September 2018


The Serenity of Colonial Shailabimbaramaya Viharaya
September 2018




The colourful and ancient seema malayakaya can only be accessed by a boat

Calm and serene, Shailabimbaramaya in Dodanduwa has stood as a place of spirituality while one century gave way to the next since 1802, when it was first built. A sense of peace greeted us as we took our first steps into the temple grounds.


Words: Gayathri Kothalawala
Photography: Menaka Aravinda


In Dodanduwa, a statue of Ven Sri Piyarathana thero indicates the turn to the Shailabimbaramaya Viharaya. A railway track cuts across the short road that takes you up to the temple. Just as we entered the road, the gate was lowered; a train was coming. While we waited, the words ‘The First Buddhist School in Sri Lanka' painted in bold black letters against a low wall of a building so close to the railway tracks came into our view. Had a train stopped there, a passenger may reach out and touch the wall. With no train in sight, the gate was raised and we made the drive to the temple.


Painted in soothing white, the place of worship has stood in good stead through the decades. The care and maintenance that had contributed to this was evident; even as we visited, we could see that restoration was in progress.


The Bana Maduwa (sermon hall) stood in front of us immediately upon our entrance, while two flights of stairs to the left took the visitors to the Budhu Gey (Image House) and the Bo Tree respectively.


Summoned by the quiet solemnity of the Budhu Gey, we climbed the stone steps to reach the sanctity of this hallowed building. The gleaming white bell tower in front, captured our attention at first. As such, we were more surprised when we caught our first glimpse of the façade of the Budhu Gey.

Summoned by the quiet solemnity of the Budhu Gey, we climbed the stone steps to reach the sanctity of this hallowed building.


Heavily influenced by the Dutch architectural styles, the front verandah that wrapped around the Image House had three large arches; an entrance way into the complex with a window on either side. Three doors give access to the inner chamber of the Image House. What captured our attention was an exquisitely detailed thorana with the lion and the unicorn flanking the crown of England, resting above the arches.


This was a strategy adapted by maritime temples; in order to avoid detection by the Colonial rulers of Ceylon, temples mimicked European architectural patterns and usually featured the crown of England. As a result, the structures appeared as churches from a distance.


Inside the Image House, there is a statue of the Buddha, brought down from Kaveripattinam, Tamil Nadu in 1836. The arrival of this statue, which emanates benediction, heralded a new era for the temple, as it brought development with it. The outer and inner walls of the inner chamber of the Image House were covered in paintings. The delicate paintings had largely faded with time and yet, what remains are proof that a wealth of attention had gone into the paintings. Archaeologists estimate that two artists have plied their trade inside the Image House, as there are two distinct styles of drawing.

Temples mimicked European architectural patterns and usually featured the crown of England. As a result, the structures appeared as churches from a distance.


As we were peering at the paintings on the outer wall near the main door, we made an important discovery. The Solosmasthana or the 16 Sacred Places worshipped by the Buddhists, lined the walls. On the inner walls, incredibly detailed scenes depicted the Buddha's life story and other Jathaka stories.


Bidding a reverent adieu to the Image House, we stepped outside to visit the white stupa enclosed by a terrace nearby. Standing tall and white against the blue sky, the stupa narrated a tale of devotion. Two devalayas stood next to the stupa, along with a replica of the footprint of Buddha in its own little space. The existing Bo Tree was planted in the ‘80s. An older Bo Tree, planted in the 1800s had stood next to the replica of Buddha's footprint. The tree had eventually succumbed to time and the location of the Bo Tree was shifted towards the front of the temple premises.


The temple grounds extend up to the Rathgama Lagoon Sanctuary. We walked towards the water body at the back of the temple where two seemamalaka were located. The first, a colourful, old structure standing on the tranquil waters of the lagoon can only be accessed by an oruwa (traditional outrigger). A steel bridge reaches the more modern second seemamalakaya.

Archaeologists estimate that two artists have plied their trade inside the Image House, as there are two distinct styles of drawing.


In addition to being a place of veneration, the Shailabimbaramaya also has significant historical value. The Amarapura Kalyanawamsa Chapter was established at the temple once the Buddhists monks arrived from Myanmar, where they gained upasampada (higher ordination) in 1810.


Several historical figures that have significantly contributed to shape our country have visited this temple. The letters of correspondence are still conserved at the Department of National Archives in Colombo. Copies of the letters are available at the temple; however, with the renovations taking place, we were not able to browse through these fascinating documents. The Tibetian S Mahinda Thero was also known to have found refuge at the Shailabimbaramaya during the First World War. There, under the patronage of the chief incumbent at the time, Ven Aluthgama Seelakkanda Thero, he was educated in Pali, Sanskrit and Sinhala.


A quiet place of veneration, Shailabimbaramaya is a haven where one can embark on a tranquil spiritual journey.


The then Chief Incumbent of the temple, Ven Dodanduwe Piyarathana Thero, instrumental in establishing the first Buddhist school in Sri Lanka was in correspondence with Colonel Henry Steel Olcott prior to the Colonel's arrival in Sri Lanka. Once Sir Olcott came to reside at Wijayananda Pirivena, he spent 11 days at Shailabimbaramaya where he and Piyarathana Thero discussed Buddhist revival and the establishment of Buddhist schools at a time when the British were establishing missionary schools.

  • image01
    image01

    The solemn dignity of the new seema malakaya

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    The statue is a tribute to Ven Piyarathana thero

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    The elegant colonial thorana bears the British royal crest

    Prev Next
  • image01
  • image01
    image01

    Upon entering, the quaint Bana Maduwa comes into sight

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    The compassionate gaze of the Buddha greets worshippers from the Image House

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    An artist's impression of the Solosmasthana

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    There is a sense of peace under the Bo tree

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    A replica of the footprint of the Buddha

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    The Bell Tower stands tall against the sky

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    Piyarathana Maha Vidayala continues to educate the children of Sri Lanka

    Prev Next