A jungle trek into Sithulpahuwa | Sunday Observer

A jungle trek into Sithulpahuwa

7 August, 2022

When I was a small boy, my mother took me on a pilgrimage to Sithulpahuwa. Forty years later, as an explorer and photographer, I visited this serene jungle shrine in the deep South, to capture its beauty.

Generally, most pilgrims to Kataragama make a detour to Situlpahuwa, an ancient Buddhist site in Block I of the Ruhuna (Yala) National Park.

Ruins and wildlife

The journey was fascinating in not only visiting ancient ruins of temples but also in spotting an abundance of wildlife in the park.

We were 25 kilometres inside the magnificent Ruhuna Wildlife Sanctuary at a famous archaeological site called Sithulpahuwa. However, the site is not only famous for its 2nd century BC monastery, but also its majestic dagaba and rock carvings. What appeals most to visitors is the jungle and the panoramic view of the 1,300 sq. kilometres wildlife sanctuary, which runs right down to the Indian Ocean.

The statue of Bodhisatwa
Awalokitheswara at Sithulpahuwa

Sithulpahuwa, the ancient monastery, is believed to be one of the few of its kind in Sri Lanka, where bhikkhus practised Mahayana Buddhism. Today, the monastery acclaimed as the greatest of its time, still stands, although numerous renovations have been made to the original structure.The recent addition of a pilgrim’s rest, is clustered around a natural tank, famous for its man-eating crocodiles.

The dagaba

The dagaba on top of the rock, is not as ancient as the rest of the monastery. It has been built over the original dagaba and was reconstructed a few years ago. From the top of the rocky boulder, visitors can see the whole of the Ruhuna Sanctuary, right down to the ocean on one side and to the central hills on the other. Scattered around the site are more than 60 inscriptions identifying Sithulpahuwa as an ancient monastery.

The two stone carved statues believed to b of the Bodhisatwa Awalokitheswara, lies in front of the main cave shrine and many more ruins are scattered over vast areas within the rocky site.

Kuda Situlpahuwa

Of greater interest to the adventurous visitors is a little path that leads from near the main shrine room. Less than a kilometre away, through the jungle canopy, the path leads to a small dagaba called Kuda Situlpahuwa, seen atop another rocky outcrop even higher than the main Situalpahuwa.

A few yards up, an umbrella shaped rock with drip-ledges forms a passage, leaning against another rock. Beneath the first are indications of the beliefs of the village people. Stacked against the rock are hundreds of little sticks and wood branches.

The pilgrims who climb the Kuda Situlpahuwa break the branches and offer them to the jungle deities for protection, before they venture far into the jungle.

The visitors have to climb up a vertical rock face, supported by an iron hand-rail and tiny footholds carved into the rock, before climbing up the second rocky mountain. The effort is worth it. The panoramic view is even better from there.

The second dagaba is called Kuda Sithulpahuwa. Historians said, that it was once linked to the main monastery. On both sides of the path were caves and rooms in which the bhikkhus meditated. Today, the more adventurous can even venture off the main path and find the ruins of these caves and rooms.

According to historical notes, in the 1st century, during the reign of King Walagambahu, there had been 12,000 bhikkhus living at Sithulpahuwa.

The authorities in the temple advise that visitors return to the main monastery before sunset because wild animals start to roam in the forest.