October 2017


The Cave of the Traveller Monk
October 2017




The cave that gave shelter to Prehistoric Man, with a spectacular panorama

The great looming caves of Pahiyangala gave shelter to one of the most famous travellers of the ancient world. They have also yielded priceless proof of the lives led by our prehistoric ancestors.


Words: Yomal Senerath-Yapa
Photography: Vishwathan Tharmakulasingham


Pahiyangala, the Fa-hsien Cave, is locked amidst the greener, lush and wilder parts of Kalutara. Mountains rise clothed in rainforest similar to Sinharaja, which is not far away. The area is so wet, cool and shaded as to be pleasantly dark. Among the undulating rocks, Pahiyangala is the most fabled, fascinating, enigmatic and awe-inspiring.


Pass the dark green glades that border the narrow roads of Yatagampitiya, Bulathsinhala, and stop at the Pahiyangala temple, which was founded in the 18th century. However, the Pahiyangala cave was inhabited by prehistoric man 33,000 to 37,000 years ago.


The sun rarely penetrates the cool darkness within. The pitter-patter of dripping water or dew drops is almost perennially present. We took the path that winds up from the temple to the massive natural cave.


Pahiyangala was given that name due to the ancient legend that Fa-hsien (or Fa-hien or Faxian), the Chinese traveller monk who came to this part of the world looking for Buddhist texts, stayed in this cave. Fa-hsien's travels led him to Xinjiang, India, Nepal and Bangladesh. His journey, in the fifth century, must have been a great saga. Unthinkably difficult and arduous but, looking back, also captivatingly enchanting: this frail but strong-hearted monk wandering across sea and desert, mountain and forest.

Fa-hsien is said to have stayed in Sri Lanka for two years. It was while visiting Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak) that the monk took shelter in this cave.


The looming, giant cave that you reach through a straggling flight of steps takes your breath away. It is formed by the natural rock that soars high, and you soon start dreaming about the past. The primal attraction of the place is magnetic. Here the early Homo sapiens would have lived with his family or clan, snug around a fire with the mist and cold as the rain fell on the thick dark foliage and, in the far distance, folds of blue mountains faded away to the horizon.


The present archaeological digs is a window to that early period. They take you to the world of the hunter-gatherers that lived inside the huge cavern, surrounded by a hostile, gloomy wilderness but depending on it for their survival, nonetheless.

Below the cave there are spreads of wilderness formed by wet, lush, dark green flora, including bunchy groves of the rare variety of banana called the eti-kehel.


The excavations, done in the late 1960s, led to the discovery of microliths, which are flints from tools, like spears; and, around fireplaces, human and plant remains were found. The presence of that prehistoric past is felt even today, despite the more recent additions such as the giant reclining Buddha statue, painted a bronze-gold. Digging at this site, the archaeological team unearthed the skeleton of a child dating back more than 6,850 years and that of a young woman who has been dead for 5,400 years. There were also remnants of the early Homo sapiens' diet such as nuts, seeds and grains ground well in stone querns.


As for affirmation that the great traveller monk also sat in this cave, admiring the vista spreading before him, there is scant evidence; other than the story of a ceramic plate that was once unearthed. But the legends have remained, over the centuries, stuck to the rock, and will hardly ever be evoked without the memory of Fa-hsien, as well as a magical journey and a meeting of the Far East and South Asia.

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    This giant rock forms the Pahiyangala cave

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    The stairway that leads to Fa-hsien's shelter

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    The Buddha statue occupying one side of the cave

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    Fa-hsien is said to have stayed in Sri Lanka for two years. It was while visiting Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak) that the monk took shelter in this cave.

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    The temple buildings blend with the mystique of the cave

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    Below the cave there are spreads of wilderness formed by wet, lush, dark green flora, including bunchy groves of the rare variety of banana called the eti-kehel.

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    Archaeological digs left intact

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