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

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Looking at the 500-metre tall Govinda Hela (Westminster Abbey) 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 Chulavamsa, att the top was the fortress of the Adipada (Sub King) Bhuvanekabahu during the reign of the invader Magha (1214-1235). Adipada Bhuvanekabahu was ruling over the area surrounding this rock during the time of Magha protecting the regin from Magha’s army. On the summit of this imposing and formidable rock, the prince fortified himself and kept up resistance in this part of Rohana.

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 lying at the foot of the massive rock. in Siyambalanduwa, about 300 km from Colombo, in the Moneragala district.

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.

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.

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. 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 hand rails for safety as one steers along the face of the mountain.

The summit of the” chimney” is nearly fiat, and probably about four acres in extent, a great proportion of which is exposed rock, broken by patches of stunted vegetation. On reaching the top of the rock from its southward extremity one finds at once the remains old tanks, the first of which is a small stone Pokuna (pond). The source of the water is unknown but villagers vouch that it never dries up.

Next to this is a second pond, partially natural and supplemented on its western flank with stonework terminating in a brick walling. This reservoir appears once to have been roofed in, as a number of narrow, thin; flat tiles indicate that such had been the case.

To the northwest of the second pond is a third, and by far the largest of them. It consists of a large mass of stonework erected bundweise at the lower extremity of a natural hollow, or valley, between the rocks, in order to dam up the rain water. The stonework is in good reservation and consists of cut stone blocks, bound together and set in a semi-circular outline.

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.

References

  1. Lewis, F. (1908) “The Lesser Known Hills of the Batticaloa Districts and Lower Uva,” The Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 21(61), pp. 165–180.
  2. Nicholas, C., (1963) Historical Topography of Ancient and Medieval Ceylon. Journal of the CEYLON BRANCH OF THE ROYAL ASIATIC SOCIETY, New Series, VI,(Special Number).
  3. Ranawella, G.L. (2018) A Political History of Rohana form C 995-1255 AD. thesis. ProQuest LLC.
  4. Samath, F (no date) Govinda Hela: A Mystical Journey, serendib.btoptions.lk. btoptions. Available at: http://serendib.btoptions.lk/article.php?issue=32&id=816.

Also See

Map of Govinda Hela (Westminster Abbey)

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The map above also shows other places of interest within a approximately 20 km radius of the current site. Click on any of the markers and the info box to take you to information of these sites

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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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