History veiled in mystery

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If you fancy a hike through a forest related to many historical events and several fearing legends, while profiting the beauty and the serenity of nature, Ritigala is the perfect venue for that. Located around 40km away from the ancient and sacred city of Anuradhapura, Ritigala stands tall as a giant among other tourist attractions and peaks in the vicinity such as Sigiriya, Mihintale, and Dambulla.

The mountain is divided into northern and southern blocks by Maha-Degala Gorge of which the highest peak is found in the southern block. Situated at around 766m above sea level, and 600m above the surrounding plains, this mountain is significant for its abrupt sheerness of the massif, its wooded slopes, and the wet microclimate at the summit. Though the forest has been declared as one of the three strict nature reserves in Sri Lanka, a small portion of the land with numerous archaeological sites is open for the public. However, the place is likely to be omitted from their lists by both local and foreign tourist since it demands a long hike and some risky climbing towards the summit and takes quite a few hours to finish the tour. Yet, believe me, this is not a place to be missed, if you are visiting Anuradhapura area.

As soon as you pass the car park situated near the archaeological Department office at the bottom of the mountain, you enter into the thick forest, heavily shaded by towering canopies of trees and entangled wines that creep on the mossy trunks of closely standing tree giants. It is only the constant chirping of the cicadas and monkeys backed by random cries of a rare and endemic bird species that breaks the deafening silence of the dense forest. One could enjoy the bubbling streams flowing through rocks and trees that cool the forest, as one reaches the upper part of the forest. The significance of this mountain range is that it comprises three types of forests; the bottom part of the mountain range is Dry Mixed Evergreen Forest type, the middle part of the range is Tropical Montane Forest type and the highest terrain is of the Upper Montane Forest type. The mountain summit attracts more rainfall than the surrounding areas and while dry weather prevails at lower plains the peaks get cladded with clouds and mist, lowering the temperature at the summits.

Ritigala, in fact, is known to be the home for the mysteriously powerful herb called Sansevi which is believed to have the power of conferring long life and curing all human pain. Various other endemic and invaluable plants and herbs, which are used in medicine and timber industry, are also found in the strictly reserved crest of the mountain. There are interesting legends which say that there are powerful spirits called Yakkha, roaming in the forest to protect these invaluable plants. Another interesting fable exemplifying the origin of this special vegetation in the forest says that the mountain is a fallen part of the portion of Himalayan Mountain, heavily covered with rare medicinal herbs, which was brought to Sri Lanka by God Hanuman so that those plants could be used to treat the brother of Prince Rama, who was severely wounded in the war with King Ravana.

There is another more frightening tale associated with the forest which runs to the time of King Dutugemunu. According to the tale, there had been a fatal fight between a person called Jayasena and one of the king’s giants named Gotaimbara and Gotaimbara has kicked Jayasena so hard on the head that his head has been separated from the body. Seeing this, God Senasuru, has set the head of a bear on Jayasena’s headless body and given him life as a devil. Later on Jayasena has been called as Mahasona; a devil feared by rural folk even today. There are lots of villages who swear to have spotted the devil Mahasona and ghostly spirits in the forest at night. They believe the devil to be protecting the forest from those who try to destroy it.

Set the legends and myths aside, Ritigala, still has a very interesting history behind. As per the ruins found in several places on the mountain, the forest had been an ancient monastery build for Bikkhus who wished to get away from the mundane life and practice meditation in the wilderness. The massive man-made reservoir called Banda Pokuna, which is found near the entrance, is a feat of engineering with a bund of polygonal plan completing a circumference of 366 metres. It depicts much about the wonders of ancient architecture, irrigation and the culture of the monastery. There are other carved stones caves, stone double-platform structures called Padhanaghara, raised platforms formed by retaining walls of massive stones are found in pairs and linked together by a stone bridge, ruins of hospitals, and decorated urinals scattered around the forest to evidence the rich architecture and the civilisation of the era.

However, if you are visiting Ritigala, do not forget to take measures not to disturb the wildlife by any means while you enjoy the beauty and serenity of the mystic forest; throwing away trash, feeding animals or surpassing the boundaries marked by the authorities.

By Induwara Athapattu