Ritigala Forest Monastery

ritigal

At 766 m (2513 feet) above sea level, and 600 m above the surrounding plains, Ritigala is the highest mountain in northern Sri Lanka. The modern name Ritigala is derived from the ancient name Ariṭṭha Pabbata (Dreadful Mountain), mentioned in the Mahavamsa.

Its elevation is higher than the other main tourist attractions of the north central plains, namely Sigiriya, Dambulla and Mihintale. The significance of this topographical feature lies in the 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 wet micro climate 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.

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 the power of conferring long life and curing all human pain. According to legend, 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, says “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 eight uncles at the foot of Ritigala. 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.

The 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 (59 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 a feat 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 there 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. 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 benevolent Hindu deity of Kataragama at the main shrine.

The edge of the reservoir is followed in a clockwise direction to arrive at the other bank, and 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, linking the major buildings of the monastery. The stone cut path is laid with interlocking four-sided slabs of hewn stone. Three large circular platforms at intervals along the pavement allow for rest.

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