We turned left from the Galle Road at Telwatta Junction and proceeded along a narrow road leading towards Kiralagahawela. After crossing the Colombo-Matara railway line, we reached our destination – Totagamu Purana Ranpath Rajamaha Vihara, Telwatta. This temple is situated in the village of Telwatta in Galle District, and is in Vellboda Pattuwa as per the old division system. The temple is sometimes mentioned as Telwatta temple as it is situated in that village. Present day Totagamuwa is a village, south to Telwatta.
The temple in front of us was on a flat terrain, and it contained a quadrangular-shaped terrace, surrounded by a low wall or rampart with few gates. All sacred sites of the temple – the stupe, bo tree and image houses – were located inside this quadrangle and the dwelling houses of monks and other associated buildings were situated outside.
Totagamuwa Temple has a rich history and contains several archeologically-important monuments, which was the aim of our visit to the temple.
History in brief
The history of Totagamuwa Temple dates at least to late Anuradhapura period. The inscriptions with Sinhala letters dated to a period 8th to 11th centuries are found on few pillars remaining in the temple premises adjoining the devalas. These inscriptions denote the devotee who devoted those pillars, which are what is remaining from a building that stood within the present temple premises. Although the folklore on the origin of the temple can predate this date, this appears to be the oldest verifiable date of the temple.
Titthagama Vihara mentioned in the Mahavamsa is identified as the present Totagamuwa Temple. The first reference in history is to the King Vijayabahu the great, who built a building in Titthagama Vihara. Titthagama is the Pali version of the name Totagamuwa, which literary means ‘the village containing a fort or a port’. The kings of Polonnaruwa, Dambadeniya, Kurunegala and Kotte Kingdoms have constructed various buildings, and supported the temple as mentioned in our chronicles. Vijayaba Pirivena is one such institution started during this time.The temple reached its zenith by the time of Kotte Kingdom, as a temple as well as an education institute. The temple is being described in four sandesa kavyas(messenger poems) – Tisara, Parevi, Kovul and Girasandesas. These poetic descriptions include accounts of the temple’ stupa, bo tree, image house and monks, while the pirivena and its activities are also described some of these poems.
Meanwhile, Girasandesa is written to send a message to the incumbent of this temple, who was the most notable and eminent monk to reside in this temple. He was none other than Ven. Totagamuwe Sri Rahula Thera, well-known scholarly monk of the 15th century, who authored several books and who was fluent in several languages.The state of the temple as well as the monk is elaborated in Girasandesa.
This temple flourished until the end of the 16th century, and was destroyed by the Portuguese, who launched a campaign against the Buddhist temples in the maritime areas of the country under their control. The ill-reputed campaign of Thome de Souza in 1580 destroyed several famous temples along the coastal belt and the description of this campaign includes a reference of destroying two pagodas in Madampe. It is believed that this includes Totagamuwa, as Madampe is a village located to north of Telwatta. Being a well-known and much-venerated temple located close to the coast, it is impossible to think that the Portuguese excluded this from their devastation.
Revival and current state
After the period of decline for few centuries, the revival of the temple was initiated during the mid-18th century, when the area was under the Dutch rule. A monk from the southern region, Ven.Pallatara Punnasara Thera, who received his higher ordination from Kandyan Kingdom was responsible for the revival of this temple in late 18th century. The current lineage of monks was commenced by this monk, and continues upto today with three distinct branches.
As mentioned above, the key religious edifices of archeological importance are situated in the inner quadrangle. The bo tree, located close to the southern wall, is large and old and probably saved from destruction. The stupa is located in the northern corner of the premises. The two image houses, old and the new one are among the most important edifices of archeological importance, except the pillars with inscriptions, located near the two devala buildings.
Meanwhile, there are many other edifices in the temple belonged to the 19th century or later. For instance, the belfry dates back to 1881, and the preaching hall or the Dharmasala dates to the early 20th century. There are two devale buildings in the eastern side of the quadrangle, a Visnu Devale and Tun Devale.
Image houses and paintings
The parana vihare or the old image house is said to be completed in 1799 along with the revival of the temple. It contains three Buddha images and some paintings most probably dating to the period the temple was constructed. The paintings in the inner chamber seem to be older than the vestibule of the image house and common paintings such as jataka stories, like mara parajaya (the defeat of Mara).
The aluth vihare or the new image house was completed in 1805, as per the inscription above one of the inner doorways. The inner chamber contains three Buddha statues in three postures and a statue of God Vishnu. The paintings in the inner chamber and the vestibule of the image house are some of the classic works of low country art, follows the Kandyan tradition. The subject matter of these paintings is mostly the common themes used in Kandyan tradition paintings. For instance, the life events of the Buddha, such as mara parajaya, sat satiya (episodes of the seven weeks after the enlightenment) are found among paintings. Also jataka stories (stories from Buddha’s previous births) like Vessantara Jataka, Sama Jataka, Culla Dhamma pala Jataka, Sasa Jataka and Devadhamma Jataka and suvisivivarana (twenty-four proclamations) are among the paintings. Also solos mahastana (16 places of worship in Sri Lanka) are found on the walls.
There are some rare and possibly unique elements among the paintings and murals. The prominent statue between the two inner doors is identified as Kamadeva(Mara) or Ananga bearing the bow is said to be unique to Totagamuwa. The elaborative display of six heavens is not seen in such descriptions while painting of five footprints of the Buddha is also said to found only in Totagamuwa. The painter as identified as Hat Korale Sittara Muhandiram. The details in paintings and the color usage of these paintings confirm the talent of the painter, and these have been cured recently by the Department of Archeology. There is a clear European influence in some of these paintings. For instance, the shape of the vase of pancanarighata painting and two figures that support the vase show such influence. Some decorative items and floral displays also show such an influence.
The date of the paintings in the new image house is a matter of disagreement. Renowned artist and art historian, LTP Manju Sri dates these paintings to 1805, based on the date of the construction of the image house. However Prof. Senaka Bandaranayake argued that these paintings are more likely to belong to mid-19th century. The presence of European influence supports this argument, with which fact we can agree with.