(Pic by Chandana WIjesinghe)

Panama has over the years been talked about for the simplicity practiced by its villagers, association with religious activities and mysticism. Very recently this village, bordering Arugam Bay, and situated in the North East of Sri Lanka, came under the spotlight because a group of Hindu devotees began a trek from Trincomalee, passed through Panama and reached Kataragama to participate in the Kataragama Esala Perahara. These devotees passed many historic religious places of worship during this journey, enduring severe hardships and surviving challenges that a trip through a jungle path brings.
This pilgrimage brings into mind similar expeditions that the late Thambugala Anandasiri Thera did through jungles when he resided in the Kutumbigala Forest Monastery. The monk developed close acquaintances with the villagers of Panama, and was impressed by their knowledge of medicine, skills in chena cultivation, the jungle and its animals and food people consumed. Dayawansa Jayakody and Company published a book incorporating the experiences of the monk’s life in the jungles and titled the publication ‘Twenty Five Years of Life in the Jungle’ (ISBN-955-551-173-2).

Two influential people with political connections who associated with the priest were former President Ranasinghe Premadasa and Niranjan Wijeratne. There is a chapter in the book which reveals that Anandasiri Thera tested the patience of President Premadasa

Jungle tales  (1)According to the book, the villagers of Panama organize a cultural procession (Perahera) each year which commenced from Okanda Temple, and proced through Ayiththam Palassa to Kataragama. The devotees in the procession were clad in attire which highlighted the Panama Village culture. The procession organized by the folks in Panama underscores the fact that people belonging to different communities have had the habit of organizing their own cultural processions which take them to the land of God Kataragama during the pilgrim season.

Anandasiri Thera didn’t cross anyone’s path when preaching Lord Buddha’s Dhamma. He was a friendly monk and maintained healthy relationships with villagers, wherever he went. The villagers in Panama possessed natural intelligence. A good many of them were educated in the use of herbs, witchcraft, performing rituals that heal and understanding animal behavior. He showed great respect to individuals who possessed such skills, but at the same time preached the Dhamma to them. Blessed with excellent public relation skills, the monk succeeded as a messenger carrying Lord Buddha’s teachings. People in large numbers embraced real Buddhism during this time.

Anandasiri Thera stumbled upon Kutumbigala in 1954 when he was in search of caves to reside and lead the life of a forest-dwelling monk. He travelled a lot to all parts of the country to spread the message of the Lord Buddha. But he made Kutumbigala his ‘work station’ and developed it to an aranyaya (an abode of meditative monks).

Panama Paththuwa (Precinct) comprises Kumana, Hulannuge, Lahugala, Bakmitiyawa, Pothuwil and the Panama village. At the time this book was penned, Panama was the only Sinhala village in the East. But the location of his abode being the jungle meant the monk had to live with limited resources and facilities. When there was no one to talk to, Anandasiri Thera spoke to animals and chanted pirith. He is quoted in the book saying that acquiring a happy state of the mind by leading an austere life gives an individual great strength.

During his stay in Kutumbigala, he came in contact with a person by the name of Samithambi Muththa who possessed several mystical powers. Muththa went onto live for 115 years and led the last years of his life as a monk, thanks to the influence of Anandasiri Thera.

Thambugala Anandasiri Thera
Thambugala Anandasiri Thera

When planning expeditions through the jungle, the monk was careful to pick people who were healthy and had huge tolerance levels. Before such expeditions, the monk used to focus inwards and outwards when it came to preparing members in his travel group. He often told them that  the Buddha’s teachings were more helpful than witchcraft and chanting mantras when in thick of the jungle. During these travels, the priest not only came across the fiercest of wild animals, he also came across hunters and people engaged in illegal activities like poaching and felling of trees. He won them over with his charm and the knowledge he possessed of the Dhamma. People with shaky characters mellowed down to such levels that they offered him alms. The priest preached Dhamma to them, and advised them to move away from engaging in sinful activities. He told members of his travel group that the fact that distanced good people from bad people like animals from people who visit the jungle was the element of fear.

Two influential people with political connections who associated with the priest were former President Ranasinghe Premadasa and Niranjan Wijeratne. There is a chapter in the book which reveals that Anandasiri Thera tested the patience of President Premadasa. The latter had eventually won the heart of the monk. It was during the time when Wijeratne was the permanent secretary to the Cultural Minister that he was successful in getting Kutumbigala established as a wildlife sanctuary. Kutumbigala received this recognition on September 8, 1973.

Anandasiri Thera found many caves in the jungles of Kutumbigala. During one of his expeditions he found Sthreepura Rock. On making inquiries he found out that this was where a village lord by the name ‘King of Panama’ kept his mistresses. In this vicinity one can also find Magul Pokuna, the spot where this ‘The King of Panama’ bathed. The King of Panama lived when the Portuguese reigned. However the book states that he was obedient to the King of Kandy.

The monk lived during a time when people used ancient communicative methods like ‘hooting’ and breaking and throwing leaves along a path to leave signs for those who are following. The village customs and practices haven’t changed much in Panama. In the book, the priest observes that villages in Panama make it a point to respect elders.
Anandasiri Thera was critical of rituals and practices that taxed the purse of less-affluent villagers. He became a larger than life personality when the government’s war against Tiger rebels was raging in the North. Unlike other priests who obtained government patronage and protection for activities like settling Sinhalese in vacant areas in the East, Venerable Anandasiri carried on his religious missions alone. When violence seemed spreading from the North to other parts of the country, Anandasiri retained the presence of a few monks at Kutumbigala and moved with most of the others monks to Moneragala, a Sinhala-dominant village. He was gunned down on October 3, 1989. His funeral took place at the Borella Cemetery on October 6, which happened to be a Friday. When the priest lived he criticized a Sinhalese Buddhist custom of not cremating bodies on Friday. He also frowned at people who spent lavishly to organize a funeral. His thoughts regarding life and religion ran deep. Anandasiri Thera’s close associates state that he was a Buddha aspirant.

In the dust jacket of the book ‘Twenty Five Years of Life in the Junge’ its publisher Kamala Rajapakshe has this to say about the untimely death of the priest. ‘Ven Anandasiri (1930-1989) was gunned down by a group of gunmen who were naïve about being religious and virtuous natured. The void his death created in the sect of forest dwelling monks has been spoken about in many forums.