31 March, 2023


Legend Of Vihāramahā Devī: A Glimpse Of The Forgotten History Of Magul Maha Viharaya

By Rev. Miriswaththe Wimalagnana

Rev. Prof. Miriswaththe Wimalagnana

Muhudu Maha Viharaya on the Pothuwil beach of the eastern coast has been an ancient Buddhist monastic site of pilgrim attraction after the war against LTTE. Irrespective of its popularity, Muhudu Maha Viharaya has so far been a monastic site deprived of adequate historical and archaeological studies.  The history of the beginning of Muhudu Maha Viharaya is almost fabricated around a legend of the princess Vihāramahā Devī, the mother of the hero of the Sri Lankan chronicle Mahāvaṃsa, king Duṭṭhagāmiṇī in the 2nd century BC.  While this is a legend, it is much important to know its history. The legend suggests historical ties between Magul Maha Vihataraya and Muhudu Maha Viharaya. As we have lots unearthed archaeological remains in the latter place we can construct a history of Muhudu Maha Vihraya in the light of the former.    

Vihāramhā Devī was a heroic princess who voluntarily sacrificed herself to the sea to appease the gods who were enraged at the king Tissa of Kelaniya, her father for punishing an innocent arhant monk. At her own consent, she was kept in a boat which was launched into the roaring see making the sacrifice of a princess. The princess however did not die in the calamity instead the boat that carried the princess was safely carried over the ocean waves, reaching ashore at the place of Muhudu Maha Viharaya. King Kāvantissa in Mahāgāma, a provincial kingdom that was bordering the eastern coast, heard the miraculous arrival of the princess. The king met the princess whom he made his consort. The legend up to here is reported in the Mahāvaṃsa, the chronicle. According to the folklore, king met the princess at the place where Muhudu Maha Viyaraya is today and their marriage took place where Magul Maha Viharaya is located. Magul Maha Viharaya, the Buddhist monastery was later built by Kāvantissa, according to the legend, in the memory of the royal wedding between himself and her consort Vihāramahā Devī. The Sinhalese term ‘magul’ (the stem) that occurs as a part of the nomenclature of the monastery also means among its other renderings ‘the wedding’. 

It should be noted, however, that there is no archaeological evidence to prove this legend reported in the chronicles. There is an architectural setting which is claimed by the locals to be the nuptial dais (magulporuva) on which rituals of the wedding were conducted. However, contrary to this matrimonial legend of king Kāvantissa and Vihāramahā Devī, characteristics of the exposition of the stones of the construction as we see after the conservations by Department of Archaeology in 1960, the structure can be recognized to be the basement of a bodhighara (Bodhi shrine). The reports of the Department of Archaeology also identify these remains to be those of a bodhighara (1965-1966). 

The Magul Maha Viharaya has an inscription of a reconstruction of the temple in the 14th century. This stone inscription relates to the renovation of the place and making donations by one Vihāramahā Devī, the consort of two brother kings in the Gampola period (14th century). This inscription clearly indicates, contrary to the legend, that the temple was built by king Dhātusena (circa 455-473 A.D.) and the name of the temple was Ruhuṇu Mahā Vihāraya (rūṇu mahavera as how it was designated in the 14th century Sinhalese language). From this evidence, it becomes very obvious that this regal woman in the 14th century was either not aware of the legend of the king Kāvantissa’s marriage or she did not regard it as demanding to be mentioned in the inscription. However, it does not seem also that pseudo history revealed in the legend to be subsequent to the 14th century. It could well be a belief earlier than 14th century on the grounds that connecting these two sites Muhudu Maha Viharaya and Magul Maha Viharaya by the legend bespeak some element of historical vestige of the ties between the two sites.  The two monasteries seem to have been closely connected to each other in the history well before the time of renovations in the 14th century. 

To be concerned with the archaeological remnants of the site, the fact that Magul Maha Viharaya was built by king Dhātusena does not preclude by the art and architectural remains at Magul Maha Viharaya. The modelling, the drapery and folds of the robe of the torso Buddha representing Andhra characteristics of iconography, locating the shrines, usage of stone pillars and bricks for foundations etc. signify a date of construction for them in the 5th century A.D. However, well organized plan, association of all the monastic shrines and sanctuaries- an image-house, a bodhi tree with a protective house, stupa, chapter house in a boundary surrounded by a peripheral wall with spectacular pylons, construction of the monastic buildings of the main residential unit on a terraced stratum of landscape and of the small reservoir through which we have to enter the monastery today indicates it to be much closer to well organized monastic plan sharing some similarities with the types of monasteries called pabbata-vihāras. The major residential unit of the Magul Maha Viharaya is an early or incipient plan of this type of monastic architectural settings. Bandaranayaka in his Sinhalese Monastic Architecture says:

…… the plan of the pabbatavihāṛa had not emerged in a ready-made form at a given point of time. Between the highly symmetrical planning and…… untidy cluster of buildings, there is an entire history of development”.

