THE VENERABLE SRI RAHULA THERO OF SRI LANKA
Like a beacon of light illuminating 15th century Lanka in the literary sphere, Venerable Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thero was a literary giant who authored such famous literary works during 1430 to 1440 such as Buddhagajjaya, Vurthamala Sandesaya, Paravi Sandesaya, Selalihini Sandesaya, Kawyasekaraya, Panchika Pradeepaya, Buddipasadiniya, Gira Sandesaya, Sakaskada and Mawulu Sandesaya.
Having been educated under both, his grandfather Uthurumula Rahula Thera and his uncle Wilgammula Thera, he was ordained according to the Buddhist traditional rituals and was known as Venerable Thotagamuwe Rahula Thero (1429). Not only in the literary sphere as a distinguished author, but also as a veteran astrologer and a proficient ayurvedic physician, Venerable Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thero was well versed in sorcery and exorcism. whose reputation pervaded beyond our shores. Venerable Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thero was a multi-linguist with his erudite knowledge of six oriental languages and was famous for for his unique skill in oratory and rose to become a luminary among the Sangha community of that day. The six oriental languages he was proficient in were Sanskrit, Pali, Sinhala, and the Indian languages Apabransa, Telugu and Magadhi. The titles ‘Shad Bhasa Parameshwara’ and ‘Vaaageewara’, were titles conferred on him by the king.
In the field of Sinhala literature in the kingdom of Kotte his writings in poetry embellished Sinhala literature so much that this period was referred to as the Golden Era of Sinhala Literature in the Kotte period. He was famous for his works of poetry such as the ‘Selalihini Sandeshaya’(The message of the Mynah bird), the ‘Gira Sandeshaya’ (The message of the Parrot) and the ‘Paravi Sandeshaya’, (The message of the Dove).The high quality of poetry in those poetic works has not been rivaled by any poet down the centuries to this day.
Born in his father’s village called Dematana in the Kegalle district on 9th June 1409 AD at 5.51am in the island of Lanka, Venerable Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thero was named at birth as Vijayabahu Wijesundera. His father was Don Charlis Wijesundera (Born on 23rd July 1382) and his mother was Weerakoon Aratchilage Catherine Kumarihamy (Born on 18th March 1387).When he was just six years old his father died of asthma and his destitute mother came back to her village called Thelwatte in the Galle district with her two children.
This male child was ordained as a Bhikku In the year 1429 on March 18th at the auspicious hour of 10.49 am as Venerable Thotagamuwe Rahula Thero, and came under the tutelage of the Venerable Weedagama Maithree Thero, as his first pupil. The teacher and mentor monk Reverend Weedagama Maithree Thero taught him ayurvedic medicine and sorcery, which benefited and was a great blessing to thousands of people. Venerable Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thero did not belong to any royal lineage but was the son of poor and simple peasant parents.
Although it is mentioned in several other web pages that Venerable Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thero was of royal lineage, this is not correct. Most people have confused the lay name of Venerable Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thero as Jayaba Kumaru whereas it was in fact Vijayabahu Wijesundera. Jayaba Kumaru was indeed of royal lineage but not Vijayabahu Wijesundera who later became Venerable Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thero. Jayaba Kumaru’s mother was Keerawelle Kumari, (the elder sister of Queen of Parakramabahu VI) but the mother of Vijayabahu Wijesundera who later became Venerable Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thero was Weerakoon Aratchilage Catherine Kumarihamy (Born on 18th March 1387) and not Keerawelle Kumari, (the elder sister of Queen of Parakramabahu VI). Jayaba Kumaru’s father was Wickramabahu whereas Vijayabahu Wijesundera’s father was Don Charlis Wijesundera (Born on 23rd July 1382). It was their son Vijayabahu Wijesundera who after ordination as a monk, later became Venerable Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thero. So there is absolutely no truth in the statement that Venerable Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thero was of royal lineage. He was the son of two poor peasants.
