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Mihintale, Sri Lanka, the cradle of Buddhism in Sri Lanka

Mihintale, the mountain from where the Aryan Sinhalese took flight to a still superior civilization by way of the gentle sway of Buddhism

Must Visit

"A more perfect sanctuary for the sons of Buddha could not be found anywhere else throughout the length & breadth of Ceylon" H. C. P. Bell

"Oh! Great King, the birds of the air & the beasts have an equal right to live & move about in any part of this land as thou. The lands belongs to the peoples & all other beings & thou art only the guardian of it" said Arahat Mahinda to King Devanam Piya Tissa, the famous "Deer Hunter" 307 BC

We are going to the mountain Mihintale (meaning Mahinda's Hill in Sinhalese) (12km east of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Anuradhapura) where The Close Encounter between the Supremely Enlightened Arahath Mahinda & King Devanampiya Tissa (meaning dear to god in Sinhalese), the famous Deer Hunter took place & the Aryan Sinhalese civilization took flight to still superior civilization by gentle sway of Buddhism. We drive just 15 km from the UNESOC World heritage Site of Sri Lanka Holidays Lion Rock Citadel Sigiriya & park the car in a clean large red gravel opening. It is another rock 1000 feet in height, one of the peaks of mountainous range. Though the site was called Missaka Pabbata or Cetiyagiri or Sagiri, today it is popularly known as Mihintale -the cradle of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

Culturally, Mihintale is one of the Solosmasthana (Sinhala: sixteen sacred sites) of Sri Lanka: it is the cradle of Sinhalese Buddhist Civilization. Touristically, Mihintale is a Sri Lanka Holidays attraction; historically and archeologically, Mihintale is a site of great importance; geographically Mihintale is a mountain range consisting three main hills called Ambastala (Sinhala: Plateau of the Mango), Rajagiri (Sinhala: mountain of the kings) and Anaikutti (Mountain of the Elephant).

Mihintale Temples in a wondrous setting
No matter what your faith is, the beautiful shrines, stupas (dagobas), rock caves enhanced by the wondrous setting, make Mihintale unforgettable. Although modern Mihintale is still mainly a large village, the site being sprawling in scale, environmentally enchanting, spiritually enlightening & culturally immensely significant, it has been deeply loved by the Sinhalese Buddhists.

The Deer Hunter
It was at the summit of Mihintale that then king of Sri Lanka, the famous Deer Hunter, King Devanampiya Tissa (307-266 BC) pursing a stag to the top of the hill, found himself confronted by Arhath (supremely enlightened Buddhist monk) Mahinda, the son of the one & only Indian emperor to bring whole of India under a single standard, the Great Mauryan Emperor Asoka. It was following the mass conversion at this summit of Mihintale that Buddhism spread throughout Sri Lanka with state patronage. Sri Lanka thus became one of the most important strongholds of Theravada Buddhism in South and Southeast Asia.

A new order of the Sinhalese: Sinhalese Buddhist Civilization
Buddhism offered to the people of Ceylon a new order of life which was far superior to that which they had known and followed so far.
The venerable Prof. Walpola Sri Rahula Maha Thera (19071997)

The coming of Buddhism to Ceylon helped the growth of a Sinhalese cultural individuality. The missionary character of the new religion, its attempts to appeal to mans mind and gain his adherence led it to adopt certain methods which left an imprint on the people

Though it is true that Buddhism came as part of a movement that swept over all India, its character in Ceylon was different in its nature and intensity. Thus while in India the next wave of Brahmanism and the assimilating quality of Hinduism removed Buddhism as an intuitional religion, in Ceylon Buddhism grew untroubled by such influences, acquired a new shape given to it by the Sinhalese people, and in turn gave the Sinhalese a new face. The succeeding centuries are thus the history of Sinhalese Buddhism in Ceylon.
Professor Sinnappah Arasaratnam (1930 1998)

Beginning of Mihintale monastery
In the beginning Mihintale monastery established itself as the Rain Retreat of the Buddhist monks. In the sixteenth chapter of Mahavamsa, the Great Chronicle of Sri Lanka, composed in Pali verse by the Buddhist monk Mahanama narrates Arhath Mahinda and his followers, who spent their first three weeks at the Mahamegha Park in the Royal city of Anuradhapura, chose to retreat to the natural sanctuary of Mihintale, the location of their arrival itself to spend their first Vassa (Sinhala: Rain Retreat) during the months of July to September, thereby initiating an annual ritual for the Buddhist monks. Having heard of the Rain Retreat, King Devanampiya Tissa had sixty eight rock cells at Mihintale made habitable and gifted them to the Buddhist monks on the full moon month of Asalha (in the lunar oriented 12 month Sinhalese calendar) that falls within the months of July-August of the Gregorian calendar.

