Located just 12 km from Habarana is a long-forgotten monastery at a Forest mountain hermitage at Ritigala. The monks who lived here were either killed by the invading Cholas or forced to abandon the site altogether to escape the wrath of the marauding enemies from South India.
Even the Kingdom of Anuradhapura under whose jurisdiction the monastery fell into was abandoned and set up in nearby Polonnaruwa to protect the reigning King and preserve greater autonomy away from the cholas. Ritigala was intermittently used as a sanctuary for the kings Dutugemunu (161-137 BC) and King Jetthatissa in the seventh century.
The Cholas were defeated eventually but Anuradhapura and Ritigala were left to the elements for centuries.
What happened next was mother nature was left to pillage the structures. Walls inside the palaces and temples at Anuradhapura and the monastery walls at Ritigala gradually crumbled and decayed. The roofs caved in, opening the floors to the elements. Seedlings fell into its hallways and sprouting plants grew into trees and nature enveloped Ritigala and Anuradhapura for centuries.
Elephants, bears, leopards and other animals roamed peacefully, and the forests remained hidden for a long period of time until it was re-discovered in the 19th century by Sri Lanka’s first archeological commission (1893) headed by H.C.P Bell and the long-forgotten sanctuary was once again used by hermit monks to accommodate their reclusive lifestyle.
According to the Mahavamsa, the great historical chronicle of Sri Lanka, Ritigala was known by the name of “arittha-pabbata” and was believed to have been inhabited during the 1st century BC during the reign of Pandukabhaya (377-307 BC), the third king of Sri Lanka.
Ritigala brings to light the story of an ancient monastery built for the Pansukulika buddhist monks who wanted to observe strict austerity measures by living a hermit life away from the city monks and the general community. This jungle monastery was built by King Sena of the kingdom of Anuradhapura in around (377-307 BC)
Rock inscriptions and remaining ruins and 70 rock caves tell the story of life back then for these Pansukulika monks. Pansukulika means garments made from rags taken from burial sites. Generally speaking, most monks during this period chose to live in caves or rock shelters. Inscriptions at the site also refer to King Lanji Tissa (119 – 109 BC) as the founder of the monastery which was built observing the tradition of Padhanaghara Parivena (Type of Buddhist structure built for meditation)
It is noted in the chronicles that these ascetic monks protested against the lifestyle of the city dwelling monks and the king seeing their dismay built this monastery at Ritigala to appease them.
The area was best served when the Malwathu Oya (river) was dammed and diverted by king Pandukabaya to fill the Yodha wewa or Giant tank. Expanding over 4550 hectares, the tank is filled by an 8 mile (13 km) ancient canal, carrying water from the Malwatu Oya River. This Yodha wewa feeds 1762 small streams irrigating 11,000 hectares of rice fields.
The fascinating ecosystems of Ritigala are twofold. The base shares the hot and dry conditions of the surroundings and the top of the mountain is mostly cold, misty and wet featuring mired forests different to that at the base.
Ritigala probably got its name from the Riti trees that are endemic to this area. Today the Ritigala forest mountain and sanctuary remain declared as a strict natural forest reserve. The archaeological department has painstakingly restored many of the ruins.
Visitors to this forest reserve will come across a huge man-made reservoir protected by 1,200 ft elevated bund and a catchment of water flowing from two streams originating from the mountain. The inside of the bund is lined with stones and serve as steps for bathers.
The path to the ruins along the southern banks over a bridge will lead you to the site of the first buildings. A short climb uphill will lead to the ruins that remain scattered over an area of 120 acres. There is a rectangular building with paved courtyard adorned with pillars. There is a refectory paved with stones and a trough. Next to the refectory is a large area enclosed by a wall made of finely cut stone slabs.
You will also see an enclosed pathway that runs for about 1000 ft of several steps with 2 roundabouts spread in between that leads down a ravine and then to river with a stone bridge and a bathing enclosure. Just before the first roundabout there is a pathway that leads westward to the dense forest. There are double platforms built on the rock and aligned in similarity with urinals built on stone elaborately carved and decorated. Why these urinals were elaborate carved is yet to be understood.
There aren’t any stupas, images or temples at this forest monastery. The architecture here is rare and unique unlike the architecture found in the ruins of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. There is a long meditational pathway branching to other buildings. As you climb up the mountain you will feel the ambience of the place. The mere tranquillity of the jungle fits in with the meditational aspirations of these hermit monks
I am happy that this long forgotten sanctuary at Ritigala is once again being used as a monastery for buddhist clergy.
I encourage travellers of all walks of live to visit this hidden gem. You will experience a sense of serenity, tranquillity and peacefulness at this jungle hideout. In comparison to your lifestyle in the bustling cities Ritigala firmly serves as a panacea for human suffering and mental disorders. A good place to meditate, rewind and rejuvenate.
We offer Buddhist tour packages to Ritigala and other places of historic value in Sri Lanka. Check out our Sri Lanka Buddhist tours.
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