In about the fifth decade of the 2nd century BCE King Asoka held a great council in his capital Pataliputra. Disputes over points of Dhamma were settled, corrupt monks were expelled from the sangha and a decision was made to send missionary monks to the different regions and even beyond. Mahinda, King Asoka’s son, was selected to head a mission to the southern regions. The princely monk and his companions left Pataliputra for Videsha where they stayed for a while, probably at the great monastery at Sanchi. Legend says Mahinda flew from there to Sri Lanka but a very ancient tradition from south India attributes the introduction of Buddhism to that region to Mahinda so it is likely he was active there for some time before going to Sri Lanka. Whatever the case, the mission probably landed at Gokanna (ancient Trincomalee) and eventually stopped at a mountain just out of Anuradhapura. The king Devanampiya Tissa together with some of his courtiers were hunting on the mountain when they quite suddenly saw the yellow robed strangers. The king was somewhat taken aback by the monks but Mahinda reassured him saying; ‘Oh great king, we are monks, disciples of the King of Truth. We have come from India out of compassion to you’. Having put the king at his ease Mahinda then asked him a series of questions meant to test his powers of comprehension. Having passed this test Mahinda then taught the king and his retinue the Dhamma. Having invited the monks to come to Anuradhapura the next day the king returned to the city to make preparations for their arrival. The next day Mahinda preached to the royal household but the common folk who had of course no access to the palace were clamoring to hear the new teaching as well. So later huge crowds assembled in the elephant stables and Mahinda taught the Dhamma to them there.
Soon the pilgrim will see the ruins of an ancient hospital surrounded by lovely mango trees. The entrance is on the southern side where a gatehouse leads to an outer courtyard. On the right is the remains of what was probably a hot water bath or perhaps a steam bath. Beyond this a flight of stairs leads to the accommodation area. There are rooms for 27 patients and four larger rooms for other purposes all built around a courtyard with a small shrine in its middle. In the large room on the north east is a stone medical bath. The bottom of this bath slopes feetwards and there is a depression for the buttocks. The purpose of such baths is not certain but they were probably used for immersing patients in medicinal oils. Hospitals like this one were not meant for the general population but for the monks and staff of the main monastery. During excavations a clay jar with a blue glaze similar to that known from Iran was found. The Culavamsa mentions that a hospital was built at Mihintale.
The Great Stairway
Leaving the hospital and walking towards the foot of the mountain the pilgrim will arrive at the great stairway that leads up Mihintale. This stairway is 1000 feet long with 1840 steps and is one of the largest and most impressive flights of stairs to be seen anywhere. As you ascend notice the length of some of the stone steps and imagine the labor needed to cut, dress, transport and place them. Halfway up on the left are the numerous pillars of a ruined monastery. Towards the top another stairway on the right leads to the Khantika Stupa. Reaching the top of the stairs and passing through the gatehouse the pilgrim will enter Mahintale’s first level.
Turning left the pilgrim will come to the main refectory. Along the north and east walls of the refectory are two stone rice troughs the larger one being 23 feet long. The size of these troughs suggest that they provided rice to a very large numbers of monks, certainly more than could have been accommodated in the modestly sized refectory itself. It seems likely therefore that monks received their meals here and then took it somewhere else to eat. Note also the elaborate drainage system, the overhead water pipes and the small game boards calved on the paving stones where the kitchen staff would have played some sort of game in their spare time. An inscription tells us that there were 12 cooks who were employed in this refectory, as well as a warden and several servants whose job it was to provide firewood.
The Main Shrine
Directly above the refectory but approached by a flight of stairs is the Mahintale’s main shrine. On either side of the door are two huge slabs of stone with a long inscription on them. The surface of these slabs is polished and the letters on it are beautifully inscribed. The inscription, by King Mahinda IV, is one of the longest and most interesting from ancient Sri Lanka and tells us a great deal about what life was like at Mihintale.
