By Ranga Kalansooriya –
Kiriwehera Nayaka Hamuduruwo or Soratha Nayaka Hamuduruwo as we called him is no more. The depth of knowledge, the wisdom, the discipline, the dedication, the sense of humour, the charismatic smile that emanated from the front room of the Sangharamaya of the Kiriwehera temple we would not see it again. The brave voice that fought for the rights of the South, well-being of the poor and deprived, to protect the Sinhala Buddhist traditions, we would not hear it again. The high voice he would raise for a misdoing of his staff or a student monk, we would not hear it again. The writings that highlighted the glory of the south, that defeated the mistrusts of Kataragama blind devotees, that proved the true history of Kataragama, we would not read it again. The hours-long socio political discussions, intellectual and academic discourses, we would not conduct it again.
Silent Kiriwehera heard it all by keeping him by its side, encouraged him in all his battles, blessed him when he needed it most for the past 18 months, but according to the true teachings of Buddha everything must come to an end and silent Kiriwehera saw his end, too.
One day before the final day of Kataragama Perahera last month, late in the night, all have gone to conduct Perahera duties, Nayaka Thera was all alone sitting on a chair in the loan of Kiriwehera with a deep look at Kiriwehera Chaitiya. Podi Ralahamy (the young police constable assigned to Nayaka Thera) was standing by his side, but no talk at all. Profound silence, but only the sound of perahera – Nayaka Thera’s eyes were directly on Kiriwehera with thoughtful mind. “What would have he been thinking a few weeks before he bid farewell to this beautiful creature that stood by him in all his struggles including that of his own life?”
“Cannot bear it anymore. Time to go. Thanks for looking after me.”
The character of Soratha Nayaka Thera cannot be explained in a few pages. Thus, this surely, is an unsuccessful attempt to shed a light into his multifaceted, multi skilled life.
Born in the remote but picturesque village of Aluthwewa of the Hambantota District of Southern Sri Lanka on April 05, 1943 David Dahanayake (the lay-name of Nayaka Thera) was the fourth child of eight brothers and sisters of the family of Wemluladeni (Head of village paddy land) Don Eliyas Dahanayake and Mrs Karunawathie Dissanayake. Little David enjoyed his childhood in this serene environment in the village of Aluthwewa that was enriched with an agricultural life-style and unspoilt rural cultures and traditions. These initial cultural and traditional values were the foundation of a mammoth religious and academic life that nurtured not only the Theravada Sasana of Sri Lanka but the field of academia as well.
The initial days of this unique academic and religious life were spent at the Aluthwewa Primary School where little David took the first step of a long journey that expanded beyond the shores of Sri Lanka.
Little David always displayed a different behaviour compared to his friends in all his conducts. His attitudes were purely on religious in nature and lenient towards the village temple and its Buddhist monks. The pinnacle of this behaviour was his request to enter Sasana and become a Buddhist monk for which his parents were not so keen to entertain. Nevertheless, 12-year old David won his domestic battle where he was ordained as ‘Aluthwewa Soratha’ on November 08, 1955 under the Wardenship of Ven Aluthwewa Sri Medhankara Nayaka Thera who was the then Chief Incumbent of Kataragama Kiriwehera Raja Maha Vihara. Ven Aluthwewa Medhankara Nayaka Thera was a member of the most reputed Wehelle Sanga generation that derived from the apprentices of Most Venerable Weliwita Asarana Sarana Sangharaja Maha Nayaka Thera. Thus, joining this historic generation of Sangha was a gifted opportunity to Aluthwewa Soratha Samanera (novice) Thera.
Soratha Thera’s teaching life was an exemplary for such professional practitioners in the present context as he never stopped his own pursue for academic achievements while being a school teacher at a remote village of Kataragama. His publication on “Kataragama Puda Sirith (The Rituals of Kataragama)” was the thesis for his Master of Arts degree at the Vidyodaya University which later became a reference book for any researcher who would conduct studies on Sri Lankan traditional rituals. His doctoral thesis on Sri Lanka’s Bodhi Culture was an outstanding scholarly work that enriched both history and Buddhist Studies in this country. But unlike for many of today’s PhD holders, the doctorate was never a jewel to Soratha Nayake Thera. For him, the jewel was his discipline, knowledge and humbleness that stayed with him until his last breath.
