Bernard Van Cuylenburg’s Recent Travel Odyssey in Sri Lanka

Bernard VanCuylenburg … serving up the First ‘Stage’ of His Voyage into Ancient Sri Lanka

PROLOGUE: Travel is an apt metaphor for life. There is a mystical side to any journey, specially to lesser-known archaeological sites which one has never visited before. While travelling we realize that life cannot be wholly planned and controlled however much we prepare in advance for our own futures. Having visited the more famous historical treasures of ancient Ceylon some more than others, many of which are today World Heritage Sites, I surmised long ago from what I had seen, the limited research that I undertook, and the books I read, that Sri Lanka virtually groans under the weight of its cultural cachet, and there is much more to be revealed by the archaeologist’s spade which promises to be a cultural cornucopia.

Illustrating this point, let me quote from the book “Essaying into Serendipity” by one of my favourite Authors, the late Mrs. Maureen Seneviratne. She writes ” Sri Lanka being a country almost saturated with history, there is not a kilometre of its variegated terrain that does not have the stamp of “Story”, some entrancing tale, legend or happening, associated with it”. And this I was determined to see for myself!

On the 10th March, when softly dawned the golden sunlight on the city of Colombo, I set off on my search on “The roads less travelled” very early. The distance between the places to be visited were long, but this was not a journey to be measured in miles, but in years. It was a journey which had no end and involved a time span over 2500 years during which time I would have encounters with some of ancient Lanka’s greatest Kings – King Devanampiya Tissa, (247-207BC.) King Kavan Tissa and his Queen, Vihara Maha Devi, King Dutu Gemunu (101-77 BC), King Vattagamini (44 BC, and 29 to 17 BC) and King Dhatusena (460-478AD) to name a few…….To my delight, I soon discovered that my driver Milton and I “read from the same hymn book” as far as the history of ancient Ceylon was concerned. He gilded the lily by giving me a book titled An Advanced Handbook on the History Culture and Monuments of Sri Lanka advising me to read it when I could, as it would enhance the experience and enjoyments of the sites on my itinerary. I was more than equal to the task.

Following one stop in Ratnapura for breakfast, we headed for “The Belihul Oya Heritage Resort” better known to readers as The Belihul Oya Rest house. I was told that the Rest Houses were given on lease to a private company for five years, hence the change of name. But what’s in a name?

The old Rest house still retains its charm. This was our stop for two nights. The next morning after a hearty Sri Lankan breakfast we headed for Balangoda, and then took the Kaltota Road to visit the which would take us into a time warp of 2000 years. The road took us through areas of pristine natural beauty and lush emerald green countryside. The hills were covered with forests, and the geography of the area offered extraordinary natural diversity. We drove past little villages where there were piles of fresh fruit and vegetables for sale at roadside stalls, rippling streams, and the warm smiles of salt of the earth human beings whose friendly nature is expressed in the warmth of their welcome, made this place a kind of Shangri La.

Views from Kuragalla


The first was the Kuragala Buddhist Monastery Complex situated on a mountain peak. Dating back to the 2nd century BC this ancient archaeological treasure was declared an Archaeological Reserve and covers a wide area comprising around forty caves with ancient Brahmin [sic] inscriptions. Known as the “Thandula Pabbatha” in ancient times, the entire area abounds in religious artifacts. The stunning scenic views from the peak in their solitude add to the sanctity of this hallowed site. Kuragala has the power to inflame one’s imagination and I found it a place of healing. Much more work needs to be done here to unlock her secrets, because I was distressed to learn that over a period of time significant damage has been done to some of the monuments which sadly were victims of vandalism by encroachers. The authorities concerned have taken action to rectify this situation, but I think some artifacts have been damaged beyond restitution. This beautiful complex is worth a visit and will forever remain a precious pearl in my chain of memory.


