Situated just six miles from Colombo on the banks of the Kelaniya River is one of the most revered temples of the country, Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya. Having derived its sanctity nearly 2700 years with the visit of Lord Buddha and five hundred arhants on the invitation of King Maniakkikha, the leader of Naga tradition kelaniya had continued to be among the most visited sites in history of Buddhism.
According to the legend the temple and stupa in Kelaniya dates back to the pre-Buddhist era in the country, when Lord Buddha visited the area and preached Dhamma to the Nagas, who then lived in Kelaniya. King Maniakkikha had built a stupa enshrining the seat and location Lord Buddha sat and had also included a handful of hair gifted by Lord Buddha himself. Following the arrival of Arhant Mahinda and the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka; the brother of the then reigning King, Devanampiyatissa had renovated the temple and had built an abode for Sanga, establishing the location as a temple for the first time. The temple however was in its glory during the Kotte period when the temple received gifts of land and gold and precious gems in form of statues from Kings and ministers.
However the original Stupa and the temple built by the old Kings of Lanka is no more as it was wrecked and plundered by the invading Portuguese, who according to Portuguese historians used the bricks to build a church nearby. Gold and gems plundered by the temple were kept as booty while Portuguese confiscated the land belonging to the temple and prohibited the devotees worshipping at the site.
The temple was left under rubble and in destruction until permission was granted by the Dutch, who took over coastal areas of Sri Lanka following the Portuguese, to the Kandyan King, Keerthi Sri Rajasingha to renovate the temple, once ever so precious to the Buddhists. The re-construction was undertaken and managed by an imminent scholar monk of the era Ven. Buddharakkita Thera and the construction had pleased the king that he had donated more land to the temple.
The original viharage or the shrine room of the temple were lost due to Portuguese plundering and the remnant is a constructions of the King Keerthi Sri Rajasingha comprising murals of the Kandyan era and murals drawn by Solias Mendis during the last century. The new stupa was built over the old stupa, enshrining the old relics again.
The new Image House, the main attraction at the temple, is 150 feet in length and is 90 feet broad. Standing on a stone plinth of 3 feet in height it has an octagonal roof thatched in the Kandyan style. The paintings belong to the Kandyan period and the 20 the century. The Kandyan era murals depicts Jataka stories, giving the name of each story below each strip of panels, the Mara Yuddha or the temptation of Mara and the sixteen most sacred places of worship in the country. On the ceiling are the nine plants and the twelve zodiacal signs of Eastern Astrology.
The new murals however have introduced a new tradition to temple murals by portraying main events of the Sri Lankan Buddhist history, connected with the birth, rise and progress of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. The murals include King Devanampiyatissa presenting the Royal Park, Mahamegha to Arahat Mahinda , conveying of the sacred tooth relic to Sri Lanka by the royal couple of Kalinga and scholar monk Buddhagosha committing the oral Thripitaka tradition into books at the temple at Aluwihare .
The temple hosts its perahera a colourful and vibrant pageant honoring the triple gem on pre – full moon day of the month of January every year; a celebration of revival of Buddhism and the revival of the temple itself.