A journey to Sithulpawwa through Yala National Park | Sunday Observer

A journey to Sithulpawwa through Yala National Park

4 June, 2023

There are many ancient monastic complexes in the island that are not easily approachable as they are many miles off the beaten track. So, we have to traverse through rough jungle terrains to reach them.

Located deep in the protected wilderness of the Yala National Park in Hambantota district is such an ancient temple complex that is well-known among local visitors as Sithulpawwa Rajamaha Vihara. In ancient times, this place was known as Chiththala Pabbatha, meaning ‘The hill of the quiet mind’ in English and the modern name Sithulpawwa was derived from that word. It is known as a location where thousands of bhikkhus had lived in the bygone era.

To get to the place, we took the Kirinda – Sithulpawwa road, which is nearly a 28 km. The other access road to Sithulpawwa is from Kataragama, and both these roads lie through the Yala National Park. Travelling is possible during the daytime, and after the sunset it is a bit risky to get around here due to the roaming of wild animals.

The first few kilometres of this road (Kirinda – Sithulpawwa) are macadamised and the rest is a gravel road. Seen on either side of the road are farmers engaged in their chena cultivation work. Electricity is provided up to a certain distance and beyond that is unending thick forest with no human habitation. This is the Ruhunu National Park, also known as Yala wilderness, which is a huge area of forest, grassland and lagoons bordering the Indian Ocean in the Southeast of Sri Lanka.

Wildlife Department Office

Travelling a few kilometres ahead, first we came across the Wildlife Department Office. There were a few employees there, who also gave us assurance to proceed along the road. They are well-experienced persons living in the park and are well aware of animal movements. They said in the daytime it is rarely that wild elephants roam. As vehicles carrying pilgrims to the site are often travelling, the elephants here are quite familiar with them and cause no harm to the people.

As we passed that point, we felt the dead silence of the dense wilderness where not a single vehicle or a person could be seen. Few and far between a biker was seen riding on the road. Some herds of deer roaming freely are a common sight – so also peacocks and wild boars.

Next we got to an Army post set up deep in the forest. In this part of the forest, there is another archaeologically protected place, which is not so famous as Sithulpawwa. We stopped for a moment and had a talk with a soldier who was standing under the shade of a tree armed with his assault rifle on the wayside.

The soldier advised us to travel safely as the road ahead runs much deeper into the wilderness and beyond this point, it looks almost deserted. Here and there on both sides of the road are large gravel pits. The eerie silence brings us some trepidation into the mind, but on the other hand some tranquility.  We are almost on our own and lose entire communication with the outside world when we are deep in the forest. Communication is lost as we are out of the mobile network coverage. Everywhere we see there are huge overgrown trees, bushes and coppices with no open areas.

Travelling ahead, we come across another wildlife office and from there it is a short distance to the monastery. At last, we arrived at the second Army post which is at the entrance to Sithulpawwa site. There are Army personnel deployed there for the protection of pilgrims and the sacred site.

As we were about to enter the monastery site, we saw a large wild elephant coming slowly along the road at a distance. It seemed to us that the elephant was coming from the temple ground. We had earlier heard that there are one or two elephants on the road waiting for food from pilgrims.

However, the elephant we saw at the temple ground is not a rogue one and the soldiers told us that it is very friendly and is used to frequenting on the site without causing any harm to the people coming here. They said that there is a tusker too frequenting here often demanding food from pilgrims.

As soon as we got to the vehicle park, a police officer beckoned to us, and when we went up to him, he asked us the types of cameras we had in our possession. He said that no permission has been given to fly drone cameras over the sacred site. Indeed, we had only our smartphones with us.

The site has a large vehicle park and the land belonging to the temple is surrounded by massive iron fences so as to prevent elephants entering there at night. In the vicinity, there are many newly constructed buildings for visitors. On the day of our visit, there were only a few visitors, but on other days, the temple ground is full of local and foreign visitors.

We were surprised to see herds of wild boars on the monastic premises sleeping under trees and roaming here and there freely. These animals are visible only in the forest but they are now familiar with people arriving here and often come to this open area demanding food from them.

White stupa

We began our climb towards the white stupa which is atop a rocky outcrop. It is the main Sithulpawwa, and from the top of it is a magnificent view of the vast expanse of the Yala wilderness. While climbing down, we saw the ruins of two other ancient stupas. 

At the foot of this massive outcrop is a small lake, and there are sign boards displayed here indicating that it is infested with crocodiles, hence visitors are warned not to get closer to it.

On the site we saw the ruins of ancient structures as well as stone inscriptions, which gave lots of facts about the history of this place. The temple consists of a cave with ancient paintings on its walls, believed to be belonging to the Anuradhapura era.

Also, the ruins of stone Buddha images, Bodhisathva images, image houses, circular relic houses are spread throughout the premises. Rock inscriptions, statues and many other items have been unearthed through excavations carried out by the Department of Archaeology.

Strolling on the premises we saw a few bhikkhus talking in the newly built bhikkhus’ residence. Another bhikkhu was chanting stanzas through loud speakers. Chanting echoes throughout a vast area of the wilderness.

There is another stupa built on the top of a rock on the other side of the site, which is called ‘small Sithulpawwa’. On the way to see this, we came across a beautiful small lake filled with fresh water. We can see a newly renovated reclining Buddha statue in a cave. Caves used by Arahath bhikkus to abide and meditate can be seen here. It is said that there are nearly 100 caves scattered around here but exploring them all is not easy as many of them are covered in the forest. 

There is a massive rock cut into the shape of an umbrella. It is called ‘stone umbrella’, which can provide shelter to many.

Iron guard rail

There is an iron guard rail for the support of our difficult ascent to the stupa above. The elephant droppings here and there on the rock surface indicate that elephants too are climbing this area at night. There are warning signs advising visitors not to remain here after sunset.

It has been a difficult task to protect this archaeological site from treasure hunters, who had caused some damage to a stupa. The view from the top of this small stupa is indeed a breathtaking sight. The Ruhunu National Park is visible from here.

Sithulpawwa has been one of the significant tourist attractions in the country for many years. Its history goes back to the 2nd century BC to the reign of King Kavantissa (100 – 140 BC) who ruled the Southern part of the island then. The monastic complex is believed to have been built during his time.

According to historical records, there lived a bhikkhu called Thissa who had reached the state of Arahath here and later a stupa was built encasing his remains, which later came to be known as Thissa Thera Chethiya.