Deep inside a Strict Nature Reserve are the sprawling, jungle-covered ruins of an extensive monastic and cave complex. The broken stone structures, fallen carvings and once-sacred caves lie on a 766m hill, a striking feature that looms above the dry central flatlands of Sri Lanka. It was a place of refuge as long ago as the 4th century BC and also has mythological status. It’s claimed to be the spot from which the Hindu monkey god Hanuman leapt to India to tell Rama that he had discovered where his wife Sita was being held by the king of Lanka.
Monks found the caves ideal for an ascetic existence, and more than 70 have been discovered. Royals proved generous patrons, especially King Sena I, who in the 9th century made an endowment of a monastery to the pamsukulika (rag robes) monks. With the exception of a few broken granite Buddha statues in a number of caves, there is none of the traditional icons of Buddhist temples: no Bo tree, no stupas. Pansukulika monks devoted themselves to extreme austerity in search of supreme enlightenment. Such was their detachment, their robes were simply cleaned, washed and repaired rags, mostly shrouds picked up from cemeteries. The only example of representational carving to be found is in the form of decorated urinals that consist of urine cup, drain hole and foot supports. It is believed that they were meant to depict the architectural and ritualistic excesses of the orthodox monastic chapters to which the Pamsukuilikas were opposed and the act of urination on decorated urinal stones was for them a symbolic act of dissociation.
The place was abandoned following the Chola invasions in the 10th and 11th centuries and lay deserted and largely forgotten until it was rediscovered by British surveyors in the 19th century.
This is Ritigala.
I could see the conical hill from miles away. The narrow road runs through the jungle and isolated ‘farms’ where villagers practice slash and burn chena cultivation – probably the most primitive form of agriculture. At night, they light firs and mount vigil from tree-top watch huts to keep elephants and wild boar away from their meagre crops . Today, there are mongooses and displaying peacocks on the road. Last time I came this way, the road was only a dirt track roaming with wild elephants.
The ruins at Ritigala cover an area of 24 hectares. The monastery precinct begins at the small office and staff quarters of the Department of Archaeology beyond the carpark. A rough footpath leads to the reservoir with stone steps leading to the bottom, built in 437 BC.
The rock strewn path continues up the hill and crosses the bed of the stream feeding the reservoir. Steep steps lead up to a beautifully constructed pavement, a stone path 1.5 meters wide that meanders upwards through the forest, linking the major buildings of the monastery. The path is laid with interlocking four-sided slabs of hewn stone. Three large circular platforms at intervals along the pavement allow for rest.
Raised platforms formed by retaining walls of massive stones lie in the jungle in pairs, linked together by a stone bridge. The main axis of the combined platforms is set exactly east west. The structures were roofed and divided into rooms, to be used for solitary practices such as meditation, as well as congregational functions such as teaching and ceremony. Over a stone bridge lie interlocking ashlars and the ruins of a monastery hospital, complete with grinding stones for medicinal herbs, leaves and roots and huge stone-cut Ayurvedic oil baths.
The pavement continues to reach one of the roundabouts. About 20 meters before that, a path heads off to the right, leading through enormous tree roots to a lookout, reached by a stone bridge high above a burbling stream. Further up is another lookout and a waterfall made by placing a stone slab between two rocks in the stream.
Another 500 meters up the hill, two further sunken courtyards are seen. The first courtyard contains a large double platform, one of the largest stone structures in the entire monastery; one of the platforms preserves the remains of the pillars which once supported a building. A few meters beyond lies the second courtyard and another large double platform. These structures were used for meditation by the monks.
A rough footpath snakes through the jungle to the summit of Ritigala but a permit from the Forestry Department is required to enter this Strict Natural Reserve. This adds to the mystique that surrounds the upper reaches of the hill. According to popular belief, Hanuman, with supernatural powers, traveled over Ritigala, and accidentally , dropped a chunk off a mountain of the Himalayan range he was carrying from India to Lanka for its medicinal herbs. Rama’s brother, Lakshman was mortally wounded in battle and only a rare herb from the Himalayas could save his life. The pocket of vegetation of healing herbs and plants at the strange mini-plateau at the summit of Ritigala, which is distinct from the dry-zone flora of the lower slopes and surrounding plains, could thus be accounted for? King Ravana of pre-historic Sri Lanka is said to have abducted Rama’s wife Sita, in a peacock-shaped air chariot. The peacock logo of Air Lanka – the national carrier of Sri Lanka, is a stylized version of Ravana’s air chariot! Hanuman supposedly made use of Ritigala as a launching pad to take a leap across to South India. Incidentally, Ritigala is the highest prominence between the central plains of Sri Lanka and the coast of southern India. It is also interesting that UFO enthusiasts in Sri Lanka claim to have seen ‘flying saucers’ frequently at Ritigala and still revere the hill as a landing site for alien craft!
- “Amazing!” – Mal Dias Keragala (Colombo) via Facebook, 14 February