These types of monasteries constructed with much labour and cost were much preferred by the Abhayagiri tradition under its affinity to Mahayana ideals. The plans of organized monasteries within a particular boundary such as those Pabbata-vihāras were convenient to the rules of the technical manual called Mañjuśrībhāṣita-vāstuvidyā-śāstra written in Sri Lanka in the Mid Anuradhapura period and followed in architecture by Abhayagiri tradition. This is to say that this temple originally could have been a centre of Abhayagiri exposed to cults of Mahayana. 

There is other evidence to support the idea that this temple was a Mahayana centre from a certain point of its history. The inscription of the renovation of the monastery that we mentioned above itself testifies this. After the restorations, the temple was offered not to the ‘monks (saṅgha) of four quarters’ as how the offerings were made in the Theravada monasteries but to the Jewel of Dharma (dharmma ratanayaṭa). In Mahayana, as order of saṅgha was replaced by living Bodhisattvas, there was no recognition of the Saṅgha as a source of much merit. Dharma was not considered merely as the teaching of the human Buddha but ever-lasting principle (body) of the enlightenment or Buddha nature.  The offering to the Universal Buddha nature might have thought to be far more superior than offering to human followers or disciples. 

Another evidence to attest to the inclination of the monastery to Mahayana is the wish of the donors for enlightenment.    There are two inscriptions of donations belonging to late Anuradhapura period that donors of which express their wish to be enlightened. In one of the inscriptions for instance, the donor Sati Abboy who made an offering of three stone slabs (pahaṇa) wishes to be supremely enlightened (budvemvā) in the future by the merit accumulated by his meritorious action. This is not the only place where the similar wishes of donors are heard of. Evidence of wish to be enlightened is found from Kuccaveli which had turned into a Mahayana monastery on the eastern coast. Kuccaveli being a recognized Mahayana centre, this information is supportive to establish our thesis that Magul Maha Viharaya was a place that promoted similar ideals. In one of the inscriptions written in Sanskrit at Kuccaveli the wish of a sponsor reads “… by this merit may I vanquish the foes of Mara… and sin….. and having attained Supreme state of Buddhahood (puṇyena māra….. doṣa ripunā anena jitvā parāṃ samadhigamya jinendritāṃ tāṃ….” It was Mahayana tradition that promoted the idea of liberation through Buddhahood. This was the reason for them to be designated as Mahayana, the great vehicle.

It is worthy to note that the reign of Dhātusena, who undertook the construction of the monastery is associated with the promotion and spread of Mahayana cults, especially the Bodhisattva cults, in the country. Though he was not the one to introduce such cults, his reign has been so productive in the popularization of the Mahayana ideals. Following is a quotation from Mudiyanse’s Mahayana Monuments in Ceylon describing Dhātusena’s inspirations:

“……. The Cūlavaṃsa records the erection of Bodhisattva figures in the image house (paṭimāghara) of Bahunaṅgala-cetiya in the reign of Dhātusena (463-479). We know that in the reign of Jeṭṭhatissa II a figure of Bodhisattva was carved and placed in a maṇḍapa specially built for this purpose. In the reign of Dhātusena, which was more than a century after that of Jeṭṭhatissa II a number of Bodhisattvas (whose names are not mentioned) were installed in paṭimāghara. Since Theravada recognizes only Maitreya as a Bodhisattva, it is likely that these figures were Mahayanists…” (Mudiyanse, 1967: 25).

If the king Dhātusena happened to be the patron to carve the famous monumental Avukana Buddha statue out as is generally believed, it is not only fitting to the inspirations of the king, is a fine mark of the earliest representation of the superhuman character of the Buddha. This aspect of the development of Buddha concept was part and parcel in the teachings of Mahayana tradition. The Mahāvaṃsa reports that it was Dhātusena who fixed raṃsicūlāmaṇi (jewelled crest of rays) over the Buddha statues for the first time. The idea that the Buddha’s body was emitting the rays was already presented in the Theravada texts, as an iconographic feature, it was late to be added to the statues over their heads. Fixing raṃsicūlāmaṇi was undoubtedly indicative of the tendency of the king to then existing Mahayana iconographical interests.  He, by erecting shrines of the images, promoted the idle-worship of the Buddha in and outside the city (anto bahi ca kāretvā; nagarassa jinālaye; patimāyo ca pūjesi; dhammāsoka samo samo). Two of the Buddha statues he adored with raṃsicūlāmaṇi were called Upasumbha and the Buddha of consecration. While the latter undoubtedly had been a statue to what the Mahayana Buddhist ritual of consecration of the Buddha (buddhābhiśeka), which became very popular first in the Abhayagiri and later in the Mahavihara. The former must also be one of non-Theravada as it is designated by a name unknown in the Theravada texts.  All these indicate the kind of transformation taking place during the reign of Dhātusena in the ritualistic side of the Buddhist practice with a favour to Mahayana Buddhism. 

