Restoration work of the Stupa

The tradition set upon in Sri Lanka by King Dutugamunu(161-137 BC), inspired his successors, in the centuries to come. The great Stupas would be built and the older Stupas would be renovated by the Kings of Lanka. Ruwanweliseya Stupa had been renovated several times by a succession of Sinhalese Kings till King Nissanka Malla (1187-1196 AC). Although King Dutugemunu started to build the Ruwanwelisaya Stupa, he could not live long enough to see its completion. The work was completed by his younger brother King Saddhatissa, who had placed as the crown of the Maha Seya, a glass pinnacle. Subsequently, several other Kings who ruled in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa had maintained the great Dagaba. Particular mention has been made of King Aggabodhi I who fixed a stone Chattya (umbrella) to the crown of the Maha Saya. King Dhatusena (of Kalawewa fame) (AC 459-477) had also gifted another Chattya to this great Maha Seya. Two other well-known Kings were Parakramabahu I and King Nissanka Malla. However, the recurrent Dravidian invasions from Southern India resulted in the decline of Anuradhapura. By the 19th century, Anuradhapura (437 BC-845 AD), once the greatest monastic city of the World, also named Anurogrammon, by the Greek cartographer Claudius Ptolemy (90-168 AD) was deserted; Ruwanweliseya was in ruins. But then Anuradhapura wouldn’t be buried and forgotten. The destiny of the nation was already prophesied. The Island of Sri Lanka and Buddhism is destined to witness the arrival of next Buddha, Maithree Buddha 5000 years into the future of Gautama Buddha (623-543 BC). For the renewed glory of Ruwanweliseya Stupa, a man arose in time. In the year 1893, a patriotic and pious Buddhist monk called Naranvita Sumanasara Thera of Siyam Nikaya, steeped in the history of the Island and well versed in the doctrine of Buddhism harnessed the support of the peasants in and around the great Stupa in Anuradhapura. They all came and took upon themselves to engage in the Herculean task of renovation of Ruwanweliseya Stupa. They came, they saw and they rebuild Ruwanweliseya Stupa. The community of devotees resulted in forming a society called “Ratnamali Chaityawardhana (Ratnamali Stupa Development) Society”. Illustrious Anagarika (Sanskrit: homeless one), Dharmapala (1864 - 1933) and illustrious Brahmachchari (Sanskrit: living in strict celibacy) and Walisinghe Harischandra (Edward De Silva) (1876 - 1913) made tremendous contributions to maintain the sanctity of the area around Ruwanweliseya which was subjected to the unholy encroachment. Eventually, those great patriots succeeded in having Anuradhapura declared a holy city by the British colonial government (1805-1948) of Ceylon.

Commencing the restoration work

It was in this background of utter neglect that the now forgotten Monk Venerable Naranvita Sumanasara Thera appeared at this historic and much hallowed site in the Mahamegha Uyana (Mahamevuna Uyana). With great piety and stoic determination, without any financial or human resources backing him, the monk firmly resolved in 1873 to commence restoration work all by himself. The Devas (Gods) were to protect and guide him in his enormous task. Now, who is this forgotten monk who set the ball roll to restore completely, the Maha Seya that was in ruins? Was he God Vishnu’s Agent sent with a warrant to commence restoration work, and inspire and awaken, Buddhist Society in Ceylon? About in 1850, when much of upper Gampola - Galaha districts were covered with virgin jungle, and was the home for roaming wild elephants; at an age when the motor vehicle was unknown, the Bullock Cart was the common mode of transport and for travelling with perhaps, the Horse and trap that plied between major towns, there lived at Naranvita, two miles towards Doluwe, a boy who was the adopted son of one Ratnayake Appuhamy and Menike. The lad used to often visit the village temple. By listening to the monks who daily recited Pali stanzas and Suttas, he was able to memorise and recite long stanzas with absolute clear diction. He was intelligent, industrious and bore a strong character. Before long, he was ordained a Bhikkhu by the Venerable Karaliyadda Gnana Tissa Thera, the Chief Incumbent of the Temple, but due to a displeasure incurred with his superior, he migrated to Dumbara. In 1873, he joined a pilgrim cart caravan that left the hill country bound for the sacred city of Anuradhapura. On reaching the Maha Megha Uyana the monk saw to his sorrow the Maha Seya appeared as a huge shapeless mass of naked bricks in ruins. Recalling the glory there was in the times of the Sinhalese Kings, he was deeply moved and resolved that, he himself’ must restore the great Stupa, though it appeared to be a “Herculian task”. Naranvita Sumanasara ‘Unnanse’ (Venerable Naranvita Sumanasara Thera), as he was popularly known, thereafter for years lived like a Gypsy under a huge Na-tree, within 50 yards of the Maha Seya and slept in an abandoned Bullock Cart, with a lantern and a mongrel for company. The dense jungle around looked frightening to live with, as it was the home of the bear, the wild boar, deadly poisonous snakes, scorpions and the malarial mosquito. Yet, the monk braved them all and commenced work at an age when there were no mechanised Earth movers, and lumberjack’s saws. To assist him, at that age there were no Buddhist leaders. Anagarika Dharmapala was then nine years old, and Harischandra Walisinghe helped him about thirty years later, until his early demise in 1913. As the “Champion of Buddhist Causes” Harischandra Walisinghe was always busy spearheading the Buddhist revival locally, and agitating for the establishment of Anuradhapura as a Sacred City. A generation of wealthy Buddhists was just then in the offing, with contracts were taken for the building of the Colombo Port Breakwater, the Museum and the Old Town Hall, the establishment of the Tea and Rubber plantations, the handling of transport services of produce, making of high class furniture at Moratuwa, and the grant of official licenses for Arrack renting. It was these businesses minded upper class Buddhists who later gave a hand for the Buddhist revival that took place between 1890-1940. Who were they? To mention a few notable names, Mudaliyar Henry Amarasuriya of Galle, Mudaliyar Francis Jayawickrama of Matara, Gate Mudaliyar Samson Rajapakse of Balapitiya, Mudaliyar Adrian Sahabandu of Balapitiya, Sir Baron Jayathileke, Mudaliyar Sri Chandrasekera of Moratuwa, Mrs. Helena Wijewardane of Sedawatte, Mrs. Jeromias Dias of Panadura, Sir Bennet and lady Sara Soysa of Kandy and Mudaliyar D. D. Weerasinghe of Wellawatte. In this background on Poya full moon days, when there arrived by cart, small groups of pilgrims. Ven. Sumanasara the pioneer monk solicited their help to perform Shramadana (labour, supply of). This was always gladly given. Pilgrims seldom stayed long, because of the presence of the Malarial Mosquito.

