Ritigala, Sri Lanka
Culture and Eco travel destination, Strict Nature Reserve, Mountain Range with Micro Climate, Forest Monastery, Epic, Mythology, Legends, History, and Ruins of an Ancient Hospital.
Ritigala is a culture and eco tourist destination that never ceases to fascinate you. The archeological site of Ritigala monastery can be accessed only when we make inroads into Ritigala Strict Nature Reserve (SNR) of Ritigala mountain range.
“… the lordly hill…covered as if with a sheet of blue woods of tall trees and the clouds lying in the interspace between peaks…” The Ramayana by Valmiki, English translation by M. N. Dutt
Ritigala mountain range
Ritigala mountain range consists of four peaks of which the main and the highest peak at the south of the range is named Ritigala Kanda. Ritigala mountain range, a 3776-acre (1582 ha) Strict Nature Reserve, one of the well inventoried bio diversity hot spots in the Dry Zone of Sri Lanka is managed by Department of Wildlife of Sri Lanka together with Forest Department of Sri Lanka.
Ritigala Kanda rises to an elevation higher than the other main tourist attractions of north central plains, namely Sigiriya, Dambulla and Mihintale. Then again at an altitude of 2513 ft, Ritigala Kanda is comparatively a low mountain. The significance of this topographical feature lies in the cumulative effect of abrupt sheerness of the massif, its wooded slopes and wet microclimate at the summit. During the North East monsoon (December to February), Ritigala experiences the highest rainfall (125 cm) of entire dry zone. The combination of mist and cloud which encapsulate the crest during South-West monsoon (May to September) results in a high vapor condensation, and therefore, a moist earth at a time when the plain below is gripped in drought.
The wet micro climate therein at Ritigala is a singular occurrence in the north central plains, the ancient Sri Lanka’s “Wewe Bandi Rata” meaning “the land of rainwater reservoirs” in Sinhalese. Then again, Ritigala is steeped in history, woven in legend and epic and shrouded in mythology and mist.
In spite of its enormous significance, Ritigala remains one of the numerous “off the beaten track” culture and eco travel destinations of Sri Lanka. Ritigala isn’t alone in its degrading fate: numerous other tourist attractions, destinations of immense ecological and cultural value have been faded out in view of the splendor and grandeur of UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya and Dambulla. That is in spite of most of such “off the beaten track” eco and culture destinations being located within the convenient circuit of Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle itself. With all its diversity in topography, geography, terrain & climate, Sri Lanka being a compact island of just 65,525 square kilometers (25,299 Sq. miles), traveling from one site to other wouldn't be too tiring or time killing. It is always few hours drive even when arriving at sharply contrasting terrain & climate.
What’s in a name?
Ritigala. The true meaning of Ritigala is not yet established. It is said Ritigala takes its name from a variety of evergreen tree that can be seen in the middle slopes of the forest: Riti (Antiaris toxicaria) grows over 40 m tall. And its trunk is as straight as a pole. Riti is the Sinhala word for pole. But then again, Ritigala refuses to close the chapter so easily.
Ritigala is an ancient name: the word Riti could have been derived from the word arittha, meaning "safety" in ancient Pali language while the Sinhala word “gala” means rock. Ritigala, providing shade, shelter and sanctuary to warriors as well as ascetics, has lived up to its name for millenniums. Your good name is all you will have when you are called upon by the powers above you.
Ritigala couldn’t be better located: it is right between the two ancient cities of Anuradhapaura and Polonnaruwa in the north central plains of Sri Lanka. Anurdhapura is 43 kms to the north-west while Polonnaruwa is 49 kms to the south east of Ritigala. Located midway of Habrana-Maradankadawala (A11) road, it can be seen from afar even in Dambulla- Anuradhapura (A9) main road: north east of Kekirawa and south east of Maradankadawala.
The Approach to Ritigala
The most convenient transportation hub and accommodation option for the visiting tourists at Ritigala is Habarana (21 kms). Ritigala can be reached by a minor road, a jungle track off Habarana-Maradankadawela-Anuradhapura road. The regular entry point to the ruins of the monastery caves and forest is reached by a dirt road running from 9 kms from Galapitagala, meaning rock upon rock in Sinhala, a hamlet a little to the north-east of 8 m mile-post (12km) on Habarana-Anuradhapura road. Ritigala is also accessible from the village of Ganewelpola.
