The Rock Temple of Varana is located in the Gampaha district, approximately 1.5 km from Colombo. Reached by the Colombo – Kandy highway; the temple is place .of timeless history, artistic beauty and religious veneration. Varana is believed to have gained its name from the two separate words ‘Va’ and ‘Arana’. Va was a species of tree that existed in abundance in the area at the time, though it seems to be extinct now. Arana means forest. Hence, the belief is that the name came due to the temple having been surrounded by a Va Forest during the times of its creation.
Varana was created during the era of King Devanampiyatissa, between the 2nd century BC to the 3rd century BC. According to a rock inscription in the caves; they were donated to the Buddhist Priest Tissa Dhatta Thero, who was the first disciple of Arahat Mahinda, to be used as a monastic retreat.
The caves of the Varana emerge in the annals of history once again during the time of King Valagamba in the 1st century BC. According to records, he used the caves as one of his hiding places during the time that he was on the run from the Chola Army from India, who were attempting to kill him after their invasion. It is said that it was he who placed a statue of Buddha in the largest cave, and created a small shrine room there.
In addition, historical records state that the somewhat narcissistic king of the Polonnaruwa Era, King Nissanakamalla; and King Parakramabahu VI of the Kotte Kingdom, who managed to have one of the most politically stable reigns of the time, also contributed to this Temple. In specific, the contributions of Parakramabahu include a statue of God Vishnu, the statue of Bodhisattva, numerous statues Lord Buddha, wall painting depicting stories from the Jatakas, an eighteen-foot reclining statue of the Lord Buddha in the main shrine room and etc. The sovereign is said to have visited the temple in person with his wife after the various contributions were completed and made an offering of fresh flowers to the reclining statue. The vast region surrounding the temple, consisting of hillocks and rich, sprawling acres of paddy fields were also gifted to the temple by King Parakramabahu using royal edict.
The Varana Rock Temple’s name also surfaced during the reign of King Rajasinghe of Sitawaka, and later during that of Keerthi Sri Rajasinghe of Kandy. Legends also abound of massive amounts of treasure buried within the temple grounds, though no solid record of this was discovered. In any case, the Rock Temple holds many secrets about the ancient kingdoms of Sri Lanka that are still to be discovered.
The ancient Temple complex of Varana consists of three levels. The first level or base has the Living area (Sin: Sangawasaya) and preaching area for Buddhist Dharma (Sin: Dharmashalawa). Along the way to the top a small pond built recently, as well a natural rock pool with lotuses can be observed. On the second level is a small ancient pagoda and several caves which contain shrines. The third level is a larger, but more newly built pagoda; along with a Bo tree and great views to relax with.
The Preaching House
This structure can be seen to your right after entering through the giant guardian gate (Wahalkada). It lies in the lee of a giant boulder. The old white building is quite beautiful, with a slightly Thai temple-like architecture. It’s red clay roof tiles, lacy wooden carved fringes along the roofs, bright blue and white doors and windows, and snowy walls give it an aura of vintage charm and brightness. It was behind this Dharma Shalawa, on a sheltered rock wall, that the inscription from the 3rd century BC was found.
The Cave Temple
The cave temple is on the second level and can only be reached by climbing up a flight of 50-60 steep stone stairs. On that level the small stupa is quite old, though recently painted; while the temple is the main attraction. This temple does not have the usual stupa design seen by most Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka. Instead, it’s a rectangular building with deep, wide eaves supported by sturdy stone pillars; and a squat pyramid like spire on top. The structure back up onto the rock wall; covering the entrance of a large cave. The pillars are worthy of notice before entering the temple, as they have an ornamental design similar to that exhibited by South Indian master sculptors when they were hired to build some of the temples on the island. If such was the case with this temple too; that may have been the cause of the temple’s slightly unusual architectural design.
On entering the temple, instead of the dark gloomy cave that is to be expected; one is treated to a brilliant feast of art and color. Detailed classic flower motifs and paintings depicting the life of Lord Buddha decorate the roofs and walls with a mixture of red, yellow, blue and green. There isn’t a single square foot of bare space left unpainted. This is the image house of the Rock Temple of Varana. Visitors can see a number of stately seated Buddha statues here. The ancient 18 foot reclining Buddha is also within this temple.
In addition to this temple, the second level and third level above also have unto approximate 12 caves, some of which have shrines, that can only be found by careful exploration. While Varana may not be one of the biggest cave temples in Sri Lanka; its definitely worth visiting for its ancient history and beautiful paintings.