Rajagala: monastery on the mountain | Sunday Observer

Rajagala: monastery on the mountain

1 August, 2021

One sunny morning, during one of our journeys to East, we had an opportunity to visit Rajagala monastery. The journey was an exhaustive hike around the mountain to witness history and marvelous creations by kings in a bygone era.

Our country’s story is written in stone; from the dawn of the pre-historic era, tracing its way through the early kingdoms to the advent of Buddhism, and a land and people transformed by its teachings. The Rajagala monastery across a 1,025 acres and dating back 2100 years is part of this tradition.

Monastery in the jungle

Rajagala is an awe-inspiring mountain range or Rassagala in ancient times as locals have been known to call it. The mountain used to be known as Girikumbhila by locals as it resembles a sleeping crocodile from a distance. It was discovered in the 1890 by the Department of Archaeology after the unusually high number of relics recorded in their surveys from this area.

However, with more prominent historical sites to attend to, the simple monastery deep in the jungle was soon forgotten. It was only in the early 1950s that excavation of its ruins began once more. Most recently, the site has been entrusted to University of Sri Jayewardenepura to carry out the excavation and unearth the history.

Rajagala lies 25 kilometres north of Ampara, in the village of Bakkiella. All vehicles can reach the archaeological site office which is provided with an information centre as well as guides who could accompany the visitors to the top of the picturesque plateau. The entire distance from Colombo is 310 kilometres through Ratnapura, Moneragala, Siyabalanduwa and Ampara.

From the archaeological site office the climb to the plateau is a real adventure. For hikers the footpath through the wooded canopy can provide all the thrill over a 1.5 km ‘natural trail’ passing through numerous remains of ancient ruins, ‘Sangaramas’ structures, pillars, guard stones and moon stones. For those who prefer to do a steady leisure walk, a one kilometres route with well-constructed stair-way with steps can help in doing the same climb with all the relaxation. Elderly visitors, undoubtedly, will use the latter option.

History of Rajagala

The history of Rajagala dates back to the early days of Buddhism and the arrival of Arahat Mahinda. An inscription found amid the forest growth reveals that the ashes of Arahat Mahinda and one of his disciples, Itthiya, were enshrined in a stupa at Rajagala.

However, historical records reveal that Rajagala gained in significance during King Kavantissa’s reign of Digamadulla (presently Ampara), and later during the reign of King Saddatissa and his son Prince Lajatissa. Prince Lajatissa, is recorded, had continued his patronage even after he ascended the throne of Raja Rata, transforming Rajagala monastery into a one of the greatest monasteries in Ruhuna.

On our way up, we spotted giant squirrel sprawled on a tree branch, fast asleep. The chirping of birds accompanies us as we climb up the stone steps. It takes about an hour of climbing to reach the summit, but effort is worth it, for the view from up there is indeed ‘wow’ worthy.

At the summit, the main path branches off into two direction, one leads to the northern slope, where many ruins and monuments lie and other to the eastern slope across a rock boulder. We chose the northern slope that brought us to the excavated site.

Here we came across the Mihindu Seya, a stone stupa where the ashes of Arahat Mahinda is said to be enshrined. This is the most important landmark of the Rajagala monastery. On the rock surface besides the stupa is a huge inscription. The panoramic view from the boulder encompasses a seemingly never ending range of rolling hills with Baron’s Cap or Thoppigala mountain standing out. The boulder is also the home to a huge pond. Carved steps on the rock lead to the pond.

Down the mountain, are the drip-ledged caves dwelt by the monastic bhikkhus. There are inscriptions carved into walls in the caves and inscribed on the massive stone slabs and rock boulders. Altogether there are about eighty inscriptions found in Rajagala. Some cave have retained their original structure, with the walls and doorways still in place. Some are made of bricks and others of stones. In two caves we saw rock surfaces covered in plaster, covering what were once murals.

Stone bowl

Apart from the evidence at the Stupa and inscription relating to Arahat Mahinda and Itthiya, it is pertinent to see the other inscriptions which are found at Rajagala. Any visitor to Rajagala would be amazed by the size of the ‘Gal Pattaraya’ (stone bowl) which had apparently been used as containers for food at the almsgiving for the large number of meditating bhikkhus.

The technology used for the creation of such massive bowls of granite is simply amazing. Today all that is left are the ruins of a single bowl hinting at the time that once was. The remaining stone bowl lies empty and cracked. Although there are several ponds at the site, the only regular source of water is from a little spring, which continues to flow despite the continuing drought. The other remains of stone structures, pillars, guard stones and many other objects of archaeological interest are spread over an area of over 2.5sq miles. Some of these ruins half buried in years of neglect.

As regards the provision of sufficient accommodation for the meditating bhikkhus, the shapes and sizes of the large number of caves is the other attraction. It is a very special feature to be observed at this large heritage site. Some of the caves contain even separate compartments and separate entrances.

A few metres away lies a renovated stupa. Beyond the stupa is an 18ft long fallen Buddha statue, roughly hewn in stone. Archaeologists are searching for the spot where it would have been erected in the past.

The ruins and the remnants indicate Rajagala to be a reputed monastery, but the Rajagala mountain offers much more than that and require more than a day or two to unearth all its secrets.