Hasthi Kuchchi in the north-western province of Sri Lanka is one of the oldest temple complexes of the country, built between 307–267 BC as a meditation centre for Buddhist monks. This was the location where King Siri Sangha Bo (251–253 AD) offered his own head to a peasant. Today, the partially restored archaeological site is little visited but offers a fascinating glimpse in to ancient history of Sri Lanka.
This is how the Siri Sangha Bo story goes:
Siri Sangha Bodhi I who was King of Anuradhapura, the capital of Sri Lanka in the 3rd century, was so committed to the Buddha’s teachings that he rejected all forms of violence including execution of criminals. When his prime minister led a rebellion against him, he could not bear the thought of the bloodshed that would result from putting down the rebellion. He abdicated and retired to the forested Hasthi Kuchchi complex to meditate and live as an ascetic. The prime minister, now King Gathabhaya, fearing the return of the rightful king, offered a reward to anyone who would bring him the head of Siri Sangha Bo. One day, a poor peasant shared his meal with Siri Sangha Bo who, having nothing to give him in return, informed the man of his identity and offered him his head, decapitating himself.
Despite all that, Hasthi Kuchchi is a wonderful archaeological site to visit. Telephone ahead (072-5415447) and ask Mr. Illangaratne, the official Department of Archaeology guide, to meet you. From the car park with clean toilet facilities and shops selling snacks and cheap plastic toys, a dirt track leads you to the compact site with tall trees and huge boulders where Macaques frolic and the first of the seventeen and-made ponds of the complex.
The ruined three-stage image house is your first stop. It sits in the shadow of a huge boulder which some say looks like an elephant. You will need some imagination. The term Hasthi Kuchchi means “elephant’s stomach’ in the local language. The rock face is covered in ancient inscriptions documenting donations made to the temple complex by the royalty.
By the side of the rock is the ancient health centre. Stone pillars supported the wooden roof and in the middle of the structure is the stone bath in which infirm monks soaked in warm water mixed with ground medicinal plants. The circular stone grinder is next to the bath.
Immersion in droni or receptacles filled with heated milk, essence of meat, vegetable stock, oils, vinegar, ghee, etc., has been recommended in the Ayurveda texts for a variety of illnesses such as skin diseases, fevers, haemorrhoids, fractures as well as post-surgical care. Individual patients could use this therapeutic form with the help of an attendant without the supervision of a physician. The heating of body with steam, or bathing in hot water after application of medicines in order to intensify perspiration, were important aspects of this form of therapy. The system consisted of a central cistern with a ledge used as a seat for the person who was bathed by one or more attendants. Hot water and steam were generated at the site itself and there were well laid-out drainage systems for waste water.
You walk past the second of the ponds with the ‘hanging rock’ at one end, to the religious centre of the complex. This consists of the platform on which a Bo tree stood, a circular and covered dagoba called Watadage, and the ruins of an assembly room.
The hilltop cave where King Siri Sangha Bo lived and meditated as an ascetic is visible from the religious centre. It is also the place where he decapitated himself offering his head to the poor peasant so that he could claim the reward. How did he do that without a weapon? This is what the guide said:
“Siri Sangha Bo, as a future Buddha, possessed miraculous powers. He moistened the rag he used to filter water, wrapped it round his neck and meditated. The rag miraculously severed his head and placed it in the peasant’s hands.”
It is more plausible that the “poor peasant” was really a bounty hunter who killed and decapitated Siri Sangha Bo to claim the reward.
The headless corpse fell to the bottom of the hill. It was collected and cremated by the shocked monks and the clay urn containing his ashes was placed at the top of a headless reclining statue they built as his tomb under the Bo tree. ‘The urn was examined by scholars of the Department of Archaeology and was found to be consistent with the Anuradhapura period (377 BC to 1017 AD) of Sri Lanka’s history.’
Two small ancient buildings on either side of the path are in memory of King Sirisangabo and his distressed queen who visited the monastery soon after his death.
Stone steps lead up the hillside to a cave image house containing a statue of the reclining Buddha, built in the period of the Kandyan Kingdom (1476-1818).
Another stone stairway leads to assembly and meditation halls separated by a stone bridge, walkways and ancient squatting urinals for the monks. Liquid passing through urinals was diverted into pits along terracotta pipes. In the urinary pits, large bottomless clay pots of decreasing size have been placed one above the other containing sand, lime and charcoal through which urine filtered down to the earth in a somewhat purified form. There had been seven pots in certain pits but the number had been fewer in some others. The pots had been vertically fixed together with a mixture of cement and clay. These urine pits point to the attention paid by ancient construction engineers to the details of sanitary care and environmental protection.
The path continues upwards to the caves used by the meditating monks and the eighteen foot deep rock pool that collected rain water.
A separate path now takes you down the hill and back to the car park past yet another of those seventeen ponds.
As archaeological sites go, Hasthi Kuchchi is a fascinating and immensely moving one. A place not to be missed!
Directions: Take the Anuradhapura -Kurunegala road. At the 43rd Mile Post at Mahagalkadawala, turn off and proceed about 3 miles.