The Aluvihare Rock Temple is situated to the north of Matale (about 26km from Kandy) within Sri Lanka's Cultural Triangle on the Kandy-Dambulla stretch of the A9 highway. It played an important part in Theravada Buddhist history, following the Fourth Buddhist Council, being the place where the Tipitika was committed to writing in Pali . Prior to this, the teachings of the Buddha and his key disciples were transmitted from generation to generation by oral tradition.
I have visited the Aluvihare Rock Temple a few times now. My first visit was quite a number of years ago and was included on my itinerary because my father had asked me whether I'd seen these special leaves on which the Buddha's teachings had been transcribed. At that time, I didn't know much about the significance of the place nor what had happened during the Dutch and British presence in Sri Lanka. More on that later.
On this most recent visit, I was touring the Cultural Triangle with some relatives visiting from abroad. I find that many people visiting Sri Lanka miss out on visiting Aluvihare unless they're on a cultural tour of Sri Lanka or have some knowledge or interest in Buddhist history. As a result, there are less crowds here making it a pleasant place to spend a few hours or more. This is in contrast to the Golden temple or Dambulla Cave Temple which is a UNESCO World Heritage site and oftentimes busy and crowded.
After the turn off into Aluvihare Rock Temple, there is a long stretch leading up to the caves and main buildings. The lower car park to the right is where most visitors are encouraged to park their vehicles and most especially for tour buses. When you make your way from the lower car park you need to climb quite a few steps to get up to the upper level. However, if you're not up to the task it is possible to drive up to the upper level for drop off or to park a small vehicle.
There are signs that state you need to ask for permission before taking photos. And there's usually a monk or attendant sitting in a little booth at the top of the steps to whom you can direct your enquiries.
According to the history books, Aluvihare Rock Temple was established around the 3rd century BC by King Devanampiya Tissa. I believe it was during the 1st century BC during the reign of King Vattagamini Abhaya, popularly known as Valagamba, that it gained historical significance when the oral transmissions of the Buddha and his key disciples were converted to written form. The reasons that led to the decision at the Fourth Buddhist Council to convert the oral teachings to written form make for quite an interesting read. There was a lot going on within the Buddhist Sangha during that time. I won't replicate that here, but if you are interested in reading a version of these events, take a look at the official Aluvihare Rock Temple history.
I read somewhere that seven of the caves at Aluvihare were used by up to 500 monks who were tasked with first reciting the teachings and agreeing the text before writing them onto palmyra or talipot-palm leaves. This process was long and arduous - long strips (called olas) for writing were created from the leaves by a process of drying, boiling and drying again. These strips were then flattened and glazed before being ready to use. Unlike modern day writing, a metal writing utensil was used to inscribe the pali characters onto the olas and then a black substance was rubbed onto the olas to make the characters visible.
It is hard to imagine the vast number of monks being able to fit into such narrow-sized caves in order to undertake such an enormous task over a period of many years.
It's possible to view three preserved caves when visiting Aluvihare Rock Temple. Jataka stories, the Buddha's parinibbana and various Buddhist cosmology are depicted in colorful murals, paintings from the Kandyan period and sculptures within the caves' walls and ceilings. There are also several Buddha statues in various poses. If you have some knowledge of Buddhism you will find some of the murals and wall paintings insightful, especially the ones depicting the hell realms. They are definitely not for the faint-hearted, but I guess they're meant to wake you up, before it's too late!
If you meander around the caves and through a narrow passageway you will eventually come to the steps leading up to the Bo Tree where you can hang prayer flags, light oil lamps and make offerings. It is a nice vantage point to look down to the lower levels.And there is a peaceful energy that pervades the space.
From the area near the Bo tree it is possible to further ascend a set of rock steps leading up to the dagoba. From the summit there is a superb view of the neighboring surrounds. In the distance you can also see a seated golden Buddha with an abhaya mudra sitting atop a rocky outcrop. The trek and climb to the golden Buddha makes for an enjoyable journey and many include this trek on a visit to Aluvihare Rock Temple if they have set aside more time.
Aluvihare Rock Temple also houses an International library and museum and monks residence. The library houses some Buddhist artefacts as well as displays of ancient writing utensils, olas, Buddha statues, antiques and copies of the Tipitika in ancient manuscript and book form.
A new version of the Tipitaka re-written onto olas has been placed in the library on display. This version apparently took ten years to complete.
There are two questions I have pondered that continue to fascinate me about this part of history in relation to Theravada Buddhism and Sri Lanka.
The first question is "why did the Buddha emphasize an oral tradition for his teachings as opposed to having them written down from the outset?" And, notwithstanding this, the disciples of the Buddha carried on this oral tradition for a further 400 years or so until the teachings were written onto ola leaves. And only then, if you investigate the dialogue within the Sangha at the time of the Fourth Buddhist Council, you can discern the major division between the the views of practicing monks (patipatti) and those of the studying monks (pariyatti). It is possible to infer that the Buddha never intended for his teachings to be written down. If so, this begs the question, why not?
A roundabout way of finding an answer may be to ask a second question such as, "what has been the impact (positive or negative) of the conversion from oral transmission to written form of the Buddha's teachings more than 2,500 years after the Buddha?"
I'm sure many Buddhist scholars, practitioners, students, meditators, monastics, teachers and historians have a variety of answers to my two questions. It would make for a very interesting though not-so-common debate.
Irrespective of the above, Aluvihare Rock Temple has played a significant role in Sri Lankan and Theravada Buddhist history. If you're interested in this history, it's well worth a visit!