Discovering the marvels of Ritgala and Pidurangala

Sri Lanka is blessed with such a variety of archaeological sites of historical and cultural importance that the visitor is often spoilt for choice. While the grandeur of the ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa is difficult to surpass, there are lesser-known sites like Ritigala and Pidurangala in Sigiriya, overshadowed by the grandeur of the Sigiriya rock fortress, but have an ambience all of their own. This frequently stems from the fact that they lie off the beaten track, are on a smaller scale, and are encircled and even encroached upon by jungle.

Ritigala Kanda

The Ritigala kanda or mountain, lies in the southern part of the North Central Province of Sri Lanka, between the two ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Pollonnaruwa. Ritgala is now a sanctuary and protected area, which bears a legendary historical and monastic past, unsurpassed by any other mountain retreat in the country. Lying at an elevation of some 2,513 feet above sea level, the abrupt sheerness with which this massif rises out of the surrounding plain, its jungle-clad slopes and its isolation from other mountain ranges, gives it a more imposing appearance, than would be expected from a mountain of similar elevation, making it one of the most prominent topographical features of the northern part of Sri Lanka.

Another unexpected feature of Ritigala is its climate. It is cooler and receives a greater rainfall during the north-east monsoon, than any part of the dry zone which surrounds it. Moreover, the mist and cloud which envelope it, ensure a high vapour condensation, and therefore a moist earth, at a time when the plain below is gripped in drought.

With such an unusual climate, it’s not surprising to find, the mountain supporting lush vegetation with vigorous and plentiful flora, and a wide variety of species, quite distinct from the flat dry country below.

Its unusual structure, embodying numerous caves, large boulder masses and steep rocky precipices, afforded a natural sheltered habitation, for aboriginal tribes, religious devotees, princes and royal fugitives, biding their time to wage war for the kingship. Its strategic position in relation to Anuradhapura, the ancient capital and center of power, is only 43 km away, and its main domination over the surrounding plain, from which it abruptly rises, almost ensure Ritigala and its environs, as a venue for tribal clashes, battles against invaders and internecine warfare. Nature, it would appear, shaped Ritigala, for command.

For over 1,500 years, Ritigala retained its unique importance, until its monastic complex was destroyed in the pillage of Sri Lanka, by the invading Cholas, at the end of the 10th century and beginning of the 11th centuries A.D.

From that time onwards, to the latter half of the 19th century A.D., Ritigala’s proliferation of ruins and profusion of once-inhabited caves, lay submerged and uninterrupted under jungle and accumulated debris, inhabited only by bear, leopard and elephant.

A visit to the Ritigala monastery, starts near the office of the Archaeological Department, close to the foot of the bund of the Banda Pokuna- a large stepped tank, intended for ritual bathing. Restoration work on this magnificent tank is underway. A copy of ‘A guide to Ritigala’, a publication of the Central Cultural Fund, is extremely comprehensive and was my only source of reliable information.

A short scramble up a few stone steps, took us to the top of the bund of the tank. Even in its present ruined condition, the tank is an impressive structure. The inner face of the bund is lined with continuous stone steps, which in former times, led down to the water.

The terrain slopes steeply upwards, from the Banda Pokuna. Our climb up Ritigala was quite a task, made even more challenging by the heavy loads of camera equipment we had to carry. Not that I was made to carry anything, by all the Tarzens who accompanied me and my crew, from our host hotel- Hotel Sigiriya. I even had a Tarzen to carry my handbag, leaving my hands free to help my unglamorous ascent of Ritigala. As we wove our way up through the forest, we discovered that there was no proper pathway, except at intervals, with steps cut into the rock.

We had to clamber over rocks, to reach the principal entrance staircase which brought us to a small circus or roundabout, the first of three which punctuate the footpath. While these roundabouts obviously served some purpose, no one has yet discovered what that purpose was.

Next we came across a monolithic stone bridge, formed by three massive stone slabs, thrown across the void between neighbouring boulders. Some 20 feet below, lies the bed of the main stream, that flows into Banda Pokuna. Each stone slab is about 18 inches thick and spans 15 feet. The bridge leads into an area, strewn with enormous boulders and tangled vegetation. The near perfectly restored stone pathway now made our ascent a bit easier.

A few meters further on, brought us to a compound, which looked like a sunken court open to the skies. Perhaps it served as a reception area for alms for the resident monks.

Next we came across the beginning of the Ritigala stone-flagged pavement, which leads up the main spur, to the two principal double-platform enclosures, of the monastery complex. It has been suggested, that this pavement might have served as a meditation path, though it seems more likely, that it was the main processional spine route of the monastery.

The route is lined with noble ancient forest trees, and the air becomes cool and damp as the vegetation changes to that of a montane jungle. The entire area is again strewn with gigantic boulders.

