Tiriyaya, located about 45 km north of Trincomalee, is a rarely visited heritage site, though it is a first-class attractions for lovers of Buddhist art. Actually, Sri Lanka’s best-preserved Vatadage is situated on the top of a hill in Tiriyaya. Vatadages are circular temples, they are also called Chetiyagaras, meaning “Stupa-houses”, since they are buildings surrounding a stupa. This unique feature of Sinhalese Buddhist architecture is a kind of shelter for pilgrims who pray or stay for a longer time at a Dagaba (Stupa). First roofs on top of circumambulatories were made of perishable materials and disappeared in the course of time. Later on, in the second half of the first millenium, wooden columns were replaced by stone pillars, still carrying a wooden roof. This is why you can see only circles of stone pillars but not roofs at Vatadages (Chetiyagaras) from the Anuradhapura period, such as Thuparama and Lankarama in Anuradhapura and Ambasthala Dagoba in Mihintale. The most excellent example is the Vatadage of Medirigiriya. There are many more stone pillars still in situ in Medirigiriya than in Tiriyaya. However, Tiriyaya is the only Vatadage with a well-reserved outer wall made of stone blocks. An outer wall of brick can also be seen at Sri Lanka’s most famous - and most often photographed - landmark Vatadage of Polonnaruwa, which is from the 12th century. The circular stone wall of Tiriyaya from the 8th century is in an even better condition of preservation.
Tiriyaya is an ancient Buddhist sanctuary in the Tamil-dominated East of the country. But Tamils seem to have played an important role at this Dagoba, since characters used in inscription at Tiriyaya are more similar to those in South India than in Sinhalese parts of the country. Indeed, there were many Buddhists among Tamils in the first millennium, particularly among Tamil seafarers and traders. Buddhist inscriptions of Tamils have been found at other places along the East Coast. The inscriptions and excavated figures in Tiriyaya show Mahayanistic features. Mahayana Buddhist was more widespread among Tamil Buddhists than among Sinhalese Buddhists.
Tiriyaya could have been a place where Tamil and Sinhalese forms of Buddhism have merged. One typical element of Sinhalese Buddhist architecture seems to have been introduced in Tiriyaya, the Nagaraja as guardian sculpture flanking temple entrances. Usually guardstones depict angry demons or soldiers, so-called Dvarapalas. In Sri Lanka, the more peaceful form of Dvarapala is more common, namely the Nagaraja, which is a fertility symbol. But Nagaraja guardians are also known from Hindu art in southern India, particularly from the Pallava period, which is contemporary to Tiriyaya. Tiriyaya could be the link between this element Pallava sculptural art and late Anuradhapura art. This is all the more likely as the Nagarajas of Tiriyaya seem to be the oldest ones found in Sri Lanka. There are many more Nagaraja guardians preserved at the Vatadage of Tiriyaya than at any other temple of the Anuradhapura period.
After the end of the civil war, Tiriyaya has become a beloved pilgrimage destination for Sinhalese Buddhists again. Legend has it, that hairs of the Buddha are kept in this Vatadage. They were given to the first laymen who offered a meal to the Buddha and took refuge to him and his teachings, namely the merchants Tapussa and Bhallika. In return they have received hairs of the Buddha. Miraculously this relic decided not to move to any other place any more after they had kept it for a while in Tiriyaya.
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