In the temple-studded paradise island of Sri Lanka, Bellanwila Rajamaha Vihara occupies a special place. This temple is considered so sacred that there is a long cherished belief that a child who treads the ground under the shade of its scared Bodhi-tree will never fail in life.
Situated in the outskirts of the city of Colombo, in the village of Bellanwila, just three kilometers from the city limits, Bellanwila temple has a long and hallowed history. The great sanctity attached to the temple is due to its sacred Bodhi-tree. There is authoritative literary evidence in ancient texts such as the Sinhala Bodhivamsaya which records that this Bodhi-tree is one of the thirty two saplings that sprang from the sacred Bodhi-tree at Anuradhapura planted in the 3rd century B.C.E. The recorded tradition is as follows: There were five twigs in the Bodhi-sapling that was brought from India to Sri Lanka and planted in the Mahameghavana at Anuradhapura. When the sapling had grown into a tree, eight new saplings sprang from its eastern side. These are called the astaphalaruka-Bodhi-trees and they were planted at eight different spots on the Island. From the other four original branches sprang thirty-two additional saplings which were also distributed throughout the Island. One such plant is the sacred Bodhi-tree at Bellanwila.
The reason why this particular spot at Bellanwila was selected is not clear. Scholars have forwarded various hypothesis. But what appears plausible is that even at such early times this particular spot had been recognized as a hallowed site, and further, that there may have already been a well established shrine here with resident holy monks.
The state of the shrine after the planting of the Bodhi-sapling is shrouded in the mists of history. Neither literary nor archaeological evidence is available to reconstruct its history. Bellanwila was far away from the then capital of the Island and as it had no significant role in the history of the Island, it did not find any mention in the chronicles or other historical documents.
In the 15th century, Bellanwila again is mentioned in literary works. This is when Kotte, which is in close proximity to Bellanwila, became the capital. In the Kotte period Buddhism rose to great heights with the royal patronage of King Parakramabahu VI (1412-1467). But even during this period, Bellanwila is cast in the shadow of Sunthradevi Pirivena, a shrine built by the king himself.
The subjugation of the maritime provinces by the Portuguese in the latter part of the 17th century and consequent loss of royal patronage, dealt a severe blow to Buddhism. As a result many places of worship were neglected. Bellanwila seems to have fallen on especially hard times, was abandoned and covered by a dense thicket.
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