Saturday, May 21, 2011

Thalawila Church Unique shrine dedicated to St. Anne

The city of churches, as I would like to dub Kalpitiya, occupies a large number of fine little churches scattered around the neighbourhood. Under the dimly lit streetlights, these churches glow in the dark with the help of some colourful light bulbs. There is one place in this peninsula, of which the popularity has been rising everyday for almost 400 years. It is none other than Thalawila Church, which is known for its miracles and blessings for many years.
This church is dedicated to St. Anne, the mother of St. Mary. Thalawila is considered as one of the most visited churches in the country and a unique shrine, which is worshipped by many thousands of people each year despite their religion. According to the records, this is one of the oldest churches in Sri Lanka. The cool breeze of the vast Puttalam Lake and the mighty Indian Ocean refreshes the apostles who are exhausted from eternal struggles in life.
Front of the church
The history of the Thalwila Church goes back to the seventeenth century. There are two stories related to the origin of the shrine. The first tale is rather an exaggerated story, which narrates about a Portuguese traveller, who in poor circumstances, travelled to find employment. However, failing to do so, he returned to where he lived. He used the coastal route for this.
The tired traveller happened to fall asleep under a large tree, which then grew at Thalawila. He dreamt that he saw a statue at the foot of the tree, with lighted tapers. Waking up from his deep sleep, he realised that the image was actually there. In his confusion, he prayed and was suddenly dazzled and awestruck by the 'great awakening light', which illuminated in the form of St. Anne and the Saint in the bodily presence stood before him. She told him that the image he had seen was intended as a representation of Her.
She ordered the traveller to build a church at the very spot in Thalawila and name it after Her.
It is believed that the image and the statue that is there today are the same. The story of the origin, which is accepted by many is related to a shipwreck. A European trader, travelling in a ship dedicated to St. Anne, was shipwrecked off the coast of Thalawila in the early half of the 18th century. As the place where they landed was not very hospitable, they sought a place to rest. They saw a large banyan tree at a distance and they loomed it with the statue of St. Anne, which they had in their possession. They placed the image in the tree, with the captain of the ship vowing to return and build a church if his business prospered.
The European trader obviously met with success as he desired, and kept his word by building a church at the place where the statue of St. Anne stood in its glory.
It is said that in 1943, by some bizarre coincidence, exactly a hundred years after the erection of the present church, there appeared the hull of a wrecked vessel for which the present generation has no recollection. The huge crowds which flocked to view it, believe that it was the vessel, which had once borne the image of St. Anne, which testifies the persistence of the tradition.
"This, however, is not the original church built by the trader," said the Administrator of St. Anne's Church, Fr. Luke Nelson Perera. "The first church of this premises was built in 1762 and this church in 1843," he added. The earliest church had been built using cadjan and wood. Therefore, over time it had been destroyed. The statute of St. Anne's placed at the church is made out of wood. "All the churches in Sri Lanka, which are believed to have miracles, have wooden statues," explained Fr. Perera.
According to the historians, the wood needed for the construction of the church, especially for the 18 pillars of the hall, were found from the surrounding forest.
There are many miracles recorded in the history of St. Anne's Church, Thalawila. For many who desperately wish for a baby, this is considered as the last resort. They pray for many days and nights and ultimately their wish will be granted. An engineer working for a leading Company in Sri Lanka, Arul, was married for 10 years without children when they first heard about the church. After praying to St. Anne, now they are a happy couple with a daughter. "I have experienced the miracle of St. Anne's.
"I have a lot of faith in Her," said Arul. One of the popular miracles is the shipwreck of the 'Kandula' ship, which belonged to the Navy.
This ship had collided with a sand bank near Thalawila and got shipwrecked. Removing the parts of the vessel was a tough job. Then the officers made a vow at the St. Anne shrine. It is said that then everything happened in order. As a way of paying gratitude, now the Navy attends the church festival every year.
The church is always full of devotees. However, the most crowded period is the festive season. There are two major festivals of the church; one is during March and the other is in August. "About 400,000 devotees attend the March festival and 500,000 the August festival. Organizing these events is a major task," he explained. These two are gazetted feasts of the country.
Therefore, the GA of the area does the planning, which involves the government.
At present, a development projects, initiated by Fr. Nelson Perera are in progress at the shrine. Drinking water project for pilgrims, renovation of the roof of the shrine, construction of a retreat house and Tree planting campaign are some of them.

