Sithulpawwa Rajamaha Viharaya

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Situated in Kirinda in Hambanthota District, Sithulpawwa Rajamaha Viharaya has also being called Chiththala Pabbatha in the ancient texts. Stone Inscriptions has identified this location as “Chithala Paawatha Vehera”. This temple complex is attributed to King Kavanthissa who ruled southern area of the country.

Sithulpawwa  is known as a location where thousands of Arhaths lived at one time. According to folklore it is said that a novice monk called Thissa who has reached the state of Arhath lived here and later a stupa was built encasing his remains thus this also has been known as Tissa Thera Chetiya.

Sithulpawwa Rajamaha Viharaya contains large number of stupas, cave temples, Buddha statues a stupa house and image houses spread among a large land area. Among these there is a cave temple with ancient paintings thought to be belonging to the 3rd century BC. These drawings have been done on a thin layer of plaster on the rock surface and primarily used red – yellow colours.

The main stupa has been built by flattening the top of a rocky mountain. There are two approaches to the stupa. Stone steps have been cut from the south and the north. The boundary walls of the maluwa area have been built using large rocks. Remains of many buildings can be seen on the Northern side of the stupa.

In addition to the main Sithulpawwa stupa another hill called the ‘Small Sithulpawwa ’ also contains similar stupa and buildings. Stupas have been built on each peak of this rocky mountain range and all these have been built in the Pre Christian Era.

A large amount of valuable items has been found from the excavations on this site including an exclusively made image of goddess Thara in a seating position and many Buddha statues. Two Statues of the Awalokeswara Bodisattva can be seen on the main cave temple. One of these is dressed as a royal and the other is plainly dressed as a sage.

A large number of rock inscriptions have been found throughout the vihara complex. All these belong to the pre Christian era and some letters in these inscriptions show localisation effects compared to Inscriptions in the Aruradhapura in the same era. Some of these pre Christian inscriptions mentions two of the ‘Dasamaha Yodhayan’ (the ten giants in the Army of King Dutugemunu) called Nandimithra and Welusumana. Another giant of the ‘Dasamaha Yodhayan’ Pussadeva is also said to be from this area.

According to the great chronicle Mahavansa, King Vasaba has built 10 stupas in the Sithulpawwa (then Chiththala Pabbatha) According to stone inscriptions King Mahallaka Naga (134-146) has built stupas and donated land to the temple and the regional King Dappula of Rohana has donated the village called Gonmitigama in 659 AC. Today this village has been identified as Gonagala.

List of Archaeological Sites inside Yala and Kumana National Parks

Also See

Map of Sithulpawwa Rajamaha Viharaya

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Travel Directions to Sithulpawwa Rajamaha Viharaya

Route from Colombo to Sithulpawwa Rajamaha Viharaya Route from Kataragama to Sithulpawwa Rajamaha Viharaya
Through : Southern Expressway – Lunugamwehera
distance :280 km
Travel time : 4.5 hours.
Driving directions : see on google map
Through : Kataragama – Situlpauwa Road
distance :20 km
Travel time : 45 minutes
Driving directions : see on google map


Sithulpawwa [2] : Walk into the jungle of Sithulpahuwa

Pix and text by Mahil Wijesinghe
Sunday Observer
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The Sithulpahuwa dagoba stands majestically in the midst of jungle of the Yala sanctuary.

The grazing herd of spotted deer, silhouetted against the setting sun, remained motionless as I rounded the bend into the villu, one of hundreds of lakes where jungle denizens quench their thirst. After a few seconds of inspection, the deer were back at it, while the proud male crowned with long antlers kept a wary eye on this new human intrusion.

I was a few kilometres inside the magnificent Ruhunu Wildlife Sanctuary at a famous archaeological site called Sithulpahuwa. However, the site is not only famous for its 2nd Century BC monastery, but also for its majestic dagobas and its rock carvings. What appeals most to visitors is the jungle wilderness and the panoramic view of the 1,300-square-kilometres wildlife sanctuary, which runs right down up to the Indian Ocean.

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The remnant walls of the meditating rooms used by the monks in the past

Five kilometres from Tissamaharama, the usual watering point for thirsty animals on their way to the Yala Wildlife Park, a dirty track branches off the main road. The road sign almost hidden behind a nearby tyre-repair shop, says ” To Sithulpahuwa”. On bright days, the dirt track is smoother than the macadamized main road. When it rains, though, it can be disastrous. A half-hour drive down the track through breathtaking country that progressively becomes dense jungle brings travellers to a barrier point, manned by a courteous game warden.

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Ancient ruins of Bodhisatva statue

From here it is another half-hour drive to Sithulpahuwa, the ancient monastery site, believed to be one of the few of its kind in Sri Lanka where monks practise Mahayana Buddhism in contrast to Hinayana Buddhism, which has been the accepted form of Buddhism since Lord Buddha’s teachings were first brought to Sri Lanka in the 5th Century BC.

Today, the monastery that was acclaimed as the greatest of its time still stands, although numerous renovations have been made to the original structure. More recently the addition, the pilgrim’s rest clustered around an artificial lake, known for its man-eating crocodiles, which crawl out onto the banks at noon to sun themselves.

Sithulpahuwa gets its name from the huge rock on which the dagoba was built. The word pahuwa a derivation of the word pawwa, means a (big rock) in Sinhala. The dagoba on the top of the rock is not as ancient as the rest of the monastery. It has been built over the original dagoba and was reconstructed a few years ago. On the lower slopes, however, one can find the foundations of two ancient dagobas to the original. According to folklore, some holy relics of lord Buddha were hidden in the original dagoba, and the remains of two of His principal disciples were placed inside the two companion dagobas.

