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A group of bhikkhus clad in saffron robes walked in single file, carrying their alms bowls, silently down the pathway, for the midday Dana under a dimly-lit forest canopy. The female devotees gathered at a corner of the Dana Salawa (alms hall), clasping their hands together in worship, while the male devotees washed the feet of the bhikkhus and served the dana under chantings of Sadu… Sadu….

Then the bhikkhus retired to another alms hall a little distance away and sat down to partake of the food they received. One bhikkhu stayed in the Dana Salawa to confer merit on the devotees who had served alms. This is a moment in the daily routine of the bhikkhus of the Bodhinagala forest hermitage.

The hermitage in Dombagaskanda, nestling on the bank of the Kalu Ganga near the Dombagaskanda hill in the outskirts of Ingiriya in the Kalutara district, lies beneath the leafy canopy of a wet zone rain forest reservation of some 347 hectares.

The Bhikkhus walk in single file
The Bhikkhus walk in single file

The natural rain forest shields the hermitage from the hustle and bustle of the outside world, providing a serene environment for the meditating bhikkhus.

To reach the Bodhinagala forest hermitage, one has to travel on the Panadura-Ratnapura (A-8) highway, turn left from Aduragala and travel 1.5 km along the minor road which leads to the Kalu Ganga. Before coming to the river, the road branches off to the left and continues for another 1.1 km and comes to an area where it reaches the foot of Dombagaskanda. Although the road up the hill is motorable, it’s better to get off one’s vehicle at this point and walk through the forest.

Reaching the foot of the Dombagaskanda, you will find the natural forest reserve and a notice board beside the road cautioning visitors not to damage or disturb the fauna and flora in the protected area. It also directs you to the road leading to the hermitage.

Flowing stream

Although it was a sunny day when I arrived at the forest reserve, I heard the sound of rain. Further up, I noticed that it was not rain, but the sound of a stream flowing across the mountain.

I also had a glimpse of the Kalu Ganga which flows along the foot of the forest reserve. The silence of this serene and undisturbed forest is occasionally broken by the sound of a hornbill or monkey.

Bodhinagala is one of the most sacred and serene Buddhist hermitages in the Kalutara district. A neat pathway led me on a steady climb through the forest.

Walking under a forest canopy, I first got a glimpse of the refectory and kitchen of the hermitage. A group of around 20 people were preparing the midday meal (Dana) for the meditating bhikkhus. Some were engaged in sweeping the paths, looking for firewood, cleaning the buildings and carrying building materials to the summit of the hill where a Chaitya is being constructed. This is a common sight throughout the year as these activities are carried out as Shramadana by devotees who come to offer alms.

I walked up a pathway to the Chief Incumbent’s abode or Kuti. The present Chief Incumbent of the hermitage is Ven. Dharma Keerthi Sri Vippassanachariya Labugama Ananda Dhamma Kirthti Thera who is also the Viharadhipathi of the Kalutara district. Since he was absent, I met the deputy chief incumbent Ven. Miriswatte Narada Thera, a young and energetic bhikkhu, who welcomed me in his small abode.

Interesting feature

An interesting feature about the monastery is the Gediya, the short tree trunk used as a bell. When beaten with a stick, it emanates a large sound.

Sounding the gediya to call the Bhikkhus to the dana salawa
Sounding the gediya to call the Bhikkhus to the dana salawa

It’s hung on a tree and is sounded around 10.00 am every day to call the bhikkhus of the hermitage to the main Dana Salawa from where they go on Pindapatha.

The procedure of offering alms sees a devotee selected for each day of the year. The chief devotee together with relatives and friends offers alms to the bhikkhus on the day assigned to him. Some would come to the hermitage the previous evening and stay overnight at the Giman Hala to prepare the morning and midday dana which will be offered the following day. Most devotees are from nearby places while some are from far away places such as Polonnaruwa, Trincomalee and Ampara.

The history of the Bodhinagala forest hermitage goes back to the early 1950s. Ven. Olaboduwe Sri Revatha Dhamma Kithti Thera, the principal of the Dharmadeepa Vipassana Piriwana in Kaluwamodara in Aluthgama was the founder of the Bodhinagala forest hermitage. He came to Ingiriya to observe Vas on the invitation of devotees in the Raigam Korale.

He stayed in a makeshift hut at a cemetery close to the Ingiriya hospital with seven bhikkhus. More people thronged Ingiriya to listen to the Dhamma Desana and meditation practices conducted by the Ven. Thera.

A Bhikkhu walks along the meditative pathway
A Bhikkhu walks along the meditative pathway

After the Vas season was over, the bhikkhus prepared to go back, but the devotees persuaded them to stay permanently.

Numerous constructions

Ven. Olaboduwe Sri Revatha Thera, with the help of a few villagers, visited the thick forest of Dombagaskanda and at first sight, realised it was ideal for a forest hermitage. The villagers and devotees in the Raigam Korale have constructed the Kutis and other buildings in the Dombagaskanda forest and on June 4, 1955, the complete hermitage of Bodhinagala was offered to the Sangha.

Initially, 12 bhikkhus lived in the small kuti in five acres of forest. Later, it was expanded to 50 acres during the time of the late M.D.H. Jayawardena, the then MP for Horana. Today, this hermitage has numerous constructions including kuti, meditative pathways and medical halls, linked together and developed as a reputed forest hermitage in the country.

While about 12 bhikkhus permanently reside at the hermitages, foreign bhikkhus also come for short periods to practise meditation. They live and meditate in the small kuti in the hermitage, having left all their wealth and loved ones. To avoid disturbing the bhikkhus, visitors are allowed into the area of the Kuti only from 12 noon to 1.00pm.

After the passing away of Ven. Olaboduwe Sri Revatha Thera, Ven. Miriswatte Abhaya Revatha Thera became the Viharadhipathi of the hermitage. Today, the Chief Incumbent is Ven. Labugama Ananda Dhamma Kithti Thera, who continues to fulfil the vision of its founder. Under the guidance of the Viharadhipathi, the Bodhinagala Forest Hermitage Trust has undertaken the construction of a Chaitya to fill a long-standing need. Construction has already begun with the assistance of devotees and philanthropists. The project is estimated to cost Rs. 8.5 million.

I left the hermitage, with joy in my heart, having witnessed its serenity. The happiness I enjoyed, spending a few minutes under the canopy of green, away from the sights and sounds of the outside world, was more than words can express.

Text By Mahil Wijesinghe
Sunday Observer

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