There was a unique type of Vihara called “Tampita Vihara” during the Kandyan period. The Tampita Vihara is a temple on pillars. Its most important feature is that it is mounted on stone pillars or dwarf rock pillars.
This type of Vihara who stood on raised wooden platforms on stone pillars or huge boulders was built in this way to prevent white ants or other vermin from entering and damaging it. The Panawitiya Ambalama was also built using this method.
During a recent tour inside Kurunegala not far from the city, we learned that there are some Tampita Vihara in the vicinity of Kurunegala. These archaic monuments are preserved by the Department of Archeology.
If you travel northwest of Kurunegala 25 kilometers away is the Bihalpola Tempita Viharaya, a unique Vihara that dates back centuries. It is only five kilometers on the Kuliyapitiya road from the Kadahapola junction on the Kurunegala-Madampe road.
The superstructure of the Bihalpola Tampita Vihara is made of acacia and cob and square in shape. There are three Viharas in total that belong to different time periods built on a huge rock at the top of the hill, of which the Chamber of Relics (Dhatu Mandiraya) is in the middle of the buildings.
The building at the end of the temple complex is also a shrine hall, decorated with wall paintings, which houses the main Buddha image which belongs to the Kandyan period. A dramatic architectural feature of this small building is that it is built on a frame of massive wooden beams that rest on high solid rocks placed on a boulder. Wooden pillars were driven into the boulder in some places. The walls of Vihara Square are built with acacia and cob using a lime plaster on the surface. It also has a characteristic thatched roof with Kandyan Pet-Ulu (flat tiles).
There are two small doors in the Vihara, placed on two sides. The height of the doors is approximately six feet. The wooden frames are decorated with intricately carved floral motifs. One door frame is painted blue while the other is plain. Several solid rock slabs with simple moonstones were placed in front of the doors which are on a raised platform for pilgrims to enter the house of the image of the Vihara. The door is so small that you have to bend down as if to get to the Vihara.
After a brief conversation with the titular chief of the Vihara at the foot of the hill, we were accompanied by a bhikkhu Samanera from the Vihara. After climbing a steep rock-cut staircase about 40 meters to the top under the many white frangipani trees laden with flowers, we saw an arched entrance. Around the top is a stone wall about six feet high with rectangular holes carved into the wall for lighting lamps around the Vihara’s upper terrace which contains three structures. The glittering ancient Chaitya on top of the hill gives the Vihara a picturesque setting.
The lower terrace contains a huge Bo-tree and Devalaya. We saw heaps of fallen Aralia, freshly swept in heaps and giving off a scent. We experienced the tranquility and the breathtaking bird’s eye view of the region’s lush green landscape from the highest elevation of the summit where the Tampita Vihara is located.
Stone pillar inscription
According to chronicles, the Bihalpola Rajamaha Vihara was built during the reign of King Devanampiyatissa and later renovated by King Walagamba. Among the ruins at the site are a stone pillar inscription, several stone pillars and a carved stone staircase probably belonging to the Anuradhapura period.
The bhikkhu of Samanera took us to all the nooks and crannies of the Vihara, opening the halls of the sanctuary to us. Entering the picture houses we first visited the modern picture house which contains a reclining Buddha statue and a few seated statues with murals of lotus motifs painted on the ceiling probably around the beginning of the 20th century .
The second, the two-story Datu Mandiraya of the Vihara, was closed due to restoration work carried out by the Department of Archeology. Next to the two-story Relic Chamber is a Tampita Vihara erected on a wooden frame on four rock slabs on a temple rock. This is one of the most striking features of the Vihara. Going up a short flight of stairs, bhikkhu Samanera opened a door and showed us the interior of the image house which included statues of seated and standing Buddha and designs depicting stories of Jathaka covering the walls, while that on the ceiling there is a painting of flowers and climbing plants with tendrils, which quickly deteriorates.
The stories of Jathaka – the stories of the past lives of the Buddha – on the walls of Vihara are rapidly deteriorating. The stories are told visually in long panels. There is a small strip which is sufficient to give a short explanatory note of a Jathaka story. Along the exterior walls of the hallway of the house in the image, the rather large panels depicting the life of the Buddha had been painted in the recent past.
A fire damaged a number of priceless paintings and beautiful wooden Makara Thorana at the Tampita Vihara Picture House in 1997, while treasure hunters took several priceless Buddha statues to Vihara.
Observing the wooden pillars of the Tampita Vihara picture house, we noticed that they were unique creations resembling the wooden pillars of the Panavitiya Ambalama. Unfortunately, the Tampita Vihara murals have reportedly been repainted against a black background. Probably all the bright colors (red and yellow) faded and were destroyed in the fire.
There are many temples in the area where our rich history comes to life. Kurunegala which is a gateway to these splendours of our past is indeed a gateway to history.