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Mulgirigala (Mulkirigala) rock monastery, Sri Lanka

A hike up a rock, Buddhist temples, Ancient paintings, Sri Lanka's Rosetta Stone-Tika, i.e commentaries on Mahawamsa

Mulkirigala (Mulgirigala) is a village in Sri Lanka located near Viraketiya in the Giruva Pattuva of the district of Hambantota of Southern Province of the ancient tropical island of Sri Lanka. Mulkirigala is a convenient half a day excursion from the pristine tropical bay beaches of Sri Lanka Holidays Tangalle of Southern Coastal Belt. Then again, Mulkirigala (also called Mulgirigala) of Southern Province has been a tourist attraction in its own right in view of its historical Buddhist rock cave temple monastery reminiscent of Golden Dambulla Rock Cave Temple at Dambulla of North Central Province of Sri Lanka.

Sinhalese haven't spared too many plugs of rocks, monolithic crags, slabs of gneiss or caves. Then again those were saved to be graced, exclusively with sacred architecture, in turn, converting those almost inaccessible hills to Buddhist monasteries. It is a delightful aspect which enlightens us, how once again, one of the three pillars of the ancient Sinhalese, namely, the temple, held the limelight together with village reservoir & stupa.

Mulgiriga rock cave monastery, with its remarkable history & unrivalled setting is a prime destination. The monastery has a great historical significance dating back to 2nd century B.C. Sri Lanka Holidays Mullkirirgala Rock Cave Temple, reminiscent of the famous Golden Dambulla Rock CaveTemple, is one of the 64 temples built by King Kavantissa, father of Dutugemunu [161-137 BC] The Hero of the Nation, who reigned in Mahagama, a principality in the ancient kingdom of Ruhuna of Sri Lanka. King Kavantissa is credited with having erected a golden Buddha statue 18 cubits in length, in one of the caves at Mulkirigala Rock Cave Temple. According to the legend, on the advice of arhath (Buddhist monks who had achieved the state of Supreme Enlightenment), a lamp that burn with Mustard oil is believed to have been lit so that it could last for 5,000 years, till the birth of next Buddha, Maithreeya.

"The history of Mulgirigala, the striking temple rock in the Giruva Pattuva west of the Hambantota district is obscure, owing to the fact that neither in the Dipavamsa nor in the Mahavamsa is any mention made of such a place as Mulagiri. But that rock has been the abode of Buddhist monks from very early times is proved by the ancient inscriptions to be found there; and that a Vihara was established there sometime before the Christian era is in the highest degree probable"
JRASCB - The Journal of The Royal Asiatic Society (Ceylon Branch) Vol. XX11 P.197

The Mahawamsa records King Saddatissa (137 BC-118 BC) that built the stupa on the summit & enshrined relics of Buddha. One of the seven stupas at Mulgirigala was constructed by King Datusena (461-479 AD, father of Sigiri Kassapa, the builder of Sri Lanka Holidays Lion Rock Citadel Sigiriya. During the reign of King Agbo, Giri Vehera was constructed. The temple was further developed when his second son, King Valagambahu [103, 89-76 BC], the builder of Sri Lanka Holidays Golden Dambulla Rock Cave Temple, ascended the throne for the second time in 89 BC. Renovation work was carried out by King Kirti Sri Rajasinghe (1747-1780 AD).

25 minutes journey from Tangalle

25 minutes journey in-land from the beautiful south western beaches of Dikwella or Tangalla Bay Beach in the district of Hambantota (Port of the Moors) "The singular eminence" with an "air of awesome grandeur" is one enormous boulder rising almost perpendicularly from the surrounding plains, of palm trees, except for one side, which is sloped.

533 steps to the summit

We will be climbing 533 steps to the summit. The steps, although uneven in certain places, are well maintained & the tricky flight to the top can be tough but enjoyable. We commence the ascent to the summit of the sacred rock at the dwellings of the bhikkus (Buddhist priests) at the base. A stone path soon gives way to a flight of steps leading to the flank of the rock.

The first terrace

These steps end at the first terrace, where there is a Bo tree & twin cave temples known as the Paduma Rahat Viharaya with two 14 m Buddha statues in the state of Parinirvana (final extinction-eternal release from the suffering of the cycle of life death & rebirth) & images of Hindu deities God Kataragama, God Vishnu & local deity God Vibishana among others. The interior walls & ceiling of the Paduma Rahat Viharaya are covered with fine murals-some very old, some not so old, but all of them are equally intriguing.

