Buddhism is about the potential that exists in the human mind. Independent of a Supreme Being, without preyer or worship, it shows the way of harnessing the potential of one’s own mind to discover the timeless purity, love, peace and wisdom that lies within each and every one of us. The end of that journey of discovery is the state of being an Arhat, “the perfected person” or “one who is worthy” – a person who has eliminated all the unwholesome roots which underlie the fetters and who after death will not be reborn, since the bonds that bind him to the eternal cycle of death and rebirth, have been finally severed.
Hidden away on a jungle-covered hillside in the arid Dry Zone of Sri Lanka is the ruined forest hermitage of Arankele, occupied as far back as the third century BC by Buddhist monks seeking the state of Arhat. Most of what is seen today however, dates from the sixth to eighth centuries AD, while extensive parts of the site have yet to be excavated.
The most remarkable feature of Arankele is the main meditation walkway: a half a kilometre long, perfectly straight stone walkway, punctuated by small flights of steps leading to chapter houses, ponds and cave dwellings on the hillside. The geometrical neatness of the walkway makes a strange contrast with the wild dry tropical forest through which it runs.
Just before the entrance to the site is the monastic hospital with a fine old stone bathing tank enclosed in stout rectangular walls. Fireplaces for boiling water line one wall of the building and stones where medicinal herbs were ground and boiled in water that was used to fill the bath. The bath has seating for ailing monks who took the medicinal waters.
Immediately beyond the entrance lie the extensive ruins of the main monastery, distinguished by their fine craftsmanship and the staggeringly large chunks of stone used in their construction. There is a chapter house, surrounded by a large moat to help cool the air, and, next to it, a large step-sided bathing pond, now covered in reeds. Nearby is the monastery’s main reception hall, floored with just four enormous slabs of granite; an elaborate stone toilet; and, next to it, a small meditation walkway, originally roofed – the only one of its kind in Sri Lanka. The roof has long since gone, although the footings that supported the columns which formerly held it up can still be seen.
Beyond the main monastery begins Arankele’s remarkable main meditation walkway. After some 250 m there is a miniature “roundabout” on the path which served as a rest area, covered with a (long since vanished) roof. Close by stand the remains of the principal monk’s residence, with the base of a large hall, the inevitable toilet and a jumble of pillars, partly collapsed, which would have supported an open-air meditation platform.
A path leads to a deep, stepped pond, at the bottom of which is a spring providing the monks with drinking water all through the seasons.
The meditation walkway continues a further 250 meteres or so, ending at a small cave-shrine built beneath a rock outcrop. This is the oldest part of the ruins, dating back to the third century BC – the original drip-ledge and the holes where a projecting canopy was once fixed can still be seen. This is the meditation cave of the monk Maliyadeva who lived in the second century BC.
The path continues to the modern monastery, with a long covered walkway leading to the rear entrance to the site.
Maliyadeva is said to be the last Arahat in Sri Lanka. The way Buddhism is practiced and monks behave in the country today, it is hard to imagine that there will be another Arahat ever in Sri Lanka!
If you were to visit Arankele, start your tour from the main entrance with the small Department of Archaeology office. Telephone ahead (072-3853606 / 078-4525314) and try to get Upul – one of the officers, to guide you. My visit to Arankele was arranged by Flamingo Tours of 129/14, Kadawatha Road Dehiwala, Sri Lanka, Tel: 077-1739773, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: http://www.flamingolanka.com