It is the mountain top where two thousand three hundred years ago, Lanka kept her tryst with destiny when a Sinhala king hunting deer for thrill and sport in the forest glade met an Indian Emperor’s son who carried with him not the trove of his father’s treasure but the stoic bowl of the Dhamma [...]

Sunday Times 2

Mihintale: The mountain where Lanka kept her tryst with destiny

Journey up the mount and down and glimpse Poson Rock’s hidden marvels

It is the mountain top where two thousand three hundred years ago, Lanka kept her tryst with destiny when a Sinhala king hunting deer for thrill and sport in the forest glade met an Indian Emperor’s son who carried with him not the trove of his father’s treasure but the stoic bowl of the Dhamma and spelt out to him the gospel of the Buddha.

The Mihintale Maha Seya

The Arahant Mihindu had been sent by his father Asoka, the Emperor of India, as his special emissary to the isle of Lanka to spread the word of the Buddha.  He had brought with him the gift that surpasses all other gifts: the precious, priceless gift of the Buddha’s Dhamma.

It set in motion the wheel of religious revolution, the Dhamma Chakra. It would dramatically change the lives of the Islanders. It would infuse a cultural impetus that would absorb, enrich and transform every facet of their existence. It was the moment that heralded Lanka’s paradigm shift. The quantum leap the island race took from darkness to light.

The starting point of that quantum leap was made from this mount, from this mountain range just 14km from the then ancient capital of Anuradhapura. Here in this picturesque, serene, idyllic and verdant spot lay the birth and the bassinet of Buddhism in Lanka.

But Mihintale was to become more than a rendezvous with the Triple Gem: Much more than a close encounter between a king and a missionary monk propounding the philosophy of India’s greatest son.

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 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.

Let’s scale the heights of this 1000-foot-high mountain, which forms part of a mountain range consisting of three main hills. Walk hand in hand, scale step by sacred step and trace and savour the hallowed mount of Lankan Theravada Buddhism’s ever gushing, ever green fount.

At the foot of the mountain, the steps await and invite one to place the first foot forward to Poson Rock’s summit. It is carved into the rock so elegantly. So gentle an incline, it seems a floral stairway to heaven. On both sides of the over twenty-foot-wide stairway, like a bevy of dancing girls standing pleasant guard, 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 refresh you on your way.

Sixty eight caves lie in the vicinity of the great stupa of Mihintale, 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. Nearby lies 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 possibly may have been used by the monastic monks for their ablutions.

And then there’s the alms hall, one of the most impressive sites at Mihintale, which has been laid out with thoughtful care and functional deigned. It is a large rectangular area. At the back is a long stone vessel in the shape of a boat, a granite boat once used to contain the rice for the monks’ mid-day meal: Aptly called the Rice Boat. And, it is 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.

Then there is the water system. 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.

At a higher elevation next to the alms hall, 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. In ancient Sinhalese, it is writ laying down the rules and regulations to be observed, 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.

Next to it is the Dharma Sala which is an open building, 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 brace yourself for the final ascent, brave the daunting flight to the upmost plateau  where Lanka received her crowning jewel of the Buddha’s philosophy on a Poson Poya day 2,326 years ago when instead of shooting deer for sport, a king discovered the path of non-violence and imbibed Buddhism as the state’s religion and changed forever the then unchartered history of this nation.

On this tiny terrace is the Ambastala: the historic site from whence rang the name Tissa. And made King Devanampiya Tissa look back in shock when he heard his name called thus.

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, to find the source from whence it came, who had dared to be on first-name terms with the King. This is the consecrated site where the historic rendezvous of the King and Arahat Mahinda 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.

To commemorate this meeting King Mahadatika Mahanaga (9-21 AD) built the Ambastala Stupa.  Nearby lies Arahat Mihindu’s cave.

Perched precarious 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.

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

Now descend from that top-most peak of Mihintale rock to visit the other sites that the sprawling Mihintale complex has to offer. 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.

And at the foot of it all, is perhaps, the oldest hospital, in the world.  The 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.

On this Poson Poya morn as thousand flock to this ancient capital bedrock of Buddhism to pay their respect and worship, it is also best, is it not, to ponder why, if the world thinks, the tower of Pisa is a world wonder merely because she leans, why due respect has not been accorded to the grand complex compound of Mihintale where Lanka received her first introduction to one of the world’s greatest religions, the greatest gift that India could have bestowed on her. The priceless Dhamma of her greatest son, Gautama the Buddha.


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