Mulkirigala [4] – Rock of Ages

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primary root main first article The night was clear, the stars shone brightly, and the moon shed its silvery light on the lovely scene; the white walls of the temple stood out, relieved by the rock and foliage behind, whilst the leaves of the trees appeared tipped with silver; a solemn silence reigned, and it seemed as if Meditation had marked this spot for its own” – John Deschamps, Scenery and Reminiscences in Ceylon (1848).

One of Sri Lanka’s more delightful aspects is the manner in which almost every crag and hill is graced with sacred architecture, usually a Buddhist temple. It is the milk-white hemisphere of a rock temple’s dagoba, or reliquary, that travellers can sometimes glimpse, as if floating, on a nearby hilltop. However, there are other rock temples that cannot so easily be observed from afar, and which have to be sought out with diligence and foreknowledge.

The most physically imposing yet obscured rock temple in the south of the island is situated on a slab of gneiss known as Mulgirigala. Over 210m high, this peak is almost as sheer and stunning as the better-known Sigiriya much further north. Mulgirigala Vihara is the Buddhist temple complex that ascends and crowns this rock, and which gives the place its aura of sanctity. It is a temple of great antiquity, with fine murals of historical importance. It is more famous, though, as the place where an English colonial administrator named George Turnour made a discovery in 1826 that laid bare more than 2,000 years of the island’s history.

The origins of Mulgirigala are so ancient that they have been veiled in the mists of time. However, it is evident from several Brahmi inscriptions carved along drip ledges on the rock that it has been the site of a Buddhist monastery for millennia. While its genesis is uncertain, the general belief is that the Mulgirigala Vihara was founded circa 130BC. Nowadays, Mulgirigala can easily be reached by making a 25 minute journey inland from either of the coastal towns of Dikwella or Tangalle. To get there 150 years ago, one needed to be a determined traveller. Yet, during those times, many Europeans did make the effort, leaving to succeeding generations a number of informative travellers’ accounts of Mulgirigala. Possibly the best is that of James Cordiner, in his book, A Description of Ceylon (1807).If the journey was made during the monsoon, it was a hazardous affair. The road was “rugged and much cut up by the rain,” as James Cordiner commented. Whatever the season, travellers had to be wary of the animals inhabiting the jungle. Cordiner describes the arched passages of entwined branches in the middle of thickets. Just large enough to shelter a person on hands and knees, these were refuges from elephant, leopard and bear.

At Kahawatte, a village several kilometres before Mulgirigala, there used to be cottages for the accommodation of travellers and a wooden bridge. These have long since disappeared, but on crossing the modern bridge one has the comfort of knowing Mulgirgala is near. Visitors of a bygone age would have been able to view the rock from Kahawatte. Today, though, it is futile to peer into the middle distance to catch a first glimpse, for Mulgirigala is obscured by coconut palms. When the rock is spied for the first time, it is easy to appreciate why it has been described as a “singular eminence” with an “air of awesome grandeur.” Mulgirigala appears to be one enormous boulder rising almost perpendicularly from the plain, except for one side, which is sloped. Looking upwards, the traveller notices that, punctuating the sloping side, there are several terraces, upon which cave temples nestle beneath ledges of overhanging rock.

The climb to the summit of this sacred rock begins near the dwellings of the bhikkus (Buddhist priests) at the base. A stone path soon gives way to a flight of steps leading to the flank of the rock. These steps end at the first terrace, where there is a bo-tree and twin cave temples known as the Paduma Rahat Viharaya. The interior walls and ceiling of the Paduma Rahat Viharaya are covered with fine murals – some very old, some not so old, but all of them intriguing.

Proceed next to a small terrace called the madamaluwa, on which is situated the Madamaluwa Viharaya.

Mulgirigala is an excellent example of a living temple, as it is an important destination for devotees, and this terrace, with its devalayas, or shrines, is an ideal place to witness their devotions. These shrines are popular with devotees because it is believed that favours asked here are invariably granted.

The path rises steeply thereafter and turns into a flight of steps hewn from the solid rock. The largest terrace, reached by climbing the steps, is the location of four cave temples. Chief among these is the Raja Maha Viharaya, an ancient temple with a recumbent Buddha statue 15m in the length. When Cordiner visited the temple, the roof was being heightened by using an intense fire to heat the rock face until layers split away.

The Raja Maha Viharaya serves as both an image room and as the potgula, or library. It was in this library that George Turnour made his momentous discovery. On a visit to Mulgirigala in 1826, Turnour found in this library some olas (palm-leaf manuscripts) containing the key to translating the Mahawamsa, the ‘Great Chronicle.’ Turnour’s discovery of the tika, or commentary, made it possible for the Mahawamsa to be translated first into English and then into Sinhala. This translation enabled scholars to study the eventful history of the island from 543BC to comparatively modern times.

The terrace where the key to deciphering the Mahawamsa was found houses three other temples: the Alut Viharaya, the Naga Viharaya and the Pirinivan Viharaya. Right in front of the Alut and Naga viharayas, there is a pond, which is believed to cure female infertility. In the past women bathed in the pond, now they just drink the water. The pond has historical significance as well, for it bears a 12th century inscription in Sinhala giving the ancient name of Mulgirigala as Muhundgiri.

The ascent to the next terrace is very steep, and at one place a flight of almost perpendicular steps must be climbed with the aid of an iron chain. The struggle upwards is arduous, but once the penultimate terrace is reached, the summit is close by. Wait before proceeding, because from this spot it is possible to look down a fissure extending nearly the height of the rock, a phenomenon attributed by legend to a great snake that sprang from a tree up the rock, splitting it asunder.

A final flight of steps leads to the summit terrace of Mulgirigala, on which stands a dagoba and image house. The view is breathtaking, especially in the mellow light of sunrise or sunset. It is a view that cannot be obtained anywhere else in the south of the island, for Mulgirigala is the tallest eminence for many kilometres around. To the northwest lie the hills of the Sinharaja forest, directly north the central massif looms in the far distance, and in the south can be seen the coastal plain, beyond which the sea stretches over the horizon and all the way to Antarctica.

As you make your descent, ponder one puzzling aspect of Mulgirigala: why didn’t the Portuguese plunder the vihara, just as they had the famous Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu not very far away on the coast at Dondra? It is puzzling because Mulgirigala in those days was probably visible from the coast, its temple was renowned, and it housed fabulous relics and treasures.Mulgirigala is a unique and rewarding place – a place of exceptional antiquity but, above all, of sanctity and tranquility. With its remarkable history and unrivalled setting, no wonder Mulgirigala has always been a prime destination for discerning travellers.

Richard Boyle
Source :

Map of Mulkirigala Cave Temple

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Travel Directions to Mulkirigala Cave Temple

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first published : February 3, 2007

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