Development of Mihintale monastery
Mihintale, the mountain of stupas, is narrated prominently in the Mahavamsa, the Great Chronicle of Sri Lanka, composed in Pali verse by the Buddhist monk Mahanama, a grand uncle of King Sigiri Kashayapa (479-497 AD), the builder of Sri Lanka Holidays Lion Rock Citadel Sigiriya (UNESCO World heritage Site). The contributions made to Mihintale by way of constructions, renovations and festivals are well narrated in Mahavamsa in the relevant chapters: King Devanampiya Tissa (307-207 BC ) in Chapter 16, Verse 17); King Lanjatissa (59-50 BC) in Ch. 33, v. 26-26; King Katakana Tissa (17-39 AD) in Ch. 33, v. 25-26; King Bhatikabhaya (39-67 AD) Ch 34, v. 64; King Maha Dathika Maha Naga ( 67-79 AD) Ch. 34 v. 71-81; King Kanirajanutissa (89-92 AD) Ch. 35 v 10-11; Vasabha (126-170 AD) Ch.35, v. 80; Kanitta Tissa (226-244 AD) Ch.36 v. 9; Gothabhaya (309-322 AD) Ch 36, v. 106; King Jettha Tissa (323-33 AD) Ch.36 v.130-131.

Mihintale today: Poson Poya, the Buddhist pilgrimage festival in June
Mihintale becomes vibrant with thousands of Buddhist flags, electric lamps, earthen oil lamps, colorful paper lanterns & a great congregation of thousands of Buddhist pilgrims during Poson Poya (Full moon day called Poson) in June which commemorates the introduction of Buddhism to Lanka by Arhath Mahinda. While alms giving halls are open to all the peoples of all faiths, Buddhist rituals & sermons day & night for a couple of days are held at Mihintale & all over the island.

Ruins of the hospital (Veda sala)
At the foot of the mountain, next to the car park lie the ruins of a hospital built by King Sena II (866-901 AD). The ground plan indicates that the vejja sala (medical hall) consisted of separate cells set in rows. At one end is a stone inscription, well dug rock cavity in the human shape (unnervingly like a sarcophagus) which was used for immersing the patient in medicinal oil bath, some circular stones used for grinding medical herbs, & clay urns used for storing medicines. The blue colored clay urns, according to the archeologists, testify to the trade links between ancient Persia (modern Iran) and ancient Sri Lanka. The existence of the hospital complex was recorded also by the Chinese pilgrim Bhikshu Fa- Hsien, who visited Lanka in the 5th century AD. The hospital in Sri Lanka Holidays Mihintale is a testimony to the social values of the Sinhalese Buddhists and the advanced state of the Auyurvedic medical science of ancient Sri Lanka.

The Mihintale Museum
North of the ruins of the hospital is the site museum. The most interesting exhibit herein is the model of a relic chamber from a stupa. We mustn't miss the chance to see what is held inside the relic chamber since such an exhibit would rarely be found anywhere else.

Ruins of a Mihintale monastery
Between Mihintale hospital & the steps leading to the summit of the rock are ruins of a large monastery. Ruins of a square building which is 125 feet on one side are beautiful with carvings, stone balustrades & guard stones. As this side is precipitous, the steps are on the eastern side of the slope, spacious & in 4 sections.

The great stone stairway at Mihintale: 1840 granite steps
Easy now. The first section of stairway is nice & wide. The granite rock was carved & paved all the way to the top, all the way shaded by frangipani tree, all the way gangs of cheeky monkeys staring at you & picking up bananas thrown to them by the pilgrims-old & pious, boys & girls of all ages, adults on fun & in awe & respect. This main flight of rock carved steps on the eastern side of Sri Lanka Holidays Mihintale takes us from the foot of the mountain to the Ambastala, the highest plateau of the mountain range. The stairway is symbolic of the spiritual ascent of the Buddhist monks who had been living in this serene monastery. As Walpole Rahula points out "the example of the simple, saintly life of the monks, who devoted their time for the good of many, was an inspiration to the kings as well as to the peasant. The code of morality that the new religion taught was extremely conducive to the happy and peaceful home-life".

