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Mulkirigala (Mulgirigala) Raja Maha Viharaya

- The Rock Temple Down South -

The climb was steep but not tiring. We never realized that we had climbed 533 steps up and down until we checked out the number from a temple aide. This was the way to the Mulkirigala temple in the deep south, 21 km interior from Tangalle, off Beliatte. The steps, although uneven in certain places, are well maintained and the tricky flight to the top can be quite tough but enjoyable.

Mulkirigala (Mulgirigala is also commonly used), as the name suggests, is a rock. Caves with elaborate paintings at three levels are reminiscent of Dambulla. Two large reclining Buddha statues adorn the caves at the lower level. Intricate paintings, most of which depict Jataka tales belonging to the Kandyan period, are visible in eight caves.

The temple, which dates back to the 3rd century BC, is a Raja Maha Viharaya, one that received royal patronage. There are several theories as to its origin. It is believed to be one of 64 temples erected by King Kavantissa, father of Dutugemunu, who ruled from Mahagama, a principality in the kingdom of Ruhuna. According to historians, this may have been the Samuddagiri or Muhudugiri temple built by Kavantissa.

He is credited with building a golden Buddha statue 18 cubits in length, in a large cave under the rock. A lamp with mustard oil is believed to have been lit in the cave on the advice of some arahat monks with the hope that it would remain lit for 5,000 years.

The name of King Saddhatissa (137-119 BC), son of Kavantissa is also mentioned in connection with the origin of the temple. According to legend, the king was hunting in this area when a Veddah informed him of a rock on which a temple could be built. The king agreed and called the place Mu Kivu Gala (the rock that he mentioned). Thereafter, the place had come to be known as Mulkirigala. It is also mentioned that a Naga Raja connected this temple to the Umangala temple in Hakmana with a tunnel.

King Dutugemunu (161-137 BC), having unified the country under one banner, is believed to have built another Buddha statue, 18 cubits in size, out of red sandalwood. His brother, Saddhatissa, who succeeded him had done a lot to develop the temple.

At a time when the south had made tremendous progress under him, the king had built a chaitya on the rock and enshrined relics of the Buddha there. A Bo sapling from the Sri Maha Bodhi had also been planted and an abode for the monks built. The temple was further developed when his second son, Valagamba ascended the throne for the second time in 89 BC.

Muhundragiri is another name mentioned in the inscriptions about Mulkirigala. The place had also been known as Muvathitigala, Mukirigalla and Mulagiriya. As it happened to many ancient monasteries and temples, Mulkirigala temple declined as the years went by. However, when the Dutch occupied the maritime provinces in the 18th century, it had once again come into prominence, with the rock being called 'Adam's Berg' confused with Adam's Peak.

An early Dutch writer, Albrecht Herport, who served as a soldier here in 1663, wrote: "One sees also still at this day the image of Adam formed on earth, of remarkable size, lying on the hill." Ven. Heenbunne Punnasiri, once Viharadhipathi of Mulkirigala temple rejects the view that the temple had any connection with Samanala Kanda.

Records mention how two resident monks at Mulkirigala temple - Vatarakgoda Dhammapala and Vehelle Dhammadinna Theras - went up to Kandy and obtained higher ordination after the restoration of upasampada. That was the time when the efforts of Velivita Sri Saranankara Sangharaja Thera were bearing fruit and a resurgence of Buddhism was witnessed throughout the country. Ven. Dhammapala returned to Mulkirigala and spread the dhamma among the laity. He also took the initiative of informing King Kirti Sri Rajasinghe (1747-1782) of the need to restore the ancient temple. On the king's instructions, the caves were repaired and the paintings cleaned up and restored.

Mulkirigala preserves some of the finest expressions of the southern school, says Professor Senaka Bandaranayake. "Located in a border area, at the southernmost extremity of both the maritime region and the Kandyan kingdom, Mulkirigala is associated with some of the earliest evidence for the existence of late-period murals from a time pre-dating the mid-18th century revival... The temple is mentioned in connection with the transmission or reintroduction of the mural tradition from Kandy to the southern region in the latter half of the 18th century," he writes in 'The Rock and Wall Paintings of Sri Lanka'.

Older references to the Mulkirigala temple are made by George Turnour of the British Civil Service when he talks about getting a transcript of a commentary from a copy in "the Mulgirigalla Vihara in 1872 by the kindness of the Chief Priest of Saffragam". This is proof that the temple had a good library.

On leaving the vehicle at the entrance to the temple, we take a good look at the imposing rock and wonder how we will reach the top. Having taken the first flight to the first level, we spend time worshipping at the Pahata Malu Vihara comprising two cave image houses, the chaitya and the bo tree.

The climb to the second level is quite easy, with the steep climb starting after that to reach the next level -- the Meda Malu Vihara. Another flight of steps takes you to the main temple area with four caves - Naga Vihara, Raja Maha Vihara and Pirinivan Vihara. A flight of small steps cut into the rock with a tricky bend takes you to the top where the chaitya is located, with a panoramic view stretching to the southern coast.

By the time you trudge back to the second level, there are plenty of vendors to offer you either a beli mal or divul drink. We had a refreshing kurumba treat instead -- it was delicious on a hot morning.

By D.C. Ranatunga
Sunday Times

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Updated February 3, 2007
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