The Madunagala Vihare is situated a few miles away from Ambalantota, in the jungle. The journey takes about 30 minutes along the tarred road. A red dirt road leads to the temple about 12.5 kilometres away. The road winds in all directions and is joined frequently by other roads and choosing the correct road is near impossible for someone without a guide.
Madunagala Vihara Thick scrub jungle with thorny bushes, cacti and stunted trees dot the landscape. The land is dry due to poor rainfall even though the soil is rich. It's impossible to see far on either side of the road since cacti and the bushes crowd thickly together.
We are treated to a sight of a bevy of peahens with tiny brown chicks as they feed by the road. As soon as we see them they scurry into the bush. Just around the bend we see a gorgeous peacock with a resplendent tail and iridescent blue-green neck. On top of a tall leafless tree a majestic serpent eagle sits surveying the terrain for potential prey. We first visit the dining area, where many devotees from all over Sri Lanka and the world come to give alms to the monks. They come in the evening and prepare the breakfast consisting of sago or cunji and some simple fare for lunch. Before leaving the next day, they boil a pot of water to be used for tea for the next group of almsgivers. The monks don't eat dinner.
It is advisable not to wear short dresses or consume alcohol before arrival as these practices are discouraged and quite possibly you may not be allowed to enter the premises.
The temple dates back to the time of the Anuradhapura period. It was founded by Sri Gnananandabhimana Mahanayake Mahimi who retreated into the jungle. It is said that when he first preached here, wild pigs had congregated to listen to him. The tranquillity of the temple is broken only by the infrequent bird-call. We pass a white statue of the founder monk and make our way past the water-tank from which water is pumped to the almsgiving-hall. Proceeding along the rocks we pass a small weed-filled pool for cleansing feet, climb some steps and witness another statue of the monk together with statues of the pigs gazing up at him, placed in a cleft in the rock where he preached. We see a small house on top of the rock where the Mahanayake stayed. Close by is the Vehera Vasaya, an octagonal building on top of the rock with a pond about a foot deep next to it.
What strikes me most as we climb to the top is the utter solitude of the temple. An isolation not overtly uncomfortable but yet bordered by bleakness. The temple is situated in the midst of the thick jungle haunted by wild animals. Elephant, bear and leopard prowl the roads after dark, so much so that tourists and pilgrims who come to give alms are told in no uncertain terms not to leave human settlements after 6:30pm.
The temple is surrounded by outcroppings of rock. The atmosphere is perfect for contemplation and meditation. We could see across to another hilltop Karamagala where an old monk lives in solitude. The monks of Madunagala Vihare retreat into the jungle and meditate in niches cut in the rock. We are not allowed to see these consecrated areas. It is an eerie feeling standing on top of the short wall surrounding the Vehera Vasaya with a sheer drop onto the rock face. We come slowly down the hill pausing only to see the skulls of elephants and other animals there.
The reflection in our minds as we leave the temple is that here is a place which is indeed venerated.
Ambalantota is 226 kilometres from Colombo. The return journey fare by taxi will be approximately Rs. 7,700 (US$ 135).
by Dimitri Fernando
Updated February 13, 2007