Monday, June 24, 2013

Travel Monday: A pilgrimage to Mihintale to uncover its ancient history

This past weekend in Sri Lanka we celebrated Poson full moon poya . It is a significant day on the Sri Lankan Buddhist calendar as it commemorates the introduction of Buddhism to the island by Arahath Mahinda (son of Emperor Asoka of India) on the same day in 247 BC.

According to the history books, Arahath Mahinda arrived in Mihintale, near Anuradhapura, where he met with King Devanampiyathissa. On his arrival Arahath Mahinda was invited to preach Dhamma to the king and his people. He later resided at Mihintale establishing a monastery for Sangha.

Mihintale was partially neglected at the beginning of the 11th century and as a result of the collapse of the Rajarata civilization in the middle of the 13th century it was then completely abandoned from. Archaeological activity began early in the 20th century to restore the large monastic complex and the structures apparent today.

Buddhists make their pilgrimage to Anuradhapura and Mihintale during the month of June to honor Arahath Mahinda and the establishment of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

Mihintale is actually a mountain peak. The name is derived from the sinhala Mihin-ThalĂ©, which literally means the “plateau of Mihindu” (note - Mihindu is the sinhala translation of the indian name Mahinda). Mihintale is located 221 km from Colombo in the Cultural Triangle of the north-central province of Sri Lanka. It is approximately 13 km from Anuradhapura.

Preparing for the visit

A visit or pilgrimage to Mihintale involves plenty of walking and climbing around the mountain peak! Generally speaking, if you have worked your way around the cultural triangle in Sri Lanka you will know exactly what I mean...

Furthermore, it can get quite hot on a sunny day, so I recommend bringing a hat to wear, sunglasses and sunscreen if you're prone to sunburn.

As Mihintale is considered a sacred site, I would also recommend dressing modestly by not wearing anything too revealing. Pilgrims will generally wear white clothes with most of their bodies covered modestly.

Arriving at Mihintale

My first visit to Mihintale was as a tourist about seven years ago (before I moved to Sri Lanka). I was travelling with a group of friends and our local friends planned a trip for us to see some of the sites around Sri Lanka's Cultural Triangle (i.e. triangle connects the ancient capitals of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandy with Sigiriya at the centre). Mihintale was included on this trip and we had an amazing experience. One of our traveling group was a friend of a friend who had previously worked as a tour guide, so we had information galore on the history, architecture, Buddhism and various other stories.

The ancient site is quite vast in size (see map below) so it is easy to spend a whole day there exploring the ancient ruins of the monasteries, caves and ponds. We brought a packed lunch, various fruits and drinks so we could picnic for lunch, and then continue our explorations.

Upon arrival you are greeted by monkeys and fellow pilgrims and travelers. You are also greeted by what looks like an enormous carpet of steps. Yes, you are not wrong when you say Sri Lankan ancient sites are not short on steps! But at least you have an opportunity to exercise while taking in the history, religion, ancient ruins and gorgeous vistas.

Apparently there are 1840 stone steps leading up to the summit.

A word of caution about monkeys and if you are carrying any fruit, particularly mangoes. The bottom line is they have no qualms over approaching you for your bag of goodies. Be warned because I was attacked while eating mangoes here. They literally took the bag of mangoes from me and luckily I knew better than to go all bat crazy at them.

Back to touring Mihintale...

Kantaka Chetiya 

At the end of the first set of steps on the right side of the plain, is a small mountain peak. The Kantaka Chetiya is situated on this small mountain peak and is said to be one of the earliest built in Sri Lanka dating back to the 2nd century BC. It has a circumference of 425 feet and has four vahalkadas.

The four vahaalkadas facing the four cardinal points have different animals on the top of the square pillars - the elephant on the east, the lion on the north, the horse on the west and the bull on the south.

Medamaluwa Monastery

We visited the ruins of the ancient monastery. I was surprised to see the numerous excavations including large basins, pillars, foundation stones and ancient granite slabs with visible inscriptions.

The monastery's Alms Hall (also known as the Refectory) was fed by water from the Naga Pokuna via an aqueduct. As you walk around the area you will be able to see restored pieces of the aqueduct where fragments of the aqueduct's horizontal stone trough are elevated upon two supporting stone arches. 

