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Home > Heritage > Pilikuththuwa Raja Maha Vihara

Pilikuththuwa Raja Maha Vihara

The vihara lena and the Chaithya Lena
Picture by Anesley Fernando

Pilikuththuwa, if you have heard of that name before is full of pleasant surprises. Quite apart from being a virtual paradise for the nature lover, with dramatic rock formations and a wilderness filled with nature’s finest art, its origins can be traced back to pre historic times.

Pilikuththuwa Raja Maha Vihara, set in idyllic surroundings, is the best place to begin an adventurous day . We were there at 7.00 am. When we parked our vehicle under some coconut trees, the unsullied morning environs were filled with soft sweet bird calls.

It is believed that the Pilikuththuwa cave complex includes some 99 caves spread over an area of about 200 acres. The caves are cut with distinct drip ledges to prevent rain water from falling into the interior, which, to some extent, is proof of their one time habitation, 77 of these have been identified and their numbers are marked on each cave.

As indicated by archaeological excavations carried out in this area, there is evidence that Pilikuththuwa was inhabited during pre historic times.

Three rock inscriptions have also been found cut on the drip ledges of three of these caves and have been dated to the pre-Christian era. The letters have been recognized as Brahmi characters

At the entrance of the temple we were greeted by an ancient square pond which was bereft of water. Here we met Sunil who was sweeping the temple garden and who gladly agreed to show us around. Later he was joined by Anura and Kaluhami the dog. Passing this we could see a Bodhiya and the Vihara Lena which housed the image house and the Chaithiya Lena under which stood a small dagoba.

A fascinating rock placing made a striking setting for the Vihara Lena and the adjoining dagoba. Some large precipitous rocks rose high and leaned precariously in sheer drama while a tangle of foliage and creepers made an amazing backdrop.

According to scholars it is possible that the Vihara Lena was originally used by meditating monks and was later converted into an image house during the Kandy period and further improved in the Kotte period.

Anura opened the door of the image house for us.

A unique painting of two Portuguese soldiers some 4 feet tall, appeared to guard the entrance to the shrine room, replacing the traditional doratupala figures. This was just one example found here indicating that though the original paintings belonged to the Kandy period the complex had from time to time been influenced by the subsequent periods, even the Portuguese and the Dutch.

Various incidents pertaining to the Dharmapala, Mahakappa and Vessanthara Jataka stories, Arahats, sun and moon’ and illustrations of ‘Hell’ are shown in the temple murals.

It is said that the Pilikuththuwa Temple paintings reveal the quiet changes that the artists of the Kandyan period were undergoing. Even in the painting of a tree that is traditionally done in a geometric and a stylized manner, the Pilikuththuwa artist attempts to introduce the aspect of realism by painting the jak, mango, breadfruit and plantain fruit in easily recognisable artistic forms.

Another striking and spectacular part of the paintings are found on the ceiling of the rock cave. The canopy is decorated with lotus flowers in full bloom and their tendrils winding around. The 12 lagnas of the astrological chart along with their symbols are also featured in the artists own individual style. The colour combinations and designs are pleasing to the eye.

The image house includes an image of a reclining Buddha and the images of gods Vishnu and Natha.

Another smaller image house, the Devala Lena, situated on a higher ground, includes paintings and a Buddha image of recent origin. The temple’s Avasa geya, Dana sala and even a well for bathing are situated inside caves.

An interesting artefact is an ancient wooden bridge across a small stream between two caves. Having its origins in the Dutch period, the wooden arch, the wooden pillars, the wooden trellis, the wood plank flooring and the tiled roof combine and contrast with the looming rocks to form a quaint picture in a surprising manner. The stream that runs under its planked floor cannot be seen but the sound of its gurgling, rushing waters can be heard if you listen carefully. A little beyond, this subterranean waterway joins the picturesque Pilikuththuwa wewa.

While the history of Pilikuththuwa cave complex dates back to pre historic times, there is an abundance of folklore regarding its original use.

It is said that this cave complex, like the Mihintale cave complex, was dedicated to the Sangha by King Devanampiyatissa during that same period. It is also attributed to King Valagamba, who is said to have used these precincts as a sanctuary when he was fleeing the Cholan marauders.

It is also believed that the latter used this hideout when rounding up his army. Yet another story refers to the distressing reign of King Rajasinghe 1 of Sithawaka when Buddhist monks were persecuted .

The origin of the name Pilikuththuwa is also very much debated. It is believed that it originated from the word Pili Kotuwa Some believe that in ancient times this village had supplied clothes/ apparel to King Valagamba and hence came to be named Pilikuththuwa, as ‘pili’ in Sinhala means clothes. Others say that the royal clothes worn by his queen had been removed and kept at a cave here, and this was the reason for the name.

It will surprise you even further if I tell you that this natural haven lies less than 30 miles from Colombo, on the Wathurugama road which branches off the A1 at Miriswatte junction.

99 caves and still counting
“There are about 99 caves.” said Sunil. “To explore all 99 caves is not possible”, averred our new acquaintances Sunil and Anura, while Kalu hami the dog looked on. “Some of these caves are in private land and others are difficult to access”. “And it will take the whole day”, they insisted. So we decided to see as many as possible This was nowhere else but Pilikuththuwa, the little village rich in history and legend, less than 30 miles from Colombo. Here was found archaeological evidence dating to prehistoric times, and rock inscriptions identified as belonging to the pre Christian period. While legends that surround its rocky terrain are as many as its numerous drip ledge cut caves.

A cave with a built abode

It is believed that the Pilikuththuwa cave complex includes some 99 caves spread over an area of about 200 acres. The caves are equipped with distinct drip ledges to prevent rain water from falling into the interior which, to some extent, is proof of their one time habitation. 77 of these have been identified and the numbers given them are marked on each cave.

The Pilikuththuwa Raja Maha Vihara itself is housed in some of these caves. The Vihara Lena , the Devala lena, the Chaiththiya lena, the Avasa geya and the Dana Salas are some of the buildings that are still using the caves. These caves are easy of access and are situated in and around the temple itself.

But to see some of the other caves you have to climb and walk endless miles into the wilderness. And that is just what we did - with no regrets !

Sunil and Anura led us through a maze of caves, rocks and wilderness. Occasionally stopping to point out some rare tree, creeper or bush or relate a local legend associated with the area.

At times we climbed uphill and at times we walked downhill, at times on rocky plains at others on dank earth; sometimes our path was shaded by a canopy of tropical growth and sometimes we stood and looked down over their sea of endless crowns. And I completely lost my bearings. From time to time we emerged on to a cliff or summit and the distant hills gave us some idea of our position but it would have been far more interesting if we had brought a compass.

We walked, climbed, jumped, hung and crawled -- from rock to rock and from mountain to valley. At one point we could get from one giant rock to the next only by way clinging on to its sheer surface with the aid of a typical Tarzan creeper.

At another point there was an option -- thank God! -- between swinging along on overhanging creepers and crawling through a bat infested cave. I chose the latter. Now, when I think of it, I can’t believe I did it.

An interesting cave we came across was locally dubbed Thoppigala lena. The rock formation was such that it formed a large, airy and ideal habitation. But what was unique was the almost circular hole, that was found at one end of the roof at the height of approximately 7 ½ feet from the floor.

The cave itself is said to be situated in a highly secure position overlooking a wide area. And this is basis for the local legend associating it with King Valagamba who is said to have used these precincts as a sanctuary when he was fleeing the Cholan marauders. It is of further interest to note that archaeological excavations carried out here in 1995 have revealed some coloured beads and pottery dating to early periods and coins belonging to the Polonnaruwa and Dambadeniya periods.

Another cave with tough access revealed a rock pool . We climbed down the side of a huge boulder, beating back the thick scrub and even some thorny bushes. Apart from getting scratched, scraped and bitten all over by some insect, it was worth the while for the cave housed a rock pool with a smooth roof curving over and protecting it in a delightful manner.

And yet another cave could be accessed only by climbing up to it along the creepers that hung downwards from its roof. This was attempted only by the men in out party. And thankfully it was not on the way to the next cave. So I could easily ignore it. In fact every cave we passed through had its own awesome positioning and rugged beauty. The rock formations that aided the creation of the caves were incredible works of Mother Nature. It was like walking through chamber after chamber of granite marvels. While the granite alone caused wonderment, the variety of the tropical tangle that sheathed every possible nook and corner added to it, creating a perfect wilderness picture of an environment formed over aeons. And this is what I love so much and what makes places like this unique to our little island.

Yoda puswela, Gal mala and the Kalantha bokka

While Pilikuththuwa is famous for its caves, other natural wonders also abound.

Amongst its caves, and not far from the Pilikuththuwa Raja Maha Vihara, is the much celebrated yoda puswela or creeper.

This Pilikuththuwa puswela is spread through a huge area and is said to be second only to the one at Sinharaja. It is also believed to be at least 500 years old. We looked for its roots and found them with some difficulty. It was a rare sight -- from the deep crevices of sheer rock its thick root twisted and raised itself up, out of a great abyss towards the freedom of the wilderness. We climbed the surrounding rocks through dark and narrow crevices to get a better view. To take a good picture of this gnarled and knotted titan was almost impossible as its tangled branches twisted and crept in all directions in a mighty jumble. We emerged from its clutches and stood on the edge of a cliff with a whole lot of scenery below us.

Also not far from the Pilikuththuwa Raja Maha Vihara is the Dig gala or the Dig Thalawa - a rocky plain, consisting of about 1 mile of rock mass with a height of about 750 feet above sea level. This is also called the Balun gala or the look out post. .

From here is visible the spectacular Gal mala. (coral) Out of a dense carpet of tangled green it soared upwards in an extraordinary arrangement. The vertical drain like depressions making waves in a down ward pattern. It is indeed an unusual sight.

On the far horizon Gampaha town can be seen. While closer up, and from another side, is seen the Valagamba Raja Maha Vihara and, from yet another side, the Maligathenna Vihara.

In quite another direction, and again by walking along a rocky plain, we made our way to the Valagamba Raja Maha Viharaya. On route we were introduced to the Kalantha bokka. A sheer abyss between two rocks, which is not for the faint hearted. At one point the distant horizon revealed the city of Colombo or so I was told.

But to me what was thrilling was the tropical scenery which spread like a green-gold carpet around the bottom of the rock. The paddy fields in the valleys were lit with luminous green. The coconut plantations leaning over in delightful grace, a variety of fruit trees in absolute abundance.... It seemed that here was everything !!

by Kishanie S. Fernando
Daily Mirror, August 1, 2005

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Updated March 25, 2007
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