Exploring heights of Pilikuththuwa | Sunday Observer

Exploring heights of Pilikuththuwa

22 January, 2023
The Pilikuththuwa cave temple and the small Dagaba in the cave on the lower terrace of the hills
The Pilikuththuwa cave temple and the small Dagaba in the cave on the lower terrace of the hills

The ancient cultural concept of the Dagaba, Keth Yaya (paddy field) and Wewa (tank), revolved around the Pansala (temple) and Gama (village) for executing manifold day-to-day social and religious activities to the people.

Not far away from Colombo and Gampaha, along the Colombo-Kandy highway, off Yakkala, into its interior, lies a magnificent mountainous frontier called Pilikuththuwa. On its lofty heights is a mass of ancient rock cave shelters turned into Len Viharas (rock temples) dating back to the Pre-Christian era of 1st, 2nd and 3rd centuries.

There are about 99 rock caves with prominently carved out drip-ledges (kataran) on these rock cave hermitages. These drip-ledges were meant to prevent rain water trickling into the caves. Brahmi inscriptions etched below the drip-ledges of some caves go back to the earliest period of the 1st, 2nd and third centuries BC. Out of these 99 rock cave shelters, the Department of Archaeology has identified and gazetted 84. Each rock cave shelter identified has been marked with a serial number on the front surface wall of the cave shelter.

We were fortunate, consumed by wanderlust to explore such vestiges of our past heritage, to visit this archaeological like museum of Pilikuththuwa recently. It so happened at the earnest request of one of our relatives at Yakkala.

Our relatives took a group of us to visit the historic Pilikuththuwa Raja Maha Vihara. At the temple, we paid homage to a young Samanera bhikkhu who was our guide. The Samanera, about 17-years-old, was a repository of the antecedents of every aspect of the Pilikuththuwa Raja Maha Vihara. He narrated to us, as if reading from a chronicle, legends. He even ventured to take us along those rugged and tortuous jungle trails to visit those Len Viharas tucked away in the maze of huge boulders looming over here and there.

Forest studded mountains

The whole region is encompassed by a sea of forest studded mountains interlaced with coconut trees, while the lush valleys below are studded with sprawling paddy fields. Among such prominent hills are Warana, Hewakanda, Belungala and Maligatenna.

At the entrance of the temple, we were greeted by an ancient square pond with full of water lilies. Passing this, we could see a Bodhiya and Vihara Lena (cave) which housed the image house and the Chaitya Lena under which stood a small Dagaba.

A fascinating rock placing made a striking setting for the Vihara Lena and the adjoining Dagaba. Some large precipitous rocks rose high and leaned precariously while a tangle of foliage and creepers made an amazing backdrop.

According to scholars, it is possible that the Vihara Lena was originally used by meditating bhikkhus and later converted into an image house during the Kandyan period and further improved in the Kotte period.

A unique painting of two Portuguese soldiers some four feet tall, appeared to guard the entrance to the shrine room, replacing the traditional Doratupala figures. This was just one example found here indicating that though the original paintings belonged to the Kandyan period, the complex had from time to time been influenced by the subsequent periods, even the Portuguese and the Dutch.

It is said that the Pilikuththuwa Temple paintings reveal the changes that the artists of the Kandyan period were undergoing. Even in the painting of a tree that is traditionally done in a geometric and a stylised manner, the Pilikuththuwa artist attempts to introduce the aspect of realism by painting the jak, mango, breadfruit and plantain fruit in easily recognisable artistic forms.

Devala Lena

Another striking and spectacular part of the paintings is found on the ceiling of the rock cave. The canopy is decorated with lotus flowers in full bloom and their tendrils winding around. The 12 Lagnas (zodiac signs) of the astrological chart along with their symbols are also featured in the artists’ individual style. The colour combinations and designs are pleasing to the eye.

Another smaller image house, the Devala Lena, situated on a higher ground, includes paintings and a Buddha image of recent origin. The temple’s Avasageya, Dana sala and even a well for bathing are in caves.

An interesting artefact is an ancient wooden bridge across a small stream between two caves. Having its origins in the Dutch period, the wooden arch, the wooden pillars, the wooden trellis, the wood plank flooring and the roof tiles combine and contrast with the looming rocks to form a quaint picture in a surprising manner. The stream that runs under its planked floor cannot be seen, but the sound of its gurgling, rushing waters can be heard if you listen carefully. A little beyond, this subterranean waterway joins the picturesque Pilikuththuwa Wewa.

While the history of the Pilikuththuwa cave complex dates back to pre-historic times, there is an abundance of folklore regarding its original use.

It is said that this cave complex, like the Mihintale cave complex, was dedicated to the Sangha by King Devanampiyatissa. It is also attributed to King Valagamba, who is said to have used these precincts as a sanctuary when he was fleeing the Chola invaders.

It is also believed that the latter used this hideout when raising his army. Yet another story refers to the distressing reign of King Rajasingha I of Sithawaka when bhikkhus were persecuted.

The origin of the name Pilikuththuwa is debated. It is believed that it originated from the word Pili Kotuwa. Some believe that in ancient times this village had supplied cloths/ apparel to King Valagamba and hence came to be named Pilikuththuwa, as ‘pili’ in Sinhala means cloths. Others say that royal clothes worn by his queen had been removed and kept at a cave here, and this was the reason for the name.

The Pilikuththuwa Raja Maha Vihara itself is housed in some of these caves. The Vihara Lena, the Devala Lens, the Chaitya Lena, the Avasageya and the Dana Salas are some of the buildings housed in caves. These caves are easy to access and situated in and around the temple. But to see some of the other caves, you have to climb and walk miles into the wilderness.

Imposing Dharmasalawa

The gateway to the temple is the spacious, but imposing Dharmasalawa. It stands under the arbour of lush coconut trees and other fruit and forest trees. It also has a splendid building adorned with multilevel hipped roof (a sort of roof in two or three tiers). Each structure has a portico with a gable or pitched roof.

Such structures are prominently provided at its four entrances. Edges with wooden boards around each such gable wall are the barge boards and the rest valance boards. The wooden carvings are decorative timber boards or barge boards.

The roof is paved with the Kandyan type of flat tiles. Its architecture is of a Kandyan type. Its standing pillars of granite are strikingly placed around the inside porch.

But to us what was thrilling was the tropical scenery which spread like a green-gold carpet around the bottom of the rock. The paddy fields in the valleys were lit with luminous green, the coconut trees leaning over in delightful grace, a variety of fruit trees in absolute abundance. It seemed that here was everything.