Mihintale: The sacred mountain | Sunday Observer

Mihintale: The sacred mountain

28 May, 2023
The Mihintale Maha Seya at top of the hill
The Mihintale Maha Seya at top of the hill

One full moon Poya day in 247 BC, King Devanampiyatissa met the missionary Arahath Mahinda, the son of Emperor Asoka in India on the hill at Mihintale near Anuradhapura. .

After this meeting, the king, the court and the people of Lanka were converted to Buddhism and Mahinda built the first monastery of the island on the sacred hill.

Anuradhapura was and is a great Buddhist capital. But it was not the place where Buddhism first overwhelmed the people of Sri Lanka. That honour goes to Mihintale, a rocky hill about seven miles (11 kilometres) East of Anuradhapura. For it was here, in 247 BC, that King Devanampiyatissa sought refuge in Buddhism in his encounter with that first missionary of the Dharma.

Mihintale – the mountain of Mahinda – soon became a great monastic city encompassing not one but four rocky, forested hills. In the 10th century, regulations were established to preserve the forests and wildlife. Today, the feeling of seclusion still exists, despite a thriving bazaar at the foot of the hills and the presence of tens of thousands of pilgrims, especially on the Poson Poya day in June.

Ambasthala dagaba

The stone structures in Kaludiya Pokuna

Whether Buddhist pilgrims or foreign visitors, every person who wishes to reach the Ambasthala Dagaba at the summit of this sacred mountain must climb 1,840 steps to do so. The staircase was built by King Bhathikabhaya.

The foundation of Buddhist civilisation which flourished for centuries was laid at the place where the Dhamma was preached and accepted. In a matter of years, the hunting ground of the King was converted into a massive monastic complex that housed thousands of meditating bhikkhus. With the introduction of Buddhism, art, architecture, sculpture and paintings flourished with inspiration from the teachings of the Buddha.

Caves and ponds

Among the rock boulders at Mihintale are found some interesting caves and ponds. These caves no doubt represent the first dwellings of the monastic bhikkhus of the earliest period of Sri Lanka’s history of Buddhism.

At the foot of Mihintale Kanda (hill) are the ruins of a hospital and alms hall, indicated by an inscription and by the presence of a stone structure for medication by immersion in herbal oil. In the alms hall, one can spot the massive stone Bath Oru (rice boats) which were used to provide Dana (alms) to the bhikkhus.

To the right of the staircase, about half way up the first long flight of steps, is the 2nd Century B.C. Kantaka Chaitiya. Not excavated until 1934, it was found in an almost perfect state of preservation, displaying some of the finest architecture of the early Anuradhapura period.

Standing 39 feet high, with 426-foot base, it has four vahalkadas (altar-piece panels) with beautiful ornamental friezes of captivating dwarfs. Just west of Mihintale Kanda, is the Lion Bath, a stone cistern carved to resemble a lion whose mouth spewed water.

The spacious meadow at the top of the main stairway is the site of the Ambasthala Dagaba, a charming stupa said to mark the spot where Mahinda appeared to King Devanampiyatissa instead of the deer that the king had been hunting. It was converted to vatadage style in the 3rd Century A.D. Near it is the Aradhana Gala, the ‘rock of convocation’ from which Mahinda first preached.

At the pinnacle of Mihintale Kanda, clearly visible from all surrounding points, is the 1st Century B.C. Maha Seya. This dagaba is said to enshrine a single hair of the Buddha. A large boulder east of the Ambasthala Dagaba is called Mahinda’s Bed. The Arahath slept or meditated on a meticulously smoothed slab, over which the boulder arches.

The highest point in the Mihintale hills is crowned by the Eth Vehera, completely ruined. It may be the repository of Mahinda’s cremated ashes. The rock pool along the path to this mountain from the Mandapaya is called the Naga Pokuna, because, on its back wall, a seven-headed cobra has been hewn from the rock.

I visited the Rajagirilena hill and the Kaludiya Pokuna at Mihintale, two magnificent sites usually missed by the hundreds of visitors who throng Mihintale during the Poson season. Numerous are the ruins scattered around the Kaludiya Pokuna.


The Rajagirilena hill is a lower hill of the Mihintale range. Here, the magnificent rock boulder, which has been converted into caves, forms the vast complex that would have sheltered hundreds of monastic bhikkhus.

The remains of monastic complexes indicate them to be the residential area for bhikkhus headed by Arahathth Mahinda. These are natural caves covered in greenery, and entering them, one gets the feeling of calmness and tranquility, savoured by the bhikkhus who lead an ascetic life.

The pathway with Araliya trees on either side leads to the Rajagirilena cave at the summit of the hill. This cave, according to archaeologists, was the shrine room of the ancient monastic complex. The bhikkhus meditating in the caves in the area, probably performed rituals at this picturesque cave shrine. A huge and long Katarama or drip-ledge has been cut into the rock surface at Rajagirilena to prevent rain-water flowing inside.

At the foot of Anaikutti Kanda, near the base of the fourth hill, Rajagirilena Kanda, the Indikatu Seya dagaba has several copper plaques bearing Tantric inscriptions enshrined in it.

Kaludiya Pokuna

On the opposite side of the Rajagirilena hill lay a secluded pool, the Kaludiya Pokuna, the centre of a cave-dwelling monastic community, shaded by humongous trees and surrounded by many ruins. A meandering flight of steps between two huge rock boulders and trees from Rajagirilena hill took me to this enchanting pool, which is the largest such water body in the complex.

The massive pool, on the western slopes of the Mihintale range, is said to have derived its name from the fact that the water in the pond appears to be black. Although it appears open today, the Kaludiya Pokuna was completely shut off from the outside world with walls in the past.

It was accessible only through two doorways, and is believed to be a private bathing place of the meditating bhikkhus of Mihintale. Today, the pool facilitates the water requirements of the bhikkhus of the hermitage and the villagers who live in the vicinity of the pool. The ruins scattered around the pool are conserved by the Department of Archaeology.

This cradle of Sri Lanka’s civilisation still offers the people a glorious window into the past.