Somawathiya is famous for huge herds of elephants (although they have reduced in number in the past few years) and this is mainly because the area consists of villu (marshes with water tolerant and aquatic plants) which the elephants love to eat.

Other species found here include leopard, jackal, deer, sambar, water buffalo, etc.

History of the Somawathiya Chethiya 

It is believed that one Prince Giri Aba who was married to Princess Somawathi, sister of King Kavantissa, built the Somawathiya Chethiya in 2nd Century A.D. They lived in and ruled over an area called Somapura which was situated at the bed of the Mahaweli River and the Somawathiya Chethiya was built upon the request of the princess who wanted a temple to perform religious activities.

The right tooth relic of Lord Buddha is enshrined in the relic chamber of the stupa and is believed to be the one of the two remaining tooth relics in the world, the other being the one at the Dalada Maligawa.

Somawathiya Chethiya was maintained by several kings who succeeded Prince Aba but it was later abandoned during foreign invasions. It was again discovered in the 1940’s and archaeologists began excavations in 1964. They unearthed many things including stone inscriptions, moonstones, flower pedestals, etc.

In 1987 the Somawathiya area came under terrorist attack. The monks and civilians who resided in the Somawathiya Chethiya and the surrounding area fled for safety after the nearby Seruwila Raja Maha Viharaya was attacked by the LTTE resulting in fatalities. The Somawathiya Chethiya also came under attack and a massacre was carried out in a nearby village. The caretaker of the temple was also killed during this massacre.

Now

The entire area was largely abandoned for the next 15 years until the temple was renovated in 2002 during a ceasefire with the LTTE and reopened to the public. Now it is regularly visited by pilgrims and has become a fairly popular tourist attraction as well.

However, on a personal note, I was slightly disappointed when I visited it after years of waiting. It was probably partly due to high expectations set by a book that described a Somawathiya from years ago. But it was also because some of the new additions to the temple were, simply put, tacky and was not built in keeping with the simple architecture of the temple.

Interesting facts 

Mahaweli River changing course 

–       Ancient texts state that the Somawathiya Chethiya was situated on the Eastern bank of the Mahaweli River. However it is now situated close to the west bank of the river and there was speculation as to whether this was the same temple referred to in ancient texts. This was later resolved when it was discovered that as the years went by, the river had gradually changed its course. It is believed that the gravel road that leads to the temple was the original course of the river.

Eric Swan Rock

–       The Eric Swan rock is located close to the entrance to the temple. It is so named because a man called Eric Swan (supposedly a photographer!) who shot (unfortunately with a gun and not his camera) at the reclining Buddha statue carved into a rock was killed on that rock by a wild elephant who was agitated by the sound of the gunshot. I didn’t get to see the rock but heard the story from a caretaker at the temple.

Buddha rays

– It has been alleged in several occasions that beams of light (budu res or Buddha rays) radiate out of the stupa, the most recent being during the President’s visit to Somawathiya Chethiya in January, 2012, as reported in one newspaper. This phenomena was first reported in 1977 and then in 1981, 2002 and 2006. While there are eye witnesses and photographs of this, it remains an unexplained phenomena.

In conclusion, whether you’re a believer or a non-believer of such phenomena, Somawathiya is an area worth visiting if you’re a history and archeology buff or a wildlife enthusiast or both, like me. If you visit early in the morning, you can have the added bonus of watching the Sun rise over the stupa. It would be advisable to leave aside at least two hours to explore the temple and its surroundings.

Happy travels!

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