Marvellous Mihintale but not a UNESCO World Heritage Site


National and religious attention is on Mihintale on this 19th day of June – Poson Poya day. It was on such a day 236 years after the death of the Buddha in 306 BC, that a momentous meeting took place between Venerable Mahinda Thera, son of Emperor Dharma Ashoka of India and the king of Lanka – Devanampiya Tissa (307-287 BC).

"Monks are we, O great King, disciples of the King of Truth.

Out of compassion for you have we come from Jambudipa"

said Thera Mahinda to King Devanampiyatissa after he had called out to him. The king stopped in his tracks, and looking up saw on a high rock a brown clad monk with four others similarly robed, and a lay person. The day being festive, the king had gone deer hunting to Missakha-pabbatha (now named Mihintale) eight miles north east of the capital city, Anuradhapura. He dropped his bow and arrow and saluted the saintly figure standing on a high rock. An intelligent conversation ensued. And thus the conversion of the king of Lanka and its people to the way of life as preached by Gautama Buddha.


UNESCO’s criteria and Mihintale’s


I found with some surprise that Mihintale, though within the demarcated Cultural Triangle, was not a UNESCO World Heritage site. The selected are the ancient cities of Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura and Sigiriya (1982); sacred city of Kandy (1988); Galle and its fortifications (1988); cave temples of Dambulla (1991) and the natural sites of Sinharaja Forest (1988) and Central Highlands (2010). Mihintale is not included as part of the sacred city of Anuradhapura. Thus for interest’s sake I went through UNESCO’s 10 criteria for selection of a building or place as a heritage site of outstanding universal value.

The first is that a site has to represent a masterpiece of human creative genius. We could pass that.

The second is exhibiting an important interchange of human values. There was a most significant interchange of values at Mihintale when Mahinda Thera preached to King Devanampiya Tissa the doctrine of the Buddha. What greater value than a philosophy and perfect way of life as preached by the Buddha. The values imparted on that Poson day more than 2300 years ago are fast spreading in the world as more acknowledge the Dhamma introduced by the Buddha.

The third criterion is to be a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization … Here Mihintale definitely scores. With the introduction of Buddhism to Lanka there occurred a resurgence of a civilization that was in the island, but with a socio–cultural impact which resulted in a new tradition and saw the development of sculpture, art, even painting with stupas and viharas being constructed.

The fourth criterion stipulates that to be declared a World Heritage site a place must be an outstanding example of a type of building, of architecture or a landscape which illustrates a significant stage in human history. Mihintale definitely does this.

Firstly it represents a significant stage in this island’s history and so of human history. It could be safely said that it is the most important historical event of the country because the people of the land, and the traditions and culture changed so much, with the introduction of the way of life as preached by the Buddha and transferred by Mahinda Thera, further cementing the ties between India and Lanka, and later lands in Asia which received Buddhism.

Regards the buildings, architecture and landscape, consider the hill of Mihintale with its towering Aradhanagala and the huge Ambatthala Chetiya or Maha Stupa. Consider the two unique rock-hewn ponds. Kaludiya pokuna, cupped by dark granite, 200 feet long and 70 feet wide, and roughly rectangular in shape. The water is so dark that its depth cannot be gauged nor the bottom of the pool seen. The other pond, named Naga Pokuna of almost the same size has at its farther edge where water meets rock, a five-headed cobra, etched in light relief. A flat long stone with a smooth surface is venerated as Mahinda Thera’s bed, so it is almost five centuries old.

Almost at the bottom of the hill is a stone trough for immersing patients in medicines in the believed-to-be first hospital in the world (885-887 AD). 1,840 steps which must have been hewn of stone buried in the ground long, long ago are still the same that pilgrims tread to reach the summit. Two large stone troughs 23 feet in length lie in the flat area toward the bottom of the hill. These are believed to be of the monks’ refectory used for dishing out cooked rice. Thus the wonder of buildings and ancient amenities in Mihintale of architectural significance.

The landscape as seen on Mihintale and down below is spectacular, immersed in an atmosphere of sanctity and history.

The fifth criterion is that the site has to be an outstanding traditional human settlement. Mihintale was an ancient settlement of Buddhist monks who lived a traditional life observing the vinaya rules set down by the Buddha. It is believed that Mahinda Thera refused to make his abode in the Maha Megha Uyana constructed for him in Anuradhapura. He and his followers lived in 68 caves dotting the hillside of Mihintale. So here was a traditional settlement, albeit of Buddhist monks. The existence of two ponds and the vast troughs for serving rice are further indications of a large community resident here.

The sixth criterion further promotes this fifth stipulation: to be directly and traditionally associated with living traditions. Yes, because Buddhism is a living tradition in this land and its beginning is traced to this site.

The seventh criterion goes thus: to contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty or aesthetic importance. The hill of Mihintale has a charm of its own at all hours of the day and night. The verdant paddy fields and jungle areas interspersed with irrigation tanks and in the distance the dagobas (stupas) of Anuradhapura spread out below and visible from all edges of the flat spaces and precipitous inclines of the hill of Mihintale, is scenic.

The eighth criterion specifies the presence of outstanding examples representing major stages of the earth’s history, including the record of life. This is not relevant to the question at hand, as are the next two criteria which deal with natural resources and scenic beauty. Sri Lanka’s two World Heritage sites under these last two stipulations are the Sinharaja Forest and the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka.

To us Buddhists, Mihintale holds a special place in our minds, hearts and way of thinking and behaving. Buddhism which is the religion followed by more than 70% of the population was introduced at Mihintale with a very receptive and intelligent king understanding Ven Thera Mahinda’s discourse and questions.

Mihintale is wondrous seen in Poson Poya moonlight when the full moon appears extra large and a mite closer at hand. Mihintale is unique and wonderful in its stillness and natural beauty. Both now are sadly marred by insensitive pilgrims who throng the place, especially at the Poson Poya with scant respect for silence, genuine piety and regard for the surroundings.

Mihintale is significant as a national heritage site since it was here that a renaissance of sorts occurred in the third century BC. With the gentle religion introduced, a new way of life was adopted and a cultural heritage born of which we are duly proud.



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