The second terrace

Then we climb once again till the second terrace called Madamaluwa (middle courtyard) on which is situated the Madamaluwa Viharaya. Mulgirigala is another excellent example of an ancient living temple, as it is an important destination for devotees, & this terrace with its shrines is an ideal place to witness their devotions. These shrines are popular with devotees since it is believed that favours asked here are invariably granted. Plenty of vendors to offer you hot Belimal tea (herbal flowers boiled in water) drunk with solid coconut honey called jaggery. There are fresh divul (woodapple) fruit-drink.

The third terrace

Once again we climb along, but now a steep ascent till we turn into a flight of steps hewn from the solid rock, to reach the third & largest terrace, the location of four cave temples. The main temple, the Raja Maha Viharaya, is an ancient temple with a recumbent Buddha statue 15m in length. It is believed to be one of the 64 temples erected by King Kavantissa, father of the hero of the nation, King Dutugemunu (161-136 BC) of Ruhuna.

Three more temples

The other three temples are Aluth Viharaya, Naga Viharaya & the Pirinivan Viharaya. The pond right in front of Naga Viharaya is believed to cure female infertility. The pond also bears a 12th century inscription in Sinhala giving the ancient name of Mulgirigala as Muhundgiri.

The fourth terrace & the legend of the great snake

The ascent to next terrace, the penultimate one, being so steep, we will be climbing with an aid of an iron chain. Now the terrace. It is possible to look down a fissure extending almost all the way down to the ground level, a phenomenon attributed by legend to a great snake that sprang from a tree up at the rock, splitting it asunder. If a couple of coincidences could have caused it, then the snake causing such an impact on a rock ought to have been as large as an Anaconda. South American name Anaconda is said to have been derived from Sinhalese name, Henakadaya. Among many other dictionaries, The American Dictionary of the English Language indicates that the name could be an alteration of Sinhalese Henakandaya. Then again it must have fallen exactly on a fault line of the rock. Then again, that would call for you to stretch your credulity a bridge too far. So we refrain from insisting on the legend. But then again the legends too, like everything else have some origins.

The final climb & the panoramic view

The final climb is a steeper one. We pass a Bodhi tree believed to be one of the saplings of the Sacred Sri Maha Bodhi tree at Anuradhapura, before reaching the summit with a renovated stupa, image house & a temple. A tricky bend takes you to the summit. We have a panoramic view stretching to the southern coast. Mulgirigala contain many beautiful wall paintings based on Jataka (550 previous births of Buddha) stories. These wall paintings are different from Kandyan era paintings. The paintings that show women playing musical instruments are unique to Mulgirigala. The archaeologists say that the painting style is unique to Mulgirigala and differ from the Kandyan style. They also contain images that are more real than Kandyan paintings and contain more colours.

Colonial Civil Servant George Turnour's Discovery of Ceylon's Rosetta Stone

It was George Turner's discovery of Sri Lanka's Rosetta Stone, the Vamsattappakasini or the Tika (ancient Sinhala: commentaries) on Mahavamsa at Mulkirigala (Mulgirigala) rock cave temple in 1827 that ultimately opened the vast storehouse of knowledge found in Pali in Sinhala script to the European scholars.

Donald Ferguson (1853 -1910), a British Colonialist civil servant in Ceylon narrates:
It is, perhaps, owing to somewhat isolated position that Mulkirigala is so little heard of in the history of Ceylon; and to this fact probably is due the fortunate circumstance that its collection of manuscripts is one of the most valuable of temple libraries in the island. It was from this library that Turner obtained, in 1827, a transcript of the tika or commentary, on the Mahavamsa, which afforded him so much help in translating the latter work. From about the middle of the 17th century Mulkirigala (Mulgirigala) temple erroneously named Adam's Berg, was visited by many. Often it was hopelessly confused with Adam's Peak. This was cleared in 1766 by then Dutch Governor of the coastal regions of Ceylon, Jman William Falck. JRASCB Vol. XX11, p 199

Sri Lanka is unique in the possession of a historical record called "Mahavamsa", so ancient, continuous and trustworthy, beginning with the arrival of Indo Aryans from Vanga Kingdom of India (Modern Bengal) in the 5th century B.C.which gave birth to the Sinhalese Buddhist Civilization and then onwards continuing the history, under each successive King, for twenty two centuries.

