Unfading beauty of Hatthikuchchi | Sunday Observer

Unfading beauty of Hatthikuchchi

18 June, 2017
The conserved remnants of  the Stupa  (Vatadage)
The conserved remnants of the Stupa (Vatadage)

I had heard plenty of stories about a place known until a few decades ago, as the Rajangana ruins, but I could not go there all these years. Today, it is better known as Hatthikuchchi and I recently had an opportunity to go there, at last.

Just a few kilometres past the Galgamuwa town, we reached a small junction known as Mahagalkadawala, and on the left side of the road, there is a signboard pointing the way towards Rajangana ruins, or Hatthikuchchi as it is known today.

After driving around three more kilometres, we reached the vehicle park of the site. While in the park, we glimpsed a few bus loads of pilgrims who had come to visit the ruins. There were only a few hours left until sunset and the golden light of the setting afternoon sun washed over the ruins and rocky hill of Haththikuchchi. The tranquillity that encased the periphery was only stirred by the call of a bird, the chattering of a monkey or by a gust of wind.

One of the oldest religious sites in the country, Hatthikuchchi dates back to the earliest days of Buddhism. Arising in the wake of the arrival of Arahat Mahinda, along with Ritigala, Mihintale and Arankele, it was to become one the most important centres of Buddhism in the country. A vast and enchanting hermitage, patronized by several kings, it extended over 300 acres. As the inscriptions show, it remained a major shrine from 3rd century BC.

Kucchi Vihara

We were at the blessed ground that was at one time a hermitage of a benevolent king and at another time it was a centre for meditating Bhikkus. Today, what remains is only the evidence of its ancient glory.

A stone inscription at the site declares it the ‘Kucchi Vihara’ and it is supposed to be the place where the saintly king Siri Sangabo (247-249 AC) cut off his head to appease his enemies. Entering the site, we first met two officials of the Department of Archaeology at the entrance. They inquired whether we are first time visitors to the site. They insisted that one of them accompany us to show the way to the site which has been covering 300 acres on a rocky hill surrounded by ruins in the elephant infested jungle.

We followed him while he was explaining various stories about the ruins. The first thing that caught our attention was a small pond on our right, which seemed to have seen better days. The pathway leading to the ruins, with tilted ancient stone pillars and remnants of architecture that have stood there for many centuries prepared us for what lies ahead. Just a few steps, and we entered another world, another era.

Elephant’s stomach

We first saw the ruins of the chapter house where the community of Bhikkus met on fasting days and carried out the confession of the order. This is believed to belong to the 8th to 9th century AD.

Here, one might wonder whether the moonstone without any carvings is an oversight, but, it stands testimony to the fact that this moonstone belongs to an era that predated the time of carved moonstones.

Beyond the chapter house is the massive granite rock with inscriptions that gave the place the name Haththikuchchi. The guide told us to sit under the huge tree and listen to his continuous narration about the place. The shape of the rock looks like an elephant, and hence, the name ‘Hastikusa’ meaning elephant’s stomach, which later changed to Hatthikuchchi. In fact, the rock clearly resembles an elephant.

Until recently the location where King Siri Sangabo cut off his own head was thought to be the Attanagalla Temple in the Gampaha district in the Western Province, (there is a statue of the king at this site) but now, most experts accept that Hatthikuchchi was the actual place of the incident. This area was called the Rajangana Ruins until 1979, and the Department of Archaeology put up a board identifying it as Hatthikuchchi. It is also believed that this site was called Attanagalla at some point in history and inscriptions found in the area refer to a place by the same name. That must have been the reason why the story of King Siri Sangabo is related to the present day Attanagalla in the Gampaha area in the Western Province, which is an easy mix-up.

According to historical chronicles, King Siri Sangabo who succeeded his father and became king in 251AC abdicated the throne after two years, in favour of the life of a hermit. Even though his rule lasted only two years, his ultimate act of offering his head to a peasant has immortalized the King in our annals.

According to the villagers of Mailewa it has been atop this rock in Hatthikuchchi that King Siri Sangabo had meditated and they believe, it is at this very same place that he fulfilled the Dhana Paramitha, one of the highest requirements of sacrificing one’s own life for the benefit of others by someone who aspires to become a Buddha in another life.

Hanging rock

Moving further, on our way along the path, we glimpsed one of the most striking features of a pond filled with yellow green moss, and in the distance there was a hanging rock that seemed as if it might fall off the edge any minute. It seems, from time immemorial, some mystical power has held it hanging there by an invisible thread.

A few yards away from the pond lie the ruins of Vatadage that contained the brick built Stupa and sheltered it. Two of the granite door frames to the Vatadage still remain intact. At this place, the guide showed us a brick tomb believed to enshrine the ashes of King Siri Sangabo.

Passing the Vatadage, the path leads uphill and we came across a small natural cave with mud walls and drip-ledges believed to be used by meditating Bhikkus in the past. Today, it is home to a reclining Buddha statue that belongs to the Kandyan era. Just outside the cave, after yet another flight of stone steps we came across a double-platform structure found in most ancient hermitages, such as, Ritigala and Arankele.

A smooth stone bridge connects the double platforms with a single stone. One can marvel at the developed architecture that existed in ancient hermitages in Sri Lanka.

Natural pond

From there, the guide took us to the top of the rock where King Siri Sangabo is believed to have meditated. The thicket shades the brief climb up. The hillock along the way lures us to take in the scenic beauty of the surrounding landscape. At the foot of the rock, in a natural pond, the water stays even in the dry season.

From this point we get a wonderful bird’s eye view of the jungle below with numerous strangely shaped boulders spread across a large area. The hanging rock is even more distinct from this location. Since the area is located close to Anuradhapura, our guide showed us the Stupas of Anuradhapura in the distance.

From this point onwards, there are no stone steps but the top of the rock can be reached with ease and this is the highest point of the Hatthikuchchi. Walking beyond this point is somewhat dangerous due to the steep slope of the rock boulder, and is advisable not to reach that area although young visitors to the site often enter the area.