Soothing spiritual sanctuary in the South | Sunday Observer

Soothing spiritual sanctuary in the South

28 March, 2021

Mulgirigala, more commonly known as Mulkirigala, is the imposing and historic rock cave temple in the South, to which the Dutch gave exaggerated attention, within their territory. The Mulgirigala rock cave temple is one of the oldest and most revered temples in Southern Sri Lanka.

Have you ever been to Sigiriya? Most of you are sure to have done so. Even those of you who haven’t, would have at least seen a picture of the Sigiriya rock. Why are we talking about Sigiriya? All of you may know what Sigiriya is like. The best introduction to the Mulkirigala Raja Maha Viharaya is to describe it as ‘Little Sigiriya’. Then you can create an image of this place in your mind.

The Mulkirigala Raja Maha Vihara is at Mulkirigala, Hambantota. There are two main roads that give access to the Mulkirigala Vihara. One is 21 km from Tangalle. The other road runs inland through Middeniya - Weeraketiya. We drove down the second road because it was the easiest and shortest approach from Katuwana via the Julampitiya - Weeraketiya road.

Rock caves

It is a rock cave temple that consists a series of rock caves carved out of the face of a huge rock outcrop. It is a temple of great antiquity and famous for its fine murals of great historical significance.

Surrounded by a plain landscape, Mulkirigala is deemed to be the tallest rock, reaching majestically up to the sky for over 300 metres. A flight of 533 steps, from the lower terrace of the Vihara, guides pilgrims to reach the seven terraces which comprise rock cave shrines with reclining Buddha statues and beautiful murals belonging to different periods. The ascent to the terraces is steep. At one place, an almost perpendicular series of steps must be climbed with the aid of an iron rail. The final flight of steps, carved into the rock boulder leads to the summit terrace of Mulkirigala, on which stands an ancient Dagaba and a shrine room. The view is breathtaking as it cannot be replicated anywhere else in the island.

The origin of Mulkirigala is obscure. Though it is not mentioned in any of the ancient chronicles, it has been the abode of bhikkhus from early times. This is proved by the three Brahmin inscriptions carved along one of the drip-ledge rock cave of Mulkirigala

The general belief is that the Mulkirigala Vihara was founded by King Saddatissa who built Dakkhina-giri Vihara. Dakkina-giri means ‘rock in the south’. This may well have been the earlier name for Mulkirigala. This place is also known as Muhundragiri, Muvathitigala and Mulagiriya.

An interesting legend is associated with the name of the Mulkirigala temple. Two indigenous persons who had seen the rock while hunting informed the king that there is a place to build a temple. The king taking heed had been to the place for inspection and commented Mu kivu gala hondai (the rock that he suggested is good). It is thought that this phrase has later evolved to Mu Kee Gala, Mu Kiri Gala and then to Mulkirigala.

Dutch link

The Dutch, who ruled the Maritime Provinces in the 18th century, called this rock as Adam’s Berg, They seemed to have confused this with the Adam’s Peak (Sripada). They believed that the tomb of Adam and Eva were located there. Due to this reason, Mulkirigala was popular among the foreigners.

Mulkirigala caves have a mixture of religious and secular (non-religious) paintings and sculptures with several reclining Buddhas, including 15 metre sculptures of the dying Buddha. The Mulkirigala Vihara contains many murals based on Jataka stories, such as Wessanthara and Thelapaththa. There are seven cave shrines, each contains seven reclining Buddha statues at Mulkirigala. One is known as Dakkinagiri Vihara and was constructed by King Dhatusena around 400 AD. Giri vehera was constructed by King Agbo. At one of the walls of the Raja Maha Vihara, where a unique mural was illustrated, the depiction of a woman playing drum is said to be found only in Mulkirigala.

It is also believed to be one of the 64 temples erected by King Kavantissa, who ruled from Magama, in the kingdom of Ruhuna. According to historians, this may have been the Samuddagiri or Muhudugiri Vihara built by the king. He is also credited with building a Buddha statue 18 cubits in length, in a large cave under the rock.

Regal link

A lamp with mustard oil is believed to have been lit in the cave on the advice of some arahat monks, with the hope that it would remain lit for 5,000 years. King Kavantissa’s son King Dutugemunu, who unified the country under one flag, is believed to have built another Buddha statue, 18 cubit in size, out of red sandalwood. The Mulkirigala was renovated by King Kirthi Sri Rajasingha.

After visiting the seven rock cave shrines, we returned to the lower terrace where we stepped into a museum at the foot of the rock. It houses numerous artefacts found during the Dutch period and beyond.

Among the most valuable exhibits is an ancient VOC emblem engraved land deed which was bestowed to Mulkirigala Vihara by a Dutch Governor in 1766. Among other exhibits are several VOC coins and ancient Ola leaves.

To reach the top of the rock boulder, where the ancient dagaba is situated, you have to climb 533 steps. Sounds tiring, isn’t it? But once you start climbing, you won’t feel tired, because the environment will comfort you and give you a boost. Also, along the way, you will find many people offering you the Belimal drink to quench your thirst.