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Mihintalava - The Birthplace of Sri Lankan Buddhist Civilization

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Yesterday was Poson Poya Day : 

Ritigala - mountain of mystery and mist

by Karel Roberts Ratnaweera

POSON 2002: Time - about four o'clock in the afternoon. We had just returned to Anuradhapura Resthouse, tired and hungry after climbing about one quarter up the historic Ritigalakanda in the Polonnaruwa district.

An ancient medicinal bath

Ritigala is indescribable; there are no words in which to express the feelings and emotions that come over you when you even see the mountain from the road while approaching it - but that is only if you are a fan of Pandukhabaya, the prince of destiny who went on to found the city of Anuradhapura and become its first king.

Pandukhabaya sojourned four years on Dimbulagala, getting together an army to fight the wrath of his ten maternal uncles, except one, Anuradha who were out for the young prince's blood, as a soothsayer had predicted at his birth. His mother, the legendary Ummadacitta, managed to smuggle the infant away and give him to a cowherd in Dvaramandaka in exchange for his child.

Pandukhabaya roamed the foothills of Mihintale until the uncles made themselves felt. The prince even had to hide in the waters of the Mahagantota ford where he was protected by a white horse, as the story goes. But back to Ritigala, mountain of mystery and mist which is said to have the rarest medicinal herbs and plants from the Himalayas on its summit. It is said that the plants were scattered on Ritigala by Rama when he was flying to the South of ancient Lanka from the Himalayas.

Although it is the Mihintale area and Anuradhapura that is most popularly connected with Pandukhabaya, to remember Ritigala at Poson would not be far fetched because it was the home of the prince and his men for four years.

The early afternoon sun glinting through the jungle trees dappled the narrow pathway leading to the vehicle-parking lot. On the way, our excellent tour guide gave the tourists in the coach - it was a domestic tour - a graphic commentary on the mountain and its history. He also gave out a warning that no visitor to Ritigala was ever to take back even a grain of sand from it.

When this writer's fragile chain bracelet was caught in the bracken when we were descending, and dropped to the ground,I asked the guide whether it was in order to pick it up. His answer was quick and positive: 'It belongs to you. You have every right to pick it up.' Which I did. Later I wondered whether I should have dropped it into the square pond where, legend has it, a leech lives, all the while disgorging gold into the water.

A part of the ruins of King Pandukhabaya’s palace

Local tourist vehicles festooned with various medicinal plants kept arriving. The plants tied to various parts of the vehicles were to ward off any strong influences that might emanate from the mountain which is surrounded by mystery and enveloped in various legends relating to Ritigala's powers that have been coming down for thousands of years.

To get off the vehicle and step onto such historic ground gave me such a thrill that I had to pinch myself to realise where I was; imagine, then, the overpowering feeling to see, high up on the mountain, the ruins of Pandukabhaya's palace - and, still higher up, 'occupy' his lookout post from where he scanned the countryside for the enemy! His eyes would have seen the same sky and the same trees and the distant horizon that met my eyes! No historic epic that Hollywood has ever put on glossy celluloid has ever equalled the thrill of that very personal experience on Ritigala.

It was all I could do to tear myself away from that scene, but there was the promise of walking through his palace once again, on the way down.

It was then, or thereabouts, that we saw at first hand some members of the tour party go through a strange experience. Disregarding what the tour guide had said, some people plucked a handful of leaves from a shrub...and that was the last we saw of them for half an hour after returning to out coach! Finally, when they came down - we had begun to despair of their returning for several hours and the driver of the vehicle had begun to blow the proverbial fuse because the afternoon was getting on and there was, the risk the driver said, of elephants appearing out of the jungle and blocking our path, and no way was he going to let that happen.

Our 'lost' members of the group said that they had lost their bearings and found themselves in some no man's land. They had begun to get seriously alarmed when they saw some villagers on the slopes and asked them for directions to descend the mountain, also whether they had seen a group of people, obviously city tourists, going down. It was only then that they found their way down to the parking lot and a coach load of anxious people impatient to go on to Mihintale.

Back to the rest house for a quick cat's lick, a hurried lunch and off we went again. As some people were slow to get back into the coach, as it always happens on such tours, I saw a beautiful, glossy black cat in the porch of the rest house. Looks were exchanged...its eyes like emeralds...but when it saw me about to flash my camera,it attempted to vanish under the parked vehicle. I pursued my chase and got a picture of a visibly angry feline spitting fire and emeralds at the intruder on its privacy.

