By Chris Edirisinghe
It was the year 2004 and January, the month of Duruthu Poya. Seven staff members of the Wijeya Newspapers under instructions from the top management undertook a tedious journey to get to Thanthirimale. The vehicle also carried enough of Thambili and fresh water. We were on an uncharted territory and the Elam war was threatening the border villages. Via Kurunegala we reached Anuradhapura for lunch and having booked a place to put up for the night, we started our journey to Thanthirimale at around 1.00 pm, a journey of 42 kilometres. It was a very tiring journey and we reached the Thanthirimale Temple Site only at 3.30 pm, a journey of 2 ½ hours ! We met the chief prelate of the temple and discussed our plans to have an Aloka Pooja for the Poson Poya that year. We had a look at the site and facilities available. We stayed for the religious ceremonies of the Duruthu Poya in the evening and took the return journey back to Anuradhapura late at night on that horrible road.
At Anuradhapura we discussed the options of conducting an Aloka Pooja at Thanthirimale. No one was happy undertaking this as everything pointed to the fact that the site was far away from any major town, road was terrible, basic amenities including drinking water for our staff, let alone pilgrims, were lacking. Though there were plans to construct pilgrims’ rests, toilets etc. they were confined to only the drawing board. The presence at night of wild animals, including elephants roaming around from the adjoining Wilpatthu sanctuary added fear. Though the Chief prelate tried his level best to convince us about his plans to develop the site we were not very much impressed as at the back of our head the ongoing war made us scared and the enclosure where the former chief prelate was killed by the separatist tigers added more fear in us.
"2013 Poson is here and Wijeya Newspapers will offer its Aloka Pooja for the 10th time in greater earnest"
With these in our minds we started our journey back to Colombo from Anuradhapura. On the way we discussed things more and decided that if we were to take this job in hand we had to convince the Management that proper amenities at least be provided to our staff to stay at the site for at least two weeks. Just lighting up the Site was just not enough. The management would have to revise its budget to a great extent so that pilgrims going to Anuradhapura be attracted to at least for a ‘drop in’ at Thanthirimale undertaking a tedious journey. The Managament of Wijeya Newspapers was very adamant I must say and instructed that this be undertaken come what may. We were given clear signals that Poson that year had to be celebrated at Thanthirimale with the full backing of our publications, Lanakdeepa, The Sunday Times and Daily Mirror. All editorials were instructed that full coverage be done and journalists were told to get to Site in advance and report about the history of Thanthirimale and the significance of this historical site, so that the general public would know about the Aloka Pooja to be conducted under ‘Lankadeepa’ brand. Especially the Chairman of the Company, who started the Mihinthale Aloka Pooja over 50 years back was convinced that Thanthirimale Aloka Pooja would not only light up a temple but would definitely light up many lives and the long forgotten border village.
Things began to move and the chief prelate somehow convinced the government authorities to try and rehabilitate the worst sections of the gravel road to the site. The road was dusty alright but vehicles getting into pot holes and crawling at almost snail’s speed was a nightmare. The chief prelate got some benefactor to add 10 more toilets to the existing 5 toilets for the pilgrims. Bathing was no problem as there were enough ponds around. Since there was an army Camp close to the Temple, some sort of security was available and their water bowser to transport water drawn from Malwathu Oya for drinking purposes would be available and come in handy. The prelate also told us that there is a brother Monk who brings in some devotees from his temple to conduct a Dansala for the handful of pilgrims who come during Poson. So, food for pilgrims for two days was taken care of. He agreed to get someone to cook for our staff in a makeshift kitchen.
Our staff got ready with the necessary electrical items and equipment, including our Company Mobile electrical generator and stuff to put up some makeshift toilets for the staff. Big empty plastic Ink Jars were prepared for water. Unlike being involved in publishing newspapers in the Company premises, for some of us, working in air conditioned comfort, this was a new experience. We also had a problem of contacting the outside world when at Thanthirimale. A few of us had Mobile phones but there was no signal at Thathirimale area. The only spot from where we could speak was a tiny 5 square foot area very close to Bo Maluwa and facing Mihintale !
When the Poson Poya came in 2004, around 50 staff members were at the Site and the Lankadeepa Poson Aloka Pooja was a great success. We had a devotee crowd of nearly 50,000 at the Site for Poson. The staff contributed in cash and bought a public address system which was donated to the temple to conduct the various ceremonies of Poson. We were happy, Wijeya Management was happy and the chief prelate Ven. Chandrarathana Loku Hamuduruwo was very happy. We had started to light up an entire village and people from here and abroad started talking about this ancient place of worship.
Just after the event in 2004, we had very many inquiries about the Site, how to get there and whether we were continuing this the next year. Since we felt very happy doing this we invited everyone to come the next year. Many even volunteered to help us. We prepared in earnest for the second Aloka Pooja in 2005 and started collecting donations from staff to give the Thanthirimale Daham Pasal children uniforms. The drinking water was a problem at Nelumwila, Billewa away from Thanthirimale temple and the Wijeya management fitted a deep tube well for the villagers there to coincide with 2005 Aloka Pooja.The second Aloka Pooja was a tremendous success. The temple authorities conducted Bakthi Gee recital contests, Wijeya donated prizes for the best wesak lanterns done by children, more religious ceremonies were held with Monks from even Anuradhapura joining in. We had more politicians dropping in and checking the facilities and needs of the area. The adjoining camp got better facilities with more man power and resources being allocated. The police force at the site strengthened. The war was on in earnest and we too were in earnest and 2006 Aloka Pooja was even more successful with massive crowds.
Then came 2007 and bombs were going off every now and then, and we had to take a decision as we could not completely guarantee the safety of our own staff. The management took a very unpleasant decision for our staff not to go to actually install the lighting, but get an outsider on payment to do this for the Aloka Pooja. We went only to take part in the official ceremonies. But the crowd that came to Thanthirimale was even greater that year. With threats and bombs all around they came in their thousands to celebrate Poson, and a new trend was seen as crowds going to Anuradhapura made their way to Thanthirimale the following day.
The whole area began to take a new look. Authorities took the road construction and provision of facilities more seriously. There were more army and police personnel. Many young men from the area were drawn to the army as civil defence officers. More employment opportunities were available. There was more cultivations and more products for sale and mind you all this with an ongoing war. We could see more young men and women on motorbikes, electricity poles coming up every now and then, more mobile phone outlets and signals no problem.
2008 came and we had more courage and our staff went to install the lights. The war was going on and in greater intensity. We could hear bombs and gun fire at a distance, but the temple area and all of us were very safe and we were very thankful to the army personnel for giving us that security and encouragement. The devotees were not at all worried about the war and the bombs. They just came and for the first time in 2008 we had a severe traffic block for about 3 kms up to the temple when the Aloka Pooja on Poya day was about to be started. With the end of the war things are very much better. Roads have been done up completely, new water supply schemes are in place and in 2012 we had a crowd of over One million coming to Thanthirimale for Poson. The development of the area will continue and all who are involved in this annual offering should be justly proud of what has been achieved at Thanthirimale.
2013 Poson is here and Wijeya Newspapers will offer its Aloka Pooja for the 10th time in greater earnest, the staff going there turning off near the Mirisawetiya junction and taking the trip, which will just take half an hour to the Thanthirimale Temple!