Salgala Monastery – The Rocky serenity (සල්ගල වන සෙනසුණ)

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Only soft birdcalls, rustling leaves, and a gentle drizzle accompany us as we weave our way up the picturesque Salgala forest monastery. Salgala monastery is a haven for monks who have renounced worldly pleasures to lead a life of austerity and meditation.

A place of rare serenity, which could inspire Sandesha Kavya writers, Salgala, is easily accessible from Warakapola. Seven miles on the Anguruwakanda road and another 2 1/2 miles from Galapitamada bring one to its entrance. To the villagers, this natural forest reserve extending over 600 acres is merely the ‘Ketakilla Mukalana’- a place to gather firewood and herbs. They view us with suspicion. The ‘kele mahattayas’ (forest officers) had not come for some time, but they penalized only the illicit fellers. And that happened in the leech -infested ‘high climb’ not trod by ordinary folk.

In recent times, miscreants hunting for invaluable herbal plants fetching high prices and couples seeking solitude have invaded this forest reserve.

Maithree, the lay assistant of the Purana Vihara says the young couples and teledrama makers are his nightmare. Salgala’s natural beauty of rocks, caves, and lush greenery has attracted many film crews, but consequent to the use of strong lights, wasps and bees died in their thousands. Filming has now been banned here.

Paved walks for meditation, similar to Ritigala and Arankele monasteries are a feature of Salgala. Moss-covered, slippery, and weatherbeaten stone steps lead you to a beautiful stone-carved entrance, symbolic of the ‘wahalkada’ which defines the monastery boundary, believed to have been the abode of forest dwelling Arhants. Many herbs, which Maithree identifies for my benefit, cover the path.

I pause in fascination to read the wooden plaques hanging from tree branches with quotes from the Dhammapada on life and impermanence. Soon we reach “Pippili”, the first cave and the austerity strikes me anew as I inspect the uninhabited cave, which has only some kitchen utensils, firewood, a few books and a toothbrush.

Salgala monastery consists of 18 rock caves, all taking their names from Sanskrit. The Poth Gula, the original library today is another cave close to which we discovered the ‘Vehara Guha’, the original ‘dana shalawa’. On a higher level is ‘Gijjakuta’, a massive rock cave in front of which, is a sapling of the Ananda Bodhi of India and a tiny vihara called ‘Gandhakuti’ now overgrown with jungle.

The history of this ancient Salgala monastery is as fascinating as its breathtaking beauty and is intrinsically woven with threads from King Walagamba’s life. “Batha Dama Gutha Lena” our next stop, was once the hideout of King Walagamba which he later offered to Arhant Bhathru Dharma Gupta. A stone inscription in Asokan letters substantiates this historical fact. Dating back to 440 Buddha years (104 BC), Salgala must have been a haven to the king plagued by Chola invasions and fleeing from one area to another.

Making our way through the thickets we reach a massive boulder under which the King supposedly kept his elephant tied. The cave still has some ancient chains, alms bowls, and other knick-knacks. The zenith of the picturesque setting is the ‘Belumgala’. Its sheer beauty takes our breath away while the gusts of wind threaten to blow us off the rocky terrain. This was once Walagamba’s secret spot from where he could survey the entire land expanse. From the east one can see Adam’s Peak and from the west, the Indian Ocean.

According to Hendala Damitha Thero, the pious king also created Lenagala which adjoins Salgala, the two monasteries being originally connected by a tunnel. It is believed that this was the king’s favourite escape route and even today the tunnel is accessible from both ends.

H. Sri Nissanka, a legislator of great religious zeal, restored the ancient monastery, neglected for centuries in 1930. It was Nissanka’s aim to create a place for forest-dwelling monks to live in meditation.

Accounts on Salgala claim that Sri Nissanka who had first-hand experience of the Indian monastic life, with the assistance of Lanka’s first Premier D.S. Senanayake, the lay advisor to the temple until his death, restored Salgala to its pristine glory. And to ensure that nothing could affect the sanctity of this monastery, once inhabited by the Arhants, bhikkus were selected with meticulous care according to a specially designed code of ethics based on the {xe “Suttas”}Suttas. Today, the forest-dwelling monks follow the same rules. They have little to do with villagers and pass their time in meditation. No power battles or sectarianism are allowed and vegetarianism and austere living are musts.

On our way down, we notice a monk seated in deep meditation with a skeleton before him. The bathing spots too are adorned with drawings of skeletons- reminders of life’s impermanence. And devotees pay silent homage here as if not to disturb the cave-dwelling monks. The temple gates open at 9 a.m. and are soon thronged by devotees. The gates close again by 1 p.m.

But Salgala’s serenity may be short-lived. A year ago, a local politician tried to allocate land from the nature reserve of the temple to his supporters. Though thwarted by environmentalists, the villagers complain that the felling of invaluable trees in the deep woods and the plunder of rare medicinal plants and orchids continue. No, they haven’t seen a ‘kele mahattaya’ in years. Just outsiders walking away with bagfuls of herbs.

The name Salgala is a derivative of ‘shila guha’ or ‘shila gul’ meaning rock caves. Originally, the first Prime Minister, D. S. Senanayake declared 700 acres of lush green forest a natural reserve. It was later proposed to extend these boundaries, but so far nothing has happened.

The Salgala forest has trees well over a hundred feet tall and thick undergrowth. Valuable trees such as milla, pihimbiya, eta heraliya, hal, nedun, godapara, and diya thaliya are found aplenty, while rare medicinal plants such as ira raja, sanda raja, kuda hedaya and maha hedaya grow in abundance here.

The lush forest is also home to 30 varieties of rare butterflies, birds, and many reptiles.

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti
The Sunday Times

Also See

Map of Salgala monastery

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Travel Directions to Salgala Monastery

Route 2 from Colombo to Salgala Forest Monastery Route 2 from Colombo to Salgala forest monastery
Through : Kelaniya – Warakapola
Distance : 72 km
Travel time : 2 hours.
Driving directions : see on google map
Through : Rajagiriya – Kaduwela – Hanwella – Avissawella – Dehiowita – Ruwanwella
Distance : 80 km
Travel time : 2 hours.
Driving directions : see on google map


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