Ruins at Govinda Hela (Westminster Abbey) – ගෝවින්ද හෙල බෞද්ධ නටබුණ්

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Looking at the 500-metre tall rock mountain from a distance, one may need to whip up some courage to walk along hilly forest paths. But once you reach the summit, the weariness evaporates the moment the eyes behold the spreading vista below in 360 degrees, dotted with tanks, lakes, hills and lush greenery.

According to legend and ancient scripts, the ruins on the mountain dates back to the 6th Century AD to the time of King Buwanekabahu. The area had been named ‘Westminster Abbey’ by colonial British rulers because of a resemblance to that landmark in London.


The trek along the footpath begins from the Sri Buvaneka Vihara at Siyambalanduwa, about 300 km from Colombo, in the Moneragala district. Here Ven. Buddhama Indraratne was kind enough to provide us a guide, sure-footed 13-year-old Shashika Dilshan.

The dry months of the year are the best to wander around the area and according to this elderly monk July and August are popular with visitors.As we wend our way up the mountain trail, we spot a tree adorned with branches from elsewhere, by visitors. “It is a guide for the weary traveler that he is not lost but on the right path, on the way back,” explained our guide.

Govinda Hela, a protected forest, has probably the largest number of ebony trees in a single location. At every nook, corner and turn amidst hundreds of rocks stand sentinel, both ageing and young ebony trees, with mature specimens dark black in colour.

Rocks of all sizes – small, large and giant, some forming deep caverns – dominate the forest. Trees with vines snaking around their trunks and thick scrub complete the image of the wilderness. The winding paths and stepping stones are often treacherous not due to moisture but a carpet of dry leaves.

Be sure to wear a good pair of trekking shoes able to grip the ground firmly. For a snarl of giant roots covered with dry brown leaves gives a false sense of firm and many a time our feet slipped into deep holes.

Our guide spots a blackened, giant root and beckons and shows us a tree where the sap acts like a fuel and when lit exudes smell similar to a joss-stick.

Advised to keep a wary eye open not only for stray wild boars but also creepy-crawlies including snakes, we are disappointed. Not even a leech attempts to hang on to us. We hear only the calls of different birds.

Crossing two bridges over parched earth that was strong, flowing streams during the monsoon, the paths are visible with cemented steps or those carved out of stone. However, watch your step, as at times stray vines spread across the ground or hanging down from trees could cause you to trip or get hit on the head.

After half a kilometre, the path gets more arduous as many steep rocks 
and high slopes have to be negotiated with care.

Four villagers in their teens clamber up effortlessly, laughing and enjoying the climb while we pant and stop for our breath on our ascent. The group says it takes 30 minutes to reach the top and 20 minutes to return but for us it is at least 90 minutes up, drawing amusing looks from our young guide. He can reach the top in 45 minutes, 
a climb he makes twice a month.

Losing one’s way in the thick jungle is easy. As such in case you do get lost, look for a path with tell-tale signs of trampled leaves to get you back on track.

Many years back, trekkers climbed up a rope or primitive ladders made of branches with some rock climbing thrown in. A treacherous climb no doubt. The foot paths were also rocky and uneven.

That has changed to the occasional cemented steps and the five aluminium ladders with handbars for safety as one steers along the face of the mountain.

At the top, a refreshing breeze is balm to aching limbs. Crystal-clear water from the pokuna (pond) quenches our thirst. The source of the water is unknown but villagers vouch that it never dries up.

While there is a relatively new Buddha statue in the seated pose (Samadhi) about two feet high, in an alcove of rocks is also another Buddha statue.

A prominent board indicates that the area is of archaeological importance, replete with deep holes having what seem like ancient pillars and a little way off not only a sandakada pahana (moonstone) but also the remnants of a wall believed to be that of a palace of yore.

There is also a meditation kutiya and a place where debaras (wasps) had built their hives, with a pole that villagers claim would have been used in times past to help bring down the hives.

But the wonder of wonders is the hulang kapolla – a space between two rocks through which a gushing wind blows, with the loud but unmistakable “ho, ho” sound of a strong blast.

The power of the mighty wind can be measured by dropping a handful of leaves, which is caught in its swirls like a dancer’s frenzied movements and sent upwards. After a 30-minute relaxed stretch-out on the summit, we make our way back, the climb down is quicker, taking about an hour. The heart beats rapidly and the legs are about to give-way but the exhilarating experience carries us through.

by Feizal Samath

Also See

Map of Govinda Hela (Westminster Abbey)

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Travel Directions to Govinda Hela (Westminster Abbey)

Route from Monaragala up to Buwanekabahu Rajamaha Viharaya (Trail Head)

Distance : 51 km
Travel time : 1 hour + hike
Driving directions : see on google map


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