Mihintale... Mountain of the Kings | Sunday Observer

Mihintale... Mountain of the Kings

The Kaludiya Pokuna and the view of the monastic complex surrounding the pond. The Rajagirilena hill stands in  the background.
The Kaludiya Pokuna and the view of the monastic complex surrounding the pond. The Rajagirilena hill stands in the background.

As children, most of us have been taught about the phenomenal event that occurred over 2,300 years ago when the son of Emperor Asoka brought to this land a doctrine that would alter the path of its destiny.

Missaka Pawwa or Mihintale, as it was later translated into Sinhala, was the place at which this most magnanimous of all gifts received in Sri Lankan history was accepted by the ruler of this land. Arahat Mahinda along with six other disciples appeared before King Tissa near the now famous Mihintalawa.

Chethiya Pabbatha is also another name coined for this historic mountain range. The origins of that name are debated. Some say that Chethiya Pabbatha was so named by King Tissa who later took up the prefix Devanampiyatissa in honour of Arahat Mahinda.

Scriptures say that Arahat Mahinda was born at a place called Chethiyagiri in North India. The more accepted belief, however, is that the mountain range was named Chethiya Pabbatha due to the hundreds of Stupas that were built on the hills throughout the ages.

Monastic complex

The foundations of the Buddhist civilization that flourished for 23 centuries were laid at the very place where the doctrine was received. In a matter of years, the hunting ground of the Sri Lankan Kings was converted into a massive monastic complex that housed thousands of meditating monks.

The people and the rulers of the land who had by now enthusiastically embraced the new religion were the sponsors of the sea of sages. The caves that were prepared and donated to the Sangha bear inscriptions that are the oldest forms of writing in Sri Lanka. The many rock boulders that adorn the Mihintale range were carved into dwellings for the Bhikkus and donated by pious laymen.

We had an opportunity to visit the Rajagirilena and the Kaludiya Pokuna at Mihintale, two magnificent sites usually missed by the thousands of visitors who flock to the Mihintale during June. Numerous are the ruins scattered around the Kaludiya Pokuna, often missed by pilgrims.

These two less visited archaeological sites, Kaludiya Pokuna and Rajagirilena are located near Mihintale. When coming from Anuradhapura and cruising along the Kandy-Jaffna Highway, take a left turn and the sites are situated on the right hand side.

Rising prominently above the surrounding plains are the magnificent rock boulders of the Rajagirilena Kanda or the hill of the kings which have been converted into caves from the vast complex that would have sheltered thousands of saffron-robed meditative Bhikkus in ancient times. This place is accessible from the road almost directly in front of the entrance to the Kaludiya Pokuna hermitage complex.

In this wooded area are found natural rock caves which have been occupied by Bhikkus of great virtue and wisdom from time to time. A number of rock inscriptions belonging to the earliest periods of Buddhist era have been found in these caves. A short climb up a flight of rock cut steps under an avenue of profusely flowering white Araliya trees leads to its summit where the Rajagirilena is located. The cave built by placing thick granite slabs which comprise two compartments, appears to have once included a shrine with Buddha statues.

Vandalism

Even today, some remnants of the shrine at Rajagirilena are still visible despite the centuries of neglect that have taken a toll on the ruins. Inside 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 the vandalism and treasure hunting rather that natural decay.

The granite walls of the shrine are also in a dilapidated state, with some already collapsing. The long drip edge across rock cave had been meticulously carved to prevent rain water from seeping through, while a small tank at the entrance of the cave collected water. The archaeologists who examined these caves have said a better hermitage for monastic Bhikkus could hardly be selected than these airy caverns. They provided every facility for a quiet retreat.

On the opposite side of the Rajagirilena lay the magnificent Kaludiya Pokuna, shaded by humungous trees and surrounded by many ruins. Ascending a staircase made by stone bordered by a light thicket, we alighted at the Kaludiya Pokuna or the Black Water Pond, which is 200 feet long and 70 feet wide. Ruins of an ancient hermitage scattered around the pond greeted our curious eyes to this man-made pond which is the largest such water body in the complex.

The pond is situated on the western slopes of the Mihintale Range, Yet, it is assumed that the name Kaludiya came into being due to the blackness of the water that is caused by the reflections cast by surrounding rocks and trees.

The archaeologists surmise that this pond was used as a place to observe Pohoya Karma (cardinal tenets). The circular building in the midst of the pond is a Pohoya Gey (chapter house). To the right side of the pond is an older Dagaba that stood in a higher elevation. Made out of bricks, only the dome has stood the test of time.

Stepping through a stone archway that showed signs of having been part of an ancient rampart a little farther ahead, we strode along the length of a gravel path lined with grass, at points straying towards the pond where the stone steps led down to the dark waters. We saw a Bhikku and a hermit having a bath in the pond while walking around the pond. On the other side of the pond were ruins of a building made out of brick that rested in the midst of the pond.

Intriguing frames

Surrounding all these structures and spread throughout a vast space were caves that were difficult to access. However, one cave lies gave a glimpse of an abode that might have accommodated Bhikkus during the Anuradhapura period. The entrance and the windows were decorated with simple yet intriguing frames, made out of stone with faint carvings. Inside the floor cave was smooth and showcased the dedication put forth in maintaining a comfortable living space. It is considered that through originally only Mihintale was dedicated to meditating Bhikkus with caves more areas such as Kaludiya Pokuna were employed to accommodate the increasing numbers during Bhikku’s rainy season retreat (Vas Kaalaya). Further, the only Padahanagaraya (study hall for Bhikkus) in Mihintale is assumed to have been established in the Kaludiya Pokuna hermitage complex.

Tracing our steps towards a rock in the edge of the pond, where a flight of steps led to the top, we clambered up to catch the impressions of the hermitage of Kaludiya Pokuna and adjoining Rajagirilena Kanda. So when you visit Mihintale, make sure you leave a few hours free to explore this vast complex – the discoveries one could make are both fascinating and rewarding.

This cradle of Sri Lankan civilization still offers the people of our country a glorious window into the past. 

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