April 2011


Pidurangala: Coming Out Of The Shadows
April 2011




Pidurangala

Two large rock outcrops stand side-by-side dominating the landscape. One is a fortress and the other is a monastery both intertwined by a common history where a King paid homage to the priests attired in saffron robes. Sigiriya is the world-renowned rock fortress but we tread a lesser-known path to reach the summit of Pidurangala, a monastery in the forest.

Words: Udeshi Amarasinghe | Photography: Mahesh Prasantha

At the time that King Kashyapa (475 - 491 AD) selected Sigiriya as his capital the rock fortress was a monastery. As such prior to building his palace and securing the fortress the King first developed the adjoining cave complex at Pidurangala that is situated to the North of Sigiriya with all the required facilities. Upon completion the King gifted the cave monastery to the Bikkhu. The natural caves and flat terrain spread across acres and provided all the required elements of a monastery complex.

There are two entrances to the Pidurangala Viharaya. The first takes you through a more recently built temple with a pure white stupa and large statue of Lord Buddha being sheltered by the King Cobra - Muchalinda Naga Rajaya. Tracing the well worn path the climb ascends through the shades of the trees and stone boulders, which provide the natural steps. The climb is arduous but gets your adrenaline pumping as each step takes you further up. You soon reach a series of caves that were used by the Bikkhu for meditation. Though the walls have been reconstructed the tell-tale signs of early civilization are evident. The face of the rock is carved to form grooves to prevent rain water from directly falling onto the caves. Furthermore, a rock inscription written in early Brahmi script links the cave to Lord Pussa and has been dated to 3 BC - 1 BC. This proves that the caves at Pidurangala were inhabited prior to King Kashyapa's era.

There are nooks and crevices that lead in various directions. Maybe at one time these were paths but today not all are such, thus one needs to follow the brick or stone steps that are in place. At one point a turn leads to the old image house that is said to have been built during a later period. This is actually at the base of the rock and the cave is shared with the Vishnu Devalaya but separated by a wall. The roof of the cave is adorned with lotus flowers and the image house accommodates a reclining Buddha statue carved out of stone and two standing statues, which have been made of limestone. It is said that the paintings of the deities in the Devalaya belong to an era after King Kashyapa. The inscriptions on the cave ledge confirm that the caves were donated by chieftains and dignitaries to the Bikkhu. As the Sangha inhabited Pidurangala during various eras of the country's history there is a plethora of archaeological finds belonging to the different periods. The second entrance to Pidurangala at the base of the rock leads to this old temple.

Along the road to the entrance of Pidurangala there is an archaeological site, which consists of a Bodhigaraya - the structure that housed the Bodhi tree, Dagaba, a Chapter House and Pirivena built according to the panchavasa concept.
At each Chapter House there is a stone inscription describing the release from bondage and gifting of the buildings to the Sangha. There are many stories relating to the Dagaba, one being that due to the recovery of charcoal from the premises it was deemed as the burial place of King Kashyapa, but this has not been confirmed

A climb on an alternative route takes you to a landing with rock boulders and trees that provide shade from the hot sun. The environment is such that it is ideal for meditation and reflection. It is not difficult to imagine saffron robed Bhikkus in deep meditation or chanting pirith. A few steps farther, there is a Samadhi Buddha statue that has been built recently. The view from this sub level is magnificent and urged us to resume our climb. 

The environment is such that it is ideal for meditation and reflection. It is not difficult to imagine saffron robed Bhikkus in deep meditation or chanting pirith.

The man-made steps disappear and the more natural footholds take form. You start climbing parallel to the rock and the grooves in the boulders become your guide. The sound of the forest is calming but it reminds you that you are in the domain of the wild. One look up and a family of Toque Macaques scurry along disturbed by our presence.

The steps end at a landing, which consists of a large natural cave that faces the east, housing a series of rooms, which may have belonged to the temple complex and served as meditation caves. The face of the rock, which makes the roofs of the caves, has remnants of paintings. Pidurangala is however renowned for the 49 1/2 ft reclining Buddha statue, which is said to be the longest Buddha statue to be built in brick, clay and limestone that has been placed within this cave. Prof. Senarath Paranavithana and H. C. P. Bell through their research have confirmed that this statue belongs to the Sigiriya period.

Passing the natural pond, you soon find that any form of steps disappear and there are only large boulders in your path. We climbed and scrambled over rocks and boulders and soon there was an opening just big enough for a single person to squeeze through. Sigiriya stood in the view, majestic as ever. The Lion paws of the great fortress could be seen from this point. The massive rock on top provided us shade from the afternoon sun. As we reached the summit a 360 degree view was in front of us. The mountain ranges in the distance were visible and the landscape gradually changed from paddy fields to forest to ... far far away... It is said that a small Chaitya stood atop Pidurangala, however though bricks are visible, a small patch of forest has engulfed the structure. From afar this vegetation is akin to an oasis in a desert.

For years Pidurangala has been in the shadows of its neighbour, Sigiriya... but unknown to many this rock monastery has a rich history and an experience that can be shared by most... Pidurangala has come out of the shadows and can now be seen by all.

 

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    The stone steps taking one closer to the top

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    The cave complex

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    The 49 1/2 ft reclining Buddha statue built from brick, clay and limestone

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    The natural pond after which the path disappears and one needs to scramble over rocks to reach the summit

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    The large boulder atop Pidurangala. Sigiriya can be seen from this point

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    The view from the summit. The first entrance with the new white Stupa visible

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    The Dagaba, situated along the road to the entrance of Pidurangala

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    The summit of Pidurangala with Sigiriya in the background

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