It is recorded that Ven. Sri Rahula Thera spent his prime of life at Thotagamuwa Temple and on account of this reason he was widely recognized as Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thera. Vijayaba Pirivena of Thotagamuwa in the Galle district served as the most popular centre of learning about nine and half centuries back. Thotagamuwa is a picturesque hamlet adjacent to Hikkaduwa town. King Vijayabahu I (1055 – 1110) was instrumental in inaugurating this extensively acclaimed Vijayaba Pirivena. It is the presumption of our historians and archaeologists that this edifice would have been a five storeyed building and a dominant institution of education equivalent to a university where diverse subjects were in the curriculum including the Tamil langauge. There is historical evidence that this monastery was later renovated and refurbished as a two storeyed structure by King Parakramabahu IV (1302 – 1326). Ven. Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thera succeeded as the chief prelate of the most reputed and renowned Thotagamuwa Vijayaba Pirivena. He was competent in reciting the Thripitaka (the three divisions of the Buddhist scriptures) by rote. He had a large following of pupils, the most famous were Weththawe Thero and Sri Ramachandra Bharathi.
The Portuguese unleashed many cruelties against the people of Lanka even from the beginning of the 15th century. Although they officially took control of the maritime provinces only in 1505, they committed a number of atrocities even before 1505, that are considered as genocide by modern day standards. They vandalized Buddhist temples and religious buildings, burnt valuable ancient books and looted the wealth in Buddhist temples. They tortured the natives and forced them to renounce their traditional religion – Buddhism. The Portuguese committed unspeakable horrors in the maritime provinces in Sri Lanka. Infants were thrown to crocodiles in the Kelani River and the women were subjected to gang rape. The men were tortured and entire villages left for starvation. These ruthless inhuman actions created deep psychological fear in the natives. It was this fear that drove Venerable Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thero to go into hiding in a cave at Ambana Indurugiri close to Elpitiya in the Galle district for safety and security.
He had departed Vijayaba Pirivena and had resided at Obbegoda Temple at Moneragala and Dikwella for a brief period and finally settled down at Ambana Indurugiri cave surrounded by a mammoth woodland at that period (1476).
Sri Rahula Thero who rendered such yeoman service to humanity passed away on 27th September 1491 in a rock cave called ‘Ambana, Indurugiri’, in the Elpitiya Division of the Galle District of Sri Lanka, while he was leading a cloistered life away from society fearing attack by the Portuguese invaders who were plundering Buddhist temples and killing Buddhist monks all over the island of Sri Lanka.
Fearing a possible transference of this mysterious holy body (supposed to have growing hair and nails) by the Portuguese to some other locality, the villagers had concealed the mortal remains at Ambana Indurugiri cave close to Elpitiya in the Galle district for safety and security.
Even today, 522 years since he passed away, his mortal remains are lying in a Roman Catholic Church in the district of Goa in India, with his hair and nails growing. Today the Roman Catholic community in Goa pay their respects to the remains of The Venerable Sri Rahula Thero of Sri Lanka, under the misguided belief that these are the remains of St. Francis Xavier, a Spanish saint of the Roman Catholic Church.
Although Venerable Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thero passed away in 1491 his incorrupt remains were confiscated from the rock cave called ‘Ambana’,in the Elpitiya Division of the Galle District of Sri Lanka by a Portuguese official called Pereira in 1553. Pereira came back from Goa, removed the corpse shortly after 15 April 1553, and moved it to his house in Theldeniya in Kandy, Sri Lanka. On 11 December 1553, Venerable Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thero’s corpse was shipped to Goa. The body is today in the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa, where it was placed in a glass container encased in a silver casket on 2 December 1637 under the misguided belief that it was the body of St. Francis Xavier.
There is historical evidence that St. Francis Xavier during his missionary trips to India had visited the island of Manaar in Sri Lanka. Xavier had learned that along the Pearl Fishery Coast, which extends from Cape Comorin on the southern tip of India to the island of Manaar, off Ceylon, there was a community of people called Paravas, from India, many of whom had been baptized ten years before, merely to please the Portuguese, who had helped them against the Moors, but remained uninstructed in the Catholic faith. Accompanied by several native clerics from the seminary at Goa, Francis Xavier set sail for Cape Comorin in October, 1542. First Francis Xavier set himself to learn the language of the Paravas; he taught those who had already been baptized, and preached to those who weren’t. His efforts with the high-caste Brahmins remained unavailing.
