Priests of Muhudu Maha Viharaya are complaining about land grabs
The simmering tensions between the Sinhalese and minority Muslims took a new turn with the surfacing of conflicting claims for land in areas around Muhudu Maha Viharaya in Pottuvil.
Newspaper reports last week were a buzz with the news of priests of Muhudu Maha Viharaya complaining about land grabs and the government taking steps to place a Navy contingent in the area to ease the situation.
The temple priests complains that the initial area of 72 acres which contains artifacts and historical places of Buddhist worship has now been reduced to 14 acres to land grabs, illegal constructions and land transfers.
They add that much of this land, despite its historical and religious importance, is not gazetted. The clergy allege that much of the lands were given away to the Muslims for the purpose of strengthening the vote base of politicians. The providing of these lands have been facilitated by a top official of the Archeology Department, the temple priests allege. The priests add that from the 72 acres in focus only about 30 acres have been gazetted, but in reality the latter figure doesn’t exist.
Given this background it is useful to check the history of Muhudu Maha Viharaya and the importance associated with it. A book titled ‘Twenty five years of life in the jungle’ penned by Ven. Thambugala Anandasiri Thera, printed by Dayawansa Jayakody & Co and published by Kamala Rajapaksa gives us an insight into what the place was like more than 50 years ago.
Though at present we see conflicts between communities in the area, Anandasiri Thera recalls in the book how the Sinhalese, Muslims and Tamils lived in harmony without even disturbing the wild animals who lived in the close by jungles.
The priest had the habit of going on pilgrimage to these places of Buddhist worship. And for this purpose the best times chosen were the months of Vesak (May) and Poson (June)-names mentioned according to the Buddhist calendar). These are the times of the year that laymen took a break from work in farms. The book gives details of Panama Paththuwa (Village) divided into seven areas: kumana, Kutumbigala (where the priest had his monastery), Panama, Pottuvil (where the temple shrouded in controversy is situated), Lahugala, Bakmitiyawa and Hulannuge. According to the book (Published in 1985) about 150 people lived in Pottuvil during the time when Anandasiri Thera lived in this community. The priest mentions about 57 places of Buddhist worship in these jungle areas.
Pottuvil contains five of them: Bodirajaramaya, Muhudu Maha Viharaya, Ruins in the B Column, Chiththama ruins and Jayarampola.
The temple authorities affirm that they would not accept anything less than the original 72 acre plot of land said to be the property of the temple
The priest set foot in the jungles of Kutumbigala in 1954 and by late 1960 he had cleared much of the rock caves in the area and made them conducive for monks to meditate in. But the priest observed that the only Buddhist practice that existed at that time was going on pilgrimage. But that practice too was fast dying at that time. One of the reasons for this was the establishing of a wildlife sanctuary. Much of the paths frequented by travellers now belonged to the wildlife sanctuary; which meant pilgrims were denied the opportunity of traveling freely through jungles. The other reason was the escalating violence due to clashes between LTTE terrorists and Government security forces.
The priest was forced to leave the Kutumbigala forest hermitage due to the prevailing security concerns in the mid 1980s. He was later gunned down when residing in a monastery which was set up in Monaragala. He was assassinated by gunmen in October 3, 1989.
Anandasiri Thera’s presence in these areas helped Buddhist value their roots in the religion and remind them that they had a duty towards protecting artifacts. He was not involved in settling Sinhalese in these areas steeped in Buddhist history.
But unlike then the priests of today are seen providing the leadership to Sinhalese to protect valuable artifacts and the lands they have a right to. For the record the premises close to Muhudu Maha Viharaya holds historical importance because it is said that Vihara Maha Devi landed here and not in Kirinda as some historians claim.
However since of late political forces have been successful in establishing a path to facilitate land transfers for the Muslims. For the record, newspaper reports reveal that as much as 15 acres in this muck talked about Pottuvil area has been transferred to Muslims through the ‘Jayabhumi Deeds’. The temple priests believe the present regime would help them regain the lost land in keeping with the gazette issued on 1951.1.26. The temple authorities affirm that they would not accept anything less than the original 72 acre plot of land said to be the property of the temple. The gazette mentioned here however accounts for an area less than 72 acres; which has left roon for transferring land and encroachments. There are other reasons for people to move into these areas of historic importance. A study reveals that several incidents in the past like the Gal Oya Irrigation scheme, 1956 riots, the civil war and post war developments and the tsunami contributed to significant changes in the population demographics in these mentioned areas. This is why the land issue in the area has a complex history. Some research in the area reveals that Muslims and Tamils occupy the coastal areas while the Sinhalese are concentrated inland.
Director General of the Department of Archeology Senerath Dissanayake, in an interview with a leading Sinhalese weekend newspaper, has said that not a spot of land with archaeological value will be removed. He has added that the department will measure the area again and believes that the demarcation would recreate a land with an area of more than 72 acres.
The subject Minister of archaeological matters S.M Chandrasena has been quoted in newspapers saying that he had been given instructions to measure the area and gazette the acreage. According to him once the gazette is prepared those who find themselves settled in an archaeological department owned site would be resettled elsewhere.
The controversial resettlement and land grabs underscore one thing; the Buddhists have neglected their places of ancient worship. There is a saying that the blessings are more when the pilgrimage journey is hard. It would serve the Buddhist community well if the old practice of going on pilgrimage is revived. This is because the presence of visitors in numbers to an area, like Pottuvil, would be a deterrent to unlawful activities like encroaching and land grabbing.