SLTB to launch novel project to minimise accidents: Points system to choose best depot

The Sri Lanka Transport Board (SLTB) has declared May as the month of accident prevention. "In line with a proposal by the Board's Vice Chairman, L.A. Wimalarathne, the program 'We save you', will be carried out to arrest the rising number of accidents and also give a boost to the income of the Board during this month," said Manager, Income Generation of Sri Lanka Transport Board, H. M. Chandrasiri.
Under the program, all the depots in the country will be assessed on a special grading scheme. Daily points will be awarded for the percentage of buses put into the service as per area requiremen, number of miles covered and the income brought in by the end of the day.
At the same time, points will also be deducted for passenger complaints and cases of accidents.
During this period, SLTB employees will also be educated on how to maintain a bus, ways and means to provide a better passenger service and highway code. The Sri Lanka Police and guest lecturers will conduct a lecture series in order to impart lessons.
As an incentive the depot with the highest number of points will be selected as the best depot. "We are planning to reward the winning depot, with something that will help further and sustain the depot facilities," said Chandrasiri.
"This will be the perfect project to minimise the number of accidents caused by SLTB buses.
All our employees will be enthused to provide a better service for the community," he added.
In the first three months of this year there were 380 accidents involving Sri Lanka Transport Board buses resulting in 23 deaths.
In 2010, the number of accidents involving State buses was 1,158.

Deegavapi Vihara: Sacred shrine blessed by the Buddha

The newly built shrine
Driving away from the bustling city of Ampara, towards East on Akkaraipattu Road for almost 18 km, brings you to the point where you are required to make a left turn from the main road to enter Deegavapi Temple Road. This path, has a dead end at the garden of the shrine, and passes a small hamlet of Muslim community and a picturesque ambience. Once you pass the locale, it is just the plain lush green valley, which allows you a splendid panorama up to the sky.
By the time we arrived at the temple, it was almost deserted and there was hardly anybody to be seen except one or two vendors. The mesmerizing serenity of the temple resembled the idyllic setting of a place blessed by the Buddha. It was during the third visit the Blessed One visited Deegavapi shrine with 500 other arahants and had spent the time meditating. Of course, although occasionally a peacock breaches the silence of the atmosphere, it is the perfect place to meditate.
After parking the vehicle at the gate of Deegavapi Vihara, we hurried passing the two storeyed monks' abode until the Stupa was in our vicinity. Did I expect to see a beautiful dazzling white Stupa like Ruwamweliseya? Maybe, I did not. Deegavapi is nothing like a Stupa. It rather gives an impression of a heap of bricks and plants. The circumference of the Stupa is 1000 feet, and it has been restored only up to 30 feet of the height. Rest of the height is a small jungle with various bushes on it. According to archaeologists, the Stupa was 110 feet high in 1964. However, a report by Badigode Buddharakitha thera says that the height of the Stupa was 185 feet in 1845. I presumed that on top of the Stupa there was an eagle's nest as well. Flower pedestals, foot prints of the Buddha, and ruins of a beautifully decorated Vahalkada were seen all over the place. There are ruins scattered around the premises.
The Stupa had been built by King Saddhathissa (137 -119 BC), and is considered as a 'Pariboghika Stupa', one which does not contain relics. Being one of the 16 places blessed by the Buddha the shrine has become a sacred place. The great chronicle Mahavamsa, states that the King had also donated a jacket decorated with gold lotus flowers, and gems to cover the Stupa. According to an inscription on a gold foil found during an excavation, the Stupa was later renovated by king Kawanthissa who ruled from 164 - 192BC.
The British took over the entire land that belonged to the temple. In 1886, the Governor had instructed the villagers to dig the area and remove the bricks and granite slabs to be used for irrigation projects. Buddhists had refused to take part in the excavation.
The project had ended leaving only a pile of soil at the area where the Stupa was situated. Ven. Kohukumubure Revatha Thera, had located the Stupa.
Later he started reconstructing the stupa. The thera also managed to reclaim 250 acres of land back to the temple.