The Kantaka Cetiya at the first terrace
At the end of the first set of steps on the right side of the plain is a small mountain peak. On this is located the Kantaka Cetiya stupa built by King Suratissa. The 1st century B.C. stupa is 40 feet in height and 425 feet in circumference. It is believed some of the monks had lived in the caves close to the stupa. The well preserved four projective front pieces (Anuradhapura-style vahalkada) of the stupa are especially impressive. The front pieces are decorated with elephants & peacocks together with mythical dwarfs (Vamana or Bahirawa) in amusing postures & carvings of monkey head & elephant head. The purpose of vahalkada, however, is still a matter of conjecture. It is generally held that the concept of vahalkada evolved from the flower alter on which the flowers are offered to the stupa in which the relics of Buddha of supremely enlightened Buddhist monks were enshrined. Vahalkada could also be the Sinhalese version of the torana seen in front of the stupas in India.

Mihintale stone inscriptions
Just south of stupa, on a huge boulder perched precariously on its side, is an inscription in a very early, proto-Brahami script, similar to that found in inscription at the Vesagiriya Monastery in Anuradhapura.

On either side of the entrance to the Refectory are two Sinhala inscriptions engraved on 2 large slabs of granite known as the Mihintale stone inscriptions. The rules & regulations pertaining to the administrative purposes of the monastery were scripted herein by King Mihindu (956-976 AD). The picture of the Mihintale Monastery that these inscriptions draw, observes De Zilva Wickremasinghe, "in many respects bears an interesting comparison with similar instituitions of medieval Europe"

The development of the monastery at Mihintale
In the early years that followed the arrival of Arhath Mahinda, Mihintale was a simply a sanctuary of the rock cave dwelling Buddhist monks who werent concerned of constructed shelter an organizational structure. During the course of time Mihintale was transformed into a well organized monastery with Dathu Ghara (Sinhala: relics chamber), Dana Sala (Sinhla: alms hall), Sannipata Sala (Sinhla: assembly hall), Arogya Sala (Sinhala: hospital) and became to be known by Chetiya Pabbatarama that became home to over 2000 ascetic Buddhist monks.

The ruins of Medamaluwa monastery at the Middle Terrace
Returning from the Kantaka Cetiya to the steps & continuing up brings us to a large terrace & the ruins of The Medamaluwa monastery. There we find Alms House, Mihintale Stone Inscriptions, Chapter House & Sinha Pokuna ('Lion Pool').

The ruins of Refectory (Dana Sala or Alms House) of Medamaluwa Monastery
To the left of the courtyard at the end of the third flight of steps are the ruins of the refectory. The quadrangle, 62 feet in length & 25ft in breadth, is surrounded by the store room. The two large stone troughs, the rice boat & a gruel boat. Ruins of a pipe line, water cistern & covered drains have been discovered herein. It was believed well planned pipe borne water scheme was in place during the glorious days of Mihintale.

Fa-hsien , the famous Chinese Buddhist traveler monk on Medamaluwa Monastery at Mihintale
Forty Li to the east of Abhayagiri monastery there is another hill and on its stands a monastery called Bodhi, in which live some 2,000 monks. Among them is a monk of great virtue, by the name of Dharmakirti, whom the people of this country revere. He has lived in a stone cell for some forty years. And, such is his compassion, he can make serpents and mice live together without injuring the other.

The Upper Terrace
Another long flight of steps leads us to the heart of Mihintale where King Devanam piya Tissa met Arhath Mahinda.

Ambasthala Dagoba (Mango Tree Dagoba)
On the plain close to the summit of the rock is Ambasthala Stupa built by King Kanittha Tissa (165-193 AD). As testified by the surrounding two concentric circles of stone pillars, Ambastala Dagoba, for a certain period in the past, had been roofed over in the vatadage (Cetiyagara) style. Two concentric circles of octagonal stone pillars are of the same type as those of Sri Lanka Holidays Thuparama. The most famous vatadage stupa in the island is Sri Lanka Holidays Medirigiriya Vatadage. Medirigiriya Vatadage is in an enchanting setting of a natural reserve located 30 km north of Polonnaruwa & then about 3km north of the town of Medirigiriya.

The site on which Ambastala Dagoba is remembered for many reasons: it is believed Buddha spent some time in meditation at this location; it is the very spot at which the famous Close Encounter took place and the great Sage delivered his first sermon Chulahatthipadupama Sutra.

