A series by Gaveshaka in association with Studio Times
The exquisite wood carvings at Embekke
The invasion by Magha in the 13th century and the atrocities inflicted on the people during the 21-year old rule, left the Sinhala kingdom in disarray. This is how the Mahavamsa describes Magha’s reign:

“Thereupon these mighty men, wicked disturbers of the peace of mankind, stalked about the land hither and thither crying out boastfully, ‘Lo! We are the giants of Kerala’, (the Caranatic Country). And they robbed the inhabitants of their garments and their jewels and everything that they had…They cut off also the hands and feet of the people, and despoiled their dwellings. Their oxen and buffaloes also, and other beasts, they bound up and carried them away forcibly.

The rich men they tied up with cords and tortured, and took possession of all their wealth, and brought them to poverty. They broke down the image houses and destroyed many cetiyas. They took up their dwellings in the viharas and beat the pious laymen therin. They flogged children, and sorely distressed the five ranks of the religious orders. They compelled the people to carry burdens and made them labour heavily. Many books also of great excellence did they lose from the cords that bound them and cast away in divers places. Even the great and lofty cetiyas like Ratnavali (Ruvanveli) which stood like the embodiment of glory of all pious kings of old, they spared not, but utterly destroyed them, and caused a great many bodily relics to disappear thereby, which were unto them as their lives. Alas! Alas!”

However, princes and chieftains who had their own little kingdoms managed to keep the Tamil invaders away from their territories. They built fortresses and secured themselves from enemy invasions. One such place was Dambadeniya, where Vijayabahu III, a prince from the Sinhala royal line, ruled. Another was Yapahuva. The immediate successors of Magha – Vijayabahu III (1232-1236) and Parakramabahu II (1236-1270) preferred to rule from Dambadeniya. For a brief period of just two years, Vijayabahu IV went back to Polonnaruwa but his successor, Bhuvanekabahu I came back to Dambadeniya. He also ruled from Yapahuva. Polonnaruwa was abandoned after a reign of five years by Parakramabahu III (1287-1293).

Kurunegala was the capital of five kings from 1293 till 1335. The capital was shifted to Gampola when Bhuvanekabahu IV became king in 1341. He was succeeded by Parakramabahu V (1344-1359) followed by Vikramabahu III (1357-1374). It was during his time that the ‘devale’ at Embekke, famous for its wood carvings was built. The devale is dedicated to Skhanda, popularly known as Kataragama Deviyo.

The building of a devale by the king shows the influence of Hinduism at the time. To reach Embekka, one has to go along the Kandy-Gampola road, turn right at Peradeniya and proceed four miles on the Davulagala road.

The timbered roof in the devale is supported by superbly crafted columns. A great variety of designs can be seen indicating the talent of our wood carvers. Human figures, a variety of animals and floral motifs are seen in the carvings. Out of all the wooden structures of the Kandy period, this is the most attractive and elaborate. The pillars are seen in the ‘dig-ge’ (pillared porch) of the devale. The timber of the roof is of massive proportions.

Talking of ‘devales’, usually they don’t have carved or painted ornaments. Thus Embekke is unusual. The main building consists of an ante-room, having a ‘dig-ge’ before it. The ‘maligava’ or sanctum containing an image or the insignia of the deity is kept closed, generally with a painted curtain. Only the ‘kapuraala’ is allowed to go in and he too has to purify himself by taking a bath before he goes in. A room over the ‘maligava’ called ‘uda-mahal-ge’ is seen in most devales. The ‘gabada-ge’ is meant to store things. A small vihara is also in the precincts. At Embekke the vihara is under the same roof. It is usual for pilgrims to visit Embekke, Lankatilaka and Gadaladeniya on one trip.

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