Mihintale after Mahinda Thera

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We commemorated Poson Poya this week. Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka on Poson Poya during the reign of King Devanampiya Tissa (247- 207 BC).  Emperor Ashoka sent his eldest son, ordained Mahinda Thera, on this Dhammaduta Mission. Everyone knows the wonderful story of the momentous meeting of the King and Bhikkhu at Mihintale, so I shall proceed from then on.

Mahinda Thera was invited to reside in Anuradhapura for which purpose a garden was created – the Mahamegha Uyana, in which, later, the sacred Bo sapling was planted. He, however, preferred to live in Mihintale and thus the wonderful sites and stupas, ponds and halls seen as ruins in this hilly area. He gave to the King and country the Theravada Canon of orthodox Buddhism that had come down the years in the oral tradition. In addition, his visit and conversion of the country to Buddhism ushered in a peaceful socio-religious revolution which also introduced a new civilisation of art and culture. Lanka reputedly had a degree of civilisation when Thera Mahinda arrived, and Buddhism surely would have been observed since there was trade and communication with India. Thera Mahinda’s visit converted the King, court and country to Buddhism.

Mihintale

The very ambience of Mihintale is arresting; a mixture of serenity, religiousness, history and a touch of the surreal, even mystic. At the base 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). The surrounding scrub jungle and particularly the frangipani trees with their large white flowers that line the sides of 1840 rock-hewn steps that lead to the sacred area constitute a forerunner to the sites that enthrall. 

After the steps is a wide area of flat land with a dagoba and the sheer roughly conical shaped rock. This is named Aradanagala. Its summit is 1000 feet (300 meters) above ground level and is believed to be the spot on which Thera Mahinda and his five companions stood watching King Devanampiya Tissa hot in pursuit of a deer. A huge stupa – Ambatthala Chetiya or Maha Stupa – is reached by climbing another flight of steps. Descending along a steep twisty path with steps cut in, or naturally carved, a flat rock face is seen with a sheer drop at one end. This is believed to have been Thera Mahinda’s bed. He was an Arahant, thus he could very well have slept on this stone slab.

Shrouded in an atmosphere of utter stillness imbued with an intangible air of mystery are two ponds which are rock-hewn. Kaludiya Pokuna, as its name implies – black water pool, roughly rectangular in shape. The water is so dark in colour that its depth cannot be gauged.

The other pond named Naga Pokuna, of almost the same size and more elliptical in shape, has at its farther edge where water meets rock, a five-headed cobra, etched in light relief. They go to show that many monks resided at Mihintale and needed not one pool but two for their daily baths: another indication of the large numbers who occupied the 68 rock hewn caves. There are two large stone troughs 23 feet in length that lie toward the bottom of the hill. The troughs were to cook rice served to the monks at the refectory

Mihintale is within the UNESCO demarcated Cultural Triangle and easily reached being 221 km distant from Colombo on broad roads through flat land. To savour its historicity one needs to have at least one full day and night within its ambience. Easily possible since hotels in Mihintale itself or at Anuradhapura cater to tourist needs. Many people just camp out. To Buddhists, Mihintale is of particularly significance and sacred since here is the spot where Buddhism was introduced; which if adopted as a way of life leads a person to the peace of sila and samadhi, infused with pragna – knowledge – and, ultimately, to the cessation of the samsaric cycle of births and deaths.

Personal note

I first went to Mihintale on pilgrimage by train from Kandy to Anuradhapura with my parents and some relatives when I was about six years old – ages ago! It was almost all forest-invaded. With Mother, a few of us were lost in the wilderness descending from one of the stupas to the level ground above the great flight of stone steps.

A Man Friday suddenly appeared much to Mother’s relief and answer to her prayers, she was certain. My next pilgrimage was when I was eight years with my grandparents in their car loaded with people, provisions and even pots and pans. Later visits showed the land progressively cleared and approach to the different sites made much easier. Watching aerial shots of Mihintale on this poya day, the extent of expansion and preservation and display of ruins was gauged, making Mihintale so different to its old self. The stark white Buddha statue on a hill is not of Mihintale vintage. I believe it was constructed and installed by orders of the then President, Ranasinghe Premadasa, after a successful Gam Udawa at Mihintale. To me it is a sacrilegious travesty to stick a new statue in a centuries old heritage site of great antiquity and historic and religions value. This shows no gratitude but personal hubris and disrespect to antiquity and history.

(Kumari)