Soratha Nayaka Thera’s service did not confine to his routine religious duties at Kiriwehera. It expanded to a massive social service in Kataragama, an economically deprived area of the south eastern tip of the country. He built villages, guided and initiated the political leadership of the day to develop Kataragama by constructing tanks and irrigation system, self-employment projects and education development programs in Kataragama following his appointment as the Chief incumbent of Kiriwehera Raja Maha Vihara.
The cardinal service among them was his initiative and guidance in constructing irrigation systems along the Menik river which includes massive Weheragala tank that nourishes thousands of acres of paddy land. All these initiatives were driven by one particular objective of the Nayaka Thera, “The poor Kataragama people are used to find their living through charities and selling of Puja Watti (fruit plates for God Kataragama). But we need to find a long term solution to the poverty in this area,” he always said highlighting the fact that the “Pooja Watti” economy has become a disaster to the lives of Kataragama.
In a silent manner, Nayaka Thera launched a scholarship program for skilled and talented youth who enter higher education from low income families. This program still continues but without much a fame and glamour as Nayaka Thera did not desire any personal exposure through such programs. Thus, the Nayaka Thera displayed true qualities of a revolutionary social worker but never sought cheap publicity for his such activities.
The Golden Teacher of Kataragama commenced the Golden Era of Kiriwehera with his appointment as the Chief Incumbent of Kataragama Kiriwehera Rajamaha Vihara on October 28 1993 following the demise of the then Incumbent Venerable Paranthane Ananda Nayaka Thera.
The new leadership at Kiriwehera attracted both local and global attention to this historic religious place. The wisdom, knowledge and most importantly the charisma of Soratha Nayake Thera was a magnate that appealed to people of many walks of lives in the country – from the political leadership to the poor farmer in a remote village. His unblemished record of service to Sasana was recognised by the appointment of titles “Ruhunu Magampattuwe Pradhana Sangha Nayaka” and “Upadhyaya” by the Kaaraka Sangha Sabha of the Malwatte Chapter.
His unassuming character and the unique academic life was further honoured with Nayaka Thera’s appointment as the Chancellor of Uva-Wellassa University, the office Maha Nayaka Thera held for eight consecutive years, until his demise.
Nayaka Thera talked less but worked more. Dedicating his entire life for Sasana and its affiliates, Nayaka Thera proved the ways to lead a selfless life for the betterment of the people and the religion.
Soratha Nayaka Thera was a living example for the strong Sangha traditions that came forward to protect the country, the nation and the religion. He always rejected violence, but hailed tolerance. “The best way to protect Buddhism is to respect other religions while strengthening the temple of the village. The life of Sasana purely depends on the discipline of its practitioners. Now it is time to make a re-start by revisiting Vinaya Pitaka,” Soratha Nayaka Thera recently said in a preaching.
His tireless efforts to develop Kiriwehera brought fruitful results, mainly to protect its historic and grandeur identity. Being a visionary, Soratha Nayaka Thera saw the barrier of Archaeological Department in developing Kiriwehera and took all efforts to make it released from the clutches of the Department. Amidst many hurdles he managed to reach the objective by getting 11.5 acres released from the Department and vested under the Kiriwehera Vihara complex.
Once Kiriwehera was released from Archaeological Department, Nayaka Thera commenced a massive, rapid development project within the complex. All necessary localities and utilities were established within a short period of time with the help of many donors and philanthropists that provided all facilities for thousands of pilgrims who visit this historic land on daily basis. Thus, Nayaka Thera proved the fact that it was the Golden Era of Kiriwehera.
A special attention was paid for the preservation and construction of the Ashta Pala Bodhiya which has a record history of more than 2000 years, but was in a poor condition even before Nayaka Thera assumed the office of Chief Incumbent. He established a special dedicated trust fund for the development of the Ashta Pala Ruha Bodhi and managed to complete the preservation and development project in September 1986 at a cost of 80 million rupees.
