Mihintale: the sacred mountain-Text and pix by Mahil Wijesinghe

Mihintale: the sacred mountain-Text and pix by Mahil Wijesinghe

Kaludiya Pokuna

Ruins around the Kaludiya Pokuna on Western slopes of the Mihintale range


One day of the full moon in 247 BC, King Devanampiyatissa met Mahinda Thera, the son of Emperor Asoka on the Mihintale hill. A strange conversation was struck up between the king who was hunting deer and the Thera who had been appointed to take Buddhist teachings to the island of Lanka, as they sat beneath a mango tree at the top of the hill.

King Mahinda asked:

– O king, what is this tree called?

– This tree is a mango tree.

– Are there any other mango trees than this one?

– There are many mango trees.

– Are there other trees which are neither this mango tree nor other mango trees?

– There are many trees, but they do not bear mangoes.

– Are there other trees than these other mango trees and these trees which are not mango trees?

– There is this mango tree.

Whereupon Mahinda declared:

You are full of wisdom O sovereign.

Anuradhapura was and is a great Buddhist capital. But it was not the place where Buddhism first overwhelmed the people of Sri Lanka. That honour goes to Mihintale, a rocky hill about seven miles (11 kilometres) East of Anuradhapura. For it was here, in 247 BC, that King Devanampiyatissa sought refuge in Buddhism in his encounter with that first missionary of the Dharma.

Monastic city

Mihintale – the mountain of Mahinda – soon became a great monastic city encompassing not one but four rocky, forested hills. In the 10th Century, regulations were established to preserve the forests and wildlife. Today, the feeling of seclusion still exists, despite a thriving bazaar at the foot of the hills and the presence of tens of thousands of pilgrims, especially on the full moon Poson in June. Probably this year visitors might not be able to visit Mihintale in the Poson season as last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Whether Buddhist pilgrim or foreign visitor, every person who wishes to reach the Ambastala dagaba at the summit of this sacred mountain must climb 1,840 steps to do so. The staircase was built by King Bhathika Abhaya.

The foundation of Buddhist civilisation that flourished for centuries were laid at the place where the Damma was received. In a matter of years, the hunting ground of the King was converted into a massive monastic complex that housed thousands of meditating bhikkhus. With the introduction of Buddhism, art, architecture, sculpture and paintings flourished with inspiration from the teaching of the Buddha.

Among the rock boulders on the Mihintale are found some interesting caves and ponds. These caves no doubt represent the first dwelling of the monastic bhikkhus of the earliest period of Sri Lanka’s history of Buddhism.

I visited the Rajagirilena hill and the Kaludiya Pokuna at Mihintale, two magnificent sites usually missed by the hundreds of visitors who throng to Mihintale during the Poson season. Numerous are the ruins scattered around the Kaludiya Pokuna.

Residential area for bhikkhus

The Rajagirilena hill is a lower hill of the Mihintale range. Here, the magnificent rock boulder, which has been converted into caves, forms the vast complex that would have sheltered hundreds of monastic bhikkhus.

The remains of monastic complexes indicate them to be the residential area for bhikkhus headed by Arahat Mahinda. These are natural caves covered in greenery, and entering them, one gets the feeling of calm and tranquility, savoured by the bhikkhus who lead an ascetic life.

The pathway with Araliya trees on either side leads to the Rajagirilena cave at the summit of the hill. This cave, according to archeologists, was the shrine room of the ancient monastic complex. The bhikkhus meditating in the caves in the area, probably performed rituals at this picturesque cave shrine. A huge and long Katarama or drip-ledge has been cut into the rock surface at Rajagirilena to prevent rain-water flowing inside.

Even today, some remains of the shrine room at Rajagirilena are still visible, despite the centuries of neglect that have taken its toll on the ruins. In the cave, there are two fragmented statues of the Buddha, with the torso intact but the head missing. These, of course, are the results of vandalism and treasure hunting rather than natural decay.

The walls of the shrine room are also in a dilapidated condition. The drip-ledged of the cave had been meticulously carved to prevent rain water from seeping through, while a small tank at the entrance of the cave collected the rain water.

Bathing place

On the opposite side of the Rajagirilena hill lay a secluded pool, the Kaludiya Pokuna, the centre of a cave-dewlling monastic community, shaded by humongous trees and surrounded by many ruins. A meandering flight of steps between two huge rock boulders and trees from Rajagirilena hill took me to this enchanting pool, which is the largest such water body in the complex.

The massive pool, situated on the western slopes of the Mihintale range, is said to have derived its name from the fact that the water in the pond appears to be black. Although it appears open today, the Kaludiya Pokuna was completely shut off from the outside world with walls in the past.

It was accessible only through two doorways, which is believed to be a private bathing place of the meditating bhikkhus of Mihintale. Today, the pool facilitates water requirements of the Bhikkhus of the hermitage and the villagers who live in the vicinity of the pool. The ruins scattered around the pool are conserved by the Department of Archaeology. When you visit Mihintale, make sure you leave a few hours free to explore this vast monastic complex. The discoveries one can make are fascinating and rewarding. This cradle of Sri Lanka’s civilisation still offers the people a glorious window into the past.

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