Proceeding towards the foot of the hill the pilgrim will see one of the most interesting ancient hydraulic works in Sri Lanka, a fountain consisting of a lion frozen in the act of pouncing with a water tank above it. The lion and part of the tank are carved out of a single mass of rock. When the tank was being cut one side was not sufficient to form the whole so another piece of stone was added. This second piece of stone fits in place so perfectly as to be waterproof. Around the top of the tank pillared panels with figures of dances, wrestlers, elephants, dwarfs and musicians carved in them. Water was piped from the Naga Pond further up the mountain into this tank and from there out of the lion’s mouth. This water would not have been used for drinking but for bathing and washing.
Having seen everything on the lower terrace now take the stairs leading further up the mountain. Towards the top of the stairs the pilgrim will notice a path leading off to the right. Proceed along it through the jungle and you will arrive at the Naga Pond, so called because of the huge seven headed Naga calved out of the cliff at the back of the pond. Originally there must have been a small natural pond here but as the demand for water on Mihintale grew this was enlarged and deepened by constructing an embankment around it. The Mahavamsa calls this place the Nagacatukka and says that Mahinda used to bathe here. The large area of exposed rock above the pond acted as a catchment area. Stone pipes from the Naga Pond fed the Lion Fountain on the lower terrace. The water in the Naga Pond is dark but clean and can offer the pilgrim a refreshing swim. If the pilgrim now returns to the main stairway and proceeds a little further he or she will notice on the right an inscription now marked off with an railing. Proceeding a little further one will arrive at the upper terrace of Mahintale. This upper terrace, called Ambatthala, consists of a large flat area on which is a modern monastery, a stupa and several other structures all shaded by coconut, tamarind and jack trees.
A path near the modern monastery leads 300 yards down the east side of the mountain to the cave where, according to tradition, Mahinda stayed when he first came to Mihintale. Carved on the floor of this cave is a rectangle meant to represent the folded robe Mahinda lay on. Now take the stairs back to the lower terrace.
On arriving at the lower terrace walk across to the road that leads down to the bottom of the mountain. On the right side of the parking area the pilgrim will notice a flight of stairs flanked on either side by beautiful frangipani trees. These stairs are often covered with blossoms. At the top of these stairs is the Khanika Chaitiya. All this represents some of the oldest sculpture in Sri Lanka. It is not known who built this stupa, the first mention is from the time of Lanjatissa (109-119). The stupa has a screen on the eastern side which is almost perfectly preserved. On either side of the screens are carved pillars topped with either lions, elephants, horse or bull.
To the left of the stupa the pilgrim will notice a cave under the huge boulder. Walking through this cave one will come to yet more caves in two layers. In the Mahavamsa it says that King Kanirajanutissa once had 60 monks flung off a cliff at Mihintale for plotting to assassinate him in the Chapter House. The dramatic cliff at the edge of these caves may have been where these errant monks met their gruesome end.
Now return to the main road and on the other side the pilgrim will see a path leading through the trees to some rough steps. Ascending these one will come to the Kaludiya Pokkhana, The Black Water Pond. The ancient name of this site is not known but an inscription found here refers to a monastery named Dakkhinagiri (the Southern Mountain). On the other hand Kaludiya Pokkhana is certainly a lovely place and another inscription says that Kassapa IV built a monastery at Mihintale called Hadayunha Vihara (The Heartwarming Monastery) which would be a very appropriate name for this place. The layout and structure of Kaludiya Pokkhana has much in common with monasteries like Ritigala, and Arankale and so must have belonged to the Pansakulakas.
The stairway shaded by frangipani trees leads up to the main gatehouse. Besides the gatehouse is a second gate that leads to a ruined stupa and the 12 caves beyond. Returning to the main gatehouse and passing through it the pilgrim will see the whole complex. On the left is the lake on the far side of which is a small rocky island with the ruins of a building on it, probably a library. Being surrounded by water the palm leaf books would have been protected from termites and other insects that might damage them. On one occasion King Saddhatissa stood all night in rapt attention as the great monk teacher Buddharakkhita gave a sermon on the Kalakarama Sutta. The rest of the audience was equally absorbed because they all failed to notice their king. From here a place leads through to a modern meditation monastery where eight or so monks live. They have renovated some of the ancient caves and now live in them. If you decide to visit this monastery please act in a quiet and unobtrusive manner. There are two meditation seats cut out of a rock. Note that anyone sitting here would be looking out to the pond and the mountains beyond.
How To Get There
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