Handagala Kanda Ancient Cave Temple (හඳගලකන්ද ලෙන් විහාරය)

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In any reference to Anuradhapura, the picture that immediately flashes into one’s mind is the majestic monuments such as Ruwanweli Seya which are symbolic of the country’s rich Buddhist cultural heritage. Their overpowering presence in a way has hidden the existence of many other hallowed and sacred places of historical and religious value of that ancient era. These remain today mostly in ruins scattered all over the environs and neighbouring regions of the holy city which continued to be the capital of the Anuradhapura kingdom for over two thousand years commencing from King Pandukabhaya’s reign in the fourth century BC.

One such lesser-known place that lay mostly in ruins today is situated in a serene forest-clad area in a village called Ratmalgahawewa 22 miles northeast of Anuradhapura. This sacred site called Handagala cave temple could be reached by proceeding about two miles from Ratmalgahawewa junction on the Kebitigollewa road and continuing westwards for another two miles.

Several centuries ago a cave temple of much religious and cultural value which had existed here now remains mostly in ruins. The rocky hill on which the cave temple existed rises to a height of around 300 feet from the surrounding plain and reaches a height of 648 ft above mean sea level. It stands out prominently from the locality that is typically representative of a purana village in the North Central Province.

The hill is studded with as many as 45 caves almost all of which are drip-ledged which is indicative of human intervention to assist in the occupation of the caves. Some of the caves located at a considerable height from the surrounding plain could be reached only with much effort.

In the very ancient past, these caves had served as an ideal haven that provided a serene atmosphere for priests deeply immersed in meditation. The name Handagala (meaning moon-rock) may have been coined because of the prominently located circular boulder on the hill crest that could be seen from a considerable distance over the surrounding forest cover resembling the full moon.

Disruptions and destruction

With the passage of time and due to several factors such as disruptions and destruction caused by South Indian invasions, climatic changes that led to prolonged droughts and famines which contributed to the consequent abandonment of the Anuradhapura kingdom, the fate that befell all religious places in the kingdom had affected Handagala cave temple as well. The abandonment of the premises had enabled the jungle to advance unhindered and made the site remain buried and forgotten for several centuries.

The British who gained control over the entire country in 1815 and were keen on excavating the rich cultural heritage which lay buried, set up the Department of Archaeology in 1890 with H C P Bell of the Ceylon Civil Service as the first Commissioner. Within two years of the establishment of the new Department, Bell while excavating and surveying in the North Central Province had considered Handagala to be of such archaeological value to spend two days there.

Guided by the aged priest resident there, he had explored the caves and the ruins of the temple built on the rocky outcrop. The following is an extract from his references to Handagala in his Annual Report for 1892 –

“Spent two full days at Handagala-kanda. This rocky ridge lies three and a half miles southwest of Wattewa. It is depressed about the center, with bare boulders crowning the wooded acclivity left and right. There is at least a score of caves with inscriptions on this comparatively insignificant hill… The several tiers of steps mounting the hill, the ‘pansala’ halfway up, the ruined dagoba mound on the summit, and the numerous caves, forcibly recall the Mihintale hills to which Handagala-kanda yields only in picturesqueness. Epigraphically, in a profusion of cave inscriptions of distinctly different ages, found side by side in a very perfect state of preservation, it equals Mihintale. The library of the temple is said to be one of the richest in the District in ola manuscripts, mainly religious works…”

Dr Edward Muller a Westerner of German nationality appointed as epigraphist by the British colonial rulers in 1878 with the task of studying and recording the ancient inscriptions of the country had visited Handagala in 1880 several years before Bell and published in 1883 “Ancient Inscriptions in Ceylon” a book containing a study of 172 inscriptions in which he had included the texts of the three cave inscriptions which he had observed at Handagala.

C W Nicholas who had visited the site in 1942 “after much climbing, descending and detouring to avoid precipices” had discovered thirty cave inscriptions. Prof Senarat Paranavitane in his work “Inscriptions of Ceylon” published in 1970 reproduced the 30 cave inscriptions that had been identified in Handagala.

According to C W Nicholas, 14 of the 30 inscriptions belong to the second century BC, another 14 to the first century BC, and the other two to the first century AC. The information recorded in them is limited to particulars regarding the donation of caves owned by different persons for the benefit of the priesthood as was generally characteristic of inscriptions of that era.

Drip ledges had been cut on the upper portion of the cave entrances to prevent the rainwater from dripping into the caves and to protect the monks residing in them. The fact that such drip-ledges have been cut on caves in even the most inaccessible locations on the hill indicates that priests had been resident in them despite the difficulties in accessibility.

Donations In 1892 Archaeological Commissioner Bell reported that the cave inscriptions at Handagala were in a good state of preservation. Almost all the 30 inscriptions found here refer to the donation of caves. As many as 28 of them mention that the individual caves have been donated to the sangha. One such inscription reads –

(1)Upatisa-teraha baginiya lene agata-anagata catu-disa-saghaye)

(2)Niyate- which means ‘the cave of the younger sister of the elder Upatissa has been dedicated to the Sangha of the four quarters, present and absent.’

Handagala is in a good state of preservationThe fact that 14 of these inscriptions are in the Brahmi script of the second century BC and another 14 are in the Brahmi script of the first century BC as presumed by scholars indicates that not long after the establishment of the priesthood consequent to the introduction of Buddhism, reclusive priests had been attracted to the placid atmosphere provided by nature on Handagala hill.

It is worth mentioning that of the much hallowed eight most sacred places of worship in Anuradhapura only Jaya Sri Maha Bodhiya planted during the reign of King Devanampiyatissa (247-207 BC) and the Thuparamaya built by him appear to have come into existence at the time when inscriptions were incised on some of the Handagala caves in second century BC.

Since the Buddhist priesthood came into existence only after the introduction of Buddhism, it has to be presumed that the initial occupation of such caves dates back to that period.

Due to ravages caused by foreign invasions and the passage of time, what remains today of this ancient cave temple on Handagala hill are limited to the ruins of a dagoba and other buildings and some of the stone steps of the tedious climb to the rocky summit which lay here and there.

Bell’s report for the year 1892 is accompanied by a photograph of a vihara building and a line drawing done to scale by the Survey Department of what was available of a fresco painting on a cave roof at Handagala. The reproduction of the pieces of the painting shows two figures – a male and a female.

While the male whose face is missing appears to be sturdily built, the portions of the other human figure show a female face and a pair of graceful hands.

A temple drum is also to be prominently seen. The costumes of the two figures as seen from the fresco fragment indicate them to be a pair of dancers.

This fresco which appears to belong to a later era, may have been one of several that may have covered much of this particular cave roof which is the largest at Handagala.

It could be the best specimen that Bell considered suitable for inclusion in the Annual Report after visiting the site in 1892.

The land area owned by the temple extends several hundred acres and a village tank – Viharagama situated a little distance away from the hill may be the tank that had been donated as recorded in one of the inscriptions.

Although the temple was surrounded by rocky outcrops the naturally formed pools and basin-like hollows in the rocks of which a number are seen must have provided enough supplies of water collected from rain to meet the needs of the resident monks.

The enchanting view of the surrounding area one could observe from the rocky summit, extending to the distant horizon includes Mihintale hill situated 18 miles away, in addition to the several giant dagobas such as Ruwanmeliseya, Abhayagiriya and Jetavanaramaya as well as several irrigation tanks which are proud symbols of the rich civilization that this country has been privileged to inherit.

Nearly two thousand years later, to coincide with the 2600 Buddha Jayanthi, a vast renovation and development project to restore ‘Handagala Gallen Raja Maha Viharaya’ to its former glory is to be commenced in January 2011 under the energetic leadership of Ven Kendewe Samitha Thera with advice from the Archaeological Department.

P. Weerasekera
Daily news

Also See

Map of Handagala Kanda Ancient Cave Temple

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Driving Directions to Handagala Kanda Temple,

Route from Colombo to Handagalakanda Temple Route from Anuradhapura Railway Station to Handagalakanda Temple
Via : Negambo – Putlam – Anuradhapura
distance : 265 km
Travel time : 6 hours
Driving directions : see on google map
Via : Rambewa – Bogaswewa
distance : 45 km
Travel time : 1 hours
Driving directions : see on google map
Route from Vavunia to Handagalakanda Temple 
Via : Vavunia – Kabithigollewa Road
distance : 40 km
Travel time : 45 mins
Driving directions : see on google map

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