Arankele: The sounds of silence | Sunday Observer

Arankele: The sounds of silence

21 May, 2017
The dwelling chamber used by Arahat Maliyadeva at Arankele
The dwelling chamber used by Arahat Maliyadeva at Arankele

Arankele means ‘The Forest of Arahats’. It lies beneath a mass of rocky ridges about 25 km to the north of Kurunegala, west of the Ibbagamuwa- Moragollagama Road. This was once a site of an ancient forest hermitage – the austere abode of a sect of reclusive Bhikkus who had been attracted to the site because of its very isolation and seclusion. Today, it is a celebrated archaeological site containing the ruins of the ancient forest hermitage. The forested hillside of Arankele is still in use by a group of meditating Buddhist Bhikkus clad in dark brown robes of the Arankele Maliyadeva Senasana which adjoins the archaeological site.

A labyrinth of paths snakes its way through the forest in the hermitage at Arankele. It is dawn, and the misty, nippy air envelopes us. Rays of yellowish sunlight filter through the silhouetted leaves of the forest and songbirds exercise their vocal chords at high volume, quite uninhabited in the peace and tranquility of the surroundings.


Entry to the hermitage is via an ancient stone-paved, meditation path, bordered by tall ironwood and Sal trees. The path rises up in ground level, flanked by granite stone walls and does not allow more than two people to walk abreast. At one point there is a roundabout on the pathway. The perfectly circular roundabouts were built so that the Arahats walking deep in meditation might not collide with each other. There are other short stretches for Sakman Bawanawa or walking meditation. The environment is one of calm serenity and silence, except for the swish of leaves in the wind and the chattering of birds.

Arankele was supposedly the retreat of hermits and Arahats who, although having attained the piety and holiness requisite for Buddha-hood, refrained from entering Nirvana in order to help others walk in the path of virtue. One such was the saga Arahat Maliyadeva, who with his band of fellow holy men made Arankele his abode nearly 2,000 years ago. The historical importance of Arankele also lies in the fact that Arahat Maliyadeva Thera, the last Arahat of Sri Lanka is said to have had his meditation chamber in Arankele. His meditation chamber that dates back to the 8th Century BC can still be seen here. Under the dense forest canopy, we walked into the left side of the forest until the end of the pathway.


At the end of the path beside a small clearing nestled a small rock cave whose walls have been built by using blocks of thick stone slabs which had been fashioned into a three roomed little abode. The entrance was through a wooden door which was a replica of the original. Parts of the original stone door frame were to be seen fallen on the side. By the entrance door were two low steps flanked by a quaint miniature balustrade and stone guard stones but devoid of sculpture or other decorations. From the entrance hall two doors opened into two rooms on either side, each room containing a window opening to the front and a stone slab bed with some carvings. This is where Arahat Maliyadeva Thera had dwelt and meditated several centuries ago. This was his meditating abode surrounded by the forest, wild animals, birds and reptiles. Monastic Bhikkus still use these grounds for meditation. Venerable Ambagaswewa Indrasumana Thera who dwells in a Kuti adjoining this cave pointed to a granite slab with carvings lying on a side which had been used as a portico over the doorway.

After visiting the cave, we walked along the endless pathway to the eastern side and came across the sylvan surroundings of the hermitage that is also home to archaeological findings. Strewn in different areas of the precincts are remnants of large stone tablets on stone pillars.The whole area is crisscrossed by stone walkways and passages along which the meditating Bhikkus once walked.

Double-platform structure

The sixth-century cave hermitage is up a forested hillside. Ancient Brahmin inscriptions at Arankele have revealed meditation halls, stone-faced double-platform structures and ambulatories for a ‘Tapovana’ (forest dwelling) sect of austere Buddhist hermits called Pansukulika, who observed extreme austerity and lived in caves and hermitages.

The buildings at the entrance of the Arankele site has been identified as a Jantagara or hot water baths for meditating Bhikkus. Among the other ruins that have been identified are meditating promenades, ponds, toilets, double-platform structures and winding pathways. Archaeologists believe these buildings date back to the 8-9th century BC. All these ruins in Arankele have been excavated and well-conserved by the Department of Archaeology since 1922.

Typically, the platforms, aligned east-west with the entrance porch to the east, would be bridged by a large monolith. The smaller of the double-platform (Yugalaramaya) structures here was probably divided into nine ‘cells’ or Bhikkus’ dwellings, the roof supported on columns.

One of these endless walkways was the walking passage used by the Bhikkus for meditation, called Sakman Maluwa, a promenade the Bhikkus would proceed along, deep in thought. When they reach the end they would turn and retrace their steps, walking back a parallel way. Beside the path were rock seats where they would sit and contemplate. Arankele is also famous for the 2,000 feet longest meditation pathway in Sri Lanka.

A very large ancient pond with water lilies supported the whole community and helped cool the air. At 138 feet long and 107 feet wide, it is made of solid blocks of stone. Simple and understated, it captures the essence of Arankele. Even the toilets of Arankele were carefully planned and efficient in their operation. Although the washroom, the toilet and the drain were all interconnected, the urinal and the toilet were located a few yards away from the pond.

Rare worldwide

A renowned archaeologist in Sri Lanka, Prof. Senerath Paranavithana once explained that hermitages such as Arankele are rare worldwide. Walking around the wooded shade calms stressed nerves. Gigantic trees, their barks entwined with three-inch thick vines, add to the feeling of being in the thick of the forest, while the whisper of leaves rustling in the breeze adds to the bird song.

We observed many wonders of nature in the form of rare birds, butterflies, medicinal plants and wild flowers. A creeper or Pus-vela may cross the walking pathway telling a century old story of rejection and solitude.

The best time to be at Arankele is at dawn, before the heat of the day sets in. The stirring sounds of nature awakening to a new day and the crisp coolness complements the salubrious atmosphere.

Just make a firm resolve not to litter the place in any manner whatsoever and spend a quiet, relaxing day without making much noise.

You must keep in mind that this is the abode of higher beings who are aspiring for spiritual advancement, so don’t break the silence ! Enjoy nature and the refreshing environs but do so quietly, please.