Monday, January 23, 2017

Travel Monday: Breaking dawn atop Sithulpawwa rock

With all the activity and movement over the festive season coming to an end, I realized I needed to re-connect with nature and replenish some of my energy reserves. Though I enjoyed time with family and friends over the festive season, the surrounding environment was very much an urban jungle and a huge contrast to the everyday life I've become accustomed to in Sri Lanka. Therefore, I made a quick decision to head down south to fuel up on nature and good energy. My destination was in and around Kataragama with Sithulpawwa, which resides within the boundaries of Yala National Park, very high on my go-experience list.

I had heard about Sithulpawwa from friends quite a few years back. Its name Sithulpawwa is derived from "Cittalapabbata" in Pali, which has the meaning of "the hill rock of the tranquil mind". It's an impressive name for a very unique place. It is recorded in the Mahavamsa, Sri Lanka's Great Chronicle of the Kings of Sri Lanka, that Sithulpawwa ancient monastery was built by King Kavantissa (100-140 B.C.) about 2,200 years ago. It was constructed as fully operational mahavihara or great monastery and a place where thousands of arahants or fully enlightened beings are said to have lived at one time.

I paid my visit to Sithulpawwa at the crack of dawn. I thought this would be one of the best ways to experience the rock temple, ancient ruins and the surrounding environment. I've always been drawn to the early morning when the air is fresh, the vibration is quiet or stirring and the climate is usually cooler.
As I had stayed overnight in Kataragama, it only took about 45 minutes to travel the 20km distance. The road isn't that great so most pilgrims and tourists travel by jeep or van to Sithulpawwa. I have previously heard and read reports of wild elephants attacking buses and vans on this route, but on the day I traveled there were no such incidents thankfully.

I made my way into Sithulpawwa just before the breaking of dawn so it was a little dark. It's not that difficult to find your way around and there is military presence protecting the national park and monastery.

The main rock has a height of about 400 feet. The main stupa was built atop the main rock and is what you recognize in photos of Sithulpawwa. The main way up to the Stupa is via steps carved from the rock. As you go up take the opportunity to turn around to see the view looking out and down.

The first thing that greets you at the top is the Stupa. A monk was meditating by the Stupa so there was a lovely sense of honoring the energetic force field.

The bo tree that is atop Sithulpawwa rock is a different variety to the bo tree that we usually see in and around Sri Lanka. This one apparently has quite energetically good qualities. I went and stood under the tree for a while to get a sense of this, and I also noted that the leaves had a different texture, almost felt-like.

I took a few moments to embrace the sunrise and calibrate to the energy around Sithulpawwa, before taking my own seat near the Stupa (on the other side) to calm the mind and meditate. I can assure you that it is an amazing place to meditate - the mind easily concentrates and it feels like there is a unique energy flowing around the area. This makes sense when you recall that many enlightened beings had previously resided in this ancient monastery.

After spending a few hours atop the main rock, I climbed down and ventured around the monastery compound. 

I really enjoyed catching glimpses of the wildlife who inhabit the area, from grey langur monkeys to wild elephants, a variety of birds, wild boar and more. I hope you were able to pick out the wild elephant in the middle of all the rocks and trees in one of the pictures above. As the ancient monastery is nestled within Yala, you are literally surrounded by wildlife and the beauty of the national park.

There are ancient ruins scattered all around and during the early hours of the morning, I pretty much had the whole place to myself. The only other people were monks, lay attendants and security personnel.

 Once you meander down to the lower area where there are more anient ruins you can make your way towards little Sithulpawwa rock. It's quite an enjoyable hike up to the other Stupa, and along the way you can take a look at some of the ancient caves that were most likely inhabited by arahants.

The view from little Sithulpawwa rock is equally spacious and spectacular. Although there are sounds of nature, there is a gentle resonance to the entire place. It feels like what has been cultivated here before remains strong.

On the drive out from Sithulpawwa, I was delighted to see more wildlife roaming free and easy around the car park and through Yala. People usually talk about the tuskers, Gemunu and Nandimithra who are frequently seen around Sithulpawwa. I don't think the elephant I saw was either of these two.

Sithulpawwa is undoubtedly a place I will visit again to meditate or spend some time in quiet contemplation, where the worries of the world can simply fall away. It's a beautiful and expansive place to get a reset with nature and to realize that we are only a very small part of the world we inhabit.

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