Mihintale: Where monks go to meditate - Poson feature
Devotees in their thousands will flock to the Missaka hill (Mihintale), the sacred spot eleven km north-east of Anuradhapura, next Saturday - Poson Full Moon Poya day. Being the place where Arahant Mahinda arrived in the third century B.C. and introduced Buddhism to Sri Lanka, Mihintale is of great significance to Buddhists.
Arahant Mahinda met the ruler at the time, King Tissa (later named Devanampiyatissa) who had gone to Missaka hill on a hunting expedition. After questioning the king briefly, he was satisfied that the king was intelligent enough to understand and grasp the doctrine, and delivered a discourse to him and his followers. Although the royal park of Mahamegha in the royal city of Anuradhapura was granted by the king, Arahant Mahinda, along with his disciples, spent the rainy season ('vassa') in caves prepared for them at Mihintale.
The extent of the land at Mihintale is estimated to be about 182.25 hectares (450 acres) and historians believe that before it became a monastic complex there had been natural caves in the locality. A few of them contain pre-historic artifacts. These, along with newly constructed caves had been donated for the occupation of the monks. The Chronicles mention that 68 caves had been donated.
The first monastery at Mihintale was constructed by King Devanapiyatissa. Professor Chandra Wickramagamage, writing in the 'Heritage of Rajarata', says that apart from Arahant Mahinda's cave, the Piyangu cave occupied later by a monk named Lomasanaga, and the Rajagiri cave occupied by the monks were the most famous of the caves at Mihintale. Fa-Hsien has reported that about 2000 monks were resident in the 5th century.
While most of the archaeological remains around Mihintale have yet to be identified, at least one cave forms the nucleus of a recently established monastery situated on the Colombo – Mihintale road in the village called Katupothakanda. The monastery has been developed as an 'aranyaya' for monks to meditate in quiet surroundings on a land given to Venerable Ampitiye Rahula Maha Thera about seven years back. What was once jungle land has been developed into a 'viveka senasanaya'. The peaceful environment provides an ideal setting for meditation.
Venerable Ellawela Medhananda Thera, researcher and authority on archaeology, has spent time studying the inscriptions and trying to identify the periods when the caves had been established. He has deciphered an inscription found inside the Katupothakanda Aranyaya cave which reads:
Supradhista lenayi. Devanampiya Gamini Abhaya maharajuge lena sivu diga sanganata dena ladi.
The inscription states that the cave had been built by King Devanampiya Gamini Abhaya and donated to the Maha Sangha. Medhananda Thera says that the name 'Devanampiya Gamini Abhaya' found in several inscriptions refers to King Dutugemunu (161 - 137 B.C). He has found two other inscriptions in close proximity but this particular inscription is said to be the oldest. The other two also give the names of persons who had donated the caves to the Sangha.
In a letter written to the Rahula Loku Hamuduruwo, Medhananda Thera says that the place is of considerable historical value.
Visiting the Aranyaya recently, I met Venerable Katugastota Sanathavihari Thera, who is presently administering the monastery since Rahula Thera is indisposed. Around four monks stay at any given time spending their time meditating. Following tradition, they go on 'pindapatha' in the mornings when the villagers who do chena cultivation get an opportunity to offer alms.
As meditative monks, they lead a simple life with minimum comforts. "Until recently we managed with candles and kerosene oil lamps. Now we have solar power. We are watchful of reptiles who visit us once in a way," the Thera says.
The cave has been renovated and the monks use it for meditation. Sanathaviharai Thera occupies a recently built 'kuti' with basic facilities. "We like the solitude. It gives us peace of mind. Undisturbed we are able to meditate and whenever the village folk turn up we preach the Dhamma and try to make them better individuals," he says.