We are at a mountain steeped in epic, legend, history, mystery and mist crowned with cool & wet micro-climate. The site is Indescribable. We are in central plains, dry & humid yet the climate herein is reassuring and cool with ever green environment of the mountain range. And we are still at the foot of the mountain. About 70 caves, once used by Buddhist monks, are splattered over the slopes of the Ritigala Mountain. Brahmi inscriptions herein date the site from the third & second centuries BC.
The ascent of Ritigala Mountain at reservoir
Ruins of Ritigala monastery are located on the eastern side of the mountain at the foot of the gorge which separates the main peak from the northern ridge of the range. The ruins cover an area of 24 hectares (60 acres). The monastery precinct begins at the office of the on-site branch of Department of Archeology of Sri Lanka close to the foot of the reservoir named Banda Pokuna. The ancient man-made reservoir is an impressive feet of engineering with a bund of polygonal plan completing a circumference of 366 meters. The construction of the reservoir is credited to King Pandukabhaya (437 -367 BC). The reservoir possibly served a ritual bathing purpose, with visitors bathing herein before entering the monastery. The order of ritual bathing tank, ruins of entrance complex and a pedestrian path seem to indicate devotees in large numbers visiting the monastery. We will only be following an ancient path. The procession is similar to that of Kataragama where pilgrims begins with a cleansing bath at Kataragama Manik river and end with an offering to the God Skanda, the much adored and benevolent Hindu deity of Kataragama at the main shrine.
Bubbling streams, huge boulders & noble trees
We follow the edge of the reservoir in a clockwise direction to arrive at the other bank. We cross the bed of the stream feeding the reservoir. The steep steps here onwards lead up to a beautifully constructed pavement, a stone path 1.5 meters wide that meander upwards through the forest. It links all the major buildings of the monastery, in perfect harmony with huge boulders, mighty trees & burbling streams of the sylvan environment. The stone cut path that testifies to superior craftsmanship is beautifully laid with interlocking four-sided slabs of hewn stone. Still more, it is edged with proportionate curbstones. Overhanging branches over & along the stone path provide shade and shelter to such an extent, even during the fierce High Noon of dry zone, the sunrays onto the path is reduced to a soft glow. It’s a lovely herein along the sheltered and paved path. The three large circular platforms at intervals along the pavement allow us to take a rest.
Stone bridges, raised platforms & courtyards
Then we are at the remains of some extraordinary stone structures named double-platforms, which are characteristic of Ritigala & other forest monasteries such as Arankele, Veherabandigala and the western monasteries at Anuradhapura. Spreads over an area of about 120 acres are about 50 such double platforms. We are free to take any path that our heads turn and find ruins. Then again, we are in a dense jungle, as such we need to close ranks and stay close together so as not to get lost. Moreover we need to be guided not to cross paths with the snakes.
Raised platforms formed by retaining walls of massive stones are found in pairs, linked together by a stone bridge. The main axis of the combined platforms is set exactly east west. The structures were then most possibly roofed & divided into rooms. These are believed to be used for solitary practices such as meditation, as well as congregational functions such as teaching & ceremony. We take the path over a stone bridge, then following a part-restored pathway, trek a few meters to the right-hand (east) laid with interlocking ashlars and then to the first major clearing & we are at the ruins of a monastery hospital, where we can still see the medicinal herbs-leaves & roots-grinding stones and huge stone cut Ayurvedic oil baths.
The pavement continues straight ahead to reach one of the roundabouts. About 20 meters before reaching the round about, a path heads off to the right, leading through enormous tree roots to a lookout, reached by a stone high above a burbling stream. Further up is another lookout. Then we encounter an artificial waterfall contrived by placing a stone slab between two rocks.
Another 500 meters & we reach two further sunken courtyards. The first courtyard contains a large double platform structure, one of the largest stone structures in the entire monastery; one of the platforms preserves the remains of the pillars which once supported a building. A few meters beyond lies the second courtyard & another large double platform.