Visit of Sir William Henry to the sacred premises

Mr. Dickson, the Government Agent at that time, had seen for himself the great strides the monk was achieving in restoration work. In an official despatch to the Colonial Governor, Sir William Henry Gregory K.C.M.G (1872-1877) he said, “The Maha Seya looked a beauty in purdah. As guardian of this damsel, we need to give support to unveil the beauty of this”. Sir William, was a lover of the ruins. He visited the indefatigable monk and saw what had encouraged the pioneer monk in his work with a personal donation of Rs.1000/- (which at that time was considered a handsome sum), and also brought Ven. Naranvita Sumanasara Thera’s efforts to the notice of Lord Carnavon, Secretary of State. This move later, resulted in the appointment of H.C.P. Bell, CCS (1893 - 1912), though not a trained Archaeologist, to frequently visit the site. Mr. Bell CCS, functioned as the Island’s first Archaeological Commissioner, and was assisted in his work by S. Montague Burrows, CCS. At that time, John Still with his writings spotlighted the glory there had been in the buried cities in the jungle.

The Ruwanveli Maha Chetiya Wardana Samitiya

“The Ruwanveli Maha Chetiya Wardana Samitiya” - (the Ruwanveli Seya Restoration Society) was founded by the Venerable Naranvita Sumanasara Thera, in August 1902, without any newspaper publicity. The pioneer monk had by then won over the hearts of the Colonial Administrators. He knew that the required finances would pour in eventually because results by his efforts were visible. Earlier, Sir William Gregory, Governor who was impressed with the work done, had given the monk a testimonial, which went a long way to create in the minds of the Sinhalese that, this was a worthy cause.

Installation of the Seinbu Crystal (Chuda Manikya)

It is not known when the pioneer monk Venerable Naranvita Sumanasara Thera died, but, the restoration work continued unabated throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s. Enshrinement of Buddha Relics in the “Sataraskotuwa” took place in December 1932, and eight years later, the Pinnacle laying (crowning) ceremony with the installation of a Chuda Manikya (Seinbu Crystal), gifted by the Burmese Buddhists took place on 17 June 1940. The Venerable Vinyalankara, Sanghanayake of Burma arrived at the Mahamegha Uyana, along with a group of Burmese monks. Amidst cries of “Sadu, Sadu” from thousands of Buddhist devotees who had assembled, the Seinbu Crystal was laid into position atop to crown the Maha Seya. A sea of saffron coloured robed Bhikkhus chanted the three Suttas. Present at this historic occasion were several Mahanayake Thera’s, D.S. Senanayake, Sir Baron Jayatilleke, C.W.W. Kannangara, Sir Ernest and Lady de Silva, Henry Amarasuriya, Gate Mudaliyar, R. J. Wijetunge, D.S.A,R. Weerasekera and several other notable Buddhists of yesteryear. At the auspicious time, a twin seater Aeroplane circled above the Maha Seya and dropped Jasmine flowers, whilst a squadron of swallows dived low from their dizzy heights, in salutation and circled around the Maha Seya, thrice. This certainly was an unusual happening! Especially on this auspicious day.

End of the gigantic task

One of the greatest Buddhist events in our history had taken place without some of the principle persons associated with this restoration work being present. Sadly, the Venerable Naranvita Sumanasara Thera who conceived the great and grand idea of restoring the Maha Seya had passed away. His friend, Bulankulama Kumarihamy supplied labour gangs for many years, Situge Don Hendrick Silva (Henegama Appuhamy-the millionaire of Ruhuna) donated Rs. 250,000 - a handsome donation at that time; Averiwatte Kumarasinghe Ransirinel Perera (Averiwatte Vedamahatmaya) was another great philanthropist, Brahmachari Harischandra Walisinghe and D.S.C. Jinadasa were not among the living to witness the grand finale. It had taken 67 long years for this gigantic task to be accomplished! On that Poya starry night, thousands of devotees went in procession around the Maha Seya Maluwa (terrace of the Stupa) for many hours, reciting the Maha Mangala, Ratana and Karaniya - Metta Sutras, each one of the devotees carrying a lighted torch, whilst over 10,000 oil lamps had been lit. Sweet smell from smoke of lighted incense filled the air. The Ruwanweli Maha Seya was electrically flood lit. Colourful flags and bunting were seen all over. With all that mass of human activity, and religious devotions taking place, there was heard in the background, the sound of over 250 drums and flutes reverberating deep into the stillness of the night. It was a spectacular scenario, never witnessed before (or even after) and lifted high the hearts of Buddhists gathered there, in their many thousands.