The Mahavamsa is primarily a dynamic and religious history as well, but it narrates the invasions and destruction by the marauding Dravidians from Southern India, survival of Sinhalese Buddhist civilization of Sri Lanka, development of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, and the development of ancient irrigation network that consists of man-made rainwater reservoirs and canals. The peerless poem in elegant Pali language was compiled initially in the sixth century AD by Buddhist monk Mahanama & continued by Buddhist monk Dhamma kitti and a succession of Sinhalese Buddhist Scholars. Buddhist Monk Mahanama was an uncle of King Dhatusena, father of King Kashayapa (479-497 AD) who built Lion Rock Citadel Sigiriya.

The scholarship of the Buddhist monks at the ancient monasteries of Sri Lanka is narrated by Sir James Emerson Tennent, Colonial Secretary in Ceylon (1845-1850) in his masterpiece titled "Ceylon, An Account Of the Island; Physical, Historical, Topographical", Year 1859, Longman, London. "There the temples were asylums for the studious and learned, and to the present day, some of the priests of Matara and Mulgirigalle are accomplished scholars in Sanskrit and Pali and possess rich collection of Buddhist manuscripts and books."

Mulgirigala wasn't simply true to the tradition of prominent Buddhist temples. Mulgirigala rock cave temple was leaps and bounds above the others. In spite of the recurrent invasions by the Dravidian marauders from Southern India during the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa periods, in spite of the destruction of Buddhist temples during Portuguese, Dutch and the British of the colonial era, Mulgirigala rock cave temple held fast on to the priceless storehouse of literature and history. The Temple possessed all the commentaries, sub commentaries and other ancillary works of entire Pali Cannon of Tripitaka in Ola leaves in Sinhala script. Also, its collection of Ola books contains all the literary works of Pali and Sinhala. In addition, it has important Sanskrit works also in Sinhala script. In another turn of events, the discovery of commentaries on historical, literary and Buddhist works also resulted in the formation of the Pali Text Society in London. The Mahawamsa is substantiated and authenticated not only by thousands of ancient and medieval monuments in the form of Buddhist temples, stupas and thousands of rainwater reservoirs and canals, but also by a large number of inscriptions in Sri Lanka: the total number of already discovered inscriptions exceeds 3000. Many more lithic records are being discovered in Sri Lanka. The earliest inscriptions are contemporary with the introduction of Buddhism in the 3rd century B.C. Sri Lanka's vast body of inscriptions were translated into English by Don Martino De Zilva Wickremasinghe (Sinhalese), H.W. Codrington (British Colonial Civil Servant in Ceylon), Illustrious Dr. Senarat Paranavitana (the first Sinhalese Commissioner ofArcheology at Department of Archeology of Ceylon, 1940-1956) in 4 volumes during 1904-1934 & published in London, United kingdom by Humphrey Milford Oxford University Press, Amen House, E.C. under the title of "Archaeological Survey of Ceylon: Epigraphia Zeylanica being Lithic and other inscriptions of Ceylon."

Brahmi Inscriptions at Mulkirigala (Mulgirigala) rock cave temple monastery

Inscription: bata cudatisaha ena
Translation: The cave of Lord Culatissa
Inscription: majhima banaka bata upasonaha lena agata anagata
Translation: The cave of Lord Upasona, the reciter of the Majjhima Nikaya (is given to the sangha of the four quarters,) present and absent.

