Mihintale: The cradle of our civilisation
By Upali Salgado
The Dipavamsa, an ancient Buddhist historical record has an interesting passage which reads: "In Kusinara, in the Upavattana of the Mallas, the Holy Sambuddha (Gotama Buddha) reached complete Nibbana by the destruction of substrata (of existence). Before his Pari-Nibbana (demise) He foretold: "Two hundred and thirty six years will lapse, then a Thera called Mahinda by name will cause the splendour of the religion to shine in Lanka. In the south of the town, at a delightful place will be a beautiful Arama called Thuparama. At that time, the island will be known as Thambapani. They will deposit a relic of my body in that most excellent island."

Maha Seya
Maha Seya, the largest of the stupas at Mihintale

The great chronicle The Mahavamsa also states: "The sage Maha Mahinda Thera who has been 12 years a monk, with four other Theras on the Uposatha day of the month of Jettha, rose up in the air and departed with wonderous powers, and then alighted on the Missaka mountain on the Sila peak at Ambasthala. The historic visit of the sage Mahinda in the third century B.C. could be considered the greatest of historic and religious events in Lanka, as its significance was manyfold.

Having met King Devanampiyatissa (named Beloved of the Gods) at Ambasthala, whilst he was hunting deer, the sage had a brief conversation to check on the intelligence and comprehension of the monarch. Thereafter he delivered the Chulla Hatthi Padopama Sutta which sums up the essence of Buddhism in a "nut-shell". At the end of the discourse, the king had expressed his desire to embrace the glorious Buddha Dharma, and along with him doing so, his entire retinue, and later all his subjects became Buddhists.

This historic event is important because, it brought out a social and religious revolution in ancient Lanka. It could rightly be said that, that was the beginning of the Sinhala Buddhist race up to the advent of the Portuguese in the island in 1505 A.D. when they came in search of "Spices and Christians".

One of the best preserved Vahalkades at the Kantaka chetiya

The event also marks the founding of the Buddhist Monastic Order in Lanka. It later paved the way for the arrival of Arahant Maha Mahinda's sister (daughter of Emperor Ashoka of India) bringing with her a sapling of the Sri Maha Bodhi Tree from Buddha Gaya, to be ceremonially planted at the Maha Mega Uyana, Anuradhapura. Sanghamitta Theri was also responsible for establishing the Bhikkuni Order (nuns).

Arahant Maha Mahinda's visit ushered a new spirit of Buddhism in the island, and in this background emerged distinct Sinhala Buddhist art and sculpture (architecture too), as seen at Mihintale. The several stupas with ornately decorated Vahalkade as seen at the Kanthaka Cheitya, balustrades, guard stones, stone reliefs of dwarfs, elephants and horses, and tall granite stone pillars richly decorated with flower motifs all chiselled by hand, illustrate the richness of Buddhist art, besides the skills of the master craftsmen. At Mihintale today we see ample archaeological evidence to confirm that the whole area had a massive monastery complete with the Vijja sala hospital, subterranean drainage. "bath oru" and "Kenda Oru" (gruel canoes) to meet the needs of thousands of monks.

Emperor Asoka sent his son Mahinda Thera after he witnessed the Kalinga War, when the river Mahenadi turned red with human blood of his slain countrymen. The warrior king who saw the Kalinga tragedy turned a new leaf and decided never to go to battle again. He thereafter was called Dharma Asoka (the Righteous King).

By sending his son Mahinda to Lanka he strengthened ties between the two countries and also helped the islanders to learn the Pali language.

No story of Ancient Mihintale would be complete without a brief reference to two people who were associated with the preservation and discovery of the monuments, during the first half of the last century. Between 1900 and 1914, it was the fiery orator and Buddhist leader Valisinha Harischandra who agitated with the colonial government to hold back vast extents of temple property that was to be appropriated under the Waste Lands Ordinance. The other person was Prof. Senarat Paranavitane, the Archaeological Commissioner who identified and restored our heritage at this hallowed spot.

A mountain carved into a temple
By Derrick Schokman

The Kaludiya pokuna. (Pix from Mihintale-Cradle of Sinhala Buddhist Civilisation- by J.B. Disanayaka)

Mountains figure prominently in the religions of the world. Mystical Mount Meru in the Himalayas is thought to be the abode of Devas of Hindu mythology. Mount Sinai is where Jehovah is said to have appeared in a column of fire and delivered the Ten Commandments to Moses.

