Kurugala: A hike a stone’s throw away
By Sanuj Hathurusinghe
Not so far away from Padukka - a rapidly urbanising town on the edge of the Colombo District - is Kurugala Sri Shailantharama Vihara, Liyanwala. The ancient Buddhist temple is unique for many reasons. The entrance to the main terrace of the temple is through a unique makara thorana which is rather different and modern compared to the traditional makara thorana. Space for the image house of the temple which lies beneath a rock is made by carving deep into a large boulder. The main Buddha statue and the chamber it is in are all carved out of the stone, just like the Gal Vihara Buddha statues in Polonnaruwa. It is said that the Buddha statue in the image house has taken 50 years to complete.
The uniqueness of the temple may attract many a devotee but what attracts travellers to the temple is what stands behind the temple - the 100-metre tall boulder called Kurugala.
The Kurugala hike is a relatively easy one, not necessarily because the path to the top is an easy one but because it is a rather short climb. The main path to the top of Kurugala is through the temple and it is advised to take this route and to obtain permission before climbing Kurugala. There is another lesser-trodden route to the top which doesn’t involve going through the temple but it is better to take the main route, purely because of the amount of risk the other route entails.
From the temple, a stone-paved step path will lead you to the top of Kurugala. The ancient stepping stones have found comfort in merging with the background and are surrounded by roots of trees. Although this gives the footpath a nice naturalistic and aesthetic allure, it doesn’t make the climb any easier. To help the weary climber to the top, a metal handrail is placed from the beginning of the footpath all the way to the top. The uneven steps riddled with roots will soon have you panting but the green foliage arching over you will make most of your climb a cool and shady one.
The last bit of the Kurugala climb is an open climb along the rock slope. Although the handrail is there to help you to the top, it is better to avoid drizzling days for the climb as the slope can get quite slippery.
The top of Kurugala is made into a Buddhist place of worship with a newly-built Samadhi Buddha statue and a small stupa. The modernity somewhat kills the naturalistic vibe at the top but if you are the religious type, you won’t mind this much since the statue and the stupa are easy on the eye and aesthetically pleasing.
The best time to top Kurugala is either in the morning or in the afternoon. The harsh rays of the mid-day sun might take some joy out of the hike and the contrast will make the visibility, low. On clear days with the right amount of sunlight, you will see Sri Pada from atop Kurugala. The overall greenery below you will make you wonder if you are actually in the Colombo District. If you need a reality check you can always squint and look towards the West where you will see Nelum Kuluna and other skyscrapers of the Colombo District on the horizon, assuring you that you are not that far away from the hustle and bustle of city life.
The geography-savvy among you, will recognise Kalutara, Ayagama Mountains in the distance as well as Thoranakotha Peak. Labugama Peak which is the highest point in the Colombo District can also be seen in the vicinity.
The top of Kurugala offers an almost complete 360 degree panoramic view except for the side where Kodigala - an adjoining mountain which is slightly taller than Kurugala - blocks a section of the view. On top of Kodigala is a transmission tower, surrounded by a vast pineapple plantation. One can always get permission and get to the top of Kodigala for a much elevated view but as far as the overall hiking experience goes, the Kurugala hike is the better among the two.
The small forest surrounding Shailantharama Vihara and Kurugala houses lots of caves and ancient archaeological monuments which are protected. Some of these caves are inhibited by meditating monks who require solitude and tranquillity. However, devotees are allowed to bring alms and visit these monks in their caves on Sundays. If you plan your trip to Kurugala on a Sunday, you will not only have the Kurugala mini-adventure crossed off your bucket list but will also experience some spiritual bliss after meeting meditating monks and listening to a bana sermon.
(Pix by Kelum Chamara)