This ancient Buddhist sanctuary is thought to have been erected in the golden days of the Anuradhapura period. There is a record of a Prince named Vikrama Pandya who arrived here in 1042 and ruled the kingdom of Kalathitha (Present day Kaltota) until 1043. I wonder if this is King Vikkamapandu who according to the Culavamsa ruled in 1043? Fifteen kilometres from the Budugala Monastery Complex is the Lanka Prabatha Vihara with many rock caves bearing inscriptions. Archaeologists who studied these inscriptions opine that they belong to the 2nd century BC. There are ruins spread over a wide area. They further surmise that during a period of internal strife and turmoil in the country due to invasions from South India, the sacred Tooth Relic was hidden here during the reign of King Vattagamini in the second century BC. Ruins of main houses, stone urinals, and toilets confirm that Arahats lived in this monastic complex. Opinion among Archaeologists, Historians and other schools of thought are unanimous that the ruins here prove that the technology used to construct this complex is not second to that of the Anuradhapura era. It should be stated that the Budugala temple complex has a connection with the aforementioned Kuragala Temple though a series of secret tunnels. Tread softly and in reverence when visiting these hallowed cultural and religious treasures, because the soul of humanity lies within these stones and history lies beneath your feet. Every step here takes one back to a magnificent past, because there are certain things in life you see with your soul. The Keerigala Vihara and the Budugala Raja Maha Vihara are uniquely beautiful — and historically fascinating.

There are some ruins very well preserved close to the market area, but sadly with no information to inform the visitor as to their origin and history. I came across one small book shop in the small row of shops bordering the market which had no information on the “unidentified” ruins.


The ancient village of Nathagane located off the Wariyapola-Kurunegala road is sometimes known as ‘Mundakundapola’ Nuwara, and traces its history to the second century BC. Legend has it that the caves here were used by King Vattagagamini (also known as Walagamba) following his defeat in 104 BC by marauding armies from South India. This brave King finally regained his throne in 89 BC, but during his exile was reputed to have sheltered in many caves — the most famous of which is The Dambulla Rock Temple. How he managed to organize an army to defeat the strong Tamil invader is a near superhuman feat.

Many of these caves had natural defenses and after his victory he converted these into ‘Çave Temples’. One inscription which has been translated confirms that meditating Buddhist monks used these caves long before the time of King Vattagamini. A mountain range also called Nathagane overlooks Nathagane village and at one time was an Aramic complex, a fort and a palace complex in its dim distant past. The ancient Stupa of the Nathagane Vihara has been excavated and restored. A visit to all the caves would entail an entire day but is worth every second.



Royalty and the seeds of doom is a phrase which sounds very ominous, but I have good reason to use it here. This place is most famous for one noble act of self-sacrifice committed by a King who left behind no monuments or tanks, but whose name now lives in the realms of legend and is revered to this day. To set the scene I am compelled to quote a line from the Holy Bible from John Chapter 15 – Verse 13 which says Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friend. How ironical it is that over a thousand four hundred years down the corridor of history, a devout Buddhist, King Sirisangabo who ruled the country from 307-309 AD followed this exhortation to the letter. The story merits repeating here.

After the death of King Samghatissa, his son Sirisangabo who was a pacifist and lived a saintly lifestyle, ascended the throne, and gave the post of treasurer to his brother Gothabaya. Not satisfied, Gothabaya bided his time expecting that his Bodhisatva like brother would not succeed in ruling the kingdom and he would soon take over. To everybody’s surprise Sirisangabo won the hearts of his people and became the darling of the masses. The crafty Gothabaya then decided to mount a coup and take the throne by force. He led a rebel group and marched on the capital to achieve his end. But the saintly Sirisangabo who was warned of the coup rather than see bloodshed, left the kingdom unnoticed dressed only in a linen cloak and fled to Hatthikuchchi to live the life of a hermit.

Not believing in his luck the evil Gothabaya who did not believe in half measures offered a substantial reward to anybody who would bring him the head of his Brother because he realized in his heart that he would never feel safe — uneasy is the head that wears the crown was his lot. A spate of mass killings followed committed by people eager to collect the reward offered. It happened that a poor peasant recognized the ‘Hermit’ in the caves and was tempted by the reward money and what it could do for his poor family. Sirisangabo perceiving the peasant and knowing that he had been recognized was able to read the mans thoughts. Not wishing to make the man a murderer, he took out his sword, cut off his own head and gave it to the peasant. The latter took the head to Gothabaya and collected his reward.