"The Close Encounter" in 307 BC
Arhath Mahinda: "Samanas (Buddhist monks) are we, O great king, disciples of the King of Truth. From compassion toward thee are we come hither from Jambudipa. (India)"
King Devanampiya Tissa: "By what way are you come?"
Arhath Mahinda: "Neither by land nor by water are we come"

Mahavamsa, the great chronicle of Ceylon
Translated by Wilhelm Geiger, Ph. D.

The Riddle of the Mangoes that preceded the sermon "Chulahatthipadupama Sutra" (The lesser discourse on the simile of the elephant's footprint) of Buddhism, the most profound religion.
Arahat Mahinda: "What name does this tree bear, O king?"
King Devanam Piya Tissa: "This tree is called a Mango."
Arhat Mahinda: "Is there yet another Mango besides this?"
King Devanam Piya Tissa: "There are many mango-trees."
Arhat Mahinda: "And are there yet other trees besides this mango & the other mangos?"
King Devanam Piya Tissa: "There are many trees, sir; but those are trees that are not mangoes."
Arhat Mahinda: "And are there, besides the other mangoes & those trees which are not mangoes, yet other trees?"
King Devanam Piya Tissa: "There is this mango-tree, sir."
Arhat Mahinda: "Thou hast a shrewd wit, O ruler of men!"
Arhat Mahinda: "Hast thou kinsfolk, O king?"
King Devanam Piya Tissa: "There are many,sir."
Arhat Mahinda: "And are there also some, O king, who are not kinsfolk of thine?"
King Devanam Piya Tissa: "There are yet more of those than of my kin."
Arhat Mahinda: "Is there yet any one besides the kinsfolk & the others?"
King Devanam Piya Tissa: "There is yet myself, sir."
Arhat Mahinda: "Good! Thou hast a shrewd wit, O ruler of men!"

Mahavamsa, the great chronicle of Ceylon
Translated by Wilhelm Geiger, Ph. D.

The cave of Arahat Mahinda
A bit of a hike down a woodland path on a slope leads us to the most famous rock cave amidst the 68 caves of the Buddhist monks. Commanding a panoramic view of the surrounding wooded plains is the rock cave of Arhath Mahinda called Mihindu Guha.

Those who transcended all human attachments including race & nationality
Having arrived from India in 307 BC, Buddhist Bhikshu Arhath Mahinda resolved to stay (307 BC-259 BC) in Lanka & sacrificed his lifetime to propagate Buddhism (out of India) of Gautama Buddha in the resplendent island of Lanka. The final extinction (rather than death, breaking free of the cycle of birth, death and rebirth on ones merits and demeris) of Arhath Mahinda was in 259 BC.

Naga Pokuna (Snake Pool)
Passing Ambastalya on the western side is a flight of steps leading to a rock-cut pool guarded by a rock carving of a five-headed cobra of which the tail reaches right down to the bottom of the pool. No animal had crept into the Hindu and Buddhist mythology to the extent of naga, the cobra. Nag or the cobra is the symbol of the guardian of treasures, the protector of water and the maker of rain. The nagas sculpted on the stelae of the vahalkada and on the Muragala (Sinhala: guardstones) emphasize its role as the protector.

According to the some archeologists, Naga Pokuna or snake pool at Sri Lanka Holidays Mihintale, like the lakes described in Chinese accounts was used for a purpose of naga cult. The cult associated with the Naga Pokuna, according these archeologists, is that of nagini, a female serpent, perhaps Goddess Mininal, referred to in the Mihintale Tablets.

Bat Ge (refectory)
The refectory is located at one end of the second plateau of Mihintale. The central courtyard has two large stone troughs called bat oru, rice canoes, and Kenda oru, gruel canoes. These canoes were once overlaid with a layer of metal.

Sannipata Sala (Assembly hall)
In the vicinity of the refectory on another plain is the Assembly Hall of the monks, an open square building constructed on 48 stone pillars with access from four directions. In the middle of the hall is an elevated seat designed for the most senior monk. It is in the Sannipata Sala where the monks met to discuss the matters of Mihintale monastery.

Aradhana Gala
Facing the Maha Saya on the summit of the hill is the rock called Aradhana Gala, the location of first sermon in the island by Arahat Mahinda. We can climb onto the rock by hanging on to the iron railings even if we land there on a windy day. We are right behind you.

Sinha Pokuna (Lion pool)
Beautifully cut into a rock is a carving of a lion that spurts water into a handsome square bath, which wouldn't run out of water even in the height of a tropical drought, a part of the ancient water supply system.

