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Mihintale Sri Lanka


This is a monastic city of caves, temples and ruins, where Buddhhism first took hold on the island and left behind an assortment of relics and monuments on the rocky hillside.

The history of Mihintale is the history of Sri Lanka Buddhism, which begains with the story of an Indian missionary called Mahinda, since this is, literally, mahinda’s Mountain. This was where King Devampiyatissa met with a strange hunting accident that led to his conversion. He was on a deer hunt one day in the year 247BC when his quarry gave him an unexpected jolt. Instead of the deer he expected to uncover, he found a man in monk’s robes. It was the indian prince mahinda, sent on a mission by his father, King Tissa, who with the Zeal of a recent convert had imprinted his new-founded religion on his own country and was looking to spread thev word. Buddhism soon overwhelmed the island, embraced with fervour by the Sinhalese people, Whilst in India it declined. Always happy to backdate for spiritual puposes, the legend claims that the Buddha himself sanctified this mountain three centuries before the advent of mahinda. Regardless of your beliefs, the beautiful shrines, stupas, caves, and above all the wondrous setting, make Mihintale unforgettable.

All over the world high places are given religious significance, with the result that devotees are always climbing steps-sometimes on their kness. The three flights of steps at Mihintale, totalling1,840, take the pilgrim through the shadows of the spreading temple trees to the summit. They were built in the regin of Bhathika Abhaya (22BC to AD7), but a later paved road provides a short cut. The first flight of steps is wide and shallow. The climb is sufficient to require regular deep breaths and a meditative pace.

At the end of the first flight to your right is the 2nd century BC Kantaka Cetiya, one of the earlist religious monuments on the island, excavated in 1934. the 130-metre (425ft) base consists of three giant steps of dressed stone, a characteristic of sinhalese stupas. Above them the dome has worn down to resemble a heap of masonry, reaching 12 metres (40ft) in height. It would originally have been much more impressive at over 30metres (100ft) high.

The highlights of the building are the four ornamental facades called vahalkadas facing the cardinal points. The eastern facade is the best preserved with horizontal rows of carvings separated by strips of plain stone. There are beautiful frizes of dwarfs and elephants among the symbloic patterns, and on either side the wall is finished off with a tall carved pillar holding rather weathered lions aloft. The south facade also has some very ornate pillars carved with symbolic animals and plants. There is also a small relief figure of a naga, which is one of the earliest figure sculptures on the island. Despite its worn apperance, you can see that it is gracefully posed with the weight on one leg, so even in these archaic times the Sinhalese sculptors were very sophisticated.

South of this ancient stupa is something even older: an inscription on a rock in large Brahmi characters – the forerunner to the pali script. It is found on a tury BC. These rock shelters constitute the bare minimum in desirable residences. A channel was carved in the overhanging boulder to act as a dripstone moulding and help keep out the rain, but that was all. If you crawl through the cave yoy will find a sheer cliff face where the resident monks would sit on narrow ledges for a spot of meditation. Thousands of them perched on the precipice like sleeping cormorants; cross-legged and sublimely unaffected by vertigo.

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