Ancient chronicles confirm that there were four main monasteries in the country during the early stages of Buddhism. They were Mihintale, Dakshinagiri, Sithulpahuwa, and Hattikuchchi. The latter has been a Buddhist centre for over 1400 years, but is more popular today due to King Sirisangabo who laid down his life for a friend. Greater love than this has no man……..

tire complex covers a wide area – probably over 400 acres, and is well worth a visit. The oldest stupa in the complex lies at the top of the mountain. Close to the stupa there is a carving of a man running, carrying something in his hand. It is thought that this figure resembles the peasant carrying the head of King Sirisangabo, taking it to Gothabaya to collect his reward.

From the summit one gets a beautiful view of a timeless age-caressed landscape. The extraordinary views of the surrounding countryside and the brooding loneliness of the dramatic wilderness presents one with a panorama that is visually stunning.


The Kingdom of Dambadeniya founded by King Vijayabahu the 3rd served as the capital of the country from 1232 to 1272 AD. Being a man of great wisdom and a literary scholar, he fostered learning in the land and also constructed temples and most important, protected Buddhism and the sacred relics from foreign invaders. With his penchant for the Arts and letters, the sensitive side of his soul soon discovered the beauty of his surroundings and he made the city one of prosperity and good governance. It would be correct to say that he ushered in an artistic and ‘golden age. ‘After his demise King Parakramabahu the 2nd succeeded him. This King too was famous for his scholarly skills and he authored many Buddhist scripts such as the “Vissudhi Marga Sannaya” and the “Kausilumina”.


The spiritual center of Dambadeniya is the Vijayasundararama temple which once housed the sacred tooth relic. It is a living treasure pioneered by this King. I wandered about the temple precincts trying to imagine what it must have looked like in the golden days of the kingdom, when a woman employee told me that there is a building in the center which houses priceless paintings of inestimable historical value, in that some of these paintings belong to the early Kandyan period but there are one or two that are originals from the 13th-14th century.

However, she added there was one caveat. This room is seldom opened to visitors and that only on rare occasions. Permission to enter this room has to be obtained from a Buddhist priest who has the key. I told her that I had travelled halfway across the world, and would feel very disappointed if he refused. She went away and to my joy returned with the young priest who held the ancient key in his hand. He opened the door while I waited with bated breath. The door opened, I gently stepped in with ill suppressed excitement, and as I grew accustomed to the light an astonishing sight met my eyes. Faces of young Buddhist monks gazed at me from a painting before me and I felt I had entered a world of enchantment. Crossing a time span of 800 years their world met mine as I was transfixed by their warm smiles and the expressions of kindness on their faces. These were definitely paintings from the early Kandyan period. But in the background other faces met my gaze and one look told me that these were Buddhist monks from the time of King Vijayabahu.

Sometimes, the concept of time is annihilated in moments like this, and one feels like an intruder. I wondered how many feet had stood on the spot down the ages where I stood now. I also noticed the paintings of the chief main disciples of the Buddha, Sariputta and Moggallana. I viewed the other antiquities in the room foremost of which was a classic statue of Lord Buddha, and thanked the priest for his kindness. I stepped out into the sprawling temple grounds and observed that the temple itself was amazing to behold in the magnitude and beauty of its workmanship. There was grandeur almost beyond the power of mere words to describe. I left with the thought that in the heyday of the kingdom during King Vijayabahu’s rule, the people lived in harmony and following the example of their King, showed gentleness joined with wisdom. Climbing to the summit of Dambadeniya rock became steeper on the way and the higher one climbed, one could see the remains of the courtyard which once surrounded the magnificent palace.


