The Rock Temple at Mulkirigala


By Siri Ipalawatte

In the morning sunshine a couple of monkeys sprawled lazily beside the little white dagoba. Belly up, the small sunbathers looked outrageously human, as if deliberately apeing the tired pilgrims who are enjoying a few minutes rest at the top. With their imposing air, the monkeys appeared to be the de facto heirs of the rock, sneeringly ignoring larger primates – like me – who scaled slowly up and exclaimed the panoramic views over the surrounding landscape.

Nestled away among coconut trees and paddy fields, the most physically striking rock temple in the south of Sri Lanka, known as Mulkirigala, rises about 206 metres from the surrounding land mass. The rock temple, which has a little of Dambulla and Sigiriya about it, can be reached from the Beliatta – Weeraketiya main road and turning off at Mulkirigala junction.

Why was the temple scooped out of this particular magma mound in the middle of the green forest of coconut trees in southern Sri Lanka? Although its genesis is uncertain, it is evident from several Brahmi inscriptions carved along drip ledges of the rock, the temple was founded around 130 BC by King Saddatissa. According to the legend, the King was hunting in this area and a Veddah had informed the King that there was a rock suitable for constructing a temple. The King went with the Veddah and found that the rock shown was indeed suitable and said ‘Mu Kiv gala’ is good. Although the Chronicle is silent, the origin of this cave temple may date back to the 2nd century BC. A donator inscription at Mulkirigala dated back to the 7th century indicates that this temple was a prestigious temple during that time. A 12th century inscription found at Mulkirigala indicates that this was called ‘Muhundgiri’ temple built by King Kavantissa during the 2nd century BC.

The Portuguese saw nothing in this mass of gneiss to plunder, just as they had the Hindu temple on the coast at Dondra. The Dutch initially confused themselves by identifying the hill as *Adam Berg*– the grave of Adam and Eve because oa early Dutch soldier in 1663 wrote of it ‘*one sees also still at this day the image of Adam formed on earth, of remarkable size lying on the hill*’. After about a century the Dutch Governor Williem Falk, however was able to realise the mistake and dropped the name Adam’s Berg. The temple was restored during the reign of King Keerthi Sri Rajasinghe of Kandy, when most of the caves were painted.

Pali manuscripts found in the monastic library here by a scholarly British colonial administrator named George Turnour in 1826 were used for the first translation of the Mahavamsa, which unlocked more than two thousands years of the Sri Lanka’s history. Turnour’s discovery made it possible for the Mahavamsa to be translated first into English and then into Sinhala.

Climbing up through a fascinating path made by cutting steps in to the living rock– and at one place a flight of almost perpendicular steps must be climbed with the aids of an iron chain – you’ll encounter a number of caves on five levels. It was nice to pause and ponder at each level as I admired the colours and the work of the painters and sculptors of the days gone by. Housed in the caves are a number of large reclining Buddha statues combined with smaller sitting and standing figures. The 15 m length recumbent Buddha statue in one of the caves on the largest terrace – Raja Maha vihara – was magnificent, with its watchful features in a massive towering body, the facial expression changing as light is thrown from different angles.

Competing with these for your attention are some fantastic and intriguing wall paintings, depicting sinners pleasuring themselves with forbidden fruit on Earth and then paying for it with an afterlife of eternal torture. As in most ancient paintings in Sri Lanka, there is little use of black colour, but mostly red, yellow and white. As the painter intended, your eyes are drawn to the patches of red. Everything else is secondary.The cave complexes are testimony to the artistry and reverent diligence of Ruhuna sculptors and painters

who created majestic temples out of living rock.

I stopped and looked up the last terrace where it has the dagoba. Pilgrims were making their way reverently along the path, all of them in bare feet. It was not a hard climb to the top but my age and the mandatory lack of footwear had me breathless at time. However, I was encouraged by the five year old before me who refused to be carried by his father. From the summit, where a small dagoba and image house is located, the view that cannot be obtained anywhere in the south of Sri Lanka, is breathtaking, especially in the mellow glow of morning sun.

Then I heard whispers of Buddhist chanting; a few novice monks are praying on the other side of the dagoba. I don’t know whether I reached the level of spiritual inspiration the monks are having, but that pleasing sounds was something I’ll never forget. Grounded in history and tradition, the Mulkirigala Temple built its charisma overtime. Visiting the temple stirred a sense of purpose and belonging – an act of fulfillment.

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...