Many historians believe that Gautama Buddha visited Sri-Lanka on three different occasions after his enlightment. Buddhism is followed by majority of the population (almost 70%) and any kind of mild offence towards this religion can be punishable. For a country rooted so deeply by Buddhism, one would really like to take a trip down to where it all began. And the answer is Mihintale.
Mihintale some 12km east of Anuradhapura is called “the cradle of Buddhism”. This is the place where Buddhism was introduced to Sri-Lanka. The story goes that in 247 BC King Devanampiya Tissa of Anuradhapura was hunting a stag in the Mihintale hills. While pursuing the stag he found himself approached by Mahinda, the son of great Buddhist emperor of India – Ashoka.
Mahinda had been dispatched by the king to convert the Sri-Lankan people to his chosen faith. Mahinda wishing to test the king’s intelligence gave him a riddle of mangoes which the king solved with flying colours. Being satisfied by the king’s shrewdness which he displayed through his arboreal logic, Mahinda converted the king and his entire entourage (some 40,000 people) to Buddhism and proceeded to explain and give them Buddha’s teachings. Hence Buddhism was born in Sri-Lanka.
Mihintale became an important Buddhist Centre and the caves in the mountains once housed over 2000 monks. It is sort of a Buddhist monastery in ruins. To begin its tour you need to be prepared as it is 1850 steps climb and can be tiring. It is however possible to avoid half the steps by driving through the old Roadway.
At the bottom of the hill near the car park remain the fragments of Veda Sala or hospital complex. The ruins suggest that a highly developed system of Ayurveda was perhaps used even in the olden times. Remains of treatment ruins, stone baths and patients rooms can be gathered from the site.
The Kantaka Chetiya
The first few flights of steps open up to the Kantaka Chetiya Dagoba. One of the oldest in Mihintale this dagoba used to be 30 m high but now is reduced to 12m. However the Anuradha style Vahalkadas (solid panels of sculpture) decorated with elephants, horses, lions and bulls are well preserved. Lots of Brahmi inscription is also found here. Four altars surrounded by sculptures of dwarfs, geese and other figures are also well preserved.
The Medamaluwa monastery
Continuing the steps you will find yourself directed towards a large terrace and the remains of Medamuluwa monastery- the most important one at Mihintale. On the left is Dana Salawa or the Refectory (‘Alms Hall’) covered with stone trough filled with food for the monks at the monastery. The terrace immediately above is the former chapter house with doors flanked with stone tablets in Sinhala. This used to be the residence of the monks. The inscriptions lay down the rules and regulations for the monks and the help residing here. On the same level is the assembly hall where matters of importance were discussed with the senior monk presiding over them. 64 pillars were said to be part of this hall but very few remain here today.
If you are coming via the old road just below the monastery on the left you will find the “Singha Pokuma” (The Lion Pool). It is named after the sculpture of the lion through whose mouth water would flow into a pool. The lion is now eroded and the pool is empty but the strips of carvings demonstrating lions and dancers are well preserved.
The final steep stairway lined with beautiful flowers and trees leads to the place where Mahinda and King finally met. You need to pay a fee of Rs 500/- at the entrance and you are required to remove your shoes. If you have very tender feet it is advised to wear socks. At the centre of the terrace lies Ambasthale Dagoba (meaning “The Mango Tree” with reference to the riddle Mahinda used to test the King).
The Dagoba is believed to be built over the spot where Mahinda stood. Next to it is Sela Chetiya where a stone rendering of Buddha’s footprint lies. Also a single sri pada into which people throw coins for luck. Next to it is an ancient statue which is believed to be where the King stood while having the conversation with Mahinda.
Now various pathways lead from this place. A steep stairway leads to Aradhana Gala (“Invitation Rock”) where Mahinda preached. Another stairway leads to a large white modern seated Buddha statue. A long path from the Ambasthale Dagoba leads to Mahinda’s Cave where a simple rectangular cut of rock is believed to be Mahinda’s bed. Now is the time to collect your shoes and head the finals steps to the white Mahaseya Dagoba which is claimed to enshrine some ashes.
Along with it is Mahindu Saya which is said to store the relics associated with Mahinda. You can also get a beautiful view over the lakes and trees over to Anuradhapura. It’s like a fresh wave has passed through you and it makes you feel fresh. Another steep stairway will lead you to Et Vehera – the highest point of Mihintale where lies a small dagoba but there is nothing more to see here.
Back to the steep flight from here and halfway towards the left you will come across the “Naga Pokuna” (The Snake Pool). It has the carvings of a five headed cobra. Its tail is said to reach the bottom of the pool. Continuing from here you eventually reach the second landing.
The other attractions lie on the old road – a museum storing some cool artefacts, Indikatu Seya – another monastery with two Dagobas. A man-made pool which looks absolutely natural and goes by the name of Kaludiya Pokuna. A small well preserved monastery and cave. South of all this lies the hills of Rajagiri Lena. The inscriptions suggest that these hills might be the home of the first ever Buddhist monks.
Though it seems that there is a lot to cover the climb doesn’t take that long. Start early morning or late afternoon to escape the heat. Pack some food and carry your water. You might get guides here at steep prices but bargaining always works with them. However and especially for women try travelling in packs rather than alone with these guides.