Ancient Architectural Wonders. Rajagala Monastery. Sri Lanka
Imagine over 500 monks living and meditating silently in a thickly forested, 1,600 acre, mountainous monastic retreat which has architecturally faultless waterways, drip ledges, stairways cut into stone, naturally ‘air conditioned’ caves, toilets, monuments, artefacts and other cool stuff. Now imagine all this happened over 3000 years ago!
This is Rajagala, a sprawling Buddhist monastery from the 2nd century BCE through the early 13th century. Vacated in 993 and 1017AD due to South Indian invasions, this retreat was discovered in 1890 by the Department of Archeology when an unusual amount of relics were recorded in their surveys. But once again, this monastic complex was forgotten until excavation began in the early 1950s during which time they discovered over 600 prehistoric ruins, monuments and artefacts, nearly a 100 of them being ancient stupas.
Here we are, on this balmy Saturday morning at the base of the Rajagala Archeological Site, ready to explore these ancient historical ruins. Sanka, a villager from Rajagalathenna has agreed to be our guide and leads us towards the Eastern stairway. It was only five hours later that we realized he picked the long and scenic route! But for now, for some, ignorance is bliss!
The sign says we have a 1400m climb along the East stairway. The climb is rugged, sometimes steep and craggy, but thankfully, the thick tree canopy shades us from the relentless sun.
We pass a rock cave with some obscure paintings.
And some amazing rock formations.
And elephant footprints. Sanka has already warned us of unexpected elephant encounters, which thankfully we did not have to face.
About 1hr 15min later we step onto a large rock plateau of the “akkara pansiye gala” (500 acre rock). There is a pond with plenty of fish swimming in clear water that seemingly never dries up. But it is the view of the “navagiriaruweva” (lake surrounded by nine mountains) that is breathtaking.
We trek on, climbing higher and deeper into the mountain. The climb gets harder, as we have to navigate through narrow rock crevices, clamber over uneven surfaces yet always excited to discover more.
This time we come across a massive cave with drip-ledges commissioned by Prince Lanja Tissa and referred to as the ‘Main Hall’. The walls are covered with art, now in various states of decay.
There are over 50 cave dwellings scattered across this area where these monks had resided. Some of these 1st century BC stone walls are still intact.
We visit three seethalenas, (cool caves). These caves are cleverly constructed to capture the natural flow of cool air, making it seem like a modern-day air conditioned room.
The cave with the stone door frame is intact and shows clever detail in masonry and craftsmanship.
Here is a cave dedicated to Shamika, a lay devotee, wife of Prince Tissa (son of the great King Gamani Tissa) and friend of the gods.
Another cave of the female devotee Buddhadatta, wife of Mahaya (son of the great King Gamani Tissa) and friend of the gods.
And another for Shiva.
Here is a toilet crafted and used 3000 years ago!
Imagine this massive stairway leading down to this ancient tank used for the collection of water for the monastery.
In ancient times, Rajagala was known as the Girikumbhila Temple and was patronized by the kings and princes of Ruhuna and Rajarata. However, Rajagala was most active during Prince Saddha Tissa’s time, when he was king of Anuradhapura (137 BC to 119 BC). During his reign, one of his sons, Prince Lanja Tissa, aggrandized Rajagala, transforming this remote hermitage into one of the grandest monasteries in the kingdom of Ruhuna.
On our way down, we approach a flat plain of the mountain. Stepping onto this plain is like walking into a page in history books. It is a vast area with so many pillars, standing tall, each seeming to whisper tales from way back when. Here is a place I could spend a day exploring.
Of the two most important antiquities found here, this large and perfectly casted stone bowl was used for offering the first fruits of the harvest to the Buddha.
The other is this unfinished Buddha statue carved from a 5-meter block of stone. Lacking finer detail, the lines are straight and at right angles to each other which archeologists believe is because this was done by apprentice sculptors leaving it to be perfected by master sculptors. But for whatever reason, the statue remains unfinished.
There are stupas…
And a vast Refectory, used for meals…
An ancient stone sundial…
A Bodhighara, (Bo-tree house) the temple building where the Bo tree is venerated.
The Lahabathge, a granary…
A hot water bath house…
The place where clear spring water is collected for cooking purposes. The water flows down from a stream tucked away in the forest, into a stone drain and through a lion’s head (now partially damaged) into two massive stone bowls. Imagine this was created 3000 years ago!
We find a stone inscription referring to Arahath Mahinda Thero, the Buddhist monk attributed to bringing Buddhism to Sri Lanka. In fact it is believed that his ashes, along with his disciple Itthiya Thera (later called Idika) were enshrined in this stupa.
This stone inscription bears evidence to this fact, although no excavation or restoration work has been carried out at this site to confirm what’s inscribed in the stone. It truly is fascinating, if true. There is only one other rock inscription referring to Arahath Mahinda Thero which is to be found in Mihintale.
Lastly we stop to admire the kuda lena, a cave shaped like an umbrella. Inside this cave too, we feel the draft of cold air that probably sheltered these monks during the hot months.
The sun is well overhead and we have been traversing this reserve for the past five hours, and although there is so much more to see, we are also very tired and hungry. We opt to climb back down and leave the rest for another time.
Good to Know:
- Rassagala is situated 1,038 feet (316 m) above sea level, in the Ampara District.
- The history of the place is not definite, but Bhikkhus are believed to have inhabited it before the 1st century BCE.
- It is second to the Mihintale monastery in Anuradhapura
- Access is along the Ampara – Maha Oya Road (A27), via Uhana and the village of Bakkiella.
- Don’t forget to wear good hiking shoes, sun hat and take lots of water.
- The “scenic” route is tough. Or you can opt to just visit the main plateau, which is not a very difficult climb.
- Entrance is free, but you must pay for the guide. It is always best to negotiate his fee before the climb to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings.
- Do not litter.
- Do not feed wild animals along the way.
The preliminary investigations carried out by the Department of Archaeology have identified the following archaeological remains in the monastery scattered over 400 hectares:
- Eastern stairway leading to the top of the mountain which is 1340 meters long
- Northern stairway leading to the top of the mountain which is 1090 meters long
- Stairway connecting the Northern and Eastern walkways at the top of the mountain
- Walkway connecting the incomplete Buddhist statue to the Stupa platform in which two Stupas are located
- The only Stupa in Sri Lanka which contains the relics of the Arahath Mahinda Thero proven by the inscription.
- Two Stupas in a single platform
- Lahabathge near the stupas in a single Platform
- Walkway connecting the area where two stupas are located to the area where common buildings are situated
- Ruined building believed to be the Refectory
- Ruined building believed to be the Uposathaghara/Poyage
- Building in which stone bowls are situated which has been used for the collection of spring water for cooking and drinking purposes of the Refectory
- Ruined building believed to be the Tampitage
- Ancient tank of Rajagala used for the collection of water for the purposes of the monastery
- Walkway connecting the Stupa to the Buddhist statue
- Ancient spill way of the tank
- Eight ponds located in various locations carved in natural rock to collect spring and rain water
- Five small stupas located in different locations
- Sixteen ruined buildings located in various locations
- Specially carved cave
- Small resting places within the water way
- Large inscription near the stone bowl building
- Six stone stairways carved into the natural rock
- Pathway leading to the cave residences of Buddhist monks
- Specially constructed stone entrance way to a cave residence of meditation monk (may be the chief priest)
- Twenty-eight caves used as the residences of the meditation monks
- Three meditations cells built using stone blocks
- Two caves used as resting places in the stairways
- Toilet located in a cave
Apart from the above significant monuments, more recent archaeological explorations have revealed that there are about 593 archeologically important remains within the area.