The ruined Ritigala monastery complex covers an area of about 24 hectares or 60 acres. Each of the two principal buildings of the monastery, consists of a double-platform of immaculate precision, built exactly on the east-west axis, linked together by a stone bridge. To the north of the first open platform, is a third small platform as an appendage linked by a stone bridge. The eastern platform is usually rectangular in shape, while its western partner is almost square and slightly smaller. These principal buildings have one common feature- the base retaining walls of immaculately dressed stone. Each stone is of massive dimensions and appear to have been butted together with paper-thin joints.

These double-platform buildings are totally devoid of any form of decoration. No mouldings and no murals, usually associated with such ancient sites. There is also a total absence of stone images of the Lord Buddha, Stupas and the symbol of enlightenment- the Bo tree, usually identified at forest monastery sites. Therefore, the main elements associated with the worship of the Lord Buddha, appear not to have mattered much to the then Pamsukulika monks of the Ritigala monastery.

The overall effect is one of extreme simplicity, similar to that of the Protestant Churches of the European Reformation.

An interesting feature here is a decorated urinal stone, located at the corner of this platform. It has a urine cup and a drain hole. The foot supporters are incorporated within a carved image, of a highly ornate building façade.

The only conclusion one could come to is that these stones represented the architectural ritualistic excesses of the orthodox monastic chapters to which the Pamsukulika monks who resided at Ritigal were opposed to, and the act of urination was for them, a symbolic act of dissociation.

Any serious visitor to Ritigala is bound to question, the purpose for which these double-platform constructions were used, and its connection to the monastery itself. Unfortunately no convincing explanation can be found at present. I found some solid advice in my copy of ‘A guide to Ritigala’, a publication of the Central Cultural Fund, which states, “Until such time as further excavation and research can be carried out, visitors are advised, to consult their own imagination”. Brilliant advice indeed!

Sigiri Pidurangala Raja Maha Viharaya

Sigiri Pidurangala Raja Maha Viharaya is located just a short distance away from the Sigiriya Rock fortress. ‘Pidu’ means donated or gifted, and rangala means golden rock. Although its origins date back to the same period as the Sigiriya rock fortress, this site does not share the same glamour and renown. Not even 10 percent of visitors, who flock to the Sigiriya rock fortress, spare even a glance at this ancient shrine. Most don’t even know it exists.

Located down a dusty gravel track, off the road leading to the Sigiriya rock fortress, the Pidurangala monastery was built by King Kashyapa in the 5th Century A.D. There is said to be a strong connection between Sigiriya and Pidurangala. Although Sigiriya was his kingdom, King Kashyapa’s religious center was at Pidurangala.

When King Kashyapa discovered Sigiriya, there was supposed to have been a monastery where bhikkus lived and meditated, on the lower levels of the rock. Kashyapa is believed to have built a new aramaya for these bhikkus at Pidurangala, before he started work on the Sigiriya fortress.

Spread over 13 1/2 acres, the monastery gave sanctuary to over 500 meditating bhikkus. The monastery was complete, with the five major ritual buildings- the Chapter House, Image House, the Bodhiya, Chaitya and the Sangharamaya for the monks.

The ascent of Pidurangala was as challenging as Ritigala, and I strongly advise those over 40, not to visit both places on the same day. At Ritigala you crawl over rocks, here you crawl over them and under them.
Along the way, we found huge rocks with steps cut into the stone, where the monks meditated at the summit. Those monks must have been gymnasts to ascend these rocks.

Crude stone steps along the way lead to the rock cave temple. At the top of the hill, is a large rock cave about 200 feet in length. Inside is a statue of the reclining Buddha, 48 1/2 feet in length. This is said to be the largest reclining Buddha image in the world, built of clay and brick.

Unfortunately, the original head and upper portion of the statue had been destroyed by treasure-hunting vandals. However, thanks to the Department of Archeology, the statue has now been restored.

The head of the image faces the east, towards the Sigiriya Rock. It could apparently be seen from beside the famed Lion’s Paws at Sigiriya. Legend has it, that King Kashyapa worshipped this statue twice a day, standing by the Lion’s Paws, and that the flowers bearing maidens depicted in the famed Sigiriya frescoes, face the Buddha image at Pidurangala, giving the impression that they were making their way there.

Towards the feet of the sleeping Buddha image, the cave is divided into 12 sections which had been used as meditation cells or kutis by the monks. These kutis built of earth and stone which are now ruined, are said to have been the work of King Kashyapa.

Paintings on walls and ceilings were often a feature of caves inhabited by monks. And though there had been such murals at Pidurangala, they have long since disappeared. There are remnants of the lime-plastered ceilings where murals like the Sigiriya frescoes once adorned the ceiling of these caves, but today you only find the destruction of modern day’s vandals.

The North Central Province of Sri Lanka is one of the richest areas for culture and archaeology in our country.

Hope you will join me in our next episode of Discover Sri Lanka, on the 4th of November at 10.00 pm on Rupavahini Channel EYE, to discover the marvels of Ritgala and Pidurangala

Article and images: Sharmini Serasinghe

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