Kalutara is historically significant because it was one of the 32 sites indicated by Arahant Mahinda Thero to the King Devananpiya Tissa in the 2nd century B.C. as a place where one of the thirty-two trees of the sacred Sri Maha Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura is planted, to which the King extended his protection. In the Sinhala Maha Bodhi Wansa, when the Portuguese subjugated the maritime provinces in 1505 A.D., the famous Kalutara Bodhiya exited intact. In the 16th centenary, this sacred place was utilised in a Portuguese fort. Though never hurt is supposed to have been done to the Bodhi, the people did not respect it during that period. Later the planting of a Bodhi in the lower terrace of Pahala Maluwa by an Indian Prince from the Pandya country called Wickrama Pandya in 1042 A.D., the public began to worship and consider the place as a sacred place. This prince from Indian became a ruler in the Kalutara area.
The Bo Tree's Origins
The story of the Kalutara Bodhiya begins with the legendary Bo tree at Buddha Gaya. Prince Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment under its sprawling branches, turning it into a revered symbol of the Buddha's presence. Centuries later, a sapling of the original tree was brought to Sri Lanka by bhikkhunī Sanghamitta, daughter of King Asoka and twin sister of the Venerable monk Mahinda, who introduced Buddhism to the island. In 288 AD, this sapling was planted in the Mahamehavana Park of Anuradhapura, giving rise to the Sri Maha Bodhi, the oldest documented tree in the world.
The Journey to Kalutara
The recorded history of the Sri Maha Bodhi tree, chronicled in the Sinhalese literary classic, Bodhivamsa, reveals that the tree bore eight fruits, each containing four seeds. These seeds sprouted, resulting in a total of 32 saplings. Mahinda himself designated the locations for planting these saplings, and Kalutara was among the chosen sites. However, the tree in Kalutara survived only until the 15th century AD.
The Significance of Kalutara Bodhiya
In 1042 AD, a Pandyan prince named Wickrama Pandyan planted a Bo tree on the current Lower Terrace of the Kalutara Bodhi premises. This act, carried out during his tenure as a viceroy in the Kalutara region, aimed to gain support from the locals, despite his Hindu beliefs. Over time, the location became sacred to Buddhists. During the 15th century, the Portuguese invaded the region, resulting in a decline in care for the tree, leading to its demise. However, it miraculously regenerated a few decades later.
The Portuguese and Beyond
Recognizing the popularity of the site among the local population, the Portuguese converted the area into a fort during their occupation in the 16th century. Subsequently, the Dutch and English, who followed in Portuguese footsteps, also utilized the premises for administrative and military purposes. In the 19th century, the British government planned to construct the Kalutara Railway bridge, which would have required the removal of the Bodhi tree. However, due to passionate protests led by Sandanayake Upasaka, a Buddhist layman in the Kalutara area, the bridge was built without causing harm to the revered tree.
The Origin of the Bōdhi Tree
The significance of the Bōdhi Tree to Buddhism
The Bōdhi Tree is deeply revered by Buddhists due to its association with the Buddha's enlightenment. It represents spiritual awakening, wisdom, and the path to enlightenment. The tree itself belongs to the species Ficus religiosa, also known as the sacred fig tree.
Prince Siddhartha Gautama and his enlightenment
Legend has it that Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, sought spiritual liberation and enlightenment. He meditated under the shelter of a Bōdhi Tree in Buddha Gaya, India, until he attained enlightenment and became the awakened one. This event is considered a pivotal moment in the history of Buddhism.
The History of the Bōdhi Tree at Buddha Gaya
The Bōdhi Tree at Buddha Gaya gained immense reverence and became an object of worship after the Buddha's enlightenment. Even during the Buddha's lifetime, it was recognized as a sacred site. Emperor Dhammasoka, a devout Buddhist, held an annual festival to honor the tree, which caused resentment from one of his queens, Tissarakkha. She sought to destroy the tree by sticking 'mandu' thorns into its bark, but it miraculously sprouted again.
The destruction and revival of the original tree became a recurring theme. King Puspyamitra destroyed the tree in the 2nd century BC during his persecution of Buddhism, and King Sassanka destroyed its replacement in the 7th century CE. The current Bōdhi Tree at Buddha Gaya was planted in 1881 by a British archaeologist, replacing the previous one that had died of old age.
The Bōdhi Tree in Sri Lanka
Theri Sanghamitta and the sapling's journey
Theri Sanghamitta, the daughter of Emperor Dhammasoka, brought a sapling from the original Bōdhi Tree to Sri Lanka. Accompanied by the Venerable Mahinda Mahā Thera, she embarked on a journey that took her through various places until she reached Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. Along the way, the sapling was nurtured and protected.
Planting of the sapling in Anuradhapura
In 288 CE, the sapling was ceremoniously planted in the Mahamevna Park in Anuradhapura. As the original Bōdhi Tree in Bihar had been destroyed, the Sri Maha Bōdhi in Anuradhapura holds the distinction of being the world's oldest living documented tree. Its historical significance is recorded in the Bōdhi Vansa, a classical text detailing the history of the Bōdhi Tree.
Spread of the Bōdhi Tree saplings in Sri Lanka
The sapling brought by Theri Sanghamitta bore eight fruits, each containing four seeds. These seeds were planted in various locations across Sri Lanka as per the instructions of the Venerable Maha Mahinda Thera. The list of places where the saplings were planted includes Malwessa Vehera, Polonnaruwa, Ruhunu Rata Magama, Mahiyanganaya, and many others. These offspring trees served as symbols of the original Bōdhi Tree and played a crucial role in Buddhist piety.
The Kalutara Bodhiya Trust
The Kalutara Bodhiya Trust (KBT) played a pivotal role in transforming the Kalutara Bodhiya into a religious sanctuary. In 1931, the Kalutara Buddhist Society was established to safeguard the welfare of Buddhists and promote the development of Buddhism in the region. After Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948, Sir Cyril de Soysa, a distinguished lawyer, senator, and notary public, urged Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake's government to ensure the site was exclusively used for religious purposes.