A couple of months ago I got together a group of friends to take a day trip out to visit the archaelogical site of the ancient monastery ruins of Budugala and Kuragala. We set off very early from Colombo and took our time road tripping towards Budugala and passing through Ratnapura then to Balangoda and Kalthota. It's a scenic drive going inland in a southern direction with plenty of winding roads and glimpses of mountains and plains.
It had been very hot and humid during this time and the southern monsoon was still a little late in arriving, so conditions were still dry. I was a little thankful because in all honesty I wouldn't have been looking forward to hiking through areas that had a lot of leeches. Though having said that, I've trekked and trailed through many places in Sri Lanka when there have been leeches, snakes, and other creepy crawlies. Even when the weather is fine, I still carry citronella oil and dettol when I go on my adventures. It just pays to be prepared.
As with any good road trip, we stopped many times on our way. We stopped to enjoy a cooling drink of thembili at one pretty place; another time to snack on some freshly boiled local corn; and also for a cup of black tea served with a a few nuggets of jaggery. Each time we took the opportunity to stretch our legs and have a bit of natter with the locals. It's true that you often learn a lot in these sorts of interactions, almost like taking a pulse of a certain segment of the island.
The name Budugala can be translated as Buddha rock or rock of Buddha, and you see why when you start exploring the archeological site and also the adjoining Buddhist temple.
There is no parking area, so you park by roadside near the ruins or the temple and enter the ancient ruins by crossing the concrete path over the shallow waters of the Walawe canal. From there you follow the path past a hut on the left and a large boulder to the right. There a stone steps that guide you up towards the first set of ancient ruins.
The lack of signage around the site makes it near impossible to know what you're looking at. But there were a few visitors wandering around on the day we visited, so we asked them what they knew about the ruins. And later on, we struck up a conversation with a local who owned one of the small kades and also had a chat with a monk at the adjacent temple.
Budugala used to function as an ancient forest monastery with constructions dating back to 1st century BC. It is said there were structures for halls and dwelling places for the community of monks.
What amazed me the most about Budugala were the massively tall and curious-looking, yet beautiful trees. These particular trees had a very wide base that looked as if you could tuck yourself inside and easily sit and meditate. I wondered whether this had been the case in the past.
With many of the ancient ruins around Sri Lanka, you will often find stray dogs greeting you will a baleful look in their eyes or catching a nap on the path or up on a rock. I fed them some biscuits I had in the pack, so they were quite happy to follow us around as we followed the path further up.
As you wander around the ancient monastic ruins and walk by the scattered stone pillars, granite slabs and drain lines carved into stone, it's easy to see that further excavations would reveal more about the monks that would have resided and practiced here.
As a result, you won't find yourself spending hours and hours here. And as the weather heats up, the likelihood is even less in spite of the beautiful trees.
Afterwards, we had drinks and snacks at one of the nearby kades and then headed over to the adjacent temple to continue our explorations. The temple has been built around a number of rock boulders so it made for a very picturesque sight.
I enjoyed climbing up the various boulders to take in the scenic view and to have a look at the entrance to the rock tunnel that supposedly links Budugala to Kuragala.
There is staircase carved into the rock boulder behind the bo tree that you can climb up to see the recently erected standing Buddha statue and the views from the top. If you're climbing around midday or after bear in mind that the rock can heat up so you might find yourself hopping from foot to foot trying not to burn the soles of your feet.
You don't come down the same way you climbed up, so you walk a circuit up, around and down the boulders.
If you're claustrophobic, you might want to think carefully about climbing through this part of the temple.
As you can imagine we were all a little hot and sticky after exploring the temple and its rock boulders. So we headed back to our vehicle and drove to a quieter spot near the canal, where we all took a refreshing dip in the water. We had anticipated the opportunity for a dip, so we had brought along swimming gear and towels.
The name Kuragala can be translated as letter rock. Kuragala is said to house the remains of an ancient Buddhist monastery, set atop a collection of rocky outcrops, dating back to the 2nd century BC. There are some 30 to 40 rock caves that form part of the ancient monastery complex. Many have inscriptions with Brahmi script.
I didn't know until we visited Kuragala that it had been under an ongoing cloud of controversy due to a claim that Kuragala is a holy mountain and home to an ancient Sufi shrine sacred to Muslims. Only upon my return home was I able to do a little more research on Kuragala.
We didn't linger very long, maybe only a couple of hours to climb up and back, as we had arrived a little late in the afternoon. We took in as much as we could of the rock caves, including those converted to house the Muslim mosque and shrine. Then we climbed up to where the dagoba was seated.
We also took a look at the entrance and tunnel that is said to link to Budugala. It was very dark and claustrophobic, but we did try to go a little of the way in. Some of the visitors also attempted to followed us in.