Royal Pidurangala Rock Monastery in Sri Lanka

by Greca Durant,

Buddhist Cave Temple within the Ancient Sigiriya Complex

    Sigiriya's North Face from Pidurangala,Sri Lanka - Pamela Durant

Sigiriya’s North Face from Pidurangala,Sri Lanka – Pamela Durant

Sigiriya’s cluster of Early Monastic dwellings on and around Pidurangala Rock may prove to be Sri Lanka’s best-kept “open” archaeological secret.

Each year, thousands of tourists travel to Sri Lanka: to luxuriate under the pampering hands of skilled spa therapists; to savor her cuisine and drink her tea; to populate her golden beaches; or to go on pilgrimage to Buddhist shrines and ancient capitals.

Most travelers opt for round trips arranged by travel operators, complete with a vehicle, a driver cum tour guide, and accommodations at five-star hotels or charming guesthouses. These round trip packages may last from three to seven days or more, covering popular destinations around the country. A great multitude will find their way to the Cultural Triangle, featuring Sri Lanka’s ancient centers of royal administration and Buddhist civilizations, all declared UNESCO World Heritage sites: Anuradhapura, Dambulla, Polonnaruwa, and travelers’ favorite, Sigiriya.

The Royal Sigiriya Complex, Model of Early Historical Period Urban Planning

According to Senake Bandaranayake, author of Sigiriya: city, palace, gardens, monasteries, paintings (2005), the official publication of the Central Cultural Fund of Sri Lanka, that the royal complex and all developments within it such as moats, gardens, ramparts, “form one of the best-preserved and most magnificent examples of ancient urban planning…in South Asia.”

Visitors arrive early at the Sigiriya gates, for a morning climb up treacherous rock-hewn steps leading to the palace at the summit, and to different galleries, including that of the fabled Mirror Wall, and just above it, visitors may marvel at the 5th century paintings of ethereal beauties, whom Sri Lankan scholar Ananda Coomaraswamy identified as apsaras.

Then the tour ends and everyone drives away, leaving out Sri Lanka’s best-kept “open” archaeological secret from their itinerary, the Royal Pidurangala Rock Monastery (entrance — free), just a few meters away.

Pidurangala Monastic Complex, Rock-Shelters, Buddha Images, Rock Inscriptions, Cave Temples

Aryadasa Ratnasinghe, author of “The Arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka,” wrote that Buddhism reached the shores of Sri Lanka on a full moon day during the 3rd century, two centuries after the Buddha’s demise, through Arhat Mahinda, the thera son of Emperor Asoka of India. He preached to King Devanampiyatissa of Sri Lanka, when the two met at Mihintale.

The king and his people accepted Buddha’s teachings. Ratnasinghe added that, “The introduction of Buddhism, with a civilization attached to it, brought about a distinctive cultural pattern in the social and religious life of the community.” Thus began the establishment of monastic dwellings, just like Pidurangala, either deep into the forest, on or around rocks, or on clearings. Across the parking lot at Pidurangala, archaeologists have excavated the remains of a major monastic complex, which visitors could explore. Those include a stupa, a chapter house, an image-house and a temple.

The first half of the ascent up Pidurangala is easy. A staircase, with 500 concrete or rock-hewn steps, leads visitors all the way to a 90-meter long rock-shelter, where a massive, 12.5 meter-long recumbent Buddha image gazes peacefully at the countryside.

The rock-shelter had been partitioned into small cubicles. Inscriptions on its walls served as official testament to the “donatory” status of these caves, explained Bandaranayake. It was common practice during those times for royalty and rich members of the community to offer dwellings to Buddhist monks.

From this point on, the rock’s summit is just a few minutes away. Cross the courtyard in front of the Buddha, continue straight on for a few meters, and turn right at the corner. This is where the climb gets tricky. Gone are the carved steps that made the ascent effortless earlier on. Huge boulders now confront the visitors’ path. They may look daunting, but vines hang about, and these are strong enough to hold on to for support, as one clambers up the boulders.

Sigiriya Rock

Sigiriya Rock

The Pidurangala rock summit affords magnificent, 360º-views of the surrounding area, with nary a soul to block one’s north face perspective of its more famous sister, Sigiriya rock. It is, undoubtedly, a photographer’s delight. In terms of historical value, Bandaranayake summed it up: Pidurangala has remained a “living religious center,” from prehistoric times to the present.

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