The long, straight roadway leading to Mihintale was jam-packed. It was the day after Poson Poya but pilgrims always continue to flock to one of Sri Lanka's most hallowed Buddhist places of worship where more than two thousand years ago another prince had arrived, from India, with a message that was to change the lives of the island's king and his people for all time.

The story is well-loved and oft retold again and again; somehow it never fades in the retelling, but rather takes on a new patina each time one relates or listens to it.

Blistering Anuradhapura heat, but there was also a light breeze from time to time, and plenty of soft drink outlets. We had reached the turn-off, to the right of the beautiful, temple-tree lined and fairly steep pathway to the Kantaka chetiya, named after the Buddha's horse Kantaka that took the Prince Siddharta Gautama on the first lap of his long journey to Buddhahood. Perhaps the Ritigala climb had tired some people out because they opted to bypass the Kantaka chetiya and proceed with the climb proper up the rock.

It was much easier managing the shallow steps after dumping one's thick-soled trainers on a small mountain of shed shoes which were being looked after by a boy,and climbing in one's socks. The tour group seemed to disperse, everyone doing his or her own thing because the tour guide had already briefed us that it had to be a rather quick trip up and down, and under such circumstances it is always better to be on your own rather than be hindered by others who may not have been able to climb as quickly as you did.

With mindful, quick steps, not getting in anyone's way, I found myself on the tier paved with hundreds if not thousands of silver and gold coins tossed by pilgrims at the base of a cetiya marking a particular 'way' of significance on the climb to the top. The rectangular area was roped off. Fumbling in the pockets of my trousers, I got hold of a currency note, but there was no paper money to be seen among the coins now glittering in the late afternoon sun. A shining five rupee coin did well to add to the shining 'path' of coins in the roped off area.

Bounding up with my eyes on the tour guide and my mind on the clock, I reached the upper tier on which stood the beautiful, glittering cetiya - the last before reaching the topmost tier marking the spot where the Arahat Mahinda appeared to King Devanampiyatissa who was about to shoot a deer with his bow and arrow - paved the whole way round with smooth stones. The evening sun shone down and the breeze blew like it was Galle Face and your hair blew this way and that; it was one of the most exhilarating experiences I have ever had. Crystal chandeliers inside the temple caught the light of the sun, lighting up the images and paintings in a gorgeous palette of colour. But, there was the figure of the ever-present tour guide whose look alone reminded you that it was 'down as soon as possible.'

That being the case, this writer had to forget the idea of climbing right to the top of Mihintale; instead of which I decided to take the line of least resistance and slid, rather than climbed down to expedite the descent. The shoes! Where were they? I panicked slightly, but relaxed at the sight of several women in our group leaning up against the side walls catching their breath.

I was also panting. Could I be having anything wrong with my heart?, I asked some friends on the slide down. They had a giggle. 'If you have climbed quarter of Ritigala a matter of hours ago and have now gone almost to the very summit of Mihintale, you don't have to get your heart examined. You should get your head examined after that!' was their cheery assurance. As they rested, I managed to slide down and to my great relief saw the pile of shoes, saw my own faithful lace-ups and was relieved to know that the others were still far behind.

An inviting, flat rock was too much to resist; I decided to sit right there and contemplate the scene that wonderful evening and wait for the rest of the party - and the split-second tour guide - to arrive.

While contemplating the breath I heard his voice saying in Sinhalese: 'Vadiya bhavana karanna honda naha. Mun hituwa rahath vuna kiyala!' he joked. In translation: 'Don't meditate too much.

I thought you had disappeared into thin air!' With that, and everyone united again, we rushed as fast as we could to the buses, leaving the still brilliant but waning Poson moon to bathe the milling pilgrims in its light as we left the childhood ground of Pandukhabaya behind in an era that preceded the dawn of Buddhism in Lanka, and headed for the creature comforts of an Italo-Sri Lankan owned luxury hotel whose architectural styles combined the Sinhala walauwe with the Italian villa, down the Puttalam Road, Anuradhapura, where some strange experiences were to unfold as we 'dressed' for dinner.

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