Bowattagala: A cave complex in the wild | Sunday Observer

Bowattagala: A cave complex in the wild

11 July, 2021
The Bowattagala rock caves in the Kumana East National Park
The Bowattagala rock caves in the Kumana East National Park

It is late afternoon. We can see the silhouette of trees with dead branches jutting out against a cloudless sky. On the rock boulder, the orange rays of the sun are reflected in the Kumana Wewa. There is a soft hush in the air.

We climb the flat rocky terrain in Kumana through the dense jungle. Birds including hawk-eagles and spoon-bills are on tree-tops. Suddenly, I glimpse a hawk-eagle take wing, flying towards its prey on the rock as we break the silence of the quiet environs.

The sun starts setting over the Kumana Wewa in a burst of orange colour. The destination of my group was Bowattagala, a large flat-topped rock, about 11 kilometres west of Kumana, near the Kumana Wewa. A panoramic view of the Kumana tank can be had from this rock.

Ancient flight of steps

There are a number of caves with inscriptions and four others on flat rock, partly damaged. Inside one cave is a rock water pool. Bowattagala also has a cave with entrances at both ends. Our experience tracker Gayan, who has an eye for detail, takes us to the Bowattagala site where we find an ancient flight of steps, carved out of the rock, leading to the top of the rock. Today, the flight of steps is severely disfigured owing to the passage of time. We follow the same route to climb the rock as the ancient Bhikkhus did. On the summit of Bowattagala is an extensive area of flat rock surface with ruins.

On the cliff of the Bowattagala rock boulder in front of the caves, the Kumana Wewa glistering in emerald hues is a sight to behold while the perennial carpet of trees and bushes cover the area. On the flat rocky surface of Bowattagala, Gayan shows us two rock inscriptions and image of a stupa carved from the rock. From the summit, the picturesque Kumana Wewa is visible, in the distance. The Wewa was a main irrigation tank providing water to cultivate paddy for the inhabitants of Kumana centuries ago. In ancient times, there was an anicut built across the Kumbukkan Oya at a place called Mahagal Amuna to divert water to the Kumana Wewa to irrigate the area. This is evident as there had been an agro-based livelihood in Kumana.

“A stupa was once believed to have stood over there,” said Gayan, pointing to a heap of rubble on the summit overgrown with creepers. There were ancient bricks and broken carved stone pillars scattered everywhere, indicating that the stupa has been demolished by treasure hunters in the recent past. The most striking feature of the site is the cluster of drip-ledged caves and the Brahmin inscriptions and drawings carved on the rock surface about 25 feet above ground. Observing the inscriptions, I realised that they are thickly carved into the rock and the drawings have solidity. Even today, most of these inscriptions and drawings are clear although many centuries have passed. Ruins belonging to Third Century BC The Bowattagala rock lies in a somewhat higher altitude and consists of several caves and remnants of brick-walls around it. These caves have been bestowed on bhikkhus in ancient times. There is evidence that these caves have been reused in later years. Archaeologists believe that some of these ruined brick-walls belonged to the latter part of the Third Century BC.


One of the caves in Bowattagala contains a drawing of an awesome figure which looks like a ghost and has six figures in one hand. Archaeologists believe that it is the work of a veddah who inhabited these caves in later years. Another cave has a drawing of a fish, giving the impression that the site had been associated with fishing. In fact, fishing for food started with pre-historic man and became an important economic activity. One of the inscriptions dating from the Third Century BC to the First Century AD is of a fish. Since a proper archaeological survey or research has not been carried out on the site, the history of Bowattagala is yet to be discovered.

However, some of the rock inscriptions give significant clues to the historical background of the place. The history of Bowattagala dates back to the Third Century BC and was a reputed Buddhist hermitage in the past. History also notes that kings and provincial rulers had done a yeoman service to the hermitage. Another inscription indicates that the Minister in the name of Naka, King Mahasen and King Jetta Tissa had made various contributions to the Bowattagala hermitage.


The beauty of the Bowattagala caves has been spoilt by human beings, however, with the most horrifying sight being the names and addresses scribbled on the rock ceiling in Sinhala and Tamil, by visitors to the site. It is believed that these scribblings may have been carried out by poachers or LTTE terrorists who made these caves their hideout in the Kumana jungle.

In addition to the main caves, there lies another isolated cave a few feet away from the main cave, formed like an arrow with both sides open. A little beyond this cave lie a natural pond and ruins of a stone foundation of a huge building. The ruins of the hermitage are scattered on the summit of Bowattagala. Today, the place is deserted and lies majestically amid the thick jungle of Kumana sanctuary and has become home to wild beasts.