The Monks’ abode

Deegavapi Stupa

Ruins of a decorated Vahalkada

Foot imprint of the Buddha Pedestal

Stone flower pedestal
Pix: Janani Amarasekara

Miracles of Somawathie dagoba attract pilgrims

It was May 09, 2010 and the devotees at the Somawathie shrine were attending a Kiripindu Pooja. Minutes and hours passed by, and all were engrossed in the pooja, when a strange pinkish light appeared near the square chamber of the Pagoda. The air above the premises echoed by the hum of a worship, 'sadhu!'It was not an alien incident for Somawathiya; it had happened numerous times before. Some scholars interpret this light as illuminations of the Buddha and some deem this as a proof for the appearance of a god. Whatever it is, these miracles do bring many devotees to the shrine.
Around 40 kilometres away from Polonnaruwa, the Somawathie Chethiya is a popular pilgrimage site among the Buddhists and non-Buddhists. The place creates a lot of news throughout the year. Besides, the miracles, there is also an elephant that visits the temple regularly to pay homage to the Stupa which is enshrined with the right canine Tooth Relic of the Buddha. During the rainy season, the whole area goes under water.
During the conflict, the journey to the temple was not easy. Once you drove in at the last army camp, you were required to leave your National Identity Card with the security. Subsequently, it was a journey through the thick jungle up to Somawathie Viharaya.
While standing here at the temple premises, I remember a story related to my grandmother. Some years ago, my granny went missing. A few days later, she was back at home from an adventurous journey to Somawathiya. "I was late by the time I reached the army camp. There were hardly any vehicles to commute up to the temple. Taking a tractor was the only option I had. I got into it to reach the shrine and spent the night all alone at the temple," she said. This incident took place in 2007 and she was 68 years old then.
The history of Somawathiya predate Dutugemunu. Therefore, it is much older than Ruwanweliseya, Mirisawetiya or Jetawanaramaya. Some believe that it was built during the reign of king Kavantissa, Dutugemunu's father who ruled Magama. According to ancient chronicles, the very first Arahant of the country, Aritta Thera, had visited the residence of gods especially to bring the Sacred Right Tooth Relic of the Buddha.
As the legend unfolds, Kawantissa's sister, Somawathie Devi, had built the dagoba during the second century BC. The Mahawamsa describes that the royal couple who had left Ruhuna had sought refuge in Raja Rata over a disagreement with king Dutugemunu who was also the nephew of Somawathie. Queen Somawathie had a yearning to build a stupa in honour of the Buddha. The king himself had agreed to the idea with much enthusiasm. Giri Abhaya, the husband of queen Somawathie, had explored a possible site for the construction. In the course of his survey, he came upon an area where Bhikkhus led by Arahant Mahinda resided. When the king suggested his idea to Arahant Mahinda, he gave his consent to the stupa-building project.
The location was known as Somapura. There were companion stupas known as Kumbanacchaduwa (identified as the place where Kadol elephant had died).
The pilgrim of earlier days to the holy shrine had an opportunity to see on one side of the dagoba, a trench-like opening revealing some five feet inside the present dagoba, wherein is the ancient brick masonry of the earlier dagoba. However, now the trench has been covered.
The flooded premises
The present freshly painted white dagoba is an enlargement of an earlier one. Two kings have renovated the chetiya and with the opening visitors could view the section of the chetiya that revealed the three layers illustrating the three periods during which renovations were undertaken.
According to scholars, some Brahmi characters found at the site have been identified as letters from the second century. Seven stone inscriptions detailing the history of the dagoba have also been found in the area. Separate inscriptions found here refer to the Rebavehera and Pajini Naka Araba Vihara, which are presumed to be the ancient names of the monument. According to the latter, there is also a belief that the vihara was a construction by Naka, the son of king Mahallaka Naga in the second century.
Like the road to Seruwila Dagoba, here too, the voyage itself offers you an array of thick jungle and swamp as well as their inhabitants, big and small.
In fact, the dagoba is often visited at night by elephants. Sungawila is the last little town and border village from where you cross the Mahaweli to travel on some 13 kilometres of unsealed road that cuts through the Somawathie's strict natural reserve and wildlife sanctuary, and takes you through the jungle and marshy land to the great dagoba.
As elephants encroach into the temple premises, an electric fence has been installed there. The fence is powered by solar electricity. Electricity is switched on in the evening from six onwards.
The Somawathie Chetiya is famous in recent history due to its miracles, which took place in the temple. Some of the valuable ancient ruins found in the place are found at the Polonnaruwa Museum.
MiraclesThe Buddha’s foot imprint

