We spotted the isolated rock of Kudumbigala in the distance, before entering the gravel road that led to Kumana National Park. Kudumbigala sits majestically atop a rocky outcrop in Yala East National Park better known as Kumana, 11 kilometers from Panama.
Today it is known as the Kumana-Kudumbigala Shrine. There is a shrubby jungle covering thousands of acres. No suitable road crosses it. Kudumbigala is a sacred Buddhist hermitage frequented by elephants, leopards and bears, but none of these fearsome animals disturb the monastic bhikkhus who meditate in the natural rock caves of the forest. When you climb to the top of the rock, you can see beautiful scenery such as Kumana National Park, Bagura Lagoon and the east coast which is a sight to see.
This is perhaps one of the reasons why monastic bhikkhus of a bygone era chose this quiet place to reflect on eternal truths. This sylvan Buddhist hermitage includes over 200 natural caves with drip edges, which are used by meditating bhikkhus as their abodes in the jungle.
I made my first visit to this ancient hermitage in 2002, just after the signing of the Peace Agreement (MoU) between the then government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) which opened the way to visit areas controlled by the LTTE during the ceasefire. period. The purpose of my three day trip was to photograph as many archaeological sites as possible in the Ampara district. The many ancient Buddhist shrines in the Kumana jungle in the eastern province had been abandoned due to terrorism.
When the peace agreement was signed by the then government and the LTTE, Tamil pilgrims from the north visited the famous Okanda Hindu Devale at the entrance to Kumana Wildlife Sanctuary. Many changes have taken place in and around the Kudumbigala Hermitage, as I saw on my second visit to the Hermitage.
Brahmi script inscriptions and other ruined structures in the recently discovered cave in the hermitage, Maha Sudharshana Lena, show that Kudumbigala was established as a forest hermitage in the pre-Christian era. A stone inscription at the hermitage indicates that the Maha Sudharshana Lena was built and presented to the monastic bhikkhus by Nandimitra Yodaya, one of the Dasa Maha Yodhayas of King Dutugemunu.
Refuge for meditative bhikkhus
Kudumbigala was first established as a refuge for meditative bhikkhus during the time of King Devanampiyatissa. Recently, it was rediscovered in 1954 by Ven. Thambugala Anandasiri Thera and an Upasaka named Maithree, who made Kudumbigala her home and initiated her rehabilitation. When they arrived in Kudumbigala, it was a dangerous place for people, as it was frequented by wild animals. However, they never harassed either Anandasiri Thera or Maithree Upasaka.
In 1994, darkness enveloped Kudumbigala. LTTE terrorists killed 17 civilians in Panama. Kudumbigala has been abandoned. Some of the meditative bhikkhus settled near the hermitage of Tharulengala, a branch of Kudumbigala which is in Hulan Nuge. The only visitor to Kudumbigala was Ven. Sivuralumulle Dhammasiri Thera, as chief prelate, who made a point of going there from time to time.
Today, there is no human habitation around this hermitage. Kudumbigala stands in silent splendor. When we visited the place in 2002, we could not even find the way to the adobe of the chief bhikkhu. After a laborious process, we reached the top of the rock and met the chief bhikkhu, Ven. Sivralumule Dhammasiri Thera, in his cave, dotted with skulls and bones of wild animals. Thera’s seat consisted of an elephant skull.
During his desertion, Kudumbigala was once a refuge for treasure hunters. All the stupas had been destroyed in search of treasures. Even today, “peace” could not save Kudumbigala and its surroundings. Treasure hunters continue to search for abandoned temples, wild animals are hunted by poachers, and smugglers destroy precious jungles for timber.
After the breach of the Peace Agreement, terrorists infiltrated the east again. Fri. Dhammasiri Thera was kidnapped by LTTE terrorists while meditating in his cave in Kudumbigala in 2008. He was held by terrorists for three days in the jungle infested with wild animals with cut wounds. The terrorists are said to have fled after being attacked by a sloth bear.
When the wounded bhikkhu returned to the road with bleeding wounds, a group of soldiers from the Special Task Force (STF) spotted him and offered him water. While drinking water, the bhikkhu fell into a coma and was taken to hospital. After recovering, he spent a few years and passed away at the age of 65, leaving an indelible impression in the Kudumbigala hermitage.
The current hermitage has new constructions of several buildings and a statue of Buddha carved in cement on a rock. The new additions have destroyed the old grandeur of the hermitage.
Today, the forest hermitage of Kudumbigala is a popular Buddhist hermitage in the East. A large number of the faithful from distant places come to offer Dana to the meditative bhikkhus who inhabit the natural caves.
Possessing the Covid-19 pandemic, the hermitage authorities are struggling to find food and other essentials for meditating bhikkhus because it is difficult for the faithful to reach remote places.