Mount Olympus was the legendary home of the Greek Gods. It was on Mount Hira that Mohammed had a visionary encounter which commanded him to preach the religion of one god and one only to the people of Mecca. And it was on the Mihintale mountain that Arahat Mahinda met King Devanampiyatissa on a Poson Day (circa 240 BC) and introduced Buddhism to Lanka.

The king had a rocky stairway of 1840 steps built from the foot of the mountain to the summit where that meeting took place - a stairway that millions of devotees have since ascended and descended with reverent awe.

In the first century AD, King Mahadathika Mahanaga created the Ambasthale Dagoba to commemorate that event. In the third century King Kanitha Tissa had two prayer ambulatories constructed around the stupa, converting it into a vatadage.

The stone pillars of those ambulatories, which must have supported a roof of timber, may still be seen.Crowning the highest peak is the Mahaseya. It was probably created by King Devanampiyatissa to enshrine a hair relic of the Buddha.

Devotees will walk around the stupa with bowed heads and folded hands, softly repeating the Tri Ratna (Triple Gem) or formula of refuge on the Buddha, Dhamma (His teachings) and the Sangha (priesthood).

When excavation and restoration work was being done on the Mahaseya in the 1960s by the Department of Archaeology, a small stupa was discovered in the debris. It was identified as the Mihinduseya, built by King Uttiya, Devanampiyatissa's brother, to enshrine Mahinda's ashes. The ashes, along with some bone fragments, beads and trinkets were found in a polished earthenware casket.

Halfway up the mountain is the Kantaka Chaitiya, now restored in truncated form. Its origin in respect of creator and the nature of the enshrined relics is unknown.

This stupa has some of the earliest examples of Sinhalese sculptures. It may be seen on one of the stelae or frontispieces accompanying the altars (vahalkada).

The distinguishing motif is a foliage design springing up from a vase with figures of lions, bulls, elephants and cocks. According to Dr. Senarat Paranavitana, they are reminiscent of sculptured patterns on the Sanchi gateways in India.

Do not let the stupas distract you from some very interesting ruins of the 8th century Pabbatarama Vihara near the Kantaka Chaitiya.

Two upright inscribed stone tablets mark the entrance. Inside you will come upon the Assembly Hall or Sonnipatasala where the monks met for discussion. Look out for the elevated seat in the middle for the Chief Priest.

There is also a courtyard which served as a refectory or buth-ge. Two stone troughs (buth-oru or kenda-oru) may be seen which once contained the rice and gruel provided for the monks. Surrounding the courtyard are the chambers (cells) or kutis where the monks resided.

Water was brought to the eating place from the nagapokuna (snake pool) and sinhapokuna (lion pool), named after the multiheaded cobra and rampant lion carved on the rock walls of the pools.

The water was conducted to the buth-ge by channels and spouts. Some of those spouts may still be seen balanced on stone pillars.

The Pabbatarama had its own hospital at the foot of the mountain. The ruins suggest that rows of separate cells were available for the patients.

An interesting exhibit is a sarcophagus-like medicine boat (beth-oru) cut out of rock in the shape of a human being. It was used to immerse patients in herbal oils.

Kaludiya Pokuna
Having seen these monuments and completed your religious observances, do not be in a hurry to rush away. It will be well worth your while to make a small detour to raja-giri-lena-kande (care mountain) and tarry awhile at the Kaludiya Pokuna or blackwater pool, so called because it is heavily shaded by trees.

In this "entrancing tarn" as Paranavitana called it are the ruins of the 10th century Hadayunha Vihara. They are not as extensive as those of the Pabbatarama, but they do have an interesting exhibit that Pabbatarama does not have.

Under the overhang of a large boulder is a bath-house very much like the one in the royal park or magul uyana at Isurumuniya. The dressing room built of granite slabs must once have been attached to a bathing pool since silted up.

This sylvan retreat is a fitting place to rest tired limbs and ponder on the wonder of Mihintale, a mountain carved by successive rulers into a mighty temple.

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