Mihintale Mahaseya Stupa
Compared to the enormous stupas in Anuradhapura, those at Mihintale were, simple in structure, and modest in size. The largest stupa at Sri Lanka Holidays Mihintale, the bubble shaped Mihintale Maha Seya stupa is on the summit of the Mihintale hill. The hilltop location provides a wonderful all round view of the surrounding countryside. The stupa was built by King Maha Dathika Maha Naga ( 67-79 AD). The renovated stupa is 45 feet is in height & 136 feet in diameter. It is believed the stupa enshrines relics (called Urna Roma Dhatu) of Buddha.

Mihindu Seya, the stupa of Mahinda
Beside the Mihintale Mahaseya Stupa are the remains of Mihindu Maha Seya. Mihindu Seya was built by King Uttica, the successor to King Devanapiya Tissa, enshrining the relics of great sage Arhath Mahinda.

The vantage point
Such is the panoramic view, we can even see the great stupas at Anuradhapura in the distance. The sacred Bo Tree is seen. A sapling of the Bo Tree (Bodh Gaya in India) under which Buddha broke free of eternal cycle of birth, death & rebirth, liberated himself from all desires, free from all vices, animosity & pride, anger & enmity, jealousy & greed & reach the summit of all virtue & yield into the power of impermanence & attained enlightenment. The oldest documented tree of the world has been tended devotedly for 23 centuries. That is at the ancient (437 BC- 845 AD) Sinhalese Kingdom of Anuradhapura, stronghold of 114 kings and two queens, ruins of which rate no far behind the Egyptian Pyramids, yet in terms of publicity deserved and required to draw the recognition and World cultural protection, fall too far off the mark. Unfortunately that is, in spite of Sri Lanka being a prominent tourist destination of Asia.

Ruins surrounding the site
Returning to the main road & taking a turn off we come across ruins of another monastery, Rajagiri caves with Brahmi inscriptions & another man made pool called Kaludiya Pond (Black pond). All of these are set nicely amidst woods, boulders & avenues of frangipani (Araliya in Sinhalese).

Kaludiya Pokuna Complex
Kaludiya Pokuna (Sinhala: black water pond) complex located in the western slope of Mihintale is a fine testimony to the advanced hydraulic civilization of ancient Sri Lanka. In the Minintale tablets, Kaludiya Pokuna is referred by the name of Porodini. According to illustrious Harry Charles Purvis Bell (1851 1937), Sri Lankas first archeological commissioner, Kaludiya Pokuna complex was built by King Kassapa IV (912-929 AD). Kaludiy Pokuna complex consists of stupa; uposathaghara or Poya Ge, where the Buddhist monks met at regular intervals to carry out rituals; cankamana patha or promenade for walking; parivena and pasada or residential cells; anta ghara or rice house and vacca kuti or lavatory.

Indikatu Seya Complex
Indikatu Seya Complex is located in between the main stairway on the eastern slope and he Kaludiya Pokuna complex. Indikatu seya complex is surrounded by a wall of large stones. Within the wall are two stupas, the larger of which is called Indikatu Seya. In an architectural perspective Indikatu seya is at a variation with the other stupas at Mihintale. Indikatu Seya Stupa built on a raised square platform paved with stone slabs, the stupa has basal terraces. Architectural and epigraphical evidence leads to the conclusion that Indikatu Seya Complex at Mihintale was monastery that fostered Mahayana Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism is a school in Buddhism that differs, more in practice than in theory, from the orthodox school, the Hinayana Buddhism also called Theravada Buddhism of which Sri Lanka is the renowned custodian and repository. It is believed Indikatu Seya Complex at Mihintale came under the influence of Abhayagiri Vihara, the nerve center of Mahayana Buddhism in Sri Lanka in the third century A.D.

Among the epighraphical evidence is a number of fragments of Buddhist text written in Sanskrit that belonged to Mahayana school of Buddhism. Establishing a Mahayana monastery in Mihintale, the cradle of Theravada Buddhism (Hinayana Buddhism) in Sri Lanka would have marked a very important stage in the rise of the Abhayagiri Nikaya (Sinhala: Abhayagiri monastic division) of ancient Sri Lanka.


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Photo Gallery

click on photo to enlarge

Mihintale Overview

Mihintale Mahaseya Stupa

Ambasthala Dagoba

The Upper Terrace

Aradhana Gala

Mihintale Stone Inscriptions

Naga Pokuna (Snake Pool)

The Kantaka Cetiya

Ruins Surrounding the Site

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