Extreme austerity at Ritigala Monastery
With the exception of few broken granite Buddha statues in a number of caves, Ritigala has none of the traditional icons of Buddhist temples: no bodhi tree, no stupas. The first Lanka Vihare (temple) was founded near Ritigala at the foot of the mountain in the second century BC. The Aritta Vihare was founded a century afterwards. Royals proved generous patrons. In the ninth century AD, King Sena made endowment of the monastery, a larger complex higher up the slope for a group of Buddhist ascetics called the Pansukulikas (rag robes) monks who devoted themselves to extreme austerity in search of supreme enlightenment.
Such was the detachment of these wilderness bound Buddhist ascetics from the traditional life of Buddhist monks at village temples, their robes were simply cleaned, washed and repaired rags, mostly shrouds picked up from cemeteries, in line with one of the thirteen ascetic practices (Dhutanga) outlined in Buddhism.
Decorated urinals: symbolic act of dissociation with ritualistic excesses
The only example of representational carving to be found at Ritigala is in the form of decorated urinals that consist of urine cup, drain hole and foot supports. It is believed that these decorated stones were meant to depict the architectural and ritualistic excesses of the orthodox monastic chapters to which the Pamsukuilikaa (monks devoted to extreme austerity) were opposed. It is also argued that the act of urination on decorated urinal stones was for them a symbolic act of dissociation.
(bunpeiris chat) But then again, it is unlikely ascetics would frown upon an innocuous product of the human labor and human skill. Perhaps it could well be that a couple of craftsmen in utter good humor, by offering decorated urinals, gave their best shot to piss off the serene ascetics. If such was the event, then the spirited craftsmen found no success in their stone-borne tease, since the ascetics too seem to have tolerated same in equally good humor. But then again, such decorated urinals are found in some other cultural sites of Sri Lanka too. Perhaps, it would be safer to assume the craftsmen depressed in the absence of opportunity to showcase their skills in traditional sculpture went about decorating the urinals, in a way to soothe themselves and in a way to disassociate themselves from the ultimate minimalism of the monastery.
Serene Atmosphere & cool air at Ritigala
The consummate combination of serene atmosphere & cool air at Ritigala makes it easier for you to appreciate why the Buddhist monks had chosen this place for their contemplative perambulations. Next to the ruins of the palace of King Pandukabhaya are the ruins of the entrance to the tunnel that led to Anuradhapura. The next set of ruins is believed to be a library, now partly restored, and perched atop a rock with magnificent views across to the jungle below.
Where trekkers dare
We are at platform 17 which marks the end of the excavated territory. Excavations continue, so more would be revealed. Beyond these are ruins too, that runs up to the summit at 766m, but then there is dense vegetation. Worse still are wild beasts: elephants, sloth bear & leopard. Wildlife department workers have been killed or maimed in the higher slopes by the wild elephants. Do we turn tail? Do we take a step back? We have already encountered a bull elephant. Will the guide from the archaeological department post (it was at the foot of the hill) who accompanied us so far, dare? We aren’t allowed there.
Mythology of Ritigala
We are at the mountain site where Lord Hanuman, the warrior king of non-human Vanara tribe of India leapt from Lanka to India, having discovered where Sita, the consort of most righteous Lord Rama (said to be one of the nine avatars of God Vishnu), was held captive by flamboyant warrior King Rawana of Raksasa tribe of Lanka. Oh! That is from non other than Ramayana, the epic of India together with Mahabharata that relegate great epics of western literary cannon- The Iliad, The Odyssey & Aeneid- to the distant runners up.
The lone long-ranger of Ritigla
According to popular belief, non-human Lord Hanuman of supernatural powers, who could rise up to the occasion & become bigger than the task assigned, become bigger than the problem (with apologies to Suda Murthy of Infosys, India: How I taught my grandmother to read) flew, jump, traveled over Ritigala, by accident, dropped a chunk off a mountain of Himalaya range he was carrying from India to Lanka for its medicinal herbs. Lord Rama's brother, Prince Lakshmana was mortally wounded in battle & only a rare herb in the Himalaya could save his life. Well, come to think of it, the pocket of vegetation of healing herbs & plants at the strange mini-plateau at the summit of Ritigala, which is distinct from the dry-zone flora of the lower slopes & surrounding plains at Ritigala could perhaps be accounted for.
