Ancient temples have intrigued us as sanctuaries for solace to thousands of Buddhist devotees. According to the Sinhala Bodhivamsaya, 32 saplings of the sacred Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura were planted at sites across our island. One such sapling was planted that blossomed into a vibrant tree at Bellanwila.
During the 15th Century reign of King Parakaramabahu VI the Kingdom of Kotte sustained many temples, including the Bodhi tree at Bellanwila. The invasion by the Portuguese led to the neglect of temples and soon the Bellanwila Shrine was thrust into obscurity by a dense thicket.
It is believed that somewhere in 1850 a bold monk, Thengodagedara Hamuduruwo, was travelling by boat to Pepiliyana when he heard drumbeats in the thicket and stopped to come ashore to inquire. As he reached the thicket, he was surprised to discover a majestic Bo tree sans the drummers. After realizing the significance of the tree, the inspired monk set about building a shelter after clearing the thicket. This was an important milestone for the present Rajamaha Vihara. It was the humble villagers of Attidiya who supported the early monks. Years later, the chief incumbent Ven. Somaratna Thera envisaged on expanding the sacred abode to its present grandeur. He was the pioneer who organized the temple perehara in 1947. The temple displays murals painted by Somabandu Vidyapathy.
In Asia elephants have been closely associated with Buddhist temples and Hindu kovils. They are venerated as a symbol of wisdom and strength. Domesticating an elephant is a noble task. The mahout uses voice and touch commands to build a bond with the elephant which displays a natural aptitude for relationships.
The tusker learns to respect the Ankus (henduwa) a wooden stick with a hook. After training the ankus becomes a symbol of decorum for the mahout. Ancient Sanskrit texts define two types of mahouts Reghawan – those who use love to control the animal and Yukthiman, one who displays wisdom towards the elephant.
According to Lasantha Ratnayake, the dedicated secretary of the temple, a committee has been appointed to organize the perehara which formally begins on the August 10 with pirith chanted from August 14 to 20. The sacred relics are exposed to the public on August 25 and culminate with the Randoli maha perahera on August 27.
The Bellanwila temple had many tuskers and according to Ratnayake in the years gone by around 85 elephants participated. This year he expects the participation of 25 elephants. The tusker Chandu Raja was the last to serve this temple before his demise. His magnificent tusks are preserved at the Rajamaha Viahara.
He has been replaced by an elephant from Myanmar in 2012 which was a gift from the government. This beloved elephant is presently five years old and has adapted well to the local climate and affection of the devotees. Selecting a tusker for the temple is a time honoured tradition. Experts opine that out of 100 elephant births only 15 will fit the classifications to carry the Karanduwa (casket). Having a good temperament and being obedient is a desired hallmark.
This year, the honour of carrying the casket is bestowed on Nadungamuwe Raja, the tallest domesticated elephant in Sri Lanka. This tusker resides in Gampaha and carried the casket at the perehara of the Sri Dalada Maligawa. The faithful giant prefers to walk from Gampaha to Bellanwila to the awe of the public.
Preparing an elephant to be caparisoned is an elephantine task which requires loads of skill and patience. This year the task of sewing for the resident Bellanwila tusker was undertaken by Nilmini Thilekeratne a long standing devotee. She began by choosing a design which had to be traced according to the proportion of the elephant.
The large velvet cloth is embroided with intricate hand woven designs, with two golden elephants and their trunks lifted in salutation. The cloth is embellished with an assortment of glittering stones. A separate piece of clothing is made to cover the face and trunk.
The costume is held in place by cloth straps, so that the elephant remains comfortable. All participating elephants are examined and issued with a fitness certificate by the Head of Veterinary Science Prof. Dangolla and his team who remain at the temple until the elephants are ready to leave on completing their pious duty.
Temple secretary Ratnayake says that under the guidance of the deputy incumbent Ven. Prof. Wimalaratne Thera, the Committee will ensure that all forms of traditional dances are displayed at the pageant. A contingent of 300 policemen will be involved in security and crowd control duty. This remarkable temple pageant continues to uphold Buddhist tradition and culture.