Grand Gangaramaya

By KEE HUA CHEE, The Star, February 10, 2007

Colombo, Sri Lanka

Colombo’s biggest Buddhist temple, Gangaramaya, is a major tourist attraction due to its stunning interiors and history. One of its main draws is a relic bone said to belong to the Buddha.

<< In his presence: Newborn babies are taken here and placed on a silver platter to be blessed by the Buddha and the monks.

On the way to Gangaramaya, all tours stop at Beira Lake, Colombo’s largest freshwater lake, which has on its shore a little temple that looks out of place in Sri Lanka.

The beautifully proportioned temple with rows of Buddhist statues reflected in the calm water looks typically Thai. And so it is, for the building is a gift from Bangkok’s Buddhists.

This shrine is part of the famous Gangaramaya temple complex, which is just around the corner. Though it has a sprawling museum opened to the public, Gangaramaya is a functioning temple, so entering the premises requires the removal of shoes.

From the diverse architectural styles on display, it is at once obvious to the visitor that Gangaramaya has gone through various transformations over the years .

Many of the buildings look disconnected and different from each other, sharing only their common location. There is a blue-roofed building that looks immaculately new while its stone edifice looks ancient. It turns out the blue temple is dedicated to Hindu deities andwas built with aid from Japan. This may explain its faint resemblance to Shinto shrines. You will also recognise the Chinese and Thai influences in the other buildings, which readily indicate where the donations that go into building them come from.

Gangaramaya started as a small hermitage on marshy land in 1890 before growing into a famous vihara (temple). Today, Gangaramaya is both a place of worship and a centre of learning.

Inside the complex, you will find several pagodas, classrooms, a huge bodhi tree planted from a sapling said to be from the tree that shielded Gautama Buddha during his epic meditation, museum, library, residential hall, and alms hall.

The star attraction, though, is the celebrated Relic Chamber where a crystal lotus holds what is said to be one of the Buddha’s bones. Over the years, Gangaramaya’s influence has spread so that it had a role in establishing many Buddhist temples overseas, including the Buddhist temple in Staten Island, the Buddhist Centre in New York, the Birmingham Buddhist Vihara in England, and the Buddhist Centre in Tanzania, Africa.

Gangaramaya came to be in the 19th century when the Venerable Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Nayaka Thera (1827-1911) begun a Buddhist resurgence at a time when the religion was on the decline. He managed to establish a Buddhist school with just seven students. From this humble beginning, Gangaramaya grew to what it has become today. Entering the main temple, one is astounded by the colour, artistry and craftsmanship of the myriad statues, which rise from the floor and appear at every level up to the ceiling.

Every available space is given over to sculptural depictions of the Buddha, his disciples and various deities in the Buddhist pantheon.

Crows love to perch on the many Kwan Yin statues across the road from Gangaramaya >>

A golden, sitting Buddha occupies the middle of the hall, while a standing Buddha stares down benevolently from the right. Newborn babies are taken here and placed on a silver platter to be blessed by the Buddha and the monks. A huge mural depicts the Attaloka Dharma, or the Eight Vicissitudes of Life — gain and loss, good and bad repute, praise and censure, pain and pleasure.

To attain Nirvana, or enlightenment, is now Colombo’s biggest cultural event and attracts thousands of tourists. The Perahera in the hill resort of Kandy is more famous but that one happens in August. Just outside the main temple is Rajah, the chief elephant, which takes the lead during the Perahera procession. Tourists can have their photos taken with Rajah, as the mahout is on hand to handle the pachyderm and accept your cash contribution.

Nearby are the alms hall, education centre and library with its collection of scriptures handwritten on palm leaves. A little further away is the majestic Bodhi tree with sprawling branches, whose tips nearly touch the pagoda.

There is also, incongruously, a small car museum. The early 20th century printing presses within the temple complex also seem out of place, but they all form a part of the temple's history.

The Gangaramaya Museum, a must-see while here, is renowned for its valuable works of art, gigantic tusks, carvings, statues and gifts from penitents and those whose prayers were answered. Next door is the Relic Chamber. It is filled with Jataka paintings and golden statues donated from China, Thailand, Malaysia, Japan, Singapore and elsewhere. At the furthest end is a wondrously carved wooden cabinet in which you will find the holy of holies: a small bone from the historical Buddha.

Miraculously, this relic is said to occasionally reproduce itself so it can be taken elsewhere to help strengthen the faith! The relic is kept inside a crystal lotus. Fresh white jasmine flowers are sprinkled about to form a circle round the glass globe encasing the precious relic. Surrounding this precious relic are miniature stupas and Buddha statuettes studded with diamonds and rubies donated by worshippers.

Across the road from Gangaramaya are semi open-air shrines with various seated, multiarmed Kwan Yin statues. Alas, crows disrespectfully perch on the arms and, worse, soil them. For some inexplicable reason, there seems to be no attempt to clean the statues of the droppings.

Spend a leisurely two hours here. Heck, you can even while away an entire afternoon here in Gangaramaya's atmosphere of calm and reverence.