Self-discipline for road safety, a must

During the last three decades, since 1977, more than 40,000 people died and nearly 370,000 injured out of which 68,440 were serious. Am I talking about the damage caused by the 30-year-old conflict? No, I am not. These are statistics on road accidents, released at the recently held conference hosted by the National Road Safety Council.
The data also revealed that around 150 accidents are reported daily in Sri Lanka, causing death to five to six people. This is not a problem faced only by the Sri Lankans; almost 1.3 million people around the world die each year from road accidents.
Taking this rise of accidents into consideration, many countries of the world including ours, have declared a Global decade of Action for Road Safety in 2011-2020.
The road accidents are under the spotlight, making it the perfect time to discuss the causes. Negligence plays a key role in causing accidents although not the eventual.
Ill disciplined pedestrians and drivers also deserve the blame. The Gazette Announcement 486/8 issued by the Sri Lanka Government on December 29, 1987, established a set of best practices the pedestrians and drivers need to follow. Unfortunately, only a few know these practices and even those who know rarely puts those into practice. Therefore, we decided to enlighten you gradually on the rules suggested by the gazette announcement. After all, this is simply common sense that we all should have.
Pedestrians - The discussion about safety of the pedestrians, always give priority to children. The parents need to be watchful when their children use the road. Never allow them to play on the road.
As a rule of thumb, keep children away from the moving traffic while walking. From their tender age, teach the safety road rules and develop the habit of following those.
Pedestrians should always use footpaths or pavements, if provided. Using the footpath also needs you to follow few rules; avoiding covering the full width of the pavement while walking tops this list. Haven't you ever faced these types of pedestrians in your life? How did you feel? I am sure you did not feel great!
Further, pedestrians should note that the roads are for the primary use of the motor traffic. Therefore, they should offer priority to motor traffic.
They also should take caution while walking on the dimly lit roads, especially at night. If there is no footpath, it is advisable to wear light colours and carry something white, which will help the drivers to spot you easily at night.
When a pedestrian needs to cross the road, look for a pedestrian crossing, overhead bridge or an underground crossing.
A crossing within 50 metres wants the pedestrian to cross from there. While crossing, stop and check for motor traffic until you get a safe moment.
As we learnt as children, "Eyes right! Eyes left! Eyes right once again.
Then, if the road is, clear. Quick march! Don't rush! You may cross the road for there's nothing now to fear." You are safe on the road, if you follow this rhyme. Crossing - in an instance when motor traffic and pedestrians coincide, needs the attention of the drivers and the pedestrians.
Following the rules, ease the life of both the parties. Crossing behind or ahead of parked vehicles is fatal, especially after getting down from the bus, as this causes many accidents. Many main roads have security fences along the road. Always choose to use a dedicated gap of the fence, when a pedestrian enters the road, instead of jumping over. After all, who wants to end with a broken bone instead of walking few steps? Fences guard the pedestrians. Therefore, never bypass and walk on the road.
An intersection is an idyllic example for intricate traffic plans. Motor vehicles come in every direction. Therefore, pedestrians need to be cautious at these places. Since, most junctions provide narrow footpaths or the footpath might be absent. When you start to cross the road at pedestrian crossing, allow the driver sometimes to see you, and lower the speed before stopping.
Pedestrians on the crossing, merely obliges the driver to stop. The pedestrians need to be extra cautious if the road is dark or wet. At points where traffic signals control the motor traffic and the pedestrians, do not dare to cross when the red man is on.
If a control button is available, press and wait for the green man. The duration between the red man and the green man is hardly two minutes. So why be restive and prefer colliding on a vehicle rather than waiting for two minutes? It is your preference. In the end, you are periling your life. Never try to cross when the green man blinks, which signals the pedestrian, to 'hurry.'
We play the role of the pedestrian in our daily routines. Follow this set of best practices and make others lives easier. Next week, we hope to bring you another episode of rules on courtesy driving dedicated for bicycles and motor vehicles. Let us do our duty to lessen accidents.