Tuesday, 21 July 2015 00:20

Scaling Mihintale

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The Buddha's philosophy that Arahat Mihindu preached 2,322 years ago on a full moon day in the month of June, would soon set in motion the wheel of religious revolution that would dramatically change the lives of the Islanders and infuse a cultural impetus that would absorb, enrich and transform every facet of their existence.

And it all began at Mihintale, a mountain range 210 km from Colombo and only 14km from the then ancient capital of Anuradhapura. Here in this picturesque, serene, idyllic verdant spot lay the cradle of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

Though widely known as the mountain where King Devanampiya Tissa (307BC-267BC) kept his kingdom's tryst with destiny, Mihintale was more than a mere meeting place for a close encounter with the missionary monk propounding the philosophy of India's greatest son. Throughout its long history over thousand years, from 307 BC to 10 AD, it became a fully fledged Buddhist monastery, evidence of which still remains extant. It was a well organised network comprising of a relic chamber, an alms hall, an assembly hall, ponds and an intricate water system, 68 caves and even a hospital to provide for the needs of 2,000 ascetic Buddhist monks who were resident there.
Mihintale Is A Mountain Range 210 Km From Colombo... Here In This Picturesque, Serene, Idyllic Verdant Spot Lay The Cradle Of Buddhism In Lanka

Mihintale is approximately 1,000 feet in height and forms part of a mountain range consisting of three main hills. As you approach the foot of the mountain you are greeted with the sight of steps carved into the rock so elegantly and at so gentle an incline, it seems a floral stairway to heaven. On both sides of the over twenty feet wide stairway, standing pleasant guard, like a bevy of dancing girls and swaying with the wind, are frangipani trees. As you take each easy step up the path to the summit, the breeze wafts its scent and blows down a slight drizzle of flowers to freshen you on your way.

When you come to the first landing, on the right hand side is a flight of stone steps, which takes you to a hillock. Here is the Kantaka Stupa. Built by King Suratissa and renovated by King Lanjaka Tissa, this first Century BC stupa has four front pieces, called vahalkadas, facing the four directions. Each vahalkada has stone carvings of elephant heads, dwarfs, birds and monkey heads. Each also has its own pillar with a different animal crowning the top, with the lion facing north and the elephant east. The horse on the west and bull on the south pillar were however not to be seen.

In the vicinity of this stupa are also 68 caves, which once sheltered meditating monks. A giant boulder, the cave of Asali, lying right before the stupa, contains an inscription written in Brahmi and states that the caves have been gifted for the use of ‘monks present and absent'.

Coming down a shorter flight of steps down a second stairway from the Kantaka Stupa, you come to the Medamaluwa Monastery. Here lie the remains of monastic buildings. Nearby is the Sinha Pokuna, or Lion's pond which, though called a pond, is more a water rail. A lion's head spouts water to a square stone bath, which may have been used by the monastic monks for their ablutions.

One of the most impressive sites at Mihintale is the alms hall, which has been laid out with much care and thought. It is a large rectangular area. At the back is a long stone vessel in the shape of a boat, which was used to contain the rice for the monks' mid day meal. Called the Rice Boat, it presented a serve yourself , buffet style rice spread for the 2,000 resident monks, complete with a ‘hot plate' system to keep the rice warm. This was achieved by first filling a quarter of the boat with steaming hot water, placing a metallic sheet over it and then serving the rice on top. Next to the boat is a cistern, which was used to contain the morning porridge. At one end of the porridge tub is a stone semi circle upon which vegetable leaves were chopped and grounded. Two ducts provided the way for the juices to flow into the porridge tub from which the monks served their fill.

A water system also ensured the monks could partake their food with clean hands. On the right hand are the ruins of a shower system which ensured the constant flow of water. Here the monks would stop, wash their hands and feet and proceed to the rice boat. The water would flow into the large rectangular pit in the middle of the hall, said to be a pond, and would be drained out at located points.

Next to the alms hall on a higher elevation are the ruins of a building considered to be Mihintale's main shrine. At the entrance are two large stone slabs containing the ‘Mihintale Inscriptions' etched on polished granite. Written in ancient Sinhalese, it lays down the rules and regulations to be observed. It was laid down by King Mahinda IV (956-977 AD), shortly before the 1,400 year old capital of Anuradhapura fell in early 10 AD and the monastery itself began its period of decline.

The Dharma Sala is next. It is an open building, which is approximately 20 square metres. Constructed with 48 stone pillars, it has a platform at the centre. It is within this edifice that the monks would meet to discuss various aspect of the Dhamma.

Now starts the final flight to the upper terrace where the crown jewels lie. On this plateau is the Ambastala: the historic site where King Devanampiya Tissa looked back in shock when he heard his name Tissa being called. With his thumb stayed on his bow string and the arrow's flight to the targeted deer stopped, he turned back his head to find the source of this outrage, who dared to be on first name terms with the King.This is the consecrated site where the historic rendezvous of the King and Arahat Mihindu took place, where Arahat Mihindu asked the famous riddle of the mango to test whether the King was intellectually capable of comprehending the philosophy of the Buddha he was sent to preach.

In commemoration of this meeting is the Ambastala Stupa built by King Mahadatika Mahanaga (9-21 AD). Octagonal stone pillars circle the stupa giving rise to the opinion that may have had a wooden rock over it in the manner of Polonnaruwa's vatadages. Also here is the cave of Arahat Mihindu.

Right ahead perched at the end of the mountain is the Aradhana Rock, the symbolic rock depicted as the landing tarmac for Arahat Mihindu and his retinue of six monks. Thousands visiting Mihintale this month to celebrate the arrival of Buddhism on full moon day will no doubt be scaling this massive boulder and brave the season's strong winds to the very pinnacle of Mihintale.

At the other end of the rock's peal, soaring above all else, is the Mihintale Maha Seya. Built by King Mahadathika Mahanaga, the massive structure 45 feet in height and 136 feet in diameter, constructed in so confined an area at the summit of the rock, is a feat of engineering ingenuity and is a marvel to behold. Next to it is a smaller stupa, which contains the ashes of Arahat Mihindu who attained Nirvana in 259 BC.

On the way down do not fail to visit the Naga Pokuna-the Cobra pond. It is on the left hand side of the steps from the upper terrace. A small path into the forest will lead you to a beautiful pond located at the edge of the cliff and the plains of Anuradhapura stretches out.The rock cut pool gets its name from the cobras carved on the walls of the pond. The water reservoir for the area is a few hundred yards away from Mihintale. It is called the Kaludiya Pokuna or the black water pool, due to the blackish hue of the water. However, that does not discourage people from bathing in its cool waters.
This June Full Moon Day Thousands Will Be Visiting Mihintale...

At the foot of Mihintale is the ancient hospital, held as being perhaps the world's oldest hospital. Its ruins reveal that it had a medical hall with separate cubicles in a row and a well dug cavity for medicinal oil baths, along with stone inscriptions and stone utensils for storing medicines, which have also been unearthed from the site.

This June Full Moon day thousands will be visiting Mihintale even as millions of Sri Lankans will be commemorating the day when King Devanampiya Tissa descended from Mount Mihintale carrying with him the tenets of the Buddha. It was the turning point in a people's history; which made them one equal temper of Buddhist souls strong in will to strive, to seek, to find life's ultimate bliss: Nirvana.

See more at: http://serendib.btoptions.lk/
Words and Photography Manu Gunasena

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