Francis Xavier devoted almost three years to the work of preaching to the people of southern India, converting many, and reaching in his journeys even the Island of Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Many were the difficulties and hardships which Xavier had to encounter at this time, sometimes because the Portuguese soldiers, far from seconding his work, hampered it by their bad example and vicious habits. He built nearly 40 churches along the coast, including St. Stephen’s Church, Kombuthurai, mentioned in his letters dated 1544. One of his most troublesome problems was the concubinage openly practiced by Europeans of all ranks with the native women. Xavier tried to meet the situation by methods that were not only moral, but sensible, humane, and tactful. He was invited to head Saint Paul’s College, a pioneer seminary for the education of secular priests in Goa, India, that became the first Jesuit headquarters in Asia. Francis Xavier died at Shangchuan from a fever on 3 December 1552, while he was waiting for a boat that would agree to take him to mainland China.
Francis Xavier was first buried on a beach at Shangchuan Island in Malacca. His incorrupt body was taken from that island in February 1553 and was temporarily buried in St. Paul’s Church in Portuguese Malacca on 22 March 1553. An open grave in the church now marks the place of Xavier’s burial but the body is missing. Francis Xavier did not die in Sri Lanka. He died in Portuguese Malacca. Perhaps due to Francis Xavier’s missionary work in Manaar, Sri Lanka, the Portuguese may have mistakenly thought that the remains of Venerable Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thero which was also incorrupt, were those of St. Francis Xavier.
How the remains of Venerable Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thero became incorrupt is a story which will be covered by us below in the Anecdotes section of this web page.
Some interesting Anecdotes from the life of Venerable Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thero
(1)The Indian mendicant who walked in the sky
One day a Brahmin mendicant from India came to meet Reverend Weedagama Maithree Thero, the mentor of Venerable Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thero. He came in search of some rare medicinal herbs which were needed to prepare a medicinal oil to enable a person to travel in mid-air. He had come to understand that these rare herbs which were not available in India were available in the forests of Roomassala and Madunagala in Lanka. While they were engaged in conversation, the pupil Venerable Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thero, moving behind the wall, suddenly quipped: “Venerable Sir, we also have the prescription for preparing this rare oil in our temple”. At once Reverend Weedagama Maithree Thero realized that this was a trick of his pupil Rahula, and said:“Yes, yes, it must be in the trunk with all the other prescriptions”. Saying so he asked the mendicant to read out all the items in his prescription for the medicinal oil. While the mendicant read out the items, Reverend Rahula silently copied the names of all the ingredients on to a papyrus leaf and gave it to his teacher Reverend Weedagama Maithree Thero who read it out to the Indian mendicant. Quite surprised, the mendicant exclaimed: “So you too have the identical prescription! Then let’s search for these herbs and begin preparing the oil without any further delay”. Having found all the ingredients they began fermenting the oil for about two and a half days on the fire.
At this moment Reverend Weedagama Maithree Thero felt he had to answer a call of nature and excused himself and went towards the latrine in the valley . Meanwhile, the oil which was fermenting on the fire had now reached its climax and now become ready for use, and the mendicant while Reverend Weedagama Maithree Thero was away, quickly helped himself to collecting the oil, rubbed it on his head, and began walking in the sky towards India by the power of the medicinal oil. Reverend Rahula who saw that the Indian mendicant had slipped away without even telling Reverend Weedagama Maithree Thero quickly ran and took a little oil left in the pot on the fire and instantly applied some of the powerful oil on the backside of a stray dog. At once the divine power attributed to the oil left it and the Indian mendicant came crashing down from the sky and died on the spot.
This episode illustrates the quick wittedness and presence of mind of Venerable Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thero .
(2)The first encounter with his mentor and teacher Reverend Weedagama Maithree Thero
One day Reverend Weedagama Maithree Thero was on his way to an almsgiving from his temple at Thotagamuwe. While walking along a paddy field he suddenly saw a small boy fishing in the marshes and remarked “Young boy, isn’t today the eighth day of the lunar month?” (On such a poya day known as ‘Ata-waka’ it was considered sinful to catch fish.) The young boy using a pun on the word ‘Waka’ which also meant ‘hook’, at once showing him the single hook on his fishing rod, retorted “Reverend Sir, I have only one hook on my fishing rod, not eight!”