The spy who found her
Well, that was during the epic battle. Lord Hanuman has visited Lanka on a previous occasion too. That was when he was sent by Lord Rama in search of his consort Sita. It was King Ravana, a devotee of God Siva, who seized Sita from Parnasali in India, the holy hut of Lord Rama & brought her to Asok Vana, a beautiful park at Seetha Eliya (close to Nuwara Eliya or Little England, as the British called it three millennium later) on the Pusparaga (Dadumonara) an air chariot-without touching her. (The handsome Peacock logo of Air Lanka, the predecessor of Sri Lankan Airlines & successor of Air Ceylon, is a stylized version of Rawana’s air chariot.) Having found the location where Sita was held, Hanuman then made use of Ritigala Kanda as launching pad to take one hell of a simian leap across to South India. Incidentally, Ritigala is in fact the highest prominence between the central plains of Sri Lanka & coast of Southern India.
Legends abound on Ritigala. One of mysterious aspect is the belief of powerful medicinal herbs found near the crest. A herb called “Sansevi” is believed to have awesome power of conferring long life and curing all human pain. Then again, according to the legends, all vegetation on Ritigala is protected by Yakkas, the guardian spirits of the mountain. The venerable Prof. Walpola Sri Rahula Maha Thera (1907-1997), a Professor of History and Religions at Northwestern University, a Buddhist monk scholar in his “History of Buddhism in Ceylon”, narrates: The term “Yaksa” denotes superhuman beings worthy of respect. It is possible that it was applied, by an extension of meaning, also to some pre-Buddhistic tribe of human beings, aboriginal to Ceylon.
The legend has it that Prince Pandukhabaya (3rd century BC) was assisted by Yakkas during his battles against his 8 uncles at the foot of Ritigla. Another legend refers to a duel of two giants, most possibly Yakkas, named Soma and Jayasena. Soma being killed in the duel, Jayasena became a legend.
We are at the mountain site (well, if you don't like mythological epics, would history do?) of which impenetrable terrain & strategic position close to Anuradhapura led to it becoming a favorite hiding place for rebels, from the time of Prince Pandukhabaya in the 3rd century BC right up to 1971, when Sinhalese Marxist rebels of JVP found temporary sanctuary, during the last stages of insurgency. Defence Forces of Sri Lanka caught up with the Sinhalese insurgents.
It was at the foot of the Ritigala mountain Prince Pandukhabaya slayed all his maternal uncles but righteous Anuradha, in a great battle to become the king of Lanka and found the glorious city of Anuardahapura. His mother, Ummadacitta (meaning "The beauty that overwhelm one and all with maddening desire" in Sinhalese) smuggled out, at birth, her son, sired by her cousin Prince Digagamini, to prevent the newborn being killed by her brothers. When Ummadachitta was still a maiden, it was prophesied that a son born to her would kill his maternal uncles and usurp the throne of Lanka.
Rediscovery of Ritigla
Ritigala is referred to as "Aristha" in Ramayana & "arittha-pabbata" (Rock of Refugee) in the Mahavamsa, the great historical chronicle, appears to have been a site of refuge & recoup for the hero of the nation King Dutugamunu of Ruhuna (161-136 BC) & for King Jetthatissa (623 AD) in their battles against marauding Dravidian invaders from South India. Ritigala was abandoned following the Chola invasions in the 10th & 11th centuries, after which it lay deserted & largely forgotten until it was rediscovered by the British colonial surveyor James Mantell in 1872. Six years later, Mantell’s brother, also a surveyor, made a visit to Ritigala with a view of establishing a sanatorium in the dry zone, as was established in Nuwara Eliya of the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka. Ritigala also prompted non other than George Turnover himself (who enjoyed the good fortune to discover the invaluable key, the commentary or “Tika” of Mahavamsa chronicles in the library of Mulkirigala monastery, which enabled him to translate the chronicles from ancient Pali language to English) to establish a sanatorium at Ritigala. However it was only in 1938, that Ritigala was explored & mapped by first Commissioner of Archaeology of Ceylon, illustrious H.C.P. Bell, a man of unflagging energy and outstanding ability.
Ritigala Strict Nature Reserve (SNR) - no entry, unless you are a participant of a recognized ecosystem and biodiversity conservation project. We are, if the history wouldn't do either, at an eco tourist destination unlike any other in the island.
Partially restored ruins of Ritigala are deep inside the Ritigala Nature Reserve. We are allowed into the ruins of the monastery; but we aren’t allowed off the paths to surrounding Strict Nature Reserve, where wildlife includes elephants, sloth bear, leopard & varied bird life. Ritigala is the watershed of the Malwatu Oya (river) which feeds the Nachaduwa reservoir and Kalueba Ela (canal) which in turn feeds Huruluweva reservoir.
