The Sunday Leader

The Little Monk With Big Ideas: Gangaramaya Temple’s Galboda Gnanissara Thero

By Roel Raymond

Ven. Galaboda Gnanissara Thero

It is early morning on Sunday and the sun in Colombo shines hot, already. A slight steam arises from the wet floor rags, placed in the temple courtyard, perhaps to soothe the pilgrims’ burning feet.
People are milling into this temple; devotees quiet and engrossed with their devotions, tourists staring in awe at their surroundings, little children — here for daham pasal or Sunday School — dressed in white, flutter giggling around.

I am aware of a sudden nervousness in my stomach. Amid the chatter and the bustle, amid the chants and the devotions, from amid the incense smoke, I see the Chief Incumbent of the Gangaramaya Temple — Podi Hamuduruwo, Little Monk — as he sits on a low chair at the central dais at the entrance to the main temple hall. Engrossed with the Sunday papers, dressed in traditional orange, Podi Hamuduruwo is alone amid the bustling many, soaking-in the week’s news. He looks up, sensing our presence, as we edge closer. There is, I have heard, a manner in which monks are addressed, a certain correct way of speaking, but I know nothing of it, and I am distinctly afraid of annoying this holy man!

I ask him if I may speak to him as I briefly explain my cause. He nods his assent, gesturing at a low chair in front of him,  ‘Of course, sit down’, he says. I begin. Galaboda Gnanissara Thero was a little boy of eight when he was brought to the Gangaramaya Temple to be ordained. It was from this point on that he was given the name ‘Podi Hamuduruwo’, meaning Little Monk. At 16 Podi Hamuduruwo took over the administration of the temple, because of the failing eye-sight of the then Chief Incumbent Devundara Vaccissara Thero. I ask him if it wasn’t difficult, taking on a responsibility of that nature, at that age.

‘So what to do’, he says simply. ‘I had to do it at the time. There was nothing else to be done’. He doesn’t look as though he regrets having to take on responsibilities at the temple. I ask him about what the temple was like at that time. ‘It was like this’, he replies indicating at his surroundings with his head.

He tells me about the temple’s printing press, and hands me booklets and leaflets with more details for my perusal. The first printer was donated to the temple in 1890 by J. Holmes Pollock and was used for the printing of a number of Buddhist educational booklets, like the 1708 page Pansiya Panas Jathakaya (five hundred and fifty tales). The temple now, Podi Hamuduruwo said, uses modern machines. The press donated by Pollock however, still stands on display at the temple.

This is an interesting topic. I ask him about the vast number of collectibles on the premises of the temple. Was it he that collected all of this? He nods again. ‘From my travels’ he says. Podi Hamuduruwo is well travelled. Having completed his tertiary education in Sri Lanka, he first travelled to the United Kingdom to complete his higher education. He was also at one time the Sangha Nayaka of the Sri Lankan Buddhist Temples in America, and traveled to many countries within the capacity of his work. He tells me that he enjoyed ‘visiting antique shops’ and collecting items for his temple.

The temple is filled with these various artifacts and statues, reminiscent of bygone Buddhist eras, of extreme value. ‘Also lots of donations’, Podi Hamuduruwo adds. The Gangaramaya Temple is well connected. Former leaders of Sri Lanka, foreign dignitaries and landed families are regular worshippers at the temple, and leave large donations in cash or kind, for either beautifying and adding value to the temple or for the benefit of the masses. Among his collection of valuables are a number of vintage cars, gifted by affluent devotees.

I ask the holy man about the temple’s philosophy. Is the temple open to all faiths? Podi Hamuduruwo gives his answer even before I have completed my sentence. ‘Of course, it always been that way with the temple’. He thinks a minute and then tells me that even the Seema Malaka — a miniature temple-like structure that lies in the middle of the nearby Beira Lake — was built on behalf of the Gangaramaya Temple by a prominent Moor family. What about the recent Koran-burning in America?  I ask. What do you think of that? He skirts the question, ‘That’s not the point. We have no new Buddhist sect here, this is not a new kind of hip Buddhist culture, this temple is a traditional Buddhist centre and we are open to people of all walks, races and religions, as most temples are’, he says firmly.

The noise of drumming, at first faint and then building in intensity reaches us. Traditional drummers, dressed in red and white, their bare upper bodies decked in silver chains, shining in the sun, beat on their drums with a hypnotic intensity. A bell begins to clang in the far corner of the temple premises, as children escape from Daham Pasal and run to and fro among the older, quieter worshippers.

I decide to change the subject. I ask Podi Hamuduruwo about the social work carried out by the temple. He brightens up. ‘We have so many things going’, he says. He tells me about the Jinaratna Vocational Training Centre. Set up in 1970 during the height of youth unrest in the country, the Vocational Centre offered the young a chance to receive free training in vocational services. In addition to motor mechanics and electric work, the Vocational Centre also offers training courses at its affiliated Institute of English Education and Computer Technology. ‘Many of the students leave for jobs abroad almost as soon as they finish their training’, I am told.
He talks about the initiatives taken by the temple, for Kataragama. ‘There is the Kataragama Pilgrims Rest’, he tell me. ‘End of this week, we are having a special ceremony there, we have raised enough money — 115 lakhs — to buy toiletries and urinals that we are going to donate to 500 Pirivenas (monastic colleges, like a seminary) in underprivileged areas island wide’. He gets up and fetches a number of printed sheets of paper and thrusts them in my hand. I glance through to find copy in both the Sinhala and English languages, explaining the initiative of the Temple and asking for small donations to be made on behalf of the project. These papers had been distributed to a number of offices and homes in Colombo, and it was through this method and through donations made by the Temple’s loyal devotees that the money had been found for the project.

What else happens in Kataragama, I ask him, knowing full well that there are a number of other projects taken on by the Temple there. Podi Hamuduruwo forgets me to greet a tourist walking towards him. ‘Halooooooooooo’, he says. ‘Welcome’. The tourist asks him if he may step between us to enter the main hall. ‘Of course’, Podi Hamuduruwo replies characteristically, ‘Go in, I will come soon and bless you’. He then focuses his attention back on me. ‘ What is it that you want to know? Oh, yes, Kataragama. We have the Pilgrim’s Rest so that pilgrims to Kataragama can stay there for free, and the Elder’s Home is there, and a Children’s Home. All near the Pilgrims Rest’.

The Elder’s Home gives shelter to the old, those forgotten by their families or with no families and no where else to go. The Children’s Home is a branch of the Temple’s main project to do with children — Suhada Nivasa, in Kotte — and provides the shelter, schooling and upbringing of children abandoned by their parents and of those with either physical or mental challenges. Interestingly, the facilities are open to any one, from any religion or race, and not just restricted to Buddhist devotees. Time is running out, and I sense the kindly monk’s attention wandering, perhaps towards the many devotees milling about the temple, obviously in want of his attention. I wonder at this man. He interrupts my train of thought. ‘I’m sorry, I think all of your time is up’, he says smiling graciously. ‘I have to now be at a daane’ (alms-giving). I notice that two double cabs have drawn up at the temple, a number of other monks begin to scurry in its direction, carrying the karanduwa, a replica of the casket in which the sacred tooth relic is kept, presumably for blessing-purposes. I had seen him bless people with this golden object before, by placing it upon their heads.

‘Of course!’, I say this time, as graciously as he had on many occasions before, scrambling to my feet hastily. ‘I’ll come back again and talk to you another time’. He inclines his head in gracious assent. I suspect it will be equally difficult the next time around, to get any length of private time with this very busy monk. I satisfy myself by wandering around the temple and soaking in the awesome splendour attached to it.

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