Kirinda, in southern Sri Lanka, was our next stop after the snowy white Tissamaharama Chaitya. The southern region was experiencing a warm day, and the late morning sun was able to make its way through the craggy rocks of Kirinda. The greyish landscape was visible in all directions. We saw some cattle walking about near the Yala National Park entrance, looking for water. We saw even worse conditions in the South during our trip last month.
King Kelanitissa’s Incredible Tale
Examining the events recorded in the Mahavamsa, we learn that tragic occurrences marred the annals of the 2nd century BC, under the reign of King Kelanitissa of Kelaniya. The monarch found out that his sister was having an affair with the king’s brother, Prince Ayy Uttika. The adulterous affair was being spread by one of the bhikkhu’s servants in the royal household.
Sin and Mother Nature’s Fury
For some reason, while the bhikkhu was leaving the royal residence, he dropped a love note he had been carrying for the queen. When the king turned around to investigate a rustling noise, he was taken aback to see the handwritten note.
In a fit of rage, the king gave the order to kill the bhikkhu and the perpetrator by throwing them alive into a pot of boiling water and then into the ocean. The sea deities were so outraged by this atrocity that they unleashed a gigantic tidal wave that flooded the country after the bhikkhu’s tragic demise.
The Royal Son’s Victimised Daughter
The mayhem caused by the sea and the storms made the king anxious, and he watched as violent tidal surges overwhelmed the area. As an act of penance, he sacrificed his beautiful only daughter to the ocean in the hopes of appeasing the sea gods. Beautiful beyond compare, the princess was sacrificed to the ocean in a gilded boat inscribed with the words “Devi, daughter of King Kelanitissa.”
The golden boat and its beautiful princess washed up on the shore of Dovera, which is close to modern-day Kirinda (off Tissamaharama). The fishermen signalled King Kavantissa of Mahagama when they saw the princess’s boat getting closer to shore. At this point, the wise and moral monarch promptly stepped in to save the princess. The king, along with his ministers, arrived and gave the fishermen orders to bring the boat with the princess to a safe landing.
The king greeted the beautiful princess with a royal handshake and then escorted her in a noisy parade to the royal capital of Mahagama. As his queen, she was invincible. Since Princess Devi had landed at a monastery called Lanka Vihara, she was given the fitting name Vihara Maha Devi. A Brahmi inscription reveals that this cave monastery existed in the first century BC.
The king built a Chaitya on the headland overlooking the Kirinda Sea as a monument to the occasion. The beauty of the restoration brings forth the original glory of this sacred space. Mythology permeates the royal wedding of King Kavantissa and Vihar Maha Devi.
That Great Temple of the Lotus (Magul Maha Viharay)
Magul Maha Viharay, in Yala National Park, is the purported site of the royal wedding between King Kavantissa and Princess Devi. To commemorate their beautiful nuptials, these rock-cut viharas were fashioned in the fashion of monasteries, Dagabas, and Buddha statues.
Brahmi inscriptions from the Kavantissa and Dutugemunu administrations of Ruhunu Rata, dating to the second and third century BC, are inscribed above the drip-ledges at the summit of this cluster of rock cave hermitages.
There are also rock lakes, a reclining Buddha statue, and the freshly repaired Dagaba that are all important archaeological finds. The surface of the outcrop is covered with many stone pillars and a set of rock-cut stairs. Until not very long ago, the cave was home to a community of Bhikkhuni nuns.
According to folklore, a temple was built to commemorate the couple’s wedding at Lahugala Magul Maha Vihara in the Eastern Province. The Magul Poruwa stone structure stands to this day in Lahugala.
This account of the union of King Kavantissa and Vihara Maha Devi, and the subsequent construction of the Vihara and other buildings, is identical to the one related in folklore. It has also been suggested that the Dagaba and other monuments in the area around Pottuvil in the Eastern Province were built to commemorate the spot where Princess Vihara Maha Devi landed on the shore.
The historic port of Mahagama, on the Kirindi Oya estuary, is the site of another myth about the arrival of Vihara Maha Devi.
Kirinda Vihara is a sacred site steeped in history, and when you climb the stone stairs etched on the outcrop from King Kavantissa’s fabled days, you can relive that history in your mind. There is still a creamy white Dagaba, built on the ruins of the original Dagaba, to honour the momentous occasion of the princess’s boat being cast ashore, with a view of the turbulent ocean and the serene Kirinda Bay (now Fisheries Harbour), which was recently rebuilt with Japanese assistance and is protected by a large group of boulders.
Kirinda’s full magic is revealed in the tiny but breathtaking Dagoba, where the island abruptly plunges into the water. The Dagaba, a statue of Queen Vihara Maha Devi, and a temple to the god Kataragama sit atop massive outcroppings of rock in the Indian Ocean. Huge characters reading “Muhuda Bili Ganee” (the sea claims sacrifices here) are painted on the pile of rocks as you reach the peak. The roaring and churning of the sea below sends chills up the spines of pilgrims and convinces even the most sceptical of its reality.
A Trip to Kiringa
Most tours of Sri Lanka do not include a visit to Kirinda. Its secluded position in southern Sri Lanka is the primary factor. Tourists to Yala National Park, however, have a better chance of seeing Kirinda Temple. Kirinda is located only a few hundred metres from Yala National Park. However, in order to reach Kirinda, visitors will need to drive about 1 km beyond the Yala National Park.