According to the Sri Lanka's foremost archeologist late Dr. Senerath Paranavitana, who edited these inscriptions among thousands of others, Mulkirigala (Mulgirigala) rock cave temple monastery belongs to the early form of Brhami script of 3rd century B.C. to the 2nd century B.C. The inscriptions reveal that the caves have been an adobe of Sangha, the Buddhist monks of Sri Lanka. Furthermore, Cyril Wace Nicholas (C. W. Nicholas authored "A concise history of Ceylon: from the earliest times to the arrival of the Portuguese in 1505" together with Dr. Senerath Paranavitana) revealed that the temple names Samudda-Vihara, Samuddagiri and Muhundgiri indicated in the "Dhatuvamsaya" (Sinhala: Genelogy of Buddhist Relics), the thirteenth century Sinhala chronicle, is in fact, no other than Mulgirigala. The Pali language version of "Dhatuvamsaya" too indicates "Samudda Vihara" as one of the 500 temples built by King Kavan Tissa (205 B.C.-161 B.C.), the father of the "Hero of the Nation", King Dutugemunu (161 B.C.-137 B.C.), the builder of Ruwan Veli Saya (Sinhala: Golden Sand Stupa) of Sri Lanka Holidays . The inscription found at the bottom of the pond on the summit of the Mulkirigala (Mulgirigala) rock cave temple monastery indicates that the ancient name was Muhundagiri. Translated into Sinhala from Pali, the name becomes "Samuddagiri" as revealed by the "Dhatuvamsaya". The next form of transformation of name in Sinhala is found in the chronicles of "Pujavaliya" & "Piruvana Pota".

Mulkirigala (Mulgirigala) rock cave temple monastery during the Kandyan Period of Sri Lanka

During the reign of King Kirti Sri Rajasinha (1749-1781), the great Buddhist revivalist, the Mulkirigala once again became renowned as a Sinhalese Buddhist academic center. The present line of Buddhist monks at Mulkirigala finds its origin to the medieval era of King Kirti Sri Rajasinha, who had appointed Most Venerable Velivita Sri Sarankara Sanghraja to the post of high priest of the monastic academic center.

As Professor Senaka Bandaranayake elaborated in his "The Rock and Wall Paintings in Sri Lanka", Mulkirigala is a living testimony to the transmission or reintroduction of the mural tradition from Kandy to the southern region in the latter half of the 18th century, Rev. James Cordiner, A. M. (Author of A description of Ceylon, containing an Account of the Country, Inhabitants, and Natural Productions, &c. late Chaplain to the Garrison of Colombo, Ceylon during 1799-1804), who visited Mulgirigala, had left a vivid description of the temple. Heydt's Ceylon, translated and notes by R. Raven-Hart, Colombo, 1952, p5

"The stupendous mountain stones, called by the Dutch Adam's Breech or Berg, by the Sinhalese Muleteer Lena (Inhale: Mulgiri cave) alias Mulgeere gala (Sinhala: Mulgiri Rock), is one entire rock of smooth surface, rising in the form of a cube, on two sides completely perpendicular. From a measurement lately made it was found to be only three hundred feet; it strikes the beholder, however, as being much more; and the Sinhalese, the only inhabitants of this part of the country, say, that by dropping a rope from the top to the bottom of the rock, they ascertained the height to be three hundred and forty cubits. We ascended its highest summit, on the side where the rising is gentler, by a winding flight of stairs, formed of five hundred and forty five deep steps of hewn stones. These stairs must have been a work of prodigious labor, and are said to have been constructed fifteen hundred years ago, at a period long before European Conquerors made their appearance in the island. At one place it is necessary to ascend a part of the rock which is nearly perpendicular. These twenty hollow steps are hewn out of the stones on a smooth surface, by the side of which is hung an iron chain to assist the traveler in climbing. To render the ascent less dangerous, it is prudent to put off ones shoes; but coming down is attended with more difficulty, and require still greater caution. A journey up such a flight of steps affords powerful exercise to the lungs: and, under the full blaze of meridian sun, the excessive heat cannot be described. On the summit, which is circular and level, stands a bell-shaped tomb of Buddha, similar to that which accompanies every temple dedicated to the Sinhalese divinity. From this eminence we are gratified with a sight of one of the most luxuriant which imagination cannot conceive."

Mulkirigala Rock Cave Temple attracts the local Sinhalese tourists as well as the foreign tourists, the holiday makers at Sri Lanka Holidays. The Sri Lanka Beach lovers, who relax and rejuvenate at the pristine, secluded palm fringed beaches at Tangalle, don't fail to make half-a-day excursion to Mulkirigala.


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Mulkirigala Rock Monastery

Mulkirigala Rock Monastery

Mulkirigala Rock Monastery

Mulkirigala Rock Monastery

Mulkirigala Rock Monastery

Mulkirigala Rock Monastery

Mulkirigala Rock Monastery

Mulkirigala Rock Monastery

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