Somawathi Chaitya is located in the wilderness of the Mahaweli flood plains, 12 km away from the nearest human settlement. It was built during the reign of King Kavantissa (whose son King Dutugemunu built Ruwanweliseya), by his sister Princess Somawathi and her husband Prince Abhaya. It’s said to enshrine the right canine tooth relic of the Buddha, one of the four tooth relics – which are considered the most sacred relics by Buddhists.
Initially located on a park in the right bank of the Mahaweli river (and therefore belonging to the province of Ruhuna, Kavantissa’s realm), the stupa now stands on the left bank of the river due to changes in the river’s course which occurred about a millennia ago. This change in river course has also made the area prone to flooding, and the chaitya is inaccessible during the North-eastern monsoon (December – February).
The stupa was lost in the evacuation of the dry zone by Sri Lankan kings, but was re-discovered in the 60s. It was reconstructed and finally topped with a “chuda manikya” (gemstone at the top of the stupa) in the 80s, only to be re-abandoned during the Sri Lankan civil war. Villages surrounding the stupa such as Sungavila were attacked by the LTTE and attempts were made to seize the chuda manikya, which failed due infighting and an Elephant attack – an episode that the monks residing there attribute to a miracle. The gemstone was retrieved and was kept safe at the Colombo National Museum until 2002, when it was returned and re-installed at the stupa.
An interesting feature of the stupa is the cut-away left by the Department of Archaeology at the side of the stupa, which shows the three different historical stages of renovation.
Today, Somawathi is a very popular destination for pilgrims and tourists. The roads leading up to the stupa through brushland, which used to be mud puddles impassable even with the aid of 4WD vehicles, have been neatly done up in concrete. There is accommodation for pilgrims, though most tourists prefer to stay in Polonnaruwa, which is only 45 minutes away.
New temple structures have been constructed since the end of the war, including halls for accommodation, a new shrine room and sermon hall.
The area surrounding the stupa is the Flood Plains National Park. Elephants frequent the area, making travelling there after dusk dangerous.
Somawathi is a temple complex in Polonnaruwa district, surrounded by jungle. If you’re in the area, do pay a visit: the roads are good and you’ll also catch a glimpse of the area's wildlife.