Reverend Weedagama Maithree Thero then inquired from which ‘Wala’ the young boy came from, meaning from which household he came from. At once the young boy once again punning on the word ‘Wala’ which also meant a hollow watery hole, retorted “Reverend Sir, if not in this ‘wala’ I will move to the other ‘wala’.” Reverend Weedagama Maithree Thero then said “Young boy let’s go, I want to meet your father”. The young boy replied, “Reverend Sir, my father is dead. Only my mother and my elder sister are in our little hut”. When they approached the hut, the youngster’s sister was sifting the raw rice. On seeing her, Reverend Weedagama Maithree Thero recited two stanzas of a verse which ran as follows:
“In a thin and supple world, a damsel with a slim waist is wearing a soft dress”,
At once the youngster completing the other two stanzas of the verse, quipped: “Having seen a damsel sifting rice in the garden, a certain monk began relishing her beauty”.
(3)The coconut plantation ceremony at the Totagamwe temple
One day at a ceremony to plant coconuts in the school yard, Reverend Weedagama Maithree Thero had given a certain auspicious moment to plant them. All the parents, teachers and well wishers of the school including the two monks participated in this ceremony. When all the holes were dug up and as they awaited the auspicious ‘nekath’ time to plant, Venerable Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thero put his foot in a hole and kept a coconut on the big toe of his right foot in readiness to plant. At the auspicious moment Venerable Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thero withdrew his foot whereas all the others put the coconuts into the holes only a few seconds afterwards.
Several years later when the time was ripe to pluck the coconuts, all the trees had borne fruit except the tree planted by Venerable Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thero. This tree appeared to be barren. They plucked 63 coconuts from the tree planted by Reverend Weedagama Maithree Thero but everyone wondered why the tree planted by Venerable Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thero was barren without yielding even a single fruit. Then Venerable Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thero summoned a man and ordered him to bring a crow bar and a mammoty. Then to everyone’s dismay, on digging they found that at the bottom of the tree buried underneath the soil there were 127 coconuts!
(4)The oil that made Venerable Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thero’s body to be incorrupt even to this day.
Reverend Weedagama Maithree Thero, the teacher of Venerable Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thero was in the habit of applying some oil on the tip of his own tongue, just before departing on any important journey. He would usually take a drop of oil from the bottle which was carefully stored in his almirah, on to a hair of a horse tail, swipe the oil seven times to ensure that he took such a small quantity of the powerful oil, and apply it on the tip of his tongue and set off on his journey.
Venerable Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thero who observed this action of his teacher was very curious to know why his teacher resorted to this practice and decided to make his own investigation privately. On the morning around 8 am, his teacher called out to his pupil and said “I have to attend an almsgiving in the forenoon. So Rahula, please wake me up at 10.30 am, until then I will rest”, and he dozed off to sleep. Rahula thought to himself, “This my day to find out”. So thinking he took a mammoty and went down to the backyard of the temple and began weeding the wild grass intentionally until it was 11.30 am. At 11.30 am he quickly woke up his teacher Reverend Weedagama Maithree Thero and apologized to him saying he didn’t realize the time passing since he was weeding the grass in the backyard of the temple. Reverend Weedagama Maithree Thero rushed out in a hurry to go for the almsgiving even without changing his robe but forgetfully leaving behind the bunch of keys under the pillow, which he would usually carry round his waist. The young monk Rahula quickly got hold of the medicinal oil in the almirah, poured some oil into the mouth of the acolyte (Abiththaya) and himself swallowed the rest of the strong “Saraswathie’ oil in the bottle. In a few moments, both the young monk Rahula and the acolyte, both fainted and fell to the ground. At this moment the ‘Selalihiniya’ the mynah bird which was being reared as a pet in the temple saw this and flew singing out “Rahulaya died, Thotagamuwe died’. The bird flew in the direction of Reverend Weedagama Maithree Thero who quickly surmised the situation and rushed back to the temple, instructing all the women in the village to quickly collect all the breast milk available and bring it to the temple. When Reverend Weedagama Maithree Thero reached the temple the acolyte had already passed away and the young monk Rahula was unconscious. Reverend Weedagama Maithree Thero quickly put the young monk Rahula in the medicinal boat (called the ‘beheth oruwa’) and fed him with copious quantities of breast milk, to weaken the strong power of the ‘Saraswathie’ oil which he had consumed. It was only after seven days in the medicinal boat that Venerable Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thero became conscious and woke up.
It was due to the strong quantity of ‘Saraswathie’ oil which Venerable Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thero had imbibed, and the strong effect it had on his body that even to this day his corpse is lying in an incorrupt state in a church in Goa, India.