Matara is a dusty, busy, commercial city on the southern tip of Sri Lanka. Although that makes it sound like an unappealing place to visit, peel back the layers and there is more to the town than it might first seem, including some fascinating temples.
We headed off in search of Weragampita Rajamaha Viharaya Temple, unsure of what to expect. After making a couple of loops around the neighbourhood searching for the place, we finally arrived at what looked like a modest little Buddhist temple. The dusty driveway in front of the small white temple was empty and at first we weren’t sure if we were at the right place, as we looked for signs of life in the bright, hot October sun. A man appeared from a cluster of huts in the temple compound and unlocked the temple door, ushering us to go inside before heading back to his duties. Behind the old wooden doors was a dimly lit square temple.
Letting my eyes adjust to the dusky temple light and enjoying the cool temperature inside, I slowly started to take in what was in front of me. The stone walls of the temple were covered almost entirely in murals. In the middle of the room was another square which held a shrine, making the temple like a square within a square. The walls surrounding the shrine were adorned with statues of the Buddha. The silence of the temple caused us to whisper only, not wishing to disturb the peacefulness of the space, despite the fact we were the only ones there. The only shards of light in the temple seeped in through a couple of small windows and skylights and the gaps in-between the wooden roof beams.
Unfortunately there was no one around to tell us about the story behind the temple and I haven’t been able to find out much elsewhere either. So, instead we just had to enjoy the fact that we had a private tour of an incredibly quaint and charming temple, tucked away on a Matara backstreet.
Another, much more well known, Buddhist temple in Matara is Weherahena Temple. The scale, size and style of this temple was the polar opposite to what I’d seen at the previous tiny temple.
Weherahena’s construction was started in 1939 and took some 29 years to complete. The complex features a series of underground tunnels leading back to the main temple building, which is five stories high and wrapped around a 40 metre high statue of the Buddha. The temple walls are covered with cartoon-like frescoes (varying to great degree in style and quality), which depict the stories of the Jataka Tales (a text about the previous lives of the Buddha). Portraits of donors to the temple and monks are also painted onto the walls of some of the tunnels.
The temple complex is vast and it was especially fascinating to wander around the rabbit warren of frescoed tunnels, exploring the nooks and crannies of the building. Every so often we would stumble across a room with an additional flourish; decorated stairs or a shrine adorned with flowers and offerings.
Despite some of the murals being slightly garish and the mish-mash of different styles, the un-unified feel of the place seemed to add to its charm and character. The least charming part of the temple for me was the giant, brightly coloured Buddha statue which sits in the central courtyard. The funds for the statue where given by a generous Japanese donor in the late 70s.
As we wound our way around the tunnels we bumped into a monk who began to talk to us about the temple and some of its features and ended up giving us an informal tour up to the top of the building. We were chatting to him about the rules surrounding possessions for monks and he showed us his mobile phone – kept within the pocket of his robes. For some reason a monk holding a mobile phone is a jarring sight to see, the ancient and the modern just look odd together.
At the top of the temple we came face-to-face with the giant Buddha statue, but the views out across the Sri Lankan countryside were much more impressive. In the distance we could see the new railway line being constructed, which will stretch the current rail network all the way to the city of Kataragama. A Chinese firm had won the contract to build the rail line, which I’m sure is in no way connected to the fact that China supplied the loans to Sri Lanka to finance the railway extension project.
Seeking a remedy for temple fatigue, the best cure I found in Matara was a visit to the picture-postcard lighthouse at Dondra Head. This almost-too-perfect lighthouse, on it’s almost-too-perfect beachy cove was built by the British in 1889. At 49 metres in height, this beacon of the former colonial empire is the tallest lighthouse in Sri Lanka and located on the southern-most tip of the island.
We took a dip in the ocean to cool off from the burning hot sun, as local kids body-boarded in the gentle surf that swept into the bay. It was all going so well, until one of the innocent-looking local kids started calling after us as we were leaving and then proceeded to start flashing us. Well, it had all been almost-too-perfect up to that point.