The attention of any visitor to the Southern Province is immediately drawn to the city of Galle and its maritime heritage of Galle Fort. As a maritime province, it has lived through 350 years of colonial rule first by the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the British.
Inevitably, contemporary artistic and architectural styles have been influenced by European standards and values, which are reflected in the buildings, especially in the Buddhist temples of this maritime region from the 18th to the last quarter of the 19th century.
Among these buildings, the most impressive and intrinsic Buddhist architectural finds are found in the small hill, widely known as Kumarakanda, a few kilometers from Hikkaduwa, on the land side of the Colombo-Galle highway in Dodanduwa, a scenic tourist resort. area near the southern capital of Galle.
After parking the vehicle in the parking lot at the foot of the buttress, we walked up the flight of stairs in the hot sun to visit the temple.
As the name of the temple suggests, “Kumarakanda” refers to a hill, which means Prince’s Hill. The temple is nestled on a rocky mound with a staircase. The outer protective walls have a Dutch flavor. These structures give the temple the appearance of a Dutch fort.
The Dutch look is evident from the first glimpse of the temple. Being at the top of the hill, you could see it from afar. The magnificent whitewashed arched entrance at the top of a steep staircase is impressive. Two animals, a lion and a horse are depicted on the upper part of the arch, reminiscent of the coat of arms at the entrance to a Dutch fort. The split flight of stairs and ornate half-walls practically serve as a protective railing for worshipers making the steep climb.
According to historical notes, this temple dates back to 1765 AD, but scholars believe that the original temple was demolished by European invaders who occupied the southwestern coastal line in the 16th century. After consolidating their rule, the second invaders, the Dutch, introduced Protestant Christianity and showed more hostility to their predecessor’s Roman Catholicism than to Buddhism.
Having been influenced by European architecture and being on good terms with the Dutch, Buddhist devotees rebuilt Kumarakanda Temple in the mid-18th century. A few meters from the entrance is an image house whose architecture recalls the European style of churches with its arches.
There are three bedrooms in the Picture House and at the time of our visit only one Picture House was open. The blue painted wooden doors leading to the inner rooms are typically Dutch style doors and are all double paneled.
The door panels are narrow, and one of the panels in the second inner chamber, which is a bit larger, is split in two, with the upper part serving more as a window. In this window, like a panel, a horoscope chart like design has been created. All door frames and panels are painted blue.
After gazing at the splendor of the Image House, we learned that it dates back to 1784. In the left corner of the Image Chamber is a statue of a reclining Buddha. Most of the old wall paintings were destroyed and a new set of paintings was made on the surface of the previous ones. But, a square foot of the earliest remnants of a mural has been left, to show visitors what the walls originally looked like.
As it was closed when we visited, we learned that two marble statues donated by the King of Myanmar are on display along with two other statues in the middle chamber. The walls bear the modern paintings of the life of Buddha and 16 important Buddhist places of worship in Sri Lanka. The third chamber features statues of 24 Buddhas and the walls are adorned with murals depicting the story of Vessanthara Jathaka. A few meters from the image house, we came to the open courtyard where there was another shimmering arched entrance, resembling a Dutch style, as well as a temple belfry (Gantara Kuluna) and a shimmering Dagaba.
The belfry in the center of the courtyard was also typically Dutch, with intricately carved floral designs and motifs. This belfry has a unique look compared to other temple belfries. At first, the ringing of the temple bell was a call to the villagers to gather at the temple. It can be an emergency when the bhikkhu needs help. Today, the bell rings during temple rituals and offerings.
The old tiled thatched building with the arched entrance would be a well-equipped library, which had previously been housed in a Dutch-style building. These buildings have been rebuilt from time to time and the roof tiles have been changed several times. An invaluable collection of books, manuscripts and other materials written by learned bhikkhus and lay people during the Buddhist revival at the end of the 19th century had been placed in the library.
We then arrived at the lower terrace after descending a short flight of stairs to the preaching hall where the faithful gather to listen to the sermons of the bhikkhus.
The wooden pillars that start from the middle of the wall have three rounded wooden pillars up to the roof, decorated with carvings of a group of rings and painted orange. The remains of a Dutch-style podium where bhikkhus sat and preached sermons are in one corner. This building is also used as a classroom for the Dhamma School.
Kumarakanda Temple and other Buddhist temples scattered across the Southern Province, which boast a unique artistic and architectural style with strong European influence, need to be protected.