The unusual climate of Ritigala has resulted in upper reaches of the mountain being home to a vigorous and plentiful flora. The area is rich in unusual plants & rarest medicinal herbs. It is an oasis of vegetation. Ritigala Strict Nature Reserve is one of the well inventoried bio diversity hot spots in the Dry Zone of Sri Lanka.
Botanists and scholars at Ritigala
Ritigala has been recorded by a number of British colonial servants and Ceylonese scholars since its rediscovery.
In 1889 Henry Trimen, the first modern botanist to investigate Ritigala submitted a record to the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Ceylon Branch. Triemen went onto author Handbook to the Flora of Ceylon.
In 1982 by J.B. M. Ridout Don Martion de Zilva Wickremasnghe (a distinguished epigraphist, one of the authors of Epigraphia Zeylanica being Lithic and other inscriptions of Ceylon -1904-1934) recorded a pond containing rara Kalu-Kohowilla (a species of aracoee) plants.
In 1906 J. C. Willis, a distinguished botanist published a record of 144 species of flora of which 41 species occur in the dry zone while 103 are all wet-zone species found within 30ms of the summit of Ritigala.
In 1922, Willis I his book titled “Age and Area” put forwarded a theory on the geographical distribution of plants. He recorded three species endemic to Sri lank and one coleus elongates, which is not found anywhere else in the world.
In 1936 Philip Jayasuriya made a record of wild orchids at Ritigala: …look where we may there are orchids, Orchids everywhere. Few places in the Island can boost such a wealth of Orchids, and this is a veritable Orchid-lover’s paradise.
Ritigala is also rich in endangered bird species, including black eagle, grey hornbill, Sri Lanka spurfowl, Malabar pied hornbill and spot-winged thrush
Ritigala biodiversity conservation projects completed
In 1998/1999 GEF Small Grants programme (SGP) /UNDP
Conservation of biodiversity in Ritigala Strict Nature Reserve, raise medicinal plants and produce ayurvedic medicines by Ritigala Community Based Development and Environmental Management Foundation (SRL/95/G52/017)
To conserve biodiversity and sensitive ecosystems in the Ritigala Strict Nature Reserve and enhance biodiversity in the surrounding forest areas and home lots in the peripheral villages. Provide opportunities, especially for women, to engage in alternative and sustainable income generating activities, cultivate medicinal plants for use in the production of ayuruvedic medicines at the village centre.
State funded Projects on the same line as SGP are required at Ritigala Strict Nature Reserve to engage the villagers who would otherwise encroach the ecosystem to eke out a living.
Habarana Eco-Luxury Sri Lanka Hotels
Antiquity and melancholy of Ritigala of Sri Lanka Holidays seems to have extended to the area surroundings of this “off the beaten track” tourist attraction: no hotels of international standing are in the vicinity. Then again Habarana (21 kms), a village in wilderness of Luxury Holidays in Sri Lanka provide you luxury accommodation within a luxurious eco environment. Habarana, an elephant transit point of Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle is also a transportation hub for the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Dambulla and Sigiriya. Dambulla and Sigiriya are in fact equidistant from Habarana. The two main luxury hotels of international standing, beautifully set in tropical wetland environment are abundant with birdlife, squirrels, monkeys and mongoose. Outdoor activities include bird watching and mini safaris riding elephants.
Cinnamon Lodge at Habarana, an eco-luxury hotel of international standing in the wilderness serves all your whims and fancies of Luxury Holidays to lift your spirits to the hilt. Chalets that provide luxury accommodation are built in harmony with nature. 150 modern luxury guestrooms with wonderful views of the rainwater reservoir are dispersed within 27 acres of lush woodland, gardens and long pathways that seem to have taken a leaf out of the ancient eco-oriented concepts of Ritigala monastery.
Chaaya Village Habarana Hotel, another eco-luxury hotel of international standing located on the bank of a man-made rainwater reservoir at Habarana consists of 108 luxury rooms. The eco friendly cozy cottages, built in a rural tradition are sprawled over an area of 27 acres of luxuriant land bordering the lake.
on photo to enlarge