The rock fortress of Yapahuwa once served as the 13th century capital of ancient Ceylon during the reign of King Buwanekabahu the 1st in 1272. Sections of the original landscaped gardens are still visible. I imagine the gardens were originally laid out with fountains, avenues, and abundant plants and flowers. One enters past the Museum and goes through the south gate and the inner and outer ramparts and the moat protecting the fortress. The main attraction here is the ORIGINAL ORNAMENTAL STAIRCASE WITH ITS EXQUISITE CARVINGS AND THE PORCHES ON THE STAIRWAY WITH THE BEAUTIFUL WINDOWS, a breathtaking beautiful structure which is an architectural pearl.

The other ruins worth a visit are the stone carvings of the women dancers and the temple of the Tooth Relic. Twice during his reign there was a Pandyan invasion from South India; but he repelled both attacks. He also despatched a diplomatic trade mission to China and another to the Sultan of Egypt proposing an alliance.

The nature lover will enjoy spectacular scenic views from the summit. All that remains are the ruins of a stupa and a shrine which once graced the summit. I was told that there is a cave temple on the ground level which contains lovely frescoes from the 13th century and images of Lord Buddha made of bronze and wood. This is one treasure I missed because the Monk who held the giant key was not available. The famed traveller Marco Polo visited the island in 1292 but his writings do not refer to any capital city.


I visited the Vessagiri Temple in Anuradhapura due to a tantalizing mystery which still has to be resolved. The ruins of the present Vessagiri Vihara lie below the eastern dam of the ‘Tissa Wewa’ tank in the vicinity of the Issurumuniya temple. This cave monastery complex (Vessagiri) belongs to the early Anuradhapura period and the ruined buildings to the late Anuradhapura period.

The extent of this site is about 25 acres with three small hillocks. According to ancient chronicles, the Vessagiri Temple (and the Issurumuniya temple) were bestowed with many favours, and received the patronage of King Kashyappa of Sigiriya fame. King Kashyappa in fact renamed the temple using his name and those of his two daughters, Bhodhi and Uppulavanna. It was known as “Bo-Uppulvan Kassupgiri”. The murals of the present Vessagiri temple are considered one of the oldest in the island, and belong to the traditional style known as ‘The Classical Style’. The colours used, the very style of the contours and lines etc. prompted the first Archaeological Commissioner Mr. H.C.P Bell to state that these paintings may have been executed BY THE SAME ARTIST OR ARTISTS WHO PAINTED THE WORLD FAMOUS SIGIRIYA FRESCOES. This was also mentioned by Professor Senerat Paranavitarne who was a protege of Mr. Bell at the time. He based his observations onKing Kashyappa’s patronage to this temple during his reign.



Twelve miles from the Avukana temple famed the world over for the classic Avukana Buddha statue, is the Rasvehera temple famous for another Buddha statue which was the template for the Avukana Buddha. This temple is in the heart of nature and is serene and tranquil. In the vast forest beyond the statue there are many caves with inscriptions, and an incredibly rich profusion of flora and fauna. Rasvehera traces its origins to the reign of King Devanampiyatissa who ruled the island from 307 BC-267 BC. The Bo tree one sees today was originally planted from a sapling of the sacred Sri Maha Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura. Climb a few steps away from the temple and you will come across a statue of Lord Buddha in splendid isolation similar to the one at the Avukana temple which has given rise to much conjecture. And thereby hangs a tale.

* One school of thought states that the sculptor who executed the classic Avukana Buddha worked his template on the Sassaruwa Buddha and once satisfied with the progress hE made, ceased work on this statue and began work on the Avukana statue.

*  Folklore down the ages has it that there was a contest between a Master Sculptor and his pupil as to who could carve the best statue. It was agreed that whoever completed work on the statue first would ring a bell to signify that his statue was complete. The Master Sculptor on completing the statue rang the bell and when his pupil heard it, he stopped work on the statue he was working on —  which was the Rasvehera Buddha — and conceded defeat.  To this day 1500 years later, the “unfinished” “incomplete” statue still stands majestically, in the beauty   of its location in a leafy jungle glade. As I gazed upon the face of this statue I was enchanted by the look of kindness and love it emanated.

  • There are significant differences between both statues. While the Sasseruwa Buddha statue is reached by climbing seventy-five steps, the pedestal of the Avukana Buddha is on ground level.
  • robe on the statue at Avukana is a masterpiece of the sculptor’s art magnificently carved, while the robe on the Sasseruwa Buddha is markedly inferior. The Avukana statue is completely separated from the rock from which it was carved, whereas the back and the head of the statue at Sasseruwa are connected with the rock on which it stands.

History states that the carving of the statue at Avukana was commissioned by King Dhatusen and it is probable that he dictated it should be carved at Sasseruwa. As time passed he found that the rock here was inferior and on the advice of his Sculptors was told that the rock at Avukana was much stronger to support a statue of this height. Thus we have the Sasseruwa Buddha in its lonely setting caressed by nature, keeping watch as it has done for the past 1500 years. Though “unfinished” it is a beautiful work of art to me, done by a sculptor technically skilled to the highest degree. I like to think of it as a pearl set among emeralds.


Ibbankatuwa is located on the left bank of the Dambula Oya, a tributary of the Kala Oya. The early Bronze Age burial site discovered here covers an extent of 13 hectares and comprises stone cist type burial graves of the Megalithic tradition.

The period from the end of the prehistoric era to the beginning of the Historic period is known as the early Iron Age. In 1970, a former Archaeological Commissioner Dr. Raja de Silva conducted an excavation for the first time in the Ibbankatuwa Burial Site. In 1988 and 1990 the Post Graduate Institution of Archaeology with the Commission of Archaeology in Germany conducted two excavations at this site and made a sensational discovery. They discovered a cluster of twenty one burial chambers, and the radio carbon dating of the charcoal at the site confirmed that it belonged to 600 BC – years before Prince Vijaya landed in Ceylon. The Central Cultural Fund conducted a further excavation in 2015 west of the burials discovered previously and hit the jackpot! They discovered 47 additional burials of which 27 were stone urns containing the ashes of the dead.

These burials contained chambers made of simple granite slabs, some rectangular and others circular. Some chambers which were covered with capstones contained various sizes of earthen receptacles about 10 in number which also contained ashes of the dead. Beads of different shapes and metal implements made of copper and iron were also found. The Ibbankatuwa Burial Site is the biggest burial site from the early Iron Age discovered in Sri Lanka.  A combination of a human settlement and a burial site was also discovered in Polwatte, not far from the place where the first discoveries were made, making both the first burial sites of the early Iron Age found in the country.

All the burial slabs and tombs are on display.

Not to be missed are the beautiful necklaces, chains made of copper and gold, and the various ornaments on display which signify that these first settlers had some technological knowledge. My visit to this site is a “Gift” which my Driver/Guide Milton had as a surprise for me since this was not on my itinerary. He only mentioned it to me at the last minute when the tour ended.

Having spent the night at The Gimanhalla Hotel in Dambulla, I headed for “Home” the next day. By “Home” I am referring to The Nilaveli Beach Hotel eleven miles from Trincomalee, where I was employed. It is a place which has many happy memories for me. I joined in March 1973 and was the first member of the Staff. Going “home” specially after a very tiring tour which involved much climbing was most welcome, and for the next thirteen days I spent an idyllic holiday by the most beautiful stretch of pristine beach anywhere in the world.


There is something surreal about ancient archaeological sites. Most of these sites are imbued with a sense of mystery with more questions than answers. How did ancient Lanka develop such an advanced technology in Hydrology which collected water in giant tanks, reservoirs and dams, which provided sufficient water for agriculture and also guaranteed a supply of water even through lengthy periods of drought? What about their advanced engineering technology which sees some of the ancient palaces and monastic buildings still standing today, not to mention artistic skills of the highest standards? Many ancient civilizations had complex writing systems that Archaeologists and Linguists are still struggling to decipher today. Few are aware that ancient Lanka was the only country in South East Asia which traded with the Roman Empire. There are records of diplomatic and trade missions between Rome in the West and the Chinese Empire in the West – quite a feat for a small country which punched well above her weight in the glory days of her ancient past.

This concludes the 1st part of AN ODYSSEY – A SEARCH FOR HERITAGE. The second and concluding part of this series will follow in good time.

……………. Bernard VanCuylenburg.


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