Two stone troughs can also be seen, which would have been filled with food for the Buddhist monks meals. It has been established that as many as 2,000 Buddhist monks had resided at the monastery at one time.

According to the guidebooks, the Alms Hall has an area of 114 x 77 feet and the ruins of stone pillars which held the roof can be seen.  

The two large slabs of granite, known as the Mihintale stone inscriptions, are 6 x 4 feet and inscribed in sinhala with the rules and regulations for the administration of the monastery. They apparently date back to 956-972 AD and were installed by King Mihindu IV. When you look closely at the detail it's amazing how well-preserved they are. They offer insight into how the monastery was run, the lands that had been endowed and how money was handled with respect to services offered by lay people.

Ambasthala Dagoba

After more trekking and climbing you reach close to the peak of the mountain.

There is a courtyard housing the Ambasthala Dagoba, which is said to have been built by King Makalantissa.

According to 'The Moonstone' sign near the dagoba, "it is believed that this is the place where Mahathera Mahinda met with King Devanampiyatissa which led to the introduction of Buddhism in Sri Lanka".

The ruins show that there had been a house built encircling the stupa. Ambasthala Dagoba's name translates as Mango Tree Dagoba and is said to enshrine the relics of Arahath Mahinda.

Naga Pokuna 

After passing Ambasthalaya Dagoba there are a flight of steps on the left hand side. If you take the steps down you will come to Naga Pokuna (i.e. translated as Snake Pond). This pond was constructed by King Agbo I and provided water via the aquaduct for the Medamaluwa Monastery.

Aradhana Gala 

From the same level as Ambasthala Dagoba if you look up to the right you can see Aradhana Gala on the summit of a hill. In the Mahavamsa it is written that Arahath Mahinda flew to Sri Lanka and landed on top of Aradhana Gala.

For this reason it is a popular pilgrim destination. There are iron railings to help support the climb to the top. It was a precarious climb from what I remember, particularly on a windy day. But, it certainly offers wonderful views of the surrounding landscape from it higher vantage point.

Maha Stupa

This large stupa is commonly known as Maha Seya, It was built by King Mahadathika Mahanaga (7-19 AD) and it sits on the summit of the Mihintale hill.

We didn't climb up to this point, but took in it's beauty from the summit of Aradhana Gala.

Mihindu Guhawa

There are many pathways and plenty to absorb as you make your way through the ancient site.

As we continued walking away from Ambasthala Dagoba along a narrow pathway, it led us towards the cave known as Mihindu Guhawa or the cave of Arahath Mahinda. This is apparently where he sat and meditated. There is a smoothness and indentation around where Arahath Mahinda supposedly sat.

What I noticed after having spent a little time around Arahath Mahinda's cave was the tranquility around the area (without the tourists and pilgrims of course), as well as the amazing views from the elevated spot. Wow, spaciousness!

Kaludiya Pokuna 

This is the famous man-made pond at Mihintale measuring 200 x 70 feet. Its name translates as Black Water Pond due to the color of its water.  It is part of the Kaludiya Monastery complex, built by Kashyapa IV (898-914) in the 10th century.

There are remnants of monastic structures (i.e. Alms Hall, meditation hall etc.) as well as caves the Buddhist monks had lived in have been excavated or restored. There is also a partially-restored stupa overlooking the monastic grounds and structures. Some of the structures (such as the one below) make use of the cave and rock structures to create a unique residence.

I had read somewhere that Mihintale offers a unique example of ancient monasteries where Buddhist monks of different sects had lived in harmony. Apparently, there are inscriptions around Kaludiya Pokuna Monastery, Indikatu Saya and Ambasthala Dagoba that make reference to Mahayana Buddhism concepts, alongside Theravada inscriptions, structures and ruins.

If you look at the map at the beginning of my post you will note there are other sights to see at Mihintale, which I haven't covered, such as Indikatu Saya, the ancient Hospital and other. I guess sometimes you follow certain pathways and end up missing some things. We didn't have a map of the place and relied on our friends to lead us. You could say, "we saw what we saw", and that in itself, was incredible.

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