Mulgirigala Raja Maha Vihara, an Amazing Cave Temple Complex, Sri Lanka
Mulgirigala rock cave temple complex was an unexpected delight for me.
Even after visiting many rock and cave temples hidden among the mountains and in the jungles of Sri Lanka, I had not known what to expect.
There is very little information about these temples in English, and before we took the long journey down narrow, pothole-strewn village roads to get there, we had no idea about what we would be seeing until after we had arrived there, and stood with our mouths open before these stunning works of art, done as devotional work by dedicated artisans and monks.
Mulgirigala is one of those ancient cave temples that should be much better known internationally, for its history and for its seven amazing caves.
But only the locals know about it and visit it.
The seven Buddhist meditation caves in this temple complex are lavishly decorated, each with detailed cave paintings and sculptures depicting old tales and folk lore about demons and kings, court ladies and humble monks.
Mulgirigala (also known as Mulkirigala) was built on a 205 meter (673 ft) high, very steep natural rock, surrounded with four other large rocks. Caves are found on each of the five rock levels of the complex.
The big rock on which the temple was constructed is a massive natural rock that stretches tall and wide, similar to the Sigiriya rock.
That is why this site is known as Punchi Seegiriya -Little Sigiriya by the locals.
The exact date of the construction of the cave temple is unknown, but there is an ancient inscription carved into the rock, that dates back in the Buddhist calendar to the 2nd-1st century B.C.
“The cave of Upasona, a monk of the Majhima lineage, is given to the Sangha of the four directions, both present and absent.”
The temple was hosting Full Moon Poya day festivities on the day of our visit.
Lines of devotees came to the temple, bringing with them candles, flowers, incense, fruit, milk, rice and sweets to offer to the Buddha.
Of course, the major beneficiaries of these offerings, as always, were the wild monkeys.
Outside one of the caves, I saw a couple turn back and refuse to enter, afraid of the monkeys that were coming in and out of the cave, helping themselves to the offerings and growling at people.
I was not about to miss visiting any of the caves, so I swung my camera in the air and growled back at the monkeys, who yielded long enough for me to get in.
After we left, they were back inside, collecting lotus flowers and fruit, and baring their teeth at timid visitors.
In the temple courtyard there is another one of the many Bodhi trees found in the courtyards of both Hindu and Buddhist temples throughout Sri Lanka, grown from the saplings that were germinated from a cutting from the original Bodhi tree in India, under which the Buddha had achieved full enlightenment.
In the 18th century, the Mulgirigala rock was confused with Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak) by the Dutch, who believed that the tombs of Adam and Eve were located here.
According to the ancient chronicles, most caves were turned into temples in the third century AD.
After that, the temple received royal patronage by numerous successive kings, and in 461-479 AD, a Stupa was added to the temple.
Stone stairs, which were carved into the vertical rock face and which were actually quite fun to climb, were created in 1747-1782, and provided easier access to the upper caves.
The Lower Vihara Compound consists of seven temple caves (viharas), and was constructed on five compounds, or flat platforms.
The complex consists of a small museum, a pilgrim’s rest house, tombs, and a very large reclining Buddha on the rock.
There is also a small painted pagoda found inside the cave.
Many paintings decorate the walls and the ceilings of the caves.
If our photos in this post look repetitive, they are not.
They are taken in different caves with different statues.
Other terraces and platforms have more stupas, in which we met priests who blessed us and tied colorful bracelets made of plain thread on our wrists, as well as more caves and a Bodhi tree.
There are also very old and very large free standing lamps, ornately decorated and now encased in glass.
Once they were temple candelabra or lamps, that were lit by pouring coconut oil down a long brass tube, capped with a small funnel.
They have ornate animal legs and are studded with symbols.
On the top there is a bell tower, a Bodhi tree and a stupa.
The oldest cave is large, and the old statues are behind glass.
The wall and ceiling paintings are more elaborate, and depict royal kings queens, and divine beings.
Throughout the caves, there is a large collection of paintings and sculptures. Most paintings depict episodes from the life of the Buddha, and some from the Buddha’s previous incarnations, told as part of the Jataka stories.
In this temple there are lots of paintings of one of the famous past incarnations of the Buddha, known as the Vessantara prince.
In his incarnation as Vessantara, he was a compassionate prince, who gave away everything he owned, including his children, thereby displaying the virtue of perfect generosity and selflessness.
The story is very famous, with slight variations in other parts of Asia.
The name of this prince is different in Tibet, where he is known as “Prince Arthasiddhi,” and in China as Taizi Xudanuo jing, Prince Sudāna, while the prince is known as “Shudaina-taishi” in Japan.
The tale of Prince Vessantara is celebrated as an annual festival in Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Cambodia.
It is believed that this incarnation, in which he lived as a privileged prince who was full of compassion and love, is what led the Buddha to be able to achieve full enlightenment in his next incarnation.
A Jataka Story about how asking others for too much, can lead to hatred and loss
There was a time when some monks would go out begging, using the alms to build better cells for themselves.
The begging became so rampant, that people would run away from them as soon as they saw them in the village.
Once a senior monk went out for alms and noticed that people were running away from him on seeing him.
He called for a meeting of all the monks and learnt that the people felt troubled by the incessant pestering of the monks.
He scolded the younger monks and told them the following story:
Once there lived two brothers who had decided to renounce the world on the death of their parents.
The elder brother took up a hut at the Upper Ganga and the younger brother took up his hut in the Lower Ganga.
Once the king of the serpents, Manikantha, left his palace and was strolling on the banks of the Ganga after assuming the form of a human.
He saw the younger brother and they started talking and soon grew fond of him.
In due course, they were inseparable.
The two met frequently and whenever the serpent king left, he would cast off his body and embrace the ascetic within his folds and hold his hood over his head for a little while.
Then, when his love was satisfied, he would let go of the ascetics body, bid him farewell and return to his palace.
While the ascetic enjoyed the serpent king’s friendship, he feared the parting act and this fear took a toll on his health.
He began to lose weight and soon was very thin and disheveled.
When his elder brother saw him one day and asked him about this failing health, the younger one told him all about it.
The elder one then asked him, if there was something that the King serpent was very fond of, like an ornament or something.
To this the younger one mentioned a special jewel the king serpent loved.
The elder one suggested that the next time the serpent came and sat next to him, he should beg for the jewel, and the next day stand at the door and beg for it and the third day, stand at the bank of the river and beg for it.
Next day as soon as the serpent sat next to the ascetic, the monk begged for the jewel.
The king immediately got up and left the hut without saying anything.
As advised, the next day, the king left even before entering the hut and on the third asking, the king went back into the river and before leaving the king mentioned that he would not visit him anymore as the jewel was an important possession.
The serpent further said that what the monk was begging for was very important for him and all his prosperity was due to the jewel and that he would never part with it.
The monk was asking for too much!
With this, the serpent plunged into the water, never to return.
Later, when the elder brother visited the ascetic, he noticed that his brother had become even more pale and weak.
Upon questioning his brother he discovered that his brother missed the serpent king too much.
To this the elder brother surmised that one should never beg from those who are dear to them and excessive begging makes one hated.
He then talked with his brother about the ill-effects of asking for too much.
The two brothers then spent the rest of their lives, working hard to become worthy of attaining spiritual enlightenment.
Wishing you peace and a never ending light,