6 November, 2016
Story and pictures by Mahil Wijesinghe
The meandering Walawe River begins as a spring in the Horton Plains and flows down across several provinces until it meets the sea at Godawaya in the Southern city of Ambalantota. An extensive land area in Sabaragamuwa is known as the valley of Walawe and hidden in this heartland are some very impressive prehistoric ancient stone beauties from the classical Anuradhapura period. In 2002, the Department of Archaeology carried out an extensive exploration at the archaeological site, Budugala at Kaltota in close proximity to the Walawe River where a complex of ancient Buddhist monasteries have been found and restored.
A long arduous journey through the harsh terrain of the otherwise lush Sabaragamuwa Province, brought us to the Balangoda-Kaltota road. From Balangoda, the road was ever winding as we kept descending steadily from Balangoda toward Kaltota for around 30 kilometres. The scenery was refreshing with the edge of the mountain affording a distant view of the plains of the entire Southern province before melting into misty greens.
The road then runs on flat terrain and we met a gushing canal carrying Walawe waters, running parallel with the road. The canal gives water to the paddy-fields on the opposite side of the road. We saw shallow bathing spots along the canal where locals were washing and relaxing after a bath. The huge, tall trees along the canal give ample shade to the road. The rugged steep road to Kaltota took a right turn, leading us to the Weli-Oya – Kaltota narrow carpeted road and we reached a place steeped in history.
The scenic, rustic village of Budugala, (meaning ‘the rock of Buddha’) nestles in the boundary of the Udawalawe National Park, at the edge of the Sabaragamