February 2016


Mysteries In The Jungle: The Batatotalena Cave Temple
February 2016




Above: stunning views of the Kuru Ganga Valley, below reward the visitor. in the distance is the Kunudiyaparvathaya with Adam’s Peak beyond

Words and Photography David Blacker


The arch cave or lena of Batatota, in Sri Lanka's Ratnapura District, is a mystery waiting to be solved. Naturally carved into a cliff of Proterozoic gneiss, it is triangular in both plan and cross-section- a characteristic of arch caves. The area is famous for its caves and history, the latter both natural and religious. The Batadombalena cave, some kilometres south, was once home to Balangoda Man, a prehistoric hominid, whose skeletal remains, discovered in the cave, date to 14,000BC. The local aboriginal Veddhas claim Batatotalena and the other nearby caves as both worship and habitation sites that predate the arrival of Buddhism in 306BC.


The mystery of Batatotalena, however, is a more Buddhist one. During his lifetime, the Buddha is said to have made three visits to Sri Lanka, visiting 16 places across the country. Known as the Solosmasthana, 15 of them have been definitively identified. On his third visit to the island, from 519 to 520BC, the Buddha climbed Sumanakuta, also known as Adam's Peak today, and left his footprint on its summit. Thus, the mountain came to be commonly known as Siri Pada, or the Sacred Foot. Ancient scripts go on to say that after descending the mountain, the Buddha and 500 of his disciples then rested at a nearby cave. This is the sixteenth site in the Solosmasthana, and was named the Divaguhawa, or Daylight Cave; its location remains in dispute. Current belief is that Batatotalena is the Divaguhawa of legend, though the argument on its authenticity goes on.


Centuries after the Buddha's visits, King Nissankamalla of Polonnaruwa, who reigned from 1187 to 1196AD, discovered the cave while visiting Adam's Peak, and instructed one of his ministers to build a temple inside it. This is likely the beginning of the legend of Batatotalena being the Divaguhawa.


Fading into obscurity, the area around the Batatotalena was reclaimed by the jungle, and the ancient temple stood neglected and unknown until it was rediscovered by chance in 1908, by a passing monk named Sri Subethi. Renovating the interior, Sri Subethi added a shrine to the existing temple, and maintained it until his death. The temple was then abandoned once more until, in 1995, it was declared the site of the legendary Divaguhawa. Restored once more, the cave is now a site of regular pilgrimage by thousands of Buddhists.


Kuruwita is a two hour drive from Colombo, and Batatotalena is seven km north of Kuruwita, on the road to Erathna and Adam's Peak. Regular signs point the way, but visitors should be aware that these signs often refer to the site simply as the Divaguhawa, and not Batatotalena. Beyond a large car park, the walkway to the temple gets gradually steeper, the last part being up a covered series of stairs.


The climb, however, shouldn't take more than half an hour. Batatotalena attracts the most devotees between March and November, and during these months the cave, as well as the access route, can become quite crowded. For a more relaxed experience, visit in December or January, when the temperature is also markedly cooler. The climb, as well as the cave mouth, offer spectacular views of the valley below, with the shape of Adam's Peak towering in the distance. This view, however, is not guaranteed, and depends on the weather. On the day I visited, Adam's Peak was visible throughout the climb and for much of the time spent in the cave, but had completely disappeared at the time of descent, a couple of hours later.


The cave entrance is the largest part of the recess, as with most arch caves: 15m high, and 18m wide, with a small shrine built onto a rocky outcrop outside. A platform encircles the shrine, and this is the best spot for views of the valley and the surrounding mountains; prominent among the latter is the steep square-shaped Kunudiyaparwathaya, halfway between Batatotalena and Adam's Peak.


Below the cave, on a ledge above the jungle, is another shrine in its own compound at the end of a flight of dilapidated stairs. It has a strange and forlorn atmosphere about it, a certain eeriness. This is the shrine to Kantamari, a female demon who is said to have occupied Batatotalena for 700 years, until exorcised in the late 1980s. Part of the exorcism was a compromise; an agreement that Kantamari would leave the cave in exchange for being given her own shrine.

As with many fountains all over the world, the Batatotalena cave pool glitters with coins tossed in for luck by visitors over the years.
Inside, the cave gradually narrows as one moves down its 25m length. Long hanging ferns line the roof, constantly dripping water that gathers in a pool on one side. As with many fountains all over the world, the Batatotalena cave pool glitters with coins tossed in for luck by visitors over the years. A slightly incongruous statue of a frog sits in the centre of the pool, a symbol of a worship ceremony conducted for the Hindu god Bhairava in the 1990s, when the temple was renovated. A recess on the right holds a stupa, or dagoba, and the platform in front of it also affords sweeping views of the countryside below.


Deeper in the cave, another recess houses a bright blue statue of the Hindu god Vishnu. The outer wall of this shrine room is festooned with a stylszed version of the Royal Coat of Arms of Great Britain, indicating that it dates to the renovations of 1908, when Sri Lanka was still a British colony.


The far end of the cave is blocked off by another wall, behind which is the main shrine room. The entrance to this room is via the Makara Thorana, a fresco that forms the actual doorway and is one of the few surviving features of Batatotalena that dates back to the original temple built by King Nissankamalla. Many of the ancient artifacts were stolen in the early twentieth century when the temple was abandoned after the death of Sri Subethi. Inside the shrine room are three statues of the Buddha, the largest being a 10m reclining Buddha that takes up most of the cave wall. All three statues are in surprisingly good condition for Polonnaruwa-era creations, but this is because they have been restored many times over the years.


A visit to Batatotalena can be easily completed in a morning, if one is driving from Colombo, leaving the rest of the day open for other activities. For those in the mood for something more strenuous than the 30-minute climb to Batatotalena, a visit to the nearby Batadombalena would be just the ticket. However, be warned that the hike to the home of Balangoda Man is not for the faint-hearted. For this one, it is necessary to hike a kilometre and a half through what is, at times, primary rain forest, along a steep jungle track that is often nothing more than a line of jumbled rock or a narrow stream bed. An hour-and-a-half later, sweaty, tired, and carrying a few hitchhiking leeches, I hadn't found Batadombalena. I gave up. One mystery was enough for the day. Balangoda Man had been waiting for thousands of years; he could wait a bit longer.

 

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    Traditional temple bell on a platform that gives spectacular views of the surrounding mountains

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    Small Buddhist statues line a circular shrine outside the cave mouth

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    Evicted. The Kantamari shrine below Batatotalena

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    The first glimpse of Batatotalena, with its distinct hanging ferns

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    A map of the Batatotalena cave temple

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    The view down the stairs from the cave mouth

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    Reclining Buddha takes up the length of the main shrine room

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    The Makara Thorana entrance to the main shrine room is one of the oldest surviving artifacts in the cave

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    The characteristic triangular shape of an arch cave can be clearly seen at the mouth of Batatotalena

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    The Hindu god Vishnu in his own shrine room

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    Main shrine room at the far end of the cave, with statue of Sri Subethi on the right

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