|The lure of Ritigala (1966)
J. B. Kelegama
It was in 1966 - 34 years ago. At the request of Jim Allen of Australia, the then Director of the Colombo Plan Bureau and several foreign diplomats stationed in Colombo, I undertook, the task of organizing a climb to Ritigala - the jungle-covered mountain of Rajarata. I was the Director of Economic Affairs at the Ministry of Finance at that time and I was in frequent contact with these foreign diplomats and had come to know them well. They had heard and read about Ritigala but had not met anyone who had climbed it. It was perhaps their desire to explore this little known mountain and experience the thrill of unraveling its mysteries which actuated them. The Government Agent in the Anuradhapura district of the NCP at that time was the late Mahinda Silva (who was later appointed Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture) and it was to him that I turned for help in organizing the climb. He readily agreed with my request and informed me that he had instructed the Divisional Revenue officer (DRO) in Ganewalpola to make all the arrangements including finding experienced villagers to guide us in the climb. The DRO and the villagers, he told me, would be waiting for us on the 28th of January 1966 - the date we had selected for the adventure - at Ganewalpola, near Kekirawa/Maradankadawala. Meanwhile, Jim Allen had obtained written permission of the Warden of Wild Life for our climb to the Ritigala peak. The entire mountain area is a strict natural reserve and none is allowed to climb it except with special authority of the Wild Life Department.
The foreign diplomats who wanted to join the climb numbered twenty to twenty five. As there were no tourist hotels in the area at that time, we decided that the climbing party should break up into three groups to spend the 27th night at three places - the rest houses (which had limited accommodation) in Dambulla and Habarana and the Kalaweva circuit bungalow of the Irrigation Department. I selected the Kalawewa circuit bungalow as I had stayed there on several occasions and come to like it. The bungalow is situated in a small peninsula with Kalawewa on one side and Balaluwewa on the other; the Matale foothills are visible on the horizon across the Balaluwewa while Ritigala can be seen clearly across Kalawewa. There are few scenic spots like this in the country and I was anxious that the foreign diplomats too see it. The bungalow had only three rooms then and could not accommodate the entire party; consequently, some were to stay at Habarana and others at Dambulla. We agreed that all should make their own travel arrangements; this was no problem, as being diplomats they all had chauffeur-driven cars. In order to start the climb early, it was agreed that all should assemble at Ganewalpola at about 7.0O a.m.
One important person who expressed a keen desire to join the climbing party was A.A. Gromov, the UNDP Resident Representative at that time. Gromov was a big-built, large hearted, genial Russian who was a popular figure in Colombo, and we were happy that he was joining the trip with Mrs. Gromov. He invited both Jim Allen and me to travel with him in his large limousine and we readily accepted. On the 27th of January 1966, the four of us - Mr. & Mrs. Gromov, Jim Allen and I - left Colombo in Gromovs chauffeur-driven limousine at 9.30 a.m. It was during this journey that I came to know the real Gromov, the human being behind the UN bureaucrat and to like and esteem him. The journey to Kalawewa in his car, was an experience, which I can never forget.
When we had travelled for about an hour and reached the Pasyala area, Gromov requested the driver to stop the car for refreshments. I thought that Gromov wanted to refresh himself with a king coconut but I was mistaken. He beckoned us to the rear of the car, opened the boot and took out a bottle of whisky; then he poured the whisky into three glasses and offered two to us saying, "now let us take our refreshments"! Mrs. Gromov was not inclined to join us and stayed in the car. When I said, it was not the time for whisky, Gromov remarked "any time is whisky time"! I noticed that he had more than one glass of "refreshments" while I barely tasted it. After passing Kurunegala, I suggested that we should see the Batalagoda tank and the car had hardly stopped on the tank bund before Gromov called for a round of "refreshments"! As it was a scenic spot, peaceful and quiet, Mrs. Gromov suggested that we should have lunch there. Gromov agreed and made it an excuse to have another round of "refreshments" as aperitifs before lunch. While we were having "refreshments" Mrs. Gromov pulled out a number of boxes and packets from the boot and unpacked them to reveal a wide range of foods fit for a feast. This was completely unexpected. Jim and I needed no persuasion to taste these delicacies but Gromov could not be persuaded until he had gulped down several glasses of "refreshments"!