Bringing back the practices of the golden pre-historic era of Kiriwehera, Nayaka Thera commenced a weeklong-chanting (Sathi Pirith) ceremony along with the Esala festival of Kataragama. Reminding the “Giri Bhanda Pooja” ritual conducted by King Maha Dhatika Mahanaga of Southern Sri Lanka, Nayaka Thera made all efforts to make this weeklong chanting according to the historic tradition. Also he took all possible measures to fulfil the responsibilities assigned by King Dutugemunu to Kiriwehera in unleashing the duties of Pirith Nilaya (Office of Chanting) of the Kataragama Devalaya. Even while suffering from a painful illness, devotees with tearful eyes watched Soratha Nayaka Thera along with his student monks chanting pirith inside Kataragama Devalaya last month (August) before commencing the Esala Perahera (annual pageant).
A renowned scholar, highly disciplined Buddhist monk and a historian, Dr. Aluthwewa Soratha Nayake Thera created a new chapter in Ruhunu Magama history through his scholarly endeavours.
Maha Nayaka Thera’s life was of many different facets. His scholarly work was exceptional with his strong unique arguments.
Being an excellent and versatile writer and researcher Soratha Nayaka Thera had seven scholarly books for his credit. Through many of these writings he attempted to build up his own argument on God Kataragama. His argument that claimed God Kataragama is a Sinhala Buddhist who never had any links to India – as it is widely believed – did not receive due recognition from academia, as I always believe. Referring to Buddhist literature like Dhatuwamsa, Nayaka Thera argued that the regional ruler of Kataragama, Mahaghosha provided space at his Kihiri garden (the present location of Kiri Wehera Cetiya) for the Buddha to preach ‘Dhamma Chakkappawattana Sutta’ and then attained Sowan after listening to the Buddha’s sermon. Mohagosha after his demise became God Mahasen living in Kataragama area who later assisted King Dutugemunu for his final war with King Elara. The Kataragama Devalaya was the wow that King Dutugemunu fulfilled for God Mahasen, Soratha Nayake Thera always argued.
Soratha Nayaka Thera always fought for the Sinhala Buddhist identity of God Kataragama. The rituals and practices assigned by King Dutugemunu after constructing the Devalaya were purely based on Buddhist practices under the instructions of Kiriwehera, Soratha Nayaka Thera argued in his scholarly writings.
Nayaka Thera always hailed the legacy of Southern Sri Lanka. The Kshastriyas in Kataragama were a highly recognised tribe during the era of King Devanampiyatissa as they were among the distinguished invitees to receive two of eight samplings of Jaya Sri Maha Bodhiya, Nayaka Thera proudly claimed in his writings. He always claimed that Kataragama Devalaya was a result of Kiriwehera and Asta Pala Ruha Bodhi, thus, the Buddhist rituals and practices should take prominence in all activities of Devalaya.
Soratha Nayaka Thera had a continuous criticism on the Mahawamsa author where the Thera claimed that the legendary historic literature was always biased towards Rajarata and never paid due attention to the glorious era of South, mainly the Ruhunu Magama era. Soratha Nayaka Thera always demanded a separate Mahawamsa for Ruhuna, and I believe he set the initial foundation for such a gigantic work through his own writings.
But his struggle was always a solitary fight that confined only to the South. The capital centric academia never paid attention to these valuable arguments of Soratha Nayaka Thera and the media never provided due platform for such healthy academic discourse. The Colombo centric media reminded of Nayaka Thera only during the Kataragama festive season. Nayaka Thera was not a ‘marketable star’ for the media while Nayaka Thera himself never went after media for his own publicity.
Amidst all these socio, academic and religious work, Nayaka Thera dedicated time and efforts in creating a new generation of student monks by ordaining and grooming a young breed within the Kiriwehera premises.
With the demise of Nayaka Thera, the entire attention is on these six young talented monks who are destined to continue the unblemished legacy of Soratha Nayaka Thera. It is a challenging task, but the devotees at Kiriwehera vehemently believe that this young team has all the resources, knowledge and skills in fulfilling this duty of the hour.
The passing away of Soratha Maha Nayaka Thera would certainly create a vacuum not only in Kataragama but also within Sri Lankan Sanghas who once were highly enriched with knowledge and disciplined. The fact of the matter is Soratha Nayaka Thera is irreplaceable. The country needs thousands of such charismatic figures for the preservation of Buddhism as well as our Sri Lankan traditions. Soratha Nayaka Thera has fully performed his duty through all possible means, so Nirvana is not so far from him.