Avissawella - the ancient Sitawaka
Avissawella, situated in 50 km distance from Colombo in the very east of the Western Province, it the gateway to the Kelani river valley in the hillcountry and also to the gem mining area of Ratnapura further south. Avissawella is also known as Seethawakapura. The latter refers to the old toponym of Avissawella, Sitawaka, also spelt Sitavaka. The town played an important role in the island’s history in the 16th century, when Sitawaka was the residence of the mightiest Sinhalese kings who fought against the Portuguese invaders. In a way, Sitavaka is a predecessor of the Kandyan kingdom. Similar to Kandy in later centuries, Sitavaka was often captured by the colonial forces. But the colonial powers did not succeed in gaining permanent control of the Sinhalese capital, neither of Sitawaka in the 16th nor Kandy in the 17th and 18th century. The reason why the Sinhalese kings were able to regain control of their capital again and again was the difficulty of foreign powers to maintain supplies for their garrisons further inland. The Sinhalese engaged in a kind of guerilla warfare, attacking the supply routes through jungles or mountains. Finally, the foreign soldiers in Sitavaka and later on Kandy had to withdraw or surrender of relatively short periods of occupying the Sinhalese capital.
Attractions of Avissawella alias Sitawaka
Not much remains from the ancient glory of Sitawaka alias Avissawella. The most important heritage site from that period is Berendi Kovil at the opposite side of the Seethawake river, which is a tributary of the Kelani Ganga. Despite its location at the eastern side of the river, Berendi Kovil is part of the municipality of Avissawella. Berendi Kovil, also known as Barandiya Kovil, is attributed to King Rajasinha of Sitawaka and believed to have been the main Hindu shrine of his kingdom. However, this assumption is not undisputed. Some scholars date the Berendi Kovil back to the Polonnaruwa period. Nevertheless, the temple must have played a major role in the Sitavaka Kingdom.
Although Sitavake or Seethawakepura now again refers to the entire municipality, Sitawaka in a narrow sense is only one of Avissawella’s neighbourhoods, the suburb between river and modern city centre, at the western banks of the river. The buildings of the main temple of the Sitavaka suburb are from the 19th and 20th century. It’s a typical Sinhalese Buddhist shrine crowded with gaudily coloured sculptures representing mythical beings.
The name “Sitawaka” is often derived from the name of the major female protagonist of the Indian Ramayana epic. Rama’s consort Sita was held in captivity by Ravana, the mighty demon king of Lanka. Sitawaka as Ramayana place of Sita’s captivity has become a name on the so-called Ramayana Trail.
King Mayadunne of Sitawaka
In 1521, Mayadunne and his two elder brothers revolted against the father Vijayabahu VII. The kingdom was divided among the three brothers. Bhuvanaikabahu VII resided in Kotte. Mayadunne got the Kingdom of Sitawaka, which which roughly corresponds to today’s Sabaragamuwa Province. Mayadunne was soon the arch rival and the enemy his brother Bhuvenaikabahu of Kotte. The Kotte king in return allied with the Portuguese, who had arrived on the Island in 1505. It is not clear whether in 1551 Bhuvenaikabahu of Kotte was killed on the orders of Mayadunne, or, what is more likely, by the Portuguese, after he refused to convert to Christianity. Mayadunne gained popular support due to his resistence against the very cruel Christian invaders. Mayadunne and his son Rajasinha won the Battle of Mulleriyawa in 1559, preventing the Portuguese from conquering the entire island. In the 16th century, the battle of Mulleriyawa was the worst defeat of a Western colonial power in Asia. Mayadunna is a king believed to have come into posession of the Sacred Tooth Relic, the island nation’s palladium, since Buddhist priests in Kotte, facing the Christian hostility to other religions, decided to smuggle the Sacred Tooth of the Buddha to Sitavaka for safekeeping. Traditionally, that ruler in posession of the Tooth Relic has been regarded as the supreme king of the island by historiographs. The role of Mayadunne in preventing the Portuguese from controlling the entire island and to preserve the Sinhalese culture in the hinterlands of the coasts cannot be underestimated. The same applies to his son and successor, Rajasinha, who nonetheless has a very bad reputation in traditional Sinhalese historiography, because he converted to Hinduism and persecuted the Buddhist order, after a Buddhist monk had dared to critizise him for his cruelty.
Sitawaka as Ramayana site
Legend has it that Sita was imprisoned by Ravana in a nearby grove, though only the grove or gardden of Ashoka Vatika is mentioned in the text of the ancient Sanskrit epic. Nonetheless, Sitawaka and Berendi Kovil at the opposite side of the river have become one of the Ramayana trail sites of Hindu pilgrimages. Some guests from India travel along the Kelani river, those who are pious Hindus will not miss to stop in Avissawela alias Sitawaka. A shocking episode is believed to have taken place here. In order to shatter Lord Rama's confidence to regain his consort Sita, Ravana's eldest son Indrajith beheaded a look-alike of Sita in front of Lord Hanuman. But he did not succeed in convincing Rama that his wife was actually dead. Furthermore, there is the Rampathagala stone in the Sitawaka area, it has an impression in the shape of feet, which is believed to be a footprint left by Lord Rama himself.