It was at about 3.00 p.m. that we reached the Kalawewa circuit bungalow. After consuming some tasty tea prepared by the circuit bungalow keeper - Dissanayake, I believe - I took the Gromovs and Jim Allen to see the awe-inspiring giant statue of Buddha at Aukana. Thereafter Jim and I drove to Ganewalpola to see about the arrangements made for the climb the following day. Gromovs preferred to stay behind at the circuit bungalow to rest after the arduous journey. At Ganewalpola, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the DRO who was organizing the climb was someone I knew well the late D. B. Liyanagedera. He was assisted by another government official who was also known to me - A. B. Balalla the S.L.D.O. - and the village headman of the area - one Samarasena. They had made all the necessary arrangements and some villagers, who knew the mountain well, were ready to take us to the summit.
On returning to Kalawewa, I persuaded the Gromovs to take a leisurely walk along the Balaluwewa tank bund in the evening. The setting sun, the cool breeze over the water, the gentle ripple of the waves and the cry of the cormorants, with the fading scene of the Matale foothills in the distant horizon made this walk an exhilarating experience. I wanted to walk the whole distance of the bund but Gromov was not quite fit to do this exercise. I believe he had consumed more "refreshments" when he was ostensibly resting while Jim and I were at Ganewalpola. It was amazing that Gromovs thirst for "refreshments" was well nigh unquenchable, for no sooner had we returned from the walk, than he wanted us to join him in another round of "refreshments" before dinner. This was the longest drinking session and Gromov would have consumed quite a substantial amount of "refreshments". Jim and I being very moderate drinkers, consumed only a little to keep company and to make Gromov happy. Meanwhile, Mrs. Gromov - who had none of her husbands partiality for "refreshments" - had been busy preparing our dinner with an assortment of choice foods including caviar which she had with foresight brought from home. Needless to say, we did full justice to the meal; there was so much food that Mrs. Gromov even gave some to the bungalow keeper who had been spared the task of cooking a rice and curry meal, as was his wont, for the visitors.
It was after our dinner at about 8.30 p.m. that M. J. Perera, who was then Secretary to the Ministry of Education, arrived at the bungalow with his wife Ratna and son Kamal. He had earlier, informed me that he would join the climb to Ritigala, and I had made arrangements for him and his family to stay at the Kalawewa circuit bungalow. There were three rooms in the bungalow: Gromovs were given the best room, M.J. and his family had one and Jim Allen and I shared the other. The soothing breeze and the musical rhythm of the lapping waves reinforced by the soporific effect of Gromovs "refreshments", soon put us to sound sleep. We rose early - at around 5.00 a.m. the following day, had a rich breakfast provided again by Mrs. Gromov (who had apparently brought with her a veritable food store to feed us) and drove to Ganewalpola - along the Kalawewa tank bund to Ipologama and then to Maradankadawela and a few miles along the Habarana road.
The Mountain Climbers
When we reached Ganewalpola, most of the climbing party had already arrived there and the others too soon joined us. I cannot remember the names of all the people in the climbing party but the following were among those present:
1. A. A. Gromov (UNDP Resident Representative) and Mrs. Gromov
2. G. K. Grande (High Commissioner of Canada) and Mrs. Grande
3. Enver Murad (High Commissioner of Pakistan) and Mrs. Murad
4. Drago Kunc (Ambassador of Yugoslavia) and Mrs. Kunc
5. Theodore R. Curchod (Charge dAffaires, Switzerland) and Mrs. Curchod
6. Hiroshi Masudi (Embassy of Japan) and Mrs. Masuda
7. Stuart (High Commission of Australia) and Mrs. Stuart
8. Edward (Colombo Plan Bureau) and Mrs. Edward
9. Jim Allen (Colombo Plan Bureau Director)
10. Mrs. Kimberley
11. M. J. Perera, Mrs. Perera and son
12. Mrs. Vere de Mel
13. J. B. Kelegama
We were met by A. B. Balalla, Samarasena the village headman, and a group of villagers who were to guide us in the climb. The chief guide was Sellathe who apparently had explored the entire mountain and knew every nook and cranny of it; he had brought with him about seven or eight fellow villagers to help us, if we needed It. Our party was joined by about a dozen schoolboys who had read about our proposed climb in the Sinhala newspapers. Actually, the newspapers had mistakenly reported that a party led by Dr. Senerat Paranavitana, the then Archeological Commissioner was climbing Ritigala and they were somewhat disappointed that he was not in the party. Nevertheless, they joined us as they were as keen as we were to climb to the mountain peak. Thus, we had about forty people altogether when we started at 7.30 a.m.
Most of us did not have the foggiest idea of the topography, terrain and vegetation of the place the state of roads and paths and the distances, the time required and the energy needed for the climb. Many of us, particularly the diplomats, thought they were going on a picnic, Thus, we were totally unprepared for what we were to experience. First, we had to walk on a cart-track for about three miles from Galapitagala on the main road; unlike today, the cart-track was not motorable and we had no alternative. The villagers the chief guide Sellathe brought with him volunteered to carry some of the equipment of the diplomats. Second, we had to trek about another two miles through the thick jungle; there was no road, only a footpath.
As most of our trek was through the jungle, I had brought my double-barrel gun with me - not so much to shoot any hostile animal as such but to create confidence among the foreign diplomats. Most of the diplomats feared to venture into the thick tropical jungle, as they had heard of wild elephants, leopards and bears which attacked human beings. They told me that they were relieved when they saw my gun. A. B. Balalla too brought his gun in addition. All of us managed to reach the foot of the mountain, but I could see that some of the diplomats were tired; the long trek in the hot sun in the cart track was too much for them. Before us stood the Ritigala Mountain, majestic and awe-inspiring, challenging us to reach its formidable peak.
Ritigala is the highest mountain, in the north-central plain of Sri Lanka, measuring 2,513 feet above sea level. It is situated close to Kekirawa and Maradankadawala on one side and Habarana on the other, and can be seen clearly from the Dambulla-Anuradhapura road. The mountain mass is about three miles long and about two miles wide at its widest point; it is covered with dense jungle inhabited by wild elephants, leopards and bears. It is the watershed of the Malwatu Oya which feeds the Nachaduwa tank and Kalueba Ela which feeds Huruluwewa. The upper part of the mountain is well known for its flora, some of which are rare; it has also a range of wild orchids.
The mountain has over 70 known caves which have been used as dwellings by the early inhabitants of the country and subsequently as monasteries by Buddhist monks but there are no paintings in them. It has a long history and is referred to as "arittha-pabbata" in the Mahavamsa, the great historical chronicle which records that Pandukabhaya, the third king of Sri Lanka (377-307 BC) sojourned in the mountain for seven years preparing for the wars to capture the kingdom. The early inhabitants of Ritigala referred to as "yakkas" joined Pandukabhayas cause and fought in his many battles. Ritigala appears to have been also used by King Dutugemunu (101-72 BC) and by King Jetthatissa in the 7th century in their wars against the Indian Invaders. There are rock inscriptions which indicate that gradually, Ritigala had become a monastic retreat for hermit (Pamsukulika) monks and a place of religious significance. By the 10th-12th century AD however Ritigala seems to have been abandoned by the hermit monks and soon it was covered by jungle and forgotten.
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century when the country was a British colony, the then Government Agent of Anuradhapura had constructed a holiday bungalow and cut a bridle path to it at Ritigala about 500 feet below the summit, in order to provide a cooler and healthier place of rest to those working in the hot, dry and malaria-infested plains. However, this bungalow does not appear to have been used and when a subsequent Government Agent of Anuradhapura climbed the mountain in 1904 it was in ruins. Ritigala was forgotten for a good part of the twentieth century except for occasional visitors who went to see the ruins.
Then in 1971 it came Into prominence when the insurgents made it one of their strongholds in the insurrection of that year until they were flushed out by the army. Wild life in the mountain was under threat a few years back but I am not sure of the situation today. I still remember a trader in Maradankadawala having dried leopard and bear skins for sale; he had bought them from villagers around Ritigala, who hid killed them by using poisoned (follidol) bait. The jungle hid many of Ritigalas secrets and it remains a mountain shrouded in mystery and venerated by the people.
Ruins of the Monastery
As we were in unknown territory, I requested Sellathe and his people to lead the way from this point onwards. I followed them with the gun slung across my shoulder and the others walked behind me in single file. After a short climb, we came to the ruins of the large monastic complex at Maligatenna. It comprised a large stepped tank called the Bandara Pokuna designed probably for ritual bathing by pilgrims, "double-platform" monasteries built of granite used for meditation, ceremonial and teaching, decorated urinal stones, ponds, stone steps, stone bridges, stone-flagged pavements and stone pipes in a setting of rock boulders, streams and tall trees. The hermit monks apparently lived in the many rock caves near the monasteries and used the double platform buildings only for religious work. The complex had only one stupa near the tank bearing testimony to the fact that it was not so much a place of worship for pilgrims as a forest retreat for meditation. Sellathe however, believed that some of the ruins were those of palaces; perhaps that is why it was called Maligatenna. There is much more to learn about these ruins when the restoration work is completed.
The real climb began from Maligatenna. It was steep and arduous. There was no proper road or path to the summit but Sellathe knew how to get there and he and his friends cut obstructing branches and creepers with the matchets they had brought with them and hacked out a path for us through the thick jungle. Besides, as the terrain was steep, we had to walk very carefully. This was too much for most of the foreign diplomats and they fell back first and dropped out later. They had not bargained for an ordeal like this. Those who abandoned the rigorous climb first, if I remember right, were Grandes, Murads, Kuncs, Edwards and Mrs. Kimberley. They were soon followed by Gromovs, Mrs. M. J. Perera and some others. In fact, I was surprised that Gromov had managed to climb even this distance; apart from his bulky frame, he might have had some "refreshments" too, quietly. I was sorry to see them go, particularly Gromov, as he provided us with company and his innate ebullience made us all happy. As they did not know the route back and it was unsafe for them to travel by themselves Sellathe arranged for some of his people to accompany them back.
We resumed our climb once again. The terrain was becoming steeper and Sellathe and his people were constantly hacking our way. In some steep places we had to climb on all fours or be helped by the trackers. There were several mountain streams with cool, clear and clean water at this elevation and we had no hesitation in drinking from them. We rested near one stream where the schoolboys who were accompanying us had their lunch; they had wisely brought their packets of rice and curry with them; we, on the other hand had not brought anything - not even tea and biscuits. If only Mrs. Gromov had come with us! As we were at a high elevation of around 2000 feet above sea level, the air became cool and pleasant; besides, the thick canopy of branches of tall trees protected us against the sun. We resumed the climb - the last lap to the summit. It was a very strenuous exercise - crossing steams, rounding boulders, skidding on slippery slopes and hanging on creepers and branches for support - and we succeeded without mishap to reach the near-summit.
I said near-summit because the peak of Ritigala is a pinnacle, almost perpendicular, without steps and almost impossible for the unskilled to climb. The near-summit is the foot of the pinnacle. Then Sellathe and his people quickly made a ladder from poles cut from trees and tied with jungle creepers for us to climb the pinnacle. It was with great joy that we reached the peak with the help of the ladder at around 1.00 p.m. The party that reached the summit was much smaller than the party that set out. M. J. Perera and his son Kamal reached the summit and among the diplomats, Jim Allen, Mazuda and his wife were the only ones I can remember at the summit. Mrs. Mazuda was, I believe the only woman who climbed the peak. As we started the trek at 7.30 a.m. we had taken 5 1/5 hours for the entire journey.
We sat down on the peak for some time to enjoy the breathtaking scenery around us. It was a grand sight - an unforgettable experience. We could see Kalawewa, Nachaduwa, Minneriya, Mihintale, Dambulla, Anuradhapura and numerous village tanks in a vast stretch of jungle as far as the eye could see under a blue sky with fleecy clouds. The wind was strong but cool and refreshing. The nonpareil beauty virtually transfixed us. It was with great reluctance that we removed ourselves from the peak and started our descent; we wanted to stay longer but Sellathe reminded us that we had to return before dark and before the wild elephants came out of the jungle. The return journey was uneventful and shorter; it took about four hours before we reached the main road where the cars were. We did not come across any wild animal or even a snake during the trip; not a shot was fired from our guns; the weather was fine and there was no rain; there were no accidents or any untoward incident. The local deities of Ritigala, apparently had favoured us!
We amply rewarded Sellathe and his people for their services. We could have never climbed the summit of Ritigala without the guidance and the assistance of Sellathe and his people including the village headman Samarasena. I developed a great liking to this man and I still treasure a photograph of him at the Ritigala peak. We were very tired when we returned to the Kalawewa circuit bungalow and welcomed Gromovs "refreshments". The successful ascent to the mountain peak put us in a joyous mood unlike the previous day when the task before us made us rather tense. We were therefore inclined to partake liberally of Gromovs "refreshments". As for Gromov, apart from forcing us to consume more of the beverage, he made up for the disappointment of his failure to make it to the mountain peak by excessive consumption of "refreshments". Mrs. Gromov had prepared an excellent dinner - a fitting end to a glorious adventure. In their concern for others and their generosity, few could equal the Gromov couple. Gromovs left for Colombo fairly early the following morning as Gromov had to keep an important appointment. It was too early for me and I decided to return with M. J. Pereras family in their car a little later. We arrived in Colombo by about 10.15 a.m. For several days after my return home, I could not help but think nostalgically of Ritigala. The mystique of the mountain had cast a spell on me beckoning me to return.
It was 36 years later on the 16th of April 2000, that I went to the foot of Ritigala again. I could see some changes had taken place. The former cart-track from Galapitagala on the main road is now gravelled and motorable; there is an office of the Wild Life Department where one turns left to the cart track to the mountain; this road is inferior to the other and there is one muddy stretch which is difficult for vehicles; we however managed with difficulty to go without getting stuck. The dirt road lies through thick jungle for about 1 1/2 miles to the foot of the mountain where there is a new office of the Archaeological Department. Thus, we travelled by car to the very foot of the mountain which could be reached in 1966 only on foot.
There are wild elephants in the jungle and I was told by the people in the Archaeological Department office that three of their fellow workers had been killed recently by the wild elephants on the jungle dirt road. They also told us that wild elephants often come within a few feet of their office buildings at night. They feared to travel on the jungle road alone and it was their practice to go in company or get a lift in a visitors vehicle. Visitors are allowed to see the Maligatenna ruins but they have to be guided by a member of the Archaeological Department staff there; no one is allowed generally to proceed beyond that point: thus climbing the peak is not permitted except with written authority of the Wild Life Department. Anyway, I had not gone there with any intention of climbing; I only wanted to be near it to feel it and I spent a happy hour at the foot of the mountain just contemplating it.
I inquired for Sellathe at the village near Galapitagala, and found out that he had died some years back. I met his son and when I told him the story of how his father had guided me to the Ritigala peak, he said he too could take me there. Apparently, he had like his father, explored the mountain and knew its topography and like all villagers in the area he must have climbed the peak on routes known only to them - without the knowledge and permission of the Wild Life Department. I presented him in with a coloured photograph of his father on the Ritigala peak which I had been keeping for him for 34 years.
Apart from Sellathe some of those who assisted us, directly or indirectly are now dead Mahinda Silva, the Government Agent at Anuradhapura, D. B. Liayanagedera the DRO and A. B. Balalla the S.L.D.O. at Ganewalpola. The foreign diplomats who took apart in the climb left Sri Lanka within a year or two and I have had no contact with them. As for the inimitable Gromov, I have had no news about him although I made several inquiries. The journey to Ritigala was one of the greatest adventures in my life and will always live in my memory.
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