A few months ago my partner and I spent four days at the beach resort of Unawatuna on the south coast of Sri Lanka. Not being beach bums, or beach bunnies, or whatever the term is nowadays, we eschewed lounging on the sand and instead passed the time shuttling along that part of the coast doing some sightseeing. One attraction we checked out was Kataluwa Temple, which is east of Unawatuna and overlooks a channel linking Koggala Lake with the sea. We were keen to see this temple because, according to Lonely Planet, it has its origins in the 13th century, boasts ‘some recently restored murals’ and generally feels so quiet and out-of-the-way that it’s ‘like the temple that time forgot’.
It proved to be the temple that our tuk-tuk driver – who’d been driving us around for the previous day or two and was knowledgeable about the area’s other sights – seemed unaware of. However, we’d done our homework with Google Maps and were able to direct him there. After we’d rattled in through its gates, Kataluwa Temple certainly matched Lonely Planet’s description of it because there were no other visitors present – neither tourists having a look around nor locals saying prayers and leaving offerings. And actually, the place didn’t seem that remarkable. It was just a pleasant sand-and-grass-covered compound with a few buildings, statues, bells and palms trees, indistinguishable from hundreds of other quiet country temples scattered across Sri Lanka.
But then our tuk-tuk driver got talking to a temple handyman and he directed us through a stone gateway at the back of the compound. This led into an additional part of the temple grounds, where there was an octagonal building of some antiquity and a house that accommodated the temple’s complement of Buddhist monks. After we’d inquired at the house, a young monk came out, unlocked the other building and showed us inside – myself, my partner and the tuk-tuk driver, who was no doubt making notes at this point and planning to add Kataluwa Temple to his repertoire of south-coast attractions to take foreign tourists to.
The temple building’s interior was gorgeous – for it contained the restored murals that Lonely Planet had talked of. Its walls were packed with colourful religious illustrations. Images paraded along horizontal rows from the floor to the ceiling, as if the walls had been methodically wallpapered with pages from a giant comic-book or graphic novel. Depicted there were gods, demons, kings, queens, priests, monks, warriors, merchants commoners, servants, elephants, horses, birds, snakes, carriages, thrones, doors… Along the bottom were even some pictures of demons tormenting sinners in hell, though unfortunately these remained rather faded and spotty.
After that, we entered the monks’ house to receive a Buddhist blessing, say our thank-yous and make a donation towards the temple’s upkeep. When the young monk asked me where I was from and I told him I was originally from Ireland, I was pleasantly surprised by his delighted reaction. Only later did I learn that the Dutch government has helped to fund the restoration of the murals in this temple – and probably he’d misheard me and thought I was from ‘Holland’.