Mystical Vessagiriya | Sunday Observer

Mystical Vessagiriya

2 May, 2021
The massive rock boulder of Vessagiriya at Anuradhapura
The massive rock boulder of Vessagiriya at Anuradhapura

I had a long-cherished ambition to visit the Vessagiriya rock cave monastic complex in Anuradhapura. The idea of visiting this ancient site came into my mind having seen a couple of photographs which were taken by the legendary photographer Nihal Fernando. These photographs appeared in Fernando’s lavish pictorial book called ‘Sri Lanka: A personal Odyssey’.

A few weeks ago, we had the opportunity to visit this ancient ruined complex. Vessagiriya nestles a few hundred meters left to the Isurumuniya on the old Anuradhapura-Kurunegala Road. This temple complex is located in and around three rock boulder formations across a large area overlooking the Tissa Wewa in Anuradhapura.

Vessagiriya has been closely associated with Isurumuniya and considered one of the most important monastic establishment dedicated to the use of ascetic bhikkhus in the 2nd century BC. Traditionally the term Vaishya was used to refer to the class of people in Indian society who worked in agriculture and trade. The Vaishya comprises commoners from the business and merchant caste. Vessagiriya literally means ‘The rock shelters of the commoners’. Hence, it is commonly believed that the word Vessa-giriya derives from Sanskirit Vaishya (commoner) and Giri (mountain).

What we mostly know about Vessagiriya’s history comes from the 3rd century Brahmi inscriptions left on the rock walls by bhikkhus, patrons and their lay devotees. Ancient chronicles reveal that having ordained 500 priests into the priesthood at Isurumuniya, Arahat Mahinda who brought Buddhism to the country in 250 BC, came to Vessagiriya and ordained another 500 Vaisyas. At present, the smoothed rock beds where the Arahat slept can be observed on the granite surfaces of the caves.

Historical site

Set among a group of mighty boulders, caves, pillars, ponds and shady trees, Vessagiriya is a retreat for peace-seeking pilgrims and nature lovers. The historical site can be found 600 km south of Isurumuniya as a cluster of 50-odd monastic caves protected by drip ledges which have been hewn out of the rock to lead the rainwater away.

Through a rock-hewn staircases, one can reach the larger boulders which gives panoramic views of Anuradhapura. On the top of the rocks, there are foundations of a small Chaithya (stupa) and remnants of brick wall structures. The plaster which had been laid 2,000 years ago still exists in patches even to this day.

Apart from the drip-ledged caves, buildings constructed according to the traditions of panchavasa, ruins of a Bodhighara, and Chaitya, a chapter house as well as two cave temples depicting ancient paintings are found in Vessagiriya. There exists a large cave on which there are traces of paintings – the painting of a female figure.

According to the Vessagiriya inscription belonging to the 6th century AD and by the Jetavanarama slab inscription of King Mahinda IV, it has been revealed that there was a close relationship between Sigiriya and Vessagiriya.

Pungent odour

Close to a granite doorway is an inscription which reads ‘Isuru-Meni-Ro-Ipuluwan-Kasumbagiri- Vihara’. The Mahawamsa tells us that King Kasyapa gifted innumerable lands to Isurumuniya and Vessagiriya and built a hermitage, naming it after his daughters: Bo, Upulwan and himself, Kasumba.

Hundreds of bhikkhus are said to have dwelt and meditated in the Vessagiriya caves centuries ago. As you walk along the series of stone steps, a wave of pungent odour hits you. The smell comes from the bat roots in the rock crevices. Today the caves are a natural habitat for bats, birds and wasps.

While the trail to the Vessagiriya caves is short, the surrounding scenery is dramatic. If it is your lucky day, you might be able to see a majestic peacock perched on a tree. The gravity-defying boulder overhangs are adorned with beautiful vines.

The rocky cliffs bulging out above are intimidating and striking. For your safety, avoid venturing closer to the edge of the rocky overlooks that are not fenced. Vessagiriya is not frequently visited like other sights in Anuradhapura. But a short excursion to Vessagiriya yields a spiritual experience in ancient Buddhist asceticism for the visitors who prefers some solitude in a cave retreat. After spending an hour in the caves of Vessagiriya, one can envisage the sedentary life of hermits and bhikkhus who embraced the path to wards peace.