March 2018


A Mountain Monastery Forgotten by Time
March 2018




Perfect reflections of one of the many tanks in Kaludiya Pokuna Forest

A thousand-year-old "mountain monastery", lost in the Kaludiya Pokuna Forest, east of Dambulla; forgotten by many, and seemingly by time itself. For the visitor seeking something literally off the beaten track, the Dakkinagiri Viharaya is an intriguing but serene detour away from the well-trodden sites of Sri Lanka's Cultural Triangle.


Words and Photography: David Blacker


The road through the Kaludiya Pokuna Forest to the Dakkinagiri Viharaya really is just a jeep track. There's a signboard by the main road, right next to the Thimbirawa Reservoir and, if you aren't driving a jeep, it's best to leave your car here and walk the 2.5km into the jungle. The track is deceptively smooth at first, but it gets progressively narrower and uneven the further one goes.


Road conditions aside, walking is certainly the best way to experience the area. At first the land is relatively open and cultivated with bright green fields of rice interspersed with patches of jungle and grassland. But after a kilometre or so the jungle was crowding in close to the track, long grass brushing my legs and the branches of ebony and other hardwoods drooping overhead. I knew that the Dakkinagiri Viharaya was at the base of the Erawalgala Ridge, over 600m high, but now hidden from view by the enclosing jungle. The trail slopes gently upward, but is an easy stroll in the mild morning weather. Big tufted grey langurs crash through the branches above me, angry at my intrusion.


The Kaludiya Pokuna Forest is rich in wildlife, and I had been advised to delay my visit to the viharaya so as to not encounter the herds of elephants attracted to the jungle's edge by the fertile farms immediately to the north. While the early mornings and evenings are the best time to sight wild animals, it is probably not the best time to be on a narrow jungle trail.


The Pabbata Viharaya
Translated as "mountain monastery", this form of viharaya first appeared around the seventh century; its label based on the nominal fact that mountains were often chosen for monasteries in India. This is rare in Sri Lanka, where most pabbata viharas are not on mountains. They are, however, all located outside the ancient urban centres. In short, the pabbata viharayas are suburban or rural monasteries, architecturally distinct from those in the cities; their sacred precincts consisting of four structures on elevated rectangular land enclosed by a moat. 

It is here that I finally come upon the Kaludiya Pokuna, or “Black Water Pond”, that has lent its name to this place and, indeed, to the forest itself.


The small reservoirs on both sides of the trail are the best place for spotting the area's avian life, and my approaches to the water's edge would send these birds splashing or flapping for safety regardless of my attempts at stealth.


My destination is marked by a small Archeological Department building, and the short climb beyond brings me to the edge of the Dakkinagiri Viharaya complex. The ruins are an example of a pabbata viharaya, comparable to better-known sites like Menikdena in Dambulla, and Toluvila in Anuradhapura.


Inside the characteristic rectangular wall and protective moat, Dakkinagiriya's brick stupa is all that is instantly recognisable. A barely legible inscription on a guardstone flanking the stupa's steps attribute it to King Sena II, dating it to the ninth century, towards the end of the Anuradhapura Period. Other inscriptions range from the mundane - a slab with a set of rules for monastic life - to the amusing - a warning carved on the wall of a meditative cave, by a certain Mr Dathanaga, that if the monks fought over the rice and curd donated by him the food would instead be given to the cows and dogs.


The vihara grounds are in fairly neat and tidy condition, the ancient trees having been allowed to stand while the undergrowth has been cleared away. There is a great air of calm, but also a sense of isolation.


As I walk on past the stupa, the stone columns of the patimagharaya as well as the upasathagharaya are locked in eternal battle with the trees that have grown up through the ruins; stone and wood sometimes indistinguishable from one another. The fourth element in a traditional pabbata viharaya - the bodhigaraya, a structure enclosing a sacred bo tree - has long disappeared. Beyond the viharaya, a path leads up the lower slopes of Erawalgala, through thick undergrowth and gigantic trees. It is here that ascetic monks spent lives of meditation in shallow kutis - recesses in the rock, often deepened with hammer and chisel - perhaps long before the Dakkinagiriya was created.


It is here that I finally come upon the Kaludiya Pokuna, or "Black Water Pond", that has lent its name to this place and, indeed, to the forest itself. Unlike its more famous and picturesque namesake close to Mihintale, the Kaludiya Pond is shallow, still and black; overhung with underbrush and covered in reeds and lotus pads. If the monks of Dakkinagiriya had relied on this pond as a water source, life would have been hard indeed.


I follow the path's circuitous route back down the hill, crossing several streams and smaller rocky pools. As I walk on into the sunlight, breakfast is on my mind.

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    Thick jungle crowds the track leading to the Dakkinagiri Viharaya

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    Dense jungle and thick undergrowth on the track to the Kaludiya Pokuna

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    The distinctive boundary wall and moat of a pabbata viharaya or mountain monastery

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    The crumbling stupa of the Dakkinagiri Viharaya, with Erawalgala looming over it to the southwest

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    The Kaludiya Pokuna or “Black Water Pond” for which the site – and the forest – is named

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    Gigantic trees tower into the green gloom, dwarfing visitors

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