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Friday, May 8, 2009

Wesak 2009 Special : Arhath Maliyadeva’s cave in Arankele

Arhath Maliyadeva’s cave in Arankele


Arankele holds historical as well as religious importance since it was blessed by a presence of an Arhath. Arhath Maliyadeva is considered the last known monk of the kind in Sri Lanka


“Early in 1917 I was informed by Mr. J, M. Davies of the Land Settlement Department, that at no great distance from Hiripitiya there were some ruins of a remarkable character at a place called Arankele, to the northward, and not far from the mountain known as Doluwakanda.”

This is the first time perhaps that Arankele was figured in a public discussion. The writer raising this issue was Frederick Lewis, attached to the Forest Department, whose other interest was the history and culture of this island paradise.

Worthy reputation

He was writing to the Royal Asiatic Journal of the same year of how he visited this forest retreat accompanied by another lover of the country’s past, Dr Andreas Nell. Arankele is not far from Kurunegala, a turn-off from a few miles from the town on the road to Dambulla leads you to this place which appears not to have acquired the reputation of being worthy of a visit. If you do make the journey to this forest monastery you are bound to be struck by its remarkable unadorned beauty and plainness.

Remains of Arankele monastery.

It has come under the active care of the Department of Archaeology from 1922 though it has been noticed in the Archaeological report of 1890 referring to its ‘wonderful stonework’ and other features such as ‘a tank with stone steps’, ‘two roads with stone steps to the tank’ and ‘a rock cave with stonewalls and roof’. What caught my attention when I visited the place for the first time a few years back was the lovely tank and the ‘two roads’.

Of striking beauty was the roadway referred to above. According to the survey made by the Archaeological Department, it is about 1800 feet long and is referred to by the people as the peth maga (footpath).

No doubt it could be used for long uninterrupted meditative walks, but its primary aim seems to have been to link the rock caves situated higher up on the hill and the Janthagaaraya at the lower end, which prepared the herbal medicines for the resident monks, hot water baths and probably any requirements of food. Jantaagaraya is the term used to refer to this building, more popularly as the Unu pan geya, literally the ‘hot water house.’ Provision has been made for the use of 22 fireplaces here.

Smooth stonework

The peth maga is long and narrow. It is lined on either side by remarkably smooth stonework. The peth maga’s surface is strewn with sand, a great comfort for the feet that tread on it. It has also over 20 culverts on its path to the summit to divert the gush of water from the higher land above during heavy rains.

With the result the peth maga remains unruffled even in the worst weather. The culverts have been placed in such a way that one is hardly aware of their existence.

Unexplored ruins

How far this pathway runs has not been determined still. If we put aside the lack of funds to do these explorations and excavations, what seems evident is that when this pathway climbs to the top it disappears into the mists of time amidst the rocks and jungle and numerous unexplored ruins through which it seems to wind.

But you are pleased that the peth maga, which has brought you to the top of the hill, has done it gently in easy stages by levelling the pathway and reducing the gradient to almost invisibility.

It is on your way down this path that the tank begins to reveal its beauty. It is not large as tanks go. Square in shape, it reminds you of an oversized swimming pool. It is larger, however, than the twin ponds in Anuradhapura, the kootam pokunas put together, but with hardly any decorative embellishments like liyavellas and other stone carvings. This tank or pond serves part of the water needs of this forest monastery, there are also wells elsewhere.

Close to this tank are the ruins of the Janthagaaraya. We are told that this is a rare discovery, three others similar, but not providing as many clues, have been discovered in Anuradhapura.

For the ruins here show how the medicinal ingredients were prepared and the likely implements and utensils used in the preparation of oils and the grinding of medicinal herbs. There are signs of there having been attached toilet facilities at this spot and the devices adopted to prevent the odours from spreading.

Getting back to the peth maga , we gently ascend this path until we come to the first few steps that have to be climbed. These steps take you to the caves that abound on the hill. This first cave you meet, however, is special.

Perished roof

It is where, as popular legend has it, the Arhath Maliyadeva lived, The cave is fairly prominent with well-marked drip ledges, but unusual in that it had a projecting tiled roof in front supported by six or seven posts and looking as if it is sheltering a verandah, Following the marks left by the perished roof it seems to have been possible to re-erect the ‘veranda’.

There are several other interesting buildings around this spot where the footpath starts to climb. Of these the Chankamanagaraya or in popular language sakman maluva - meditation while walking to and fro - is considered to be of great importance. For the first time they have found a sakman maluva with all the appurtenances that they are reputed to have.

There are indications that this sakmn maluva has had a roof built over it, being the first of its kind discovered in this country.

Other features of this sakman maluva. include a 50-foot long path over which the roof was constructed and sand strewn on the path as on the main peth maga.

The other interesting feature of this sakman maluva is that it has provided attached toilet facilities as revealed by the remains of a urinal, a squatting plate and a dhoni - a stone basin to store water for cleaning up after the ablutions are performed.

Close to this meditation centre there is a large residential building for the monks called the Aramaya and built on a rock. Round this Aramaya and at a distance of eight feet from the building, there used to be a moat filled with water.

It is suggested that the water in the moat helped to cool the atmosphere around this Aramaya, an early example perhaps of the sustainable use of the environment to provide air-conditioning. A reception hall had also been constructed close to the Aramaya and the Maliyadeva cave.

Traditional inscriptions

Visitors who came to meet any residential monks, we are given to understand, resorted to this building to make inquiries. Hence it has been called the Sammukalena or Samukalena (literally a meeting place but could be a reception room).

The author of ‘Ancient Ceylon’, H Parker, while replying to the note sent to him by Frederick Lewis, says that the “tradition regarding the place is that it dates from the time of Maha Sena or his son Tittha Tissa, (I forget which) and this is not unlikely as there are other traditions regarding these two in that part, and an inscription of the son not far away.

“The ruins with the out-stone work which you mention were the residences of the superiors of this large monastic establishment and are all built on the plan of the ‘pavilions’ so-called at Anuradhapura. There are several of these ruins at Arankele - at least 6 or 7. I think there is a monastery with vihara and dagoba at one end of the Pet-magg.”(Parker’s spelling).

The then Commissioner of the Archaeological Department, A M Hocart, found an inscription at Arankele belonging to the 13th century and he has placed it in the Anuradhapura museum. He is inclined to think that Arankele has a history going back to the 2nd century AD.

Hitherto, the ‘educated’ natives’ view of our country’s ruins has followed closely and faithfully the views of our former imperial rulers. They were patronising without being offensive and looked on these ‘curious’ beliefs and practices of the natives with a certain condescension.

It’s time, I think, we dropped this somewhat inglorious colonial inheritance. Our ruins should not be looked upon as mere museum pieces. Even though in ruins the Ruwan veli seya was venerated as a holy shrine throughout history.

Sacred forest

Today the restored seya is not only the pride and glory of this country but also a sacred centre that attracts tens of thousands of Buddhist pilgrims every year unfailingly. Likewise the forest monastery of Arankele should be restored not as a centre for the attraction of tourists, but as a much needed retreat or a meditation centre for those who turn away from the hustle and bustle of our sad, bad and mad world.

I wonder whether I could persuade the Minister of Cultural Affairs and the Minister for Buddhist Affairs to think on these lines?

Some facts in this article were taken from a publication in Sinhala on Arankele issued in 1990 in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Department of Archaeology.


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