July 2010

An ancient temple of worship: Deegavapi
July 2010

The ancient Deegavapi Stupa as seen today

Photography: Mahesh Bandara

Situated in the Eastern district of Ampara, the Deegavapi Raja Maha Viharaya is a temple that dates back to the time of Lord Buddha. It has witnessed the change of time and has remained an icon of the area even today. Udeshi Amarasinghe reflects on the history that makes this site one of the most revered places of worship in the country.

The story of Deegavapi begins in the 6th Century BC during the time of Gauthama Buddha. It is said that Lord Buddha during his second visit to Sri Lanka accepted the invitation of the Naga King Maniakkitha and thus visited Sri Lanka for the third time in the eighth year after attaining enlightenment. During this visit, Lord Buddha's first destination was Kelaniya, thereafter Sri Pada or Adam's Peak where he placed an imprint of his foot on the mountain and then proceeded to Deegavapi after a brief stop at Divaguha.

The Deegavapi Stupa that we see today is situated at the place where Lord Buddha and his entourage of 500 monks rested. Furthermore, fulfilling a request made by the Gods, Lord Buddha gifted a fingernail from his left hand to be placed within the Stupa thus giving further significance to the temple. Thus the Stupa that was built was initially given the names of Nakha Seya or Nakha Vehera. Deegavapi temple is one of the 16 sacred sites visited by Lord Buddha in Sri Lanka.

The name Deegavapi came to being during a later period. Human settlement in Sri Lanka began after the arrival of the Indian Prince Vijaya. His wife Princess Baddakachchayana's brothers were given priority when establishing settlements and thus Prince Digayu established the village in his name along the banks of the Gal Oya. In order to develop agriculture, building tanks for irrigation was a priority during this time, hence an elongated lake - Deega Wewa, which translates into Deegavapi was constructed near Nakha Vehera. Therefore before long Nakha Vehera was known by the name of Deegavapi Vehera.

During the period of King Saddatissa 137 - 119 BC much development was seen in the area, the Deega Wewa was further developed and the Deegavapi Stupa was reconstructed to become a massive edifice. During this time Deegavapi temple became a significant place of worship consisting of all the required elements that make a temple. It was an era when many monks resided at this temple. King Saddatissa's time can be seen as a period where Deegavapi temple played a pivotal role in the spread of Buddhism to the eastern region of the country.

Today, what remains of the ancient temple is only the large ruin of the Deegavapi Stupa. However, all aspects of a temple remain, a new Budhu Gey (shrine room) has been built and the wall around the main Bo tree has been reconstructed. It is said that the Bodhiya is a sapling of the tree that was planted during the inception of the temple. Passing the Stupa and the Budhu Gey, walking towards the Devale (shrine room for Hindu Gods) - two more Bo trees can be seen, the one farther away is said to be a sapling of the Bodhi tree in India which was planted at Deegavapi temple during the tenure of Prime Minister William Gopallawa in the 1970s.

The location of where Deegavapi is situated is said to be a place of great spirituality where Gods and Deities reside. It is said that after the visit of Lord Buddha the sacred site was placed under the protection of the Deity Mahasen. Today, the Devale is dedicated to God Vishnu and God Ganesh and many visit this place of worship to make vows and pay their respects to the Gods.

The Deegavapi Raja Maha Viharaya has changed with time but its spirituality remains stronger than ever before. The ancient Stupa may be the only visible remnant from the time of Lord Buddha, but the devotion of those who throng in buses and defy the hot sun to pay their respects undoubtedly transverses beyond the naked eye.



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    The sapling of the Bodhi tree in India which was brought down during the tenure of Prime Minister William Gopallawa in the 1970s

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