Bandaragama is blessed with many Buddhist temples with histories going back to several centuries. Veedagama Raja Maha Vihara, just within 1 kilometer from my own ‘Mahagedara’ is one of the finest of such gems.
Six hundred years ago the poet who compiled ‘Mayura Sandesha’ instructed the messenger (Mayura = Peacock) to worship the Veedagama Vihara early morning. (Kala pudaa pin paladaa udaavana – Vandu Veedagama Munidaa Udaasana)
Though it has been the nucleus of Raigamapura kingdom in the 15th and 16th century CE, the origins of Veedagama Raja Maha Vihara goes back to the preceding Kurunegala era. According to some historical sources, King Parakramabahu the Fourth, who ruled from Athugalpura (present Kurunegala), did this temple in 14th century. A pirivena (and education institute for Bhikkus) was subsequently completed and became famous as ‘Sri Ganananda Pirivena’. The other famous education institute of the times was ‘Thotagamuve Pirivena’, which later came to be known as the temple of Ven. Thotagamuve Sri Rahula thero, of ‘Selalihini Sandesha’ fame.
How the place got its name remains a matter of controversy. Chulavamsa refers to a place ‘Viddumagaama’ (in Pali) that translates to Sinhala as ‘Vidu-gama’, which could be present Veedagama. Vidu means light, a metaphor for education. The place could have been thus named for its well known education institute.
Nampotha, a book of ancient village names, mentions a ‘Visidaagama’, which according to some historians, derived from that fact that 20,000 (visi dahak) people once lived there. On the other hand, some are of the view the original form of the name was ‘Visi-daageba’ – a place with twenty stupas, which could have been a possibility given the large number of temples in the area, seen even today.
History records about three famous Bhikkus of ancient Veedagama. The first one, Ven Buddhagosha thero, was in addition to being the first incumbent, was also a ‘Raja Guru’ (educator of kings) during the Kurunegala period. (Not to be confused with the other famous thero of the same name at Anuradhapura era) He was said to be of South Indian (Chola) origin. The second one was Ven Maha Veedagama thero, who gained fame for matters related to not just religion, but also ‘manthara gurukam’. Ven Thotagamuve Rahula thero was a student of Maha Veedagama thero. According to one legend, the former took an overdose of the memory enhancer ‘Sarasvathie Thailaya’ and consequently was able to remember everything he heard.
The third and perhaps the most famous was Ven. Veedagama Maithriya thero, one of the two leading poets of Kotte era. He is said to have written five books of poems namely, Loveda Sangarava, Hansa Sandesha, Budugunalankara, Daham Geta Mala and Kav Lakunu Mini Mala’. Not everyone agrees that he did all above. It could be possible some have been inaccurately attributed, but we will never know. Out of these, the first three are still considered to be valuable gems in the ancient Sinhalese literature. Loveda Sangarava is a book written in plain language, aimed for laymen rather than scholars, with a series of advices to make one’s life more productive to the society. Budugunalankara, as the name suggests, is a compilation of verse eulogising the great qualities of Buddha. Hansa Sandesha is treated as one of the masterpieces that extols nature in a deeply poetic language.
The fall of ancient Veedagama Vihara was inevitable, when the buildings were completely demolished by Portuguese in the late 16th century CE. Some artifacts of the ancient times are still seen there, but what stands today is certainly not the ancient Viharaya or Pirivena. The later version of Veedagama Viharaya was built by Ven. Kindelpitiye Sarananda thero, not too long ago.
Anybody who plans to visit this ancient vihara will find it along the Horana-Panadura road (A8 ) within one kilometer from Bandaragama town towards Panadura.
(Most of the information above was taken from the book ‘Sinhala Vehere Vihara’, by Prof. J. B. Disanayake. Piyavi Prakashakayo, Nugegoda, 1998 )