The monastic site of Magul Maha Viharaya spreading from main unit of residence indicates not a simple celibate life of seclusion but a more or less luxurious monastic life. The ruined monastic buildings signify a life of monks enjoying fair amount of monastic properties. The artistic splendour of the architectural constructions and of the artworks displays a grown tendency for the artistic beauty. The famous moon-stone there, famous not only for the reason that even the rider on the elephant back (a phenomenon not found anywhere else) is represented, but also for the skilfulness in detailing is a remarkable example for the application of expertise conversant with high artistic labour. Such elements remind us the beautiful constructions of Abhayagiri monastery and its affiliated monasteries in the vicinity. 

The diffusion of Mahayana Buddhism and its devotional cults- the cult of Bodhisattva, for instance, in the remote areas such as Buduruwagala and Dambegoda and in the coastal areas is very obvious. As there are several other Mahayana Buddhist sites in the eastern coast of the island such as Tiriyāyi, Kuccaveli and Budupatunna, Magul Maha Viharaya on the basis of the monastic planning, art and architecture, can be assured to have been a Mahayana centre. King Dhātusena might have built this monastery on behalf of Abhayagiri monks and it seems to be one of the earliest monasteries dedicated solely for the Abhayagiri monks with a Mahayanic inclination. 

Most of the sites with Mahayana elements are rid of the evidence for royal grants for their monastic constructions. This is true of Kuṣṭarājagala in Weligama, Buduruwagala, Dambegoda, Kuccaveli, Tiriyāyi, and finally Muhudu Maha Viharaya. It looks like that these Mahayana centres on the sea coast or along the navigable rivers were economically strong to initiate their own the construction of the monastic buildings which was later supported by wealthy people.

The association of the two sites by the legend of king Kāvantissa and Vihāramahā Devī was a mark of the historical ties the two sites had with each other. Muhudu Maha Viharaya could most probably be an affiliated monastery to the Magul Maha Viharaya. It was through Muhudu Maha Viharaya as well as Budupaṭunna that Magul Maha Viharaya popularised Bodhisattva cults in this part of the island in the latest phase of the Anuradhapura kingdom. The sculptures at Muhudu  Maha Viharaya and Budupatunna are Mahayana monuments representing the Buddha and Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva. The two Bodhisattva statues at Muhudu Maha Viharaya definitely were in the same position as those at Budupatunna: Avalokiteśvara flanking the   Buddha on both sides. Here the two forms: the princely form and ascetic form of the same Bodhisattva are sculptured. These sculptures were made on the coast and near the navigable rivers because Avalokiteśvara was considered the protector of mariners. All this attest Magul Maha Viharaya was a Mahayana centre during the late Anuradhapura period.

*Rev. Prof. Miriswaththe Wimalagnana is the Head of the Department of Buddhist Culture of the Postgraduate Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies. He is researcher on Buddhist Art and Buddhist Aesthetics.   He has written several research articles containing new perspectives of Indian, Sri Lankan and Thai Buddhist Art. Identification of the true history of Muhudu Maha Viharaya and Magul Maha Viharaya is a remarkable contribution to Sri Lankan Art History. This article is a summary of one of his speeches conducted at the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka.

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Latest comments

  • 2

    Vihāramahā Devī was a Hindu princess. Her name is Hindu name. It is not a Buddhist name because Devi is another name for Goddess Uma in Tamil, Pali and Sanskrit. But it is also used across the pantheon of all other goddesses too. Hindus have the culture of naming people with God and Goddess names. North had all the way to until recently using only Tamil gods’ names. But TN had started long ago to go for Sanskrit names too. Theivam is Tamil word. Thevan & Thevi are names, originated from it. Kalyani was ruled by Naga Kings. Nagas had lot of connection with South India. It is not sure if Kalyani Nagas ever became Buddhist like Nainadivu Nagas. The Tamil legend is Princess was kidnapped by southern king and this made Kalyani kindom to oppose Gemunu’s invasion to North and he had to fight there too.

    • 3

      Tamils and their absurd nonsensical theories….. hilarious. Tamil legend? Really? How do you have a legend about somebody you have absolutely no connection to and you have not even heard of until the British started translating the Sinhalese literary works in the mid 19th century? 21st century cunning Tamil myth making is what it is.
      Deva and Devi are not Tamil words and if you had any connection to Vihara Mahadevi or to the topic of this article, your response would not be another of those endless comments about how everything Sinhalese, is actually Tamil. FYI, these are over 2000 year old Sinhalese legends about our kings and queens. No amount of Tamil made fake etymologies and word games are going to make these kings and queens into Tamils.

      • 3

        All legends sounded realistic of that time were put in as Thivu Wamsa (It is another stupidity the Sinhalese calls an Island as lamp -Theepa. Sorry man the proper word is only in Tamil Language- Thivu) by Tamil nuns, the academic progeny of TN Nun, Manimekhala. Those legends were only in Tamil, so only Tamil Nuns had the ability to translate them into Pali & put it as Thivu Vamsa, It was only history. But the extreme religious tone was given only after 4 centuries by Mahanama who was a Telgu monk living in Tamil Nadu, only to be chased out from TN during the religious riots. All other stories of that a La ala woman was sleeping with lion or Malaysian Tamil woman was sleeping with Eagleloya, all are Modaya talks.

        Damn get rid from textbooks those all shames. Let the kids to study, languages, science and math.

        • 2

          “It is another stupidity the Sinhalese calls an Island as lamp -Theepa.”

          Theepa isn’t a word in Sinhalese you inbred tamil lowlife, dheepa is a word in Sinhalese which translates to land or country. Thivu and other tamil words are fake 19th century creations, you people had no written form of language before that. You try to lecture us on Sinhalese history when you don’t know jacksh*t about it, nobody ever calls dheepavamsa thivu vamsa, and are you so mentally disabled that you think that tamil and Sinhala words have the same meaning, this is why your people should go back to the jungles and stick to your oonga boonga language.

          • 2

            Plus. tamil history isn’t even recorded because they have no history, most of it is creation of dutch who fabricated it to show them as a united people and before the drabida movement there was no tamil identity, this is a recent creation.

        • 0

          How does one just write the utter rubbish Mallaiyuran is writing, is beyond me. Mallaiyuran FYI Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa were written and preserved for generations for over 1600 years by a people who had been harassed by Tamils.
          Dvipa/deepa :
          According to linguists, Tamils didn’t have a word for island.
          It is the Sanskrit word “dvipa” Tamils had borrowed and Tamilized into “tivu” .
          – Dravidian Theories; R. Swaminatha Aiyar, page 336
          “ They had no word expressive of the geographical idea of ‘island’ ”
          That’s according to Robert Caldwell, an authority in Dravidian linguistics and quoted in page 64, in the above book.
          The more interesting question than Viharamahadevi is that, if the Tamils had been here from prehistoric times, then HOW is it possible for the Tamils to not have a word for island?
          Sinhala has many words for island:
          dipa, diva, divayina, dūva which are Sinhalese words, and dvipa which is a Sanskrit loanword.
          Vamsa is also not a Tamil word.
          Tamil does not have the anushwara ṃ, and s/š and vaṃša is borrowed into Tamil as “vamicam” or “vamcam” .

        • 0

          “Tamil nuns, the academic progeny of TN Nun, Manimekhala…”
          LMAO. Thank God, at least Manimekalai is not claimed to have been a Tamil from Srilanka.
          FYI, when the text of the Manimekalai was found rotting full of dust in 1890 by Swaminatha Iyer, no Tamil knew about Manimekalai. It was only in the beginning of the 20th century that Tamils started showing some interest for it, and now in the past few decades, this text Manimekalai is attempted twisted in all directions to claim an imaginary Buddhist past for the Tamils, equivalent to that of other Buddhist societies. However, the story of Manimekalai itself proves how insignificant Buddhism was among Tamils, and that it was Hinduism that was the religion of the Tamils, with Jainism having some significance. To begin with Manimekalai was the daughter of a devadasi, i.e a temple danser /courtesan, a phenomenon that is unknown in a Buddhist society. The Tamil society Manimekalai lived in, was infested with caste conflicts and was a typical non-Buddhist society. Your totally spurious claims about Tamils writing Dipavamsa has no basis in reality, and proof of total absence of any knowledge about what you are talking about even.

  • 2

    “The history of the beginning of Muhudu Maha Viharaya is almost fabricated around a legend of the princess Vihāramahā Devī’
    Well, yes Ven Sir, if you say the story is fabricated, I believe you.
    Still, it’s good to see different viewpoints on CT.

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