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The umbrella-shaped rock

From the top of the rock mountain, the traveller can see the whole of the Ruhunu Sanctuary, right down to the sea on the side and to the central hills on the other. Built into a side of the rock is a shrine room, containing a statue of Lord Buddha and of His two principal disciples. Scattered around the site are more than 60 inscriptions identifying Sithulpahuwa as a monastery of celebrated piety and scholarship. But more interesting to the adventurous traveller is a little path that leads out from near the shrine room.

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The ruins of ancient stone structures scattered in the monastic site.

There are no signposts. Less than a kilometer away through the jungle, the path leads to a small dagoba, seen atop another rocky outcrop, which is even higher than Sithulpahuwa. For those whose interest extends beyond archaeology, this is exciting as it takes the traveller into the middle of the wilderness, where – save for the cacophony of jungle sounds-peace prevails.

A few yards up, an umbrella-shaped rock forms a passage, leaning against another rock. Beneath the first are indications of the beliefs of the village people. Stacked against the rock are hundreds of little sticks and branches. The villagers break the branches and offer them to the jungle deities for protection, before they venture too far into the jungle.

The traveller has to climb up a near- vertical rock face, supported by a rickety iron hand-rail and tiny footholds carved into the rock, before climbing up the second rock mountain. The effort is worth it. The panaromic view is even better from there.

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The majestic dagoba of Kuda Sithulpahuwa

The second dagoba is called Kuda Sithulpahuwa. Historians claim it was once linked to the main monastery by a paved path fringed with flowering bushes. On both sides of the path were caves and rooms in which the monks could meditate. Today, the more adventurous can even venture off the main path and find remnants of these caves and rooms.

The authorities in the temple advise that travellers return to the main monastery before sunset. However, once the heady view envelopes you, such advice may soon be forgotten.

Sithulpawwa [3] : Sithulpawwa Rajamaha Viharaya

The south eastern corner of Sri Lanka is one of the driest, most desolate and remote regions in the country and much of it now forms the Yala National Park. It was in this unpromising place that one of the Buddhist world’s most famous and influential monastic communities once flourished. The Buddha called his teaching the Middle Way (Majjhima Patipada) meaning that it avoided the extremes of self mortification and self indulgence. However, some monks choose to practice austerities; and the Buddha allowed them to practice quite rigorous austerities on the understanding that these were not compulsory, and that they did not make a monk better than one who did not practice them.

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The Ancient Asana at Sithulphavuva

The modern name Sithtulpavuva is derived from the ancient name Cittalapabbata, ‘The Hill of the Quiet Mind’. Kakavanna Tissa, the king of Rohana in the 2nd century BCE, founded the first monastery here. Unlike the great monasteries in Anuradhapura and other towns life at Sithtulpavuva was hard and a monk or nun who lived there only if they were interested in silence and solitude. From a very early period Sithulpavuva earned the reputation of being the abode of saints. The commentaries are full of stories about the doings and sayings of Sithulpavuva’s monk ascetics.

Once a monk named Tissa being disappointed with the monastic life decided to disrobe and went to tell his teacher of his decision. The old teacher was wise and skillful and knew that if his pupil were only to stay a little longer and try a little harder he might become enlightened. So without trying to convince him to stay he said to him, ‘I am old so please make me a new hut before you leave and don’t forget to do it mindfully’. The student did as he was asked and then went to report to his teacher who said, ‘You must be tired after all that work. Lie down mindfully and rest for a while before you go. The student did this and in the afternoon went to say goodbye to his teacher. But the old teacher said to him, ‘It’s a bit late to leave now. Why don’t you sleep in the hut tonight’. The student agreed to this and went to the hut to prepare his bedding which he did mindfully and in the morning he was enlightened. We are told that at one time there were 12,000 monks at Sithulphavuva. This is obviously an exaggeration but as there are more than 160 caves in the area some of them quite large, very big place certainly existed.

The first thing the pilgrim will see on arriving is a long high hummock with a stupa on its top. Ancient stairs lead from both ends of the hummock up to the stupa. On both sides of the stairs on the southern end are several inscriptions, the earliest dating from the 1st century CE two of them by King Gajabahuka Gamini and King Karillha. On the north end are a series of terraces with the ruins of monastic buildings on them. On the top is a stupa called the Maha Sithulpahavuva Stupa dating from the 3rd century but renovated in the 1950’s. On the east side of the hummock is the largest of Sithulphavuva’s numerous caves. This was probably the monastery’s chapter house or main temple. A few fragments of paintings can still be seen on the roof of the cave. In front of the cave is a small modern pavilion housing a statue of Avalokitesvara, one of the most outstanding works of art from ancient Sri Lanka. Despite missing its arms and being very symmetrically conceived this sculpture still conveys tremendous warmth, grace and dignity. The image dates from the 4th century and shows that these were at least some Mahayanists here at that time.

Before Buddha images came into vogue in the 3rd century, large rectangular stones called thrones (asana) were used as a focal point of devotion.

These were worshipped as aniconic symbols of the Enlightened One and flowers were laid on them. Some of these thrones can still be seen at the more ancient monastic sites usually neglected and unused. In the Visuddhimagga there is a story about a throne at Sithulphavuva. Just to the south of the cave is a throne. As each monastery had only one throne this is almost certinally the one mentioned in the Visuddhimagga.


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