Sithulpahuwa Rajamaha Vihara The great Southern Buddhist monastery | Sunday Observer

Sithulpahuwa Rajamaha Vihara The great Southern Buddhist monastery

30 July, 2023

Beautiful peacocks were silhouetted against the setting sun. The male peacock proudly displayed his splendour to attract the pea hens. It is an incredible sight not only when the peacock’s tail is raised and quivering in a fanlike display but also when it is relaxed and on the ground, giving the male an overall length of over two metres.

After a few seconds of calling, the peacock proudly strutted away. While, I was engrossed with the peacocks I was distracted by the owner of a herd of buffaloes roaming around.

Being a native of Sithulpahuwa, he elaborated on the beliefs, myths and stories of Sithulpahuwa.


Around five kilometres from the Tissamaharama Makara Thorana, a dirt track branches off the main road which runs up to the sea. The road sign which is almost hidden behind a nearby tyre-repair shop, says ‘To Sithulpahuwa’. On dry days, the dirt track is smoother than the main road. When it rains, though, it can be disastrous. A half-hour drive down the track which progressively becomes a dense jungle brings travellers to a barrier. From here, it is another half-hour drive to Sithulpahuwa, the ancient monastery site, believed to be one of the few of its kind in Sri Lanka where bhikkhus practised Mahayana Buddhism.

According to the buffalo herdsman Sithulpahuwa has got its name from the huge rock on which the dagoba was built. The word pahuwa, a derivation of the word pawwa, means a big rock in Sinhala. It has been called Chiththala Pabbatha in ancient texts.

Stone inscriptions

Stone Inscriptions have identified this location as Chithala Pawatha Vehera or the hill of the quiet mind.

The building of this temple complex has been attributed to King Kavanthissa who ruled Southern Sri Lanka in the second century BC. Sithulpahuwa is deep within the natural habitats of the Yala National Park and is home to wildlife. Elephants and leopards frequent the area. Sithulpahuwa is known as a place where thousands of arahaths lived at one time.

According to the old buffalo herdsman folklore once a bhikkhu named Tissa being disappointed with the monastic life decided to disrobe and went to tell his teacher of his decision. The old teacher was wise and knew that if his pupil was to stay a little longer and try a little harder he might become enlightened.

Thus, without trying to convince him to stay, he said to him, “I am old so please make me a new hut before you leave and don’t forget to do it mindfully”. The student did as he was asked and then went to report to his teacher who said, “You must be tired after all that work. Lie down mindfully and rest for a while before you go”. The student did this and in the afternoon went to say goodbye to his teacher. But the old teacher said to him, “It is a bit late to leave now. Why don’t you sleep in the hut tonight”? The student bhikkhu agreed to this and went to the hut to prepare his bedding which he did mindfully. By the time morning came he was enlightened. Later, a stupa was built to encase his remains. Therefore, this has also been known as Tissa Thera Chetiya.

We were told that at one time there were 12,000 bhikkhus at Sithulphauwa. There are more than 160 caves in the area. Some of them are quite large. The Sithulpahuwa Rajamaha Vihara has a large number of cave temples, Buddha statues, a stupa house and image houses spread among a large area.

Ancient paintings

Among these, there is a cave temple with ancient paintings thought to belong to the third century BC. These drawings have been done on a thin layer of plaster on the rock surface and the primary colours are red and yellow.

The main stupa has been built by flattening the top of a rocky mountain.

The current dagoba was reconstructed by the Government in the 1950’s covering the dagoba which used to be there and the old herdsman said that there is a belief that it hides some holy relics of the Buddha and that the remains of two of his principal disciples were placed inside the two companion dagobas.

Two approaches

There are two approaches to the stupa. Stone steps have been cut from the South and the North. The boundary walls of the maluwa area have been built using large rocks. The remains of many buildings can be seen on the Northern side of the stupa. From the top of the mountain, the traveller can see the whole of the Ruhunu sanctuary, right down to the sea on the side and to the central hills on the other.

In addition to the main Sithulpahuwa stupa another hill called the Small Sithulpahuwa /kuda Sithulpahuwa also contains similar stupas and buildings. There are no signposts. Less than a kilometre away and through the jungle, the path leads to the small dagoba, seen atop another rocky outcrop, which is even higher than Sithulpahuwa.

Historians say it was once linked to the main monastery by a paved path fringed with flowering bushes. On both sides of the path were caves and rooms in which the bhikkhus could meditate. Today, the more adventurous can even venture off the main path and find remnants of these caves and rooms.

A few yards up, an umbrella-shaped rock forms a passage, leaning against another rock.

A villager’s belief

Beneath the first are indications of a belief of the village people. Stacked against the rock are hundreds of little sticks and branches. The villagers break the branches and offer them to the jungle deities for protection before they venture too far into the jungle.

We had to climb a rock, supported by an unstable iron hand-rail and tiny footholds carved into the rock, before climbing up the second rock mountain. The effort is worth it. The panoramic view is even better from there.

The authorities in the temple advise that travellers return to the main monastery before sunset. Even the old herdsman warned us of the dangers from wildlife but he also said if we are there to do a good deed, the animals will always protect us.

Stupas have been built on each peak of this rocky mountain range and all these have been built in the pre-Christian era.


A large number of valuable items were found during the excavations at this site including an exquisitely made image of Goddess Thara in a seated position and many Buddha statues. Two statues of the Awalokitheshwara Bodhisatva is in the main cave temple.

One of these is dressed as a royal personage and the other is dressed as a sage. This is one of the most outstanding works of art from ancient Sri Lanka. Despite missing its arms this sculpture still conveys tremendous warmth, grace and dignity.

The image dates from the Fourth Century and indicates that there were at least some Mahayanists here at that time. In front of the cave is a small modern pavilion housing a statue of Awalokitheshwara, one of the most outstanding works of art from ancient Sri Lanka.

A large number of rock inscriptions have been found throughout the vihara complex. All these belong to the pre-Christian era and some letters in these inscriptions show localised influences compared to Inscriptions in Anuradhapura in the same era. Some of these pre-Christian inscriptions mention two of the Dasamaha Yodhayas (the ten giants in the Army of King Dutugemunu) called Nandimithra and Welusumana. Another giant of the Dasamaha Yodhayas Pussadeva is also said to be from this area.


According to the great chronicle, the Mahawansa, King Vasaba built 10 stupas at Sithulpahuwa (then Chiththala Pabbatha). According to the stone inscriptions King Mahallaka Naga (134-146) built stupas and donated land to the temple and the regional King Dappula of Rohana donated the village called Gonmitigma in 659 AC. Today, this village has been identified as Gonagala.


In Sithulpahuwa, there are many wild animals which are very familiar with the temple. Among them are Gamunu, known as the tusker of the temple. It has been here for almost 20 years now. Gamunu was found as a baby but, now he is a huge tusker. Kapila, the protective tusker of Sithulpahuwa and Marie, the deer named after the famous biscuit because it loves them.

Sithulpahuwa which holds a great part of the history of the South is surely a peaceful escape from the concrete jungle.


Yashodhara Paranagama


Musaeus College