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Aluvihare Rock Temple

Visitors to Sri Lanka who do not grasp the opportunity to visit one or more of the island’s Buddhist rock temples are committing a serious sin of omission. Rock temples usually have delightful settings. Often they form part of the rock, especially those that nestle beneath overhanging boulders. Sometimes they are of significance to Buddhism, such as Aluvihare, located en route to Sigiriya, Anuradhapura and Mihintale.

Aluvihare is a rock monastery located in a picturesque valley 3km north of Matale on the Kandy-Dambulla section of the A9 route, so it is conveniently located for those traversing the Cultural Triangle. It is easily recognised from the road as it has a boundary wall with a frieze of elephant heads. This sacred place is remarkable for the huge rocks that are an integral part of it, which is why it is classified as a rock temple.

One of the first Europeans to describe the extraordinary topography here was James Emerson Tennent, writing in Ceylon (1859): “The scene is a very extraordinary one – huge masses of granitic rock have been precipitated from the crest of a mountain, and on these other masses have been hurled, which in their descent have splintered those beneath into gigantic fragments.”

Indeed, the craggy landscape at Aluvihare is much more dominating and dramatic than at most rock temples, as Roland Raven-Hart, writing in Ceylon: History in Stone (1964), was aware: “Ceylon specialises in rock temples: none, I think, surpass this one in extravagant beauty – not placid elegance but a Durer landscape. And this because most of the rock temples nest confidingly like swallows under the overhang of rounded boulders: here huge sharp-edged gneiss rocks were thrown one on another when a baby giant tired of his toys, and the buildings cower below them.”

There have been many descriptions of Aluvihare down the years, no doubt because the awesome rocks have proved so fascinating to so many visitors. Reginald Farrer, for instance, writes In Old Ceylon (1909): “Beneath the golden gloom of the boughs the little track winds upwards towards more open ground; and then, amid the verdure, the boulders leap into sight – enormous cliffs and peaks, into which huddle and cling the buildings of the monastery that was once a vast abbey of scholars. Between two vast blocks of stone is an alley-way, and on either side are carved into the living rock the monastic dwellings of Aluvihare. At the farther end a flight of rock-cut steps goes winding upwards among the boulders to where, on the topmost pinnacle, a small snow-white dagoba is perched. From its narrow platform one looks down over all the undercliff of blocks about its base.”

Aluvihare is one of the most important cultural sites in Sri Lanka, for it was here in the 1st century BC that the Buddhist doctrines -comprising the Tripitikaya or “three baskets of the law,” along with the commentaries - were first transcribed after having been handed down orally for several centuries. This transcription was carried out for fear that the doctrine would be lost during the upheaval caused by repeated South Indian invasions. It is said that 500 scholarly monks congregated at Aluvihare to perform the onerous task of first reciting the doctrines and agreeing on an acceptable version before writing them down. Where they assembled for the work is a puzzle, as the only flat area available does not accommodate so many. No doubt most perched on rock ledges and in rock crevices.

Once agreement had been reached the process of transcribing began. The doctrines were written in the Pali language on long, thick strips created from the leaves of either the palmyra or talipot-palm. These strips, called olas, were prepared for use by drying, boiling and drying again. Then they were flattened and finally glazed. A metal stylus was used to inscribe the elaborate characters on the olas. Remarkably, it was held stationary while the ola was moved in order to produce the lettering. The inscribed characters were then rubbed with a black substance so that they became highly visible. The leaves were then strung together and bound between decorative wooden covers.

Probably one senior monk renowned for his knowledge of the doctrines would have slowly recited them, while monk-scribes wielded their styli and positioned the olas. The others monks would almost certainly have been involved in discussion when occasional questions of interpretation arose. The process of transcription must have taken many years, for the doctrines alone are said to be 11 times the length of the Bible, and that’s not counting the commentaries.

The library at Aluvihare, which had safely housed the volumes of this precious manuscript for so many centuries, was totally destroyed by the British during the Matale Rebellion of 1848. Along with it went much of the rest of the temple complex. This came about when the British pursued a notorious rebel leader to a hiding place in the rock caves nearby, and then set about punishing the neighbourhood. The consequences of this sacrilege are still evident today, for since that time generations of monks have been painstakingly rewriting the Tripitika. As there are only a few monks involved it is taking an extraordinarily long time – the first of the three “baskets of the law” was only completed in 1982.

The tranquility of Aluvihare is in contrast to the better-known and more frequented rock temple at nearby Dambulla with its numerous caves shrines. Aluvihare has many caves, too, with ancient inscriptions, comparatively modern wall and ceiling paintings of interest, and impressive images of the Buddha. The main cave, for instance, has a large reclining statue of the Buddha 10m long, together with standing and seated images. In the vestibule of another cave with a reclining statue of the Buddha there are terrifying depictions of the hellish afterlife that awaits sinners. Some of these unfortunate beings are shown having their eyes pecked out by crows, being disembowelled, dismembered and impaled on spikes.

One cave is dedicated to the revered Indian monk-scholar Buddhagosa, who resided at Anuradhapura but is supposed to have spent several years here during the 4th/5th centuries AD. Buddhagosa, whose name means The Voice of Buddha, was regarded as the greatest exponent and interpreter of the Pali canonical scriptures. Born in North India, he was ordained as a monk and travelled to the island, settling at the Mahavihare at Anuradhapura, where he spent most of life studying the scriptures and writing. His greatest achievements were the new status he gave to Pali scholarship and the development of a coherent and systematic Theravada Buddhist school of thought.

Don’t forget to climb up to the dagoba on top of the rock just beyond the cave temples. From this vantage point there are excellent views of the dramatic topography of the North Central Province, with its expansive plain and scattered, blue-hued rock escarpments.

Visitors to Sri Lanka who take the opportunity of witnessing some of the island’s varied Buddhist temples will come away with many positive impressions. The pervasive spiritual atmosphere is one such impression, which Aluvihare has in quantity. Another abiding impression is of the neatness and cleanliness of temples, epitomised by the monk who sweeps the ubiquitous sand with geometric precision yet intricate design. Raven-Hart believed that Aluvihare was “exceptionally tidy, so much so that my footprints seemed intrusions, and I felt like asking for a palm-leaf branch to sweep them away.”

By by Richard Boyle

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Updated February 16, 2007
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