Fa Hien’s links to Sri Lanka | Sunday Observer

Fa Hien’s links to Sri Lanka

28 June, 2020
An inside view of the Fa Hien rock cave where the Chinese bhikkhu rested
An inside view of the Fa Hien rock cave where the Chinese bhikkhu rested

A week ago, the news of a new discovery was highlighted on iin the print and electronic media. The news was that an international team of archaeologists including Sri Lankans have found a group of perfectly preserved bone arrowheads in the Fa Hien cave in Sri Lanka.

The latest find is evidence of the earliest use of bows and arrows anywhere outside of Africa, they say. Unearthed bone arrowheads are around 48,000 years old, and were likely used to hunt difficult-to-catch rainforest prey such as monkeys and squirrels.

The Fa Hien cave, better known as Pahiyangala, amid the lush foliage of the village of Yatagampitiya in Bulathsinhala in the Kalutara district, is not only regarded as the island’s largest cave but is also said to be among the largest natural rock formations discovered in Asia.

Believed to have been inhabited by pre-historic society centuries ago, the site is known to history buffs, researchers, scientists and archaeologists, across the globe as one of most ancient human settlements, drawing visitors from far and near.

Archaelogical excavations

The archaeologists from the Department of Archaeology of Sri Lanka in collaboration with international universities have been excavating the Fa Hien cave since 1986 and have shed some light into the intriguing yet arcane world of pre-historic man. They unearthed a wealth of artefacts, fossils, human skulls and skeletal remains from time to time during their excavations

My memories go back to the early part of the ‘80s during my years as a student at the Bulathsinhala Central College and the many occasions on which I visited the Fa-Hien cave, especially, when there were religious festivals. I used to photograph the events with my fixed focus camera. The multiple visits were due to the fact that the cave was in close proximity to where I lived, Botalegama, which was just over 10 kilometres from the site.

Apart from the cave’s natural beauty, the archaeological finds within it makes a remarkable part of history. In addition to the skeletal remains the Archaeological Department also found weapons from the same era. The weapons, made from animal bones and stones, were used to kill deer, monkeys, porcupines and other animals. According to researchers, evidence found in the cave suggests that these early humans also consumed a few types of edible snails and wild breadfruit. Researchers have also found that after eating the snails, the cave’s earliest residents would pierce them to make jewellery.

The dimensions of the cave are reordered as 285 feet in width and 175 feet in height, and is 450 metres above sea level. The cave rises majestically above the nearby forest covered peaks. The rock rises to a height of 1,000 ft.

Passing the present monastery of the bhikkhus and climbing a 450 flight of steps minus a railing one reaches the ancient site. The entry cave is semicircular and can accommodate 3,000 persons at a time. Hence, it is considered the largest cave in the whole of South East Asia.

There is a folk belief that Fa Hien, a fifth century Chinese bhikkhu had visited this cave during his two-year sojourn in Sri Lanka. The Chinese bhikkhu would have stayed for a short period in this cave on his way to Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak). However, this belief has not been corroborated. This massive rock cave is commonly known as Fa Hien cave or Pahiyangala.

The 1980s were a prosperous period for the Fa Hien cave and the village of Yatagampitiya because the then Finance Minister and Member of Parliament of Bulathsinhala, Ronnie de Mel had initiated many development projects in the area with the help of the Chinese Government. The Sino-Sri Lanka Friendship Association fostered a new village settlement and constructed a Bhikkhus’ monastery at the cave temple of Pahiyangala.

The cave

At the wide-open mouth of the cave, visitors are amazed by the awe-inspiring panoramic beauty of the surrounding area. In the cave, visitors will find a recently built 15m long reclining statue of the Buddha and at the edge of the right side of the cave, lies an ancient image house with a Buddha statue belonging to the Kandyan period -17th or 18th centuries. Beautiful paintings and floral motifs adorn the rocky ceiling and walls.

It is believed that the image house was the work of a bhikkhu known as Porogama Unnansa who converted the cave into a place of Buddhist worship. In the middle of the cave, a massive pit has been dug where the stone-man’s findings were unearthed during excavations.

The mammoth rock cave attracts visitors mostly during weekends or holidays – especially on Poya days. However, schoolchildren come in their numbers during week days on study tours to get a glimpse of the country’s history, how pre-historic people lived, what they ate and their hunter- food gathering lifestyle, the tools they used and how they buried their dead.

At the foot of the Fa Hien cave is a bhikkhus’ monastery and hermitage with several samanera bhikkhus studying Buddhist doctrine. Although the Stone Age is almost lost to us, at the Fa Hien cave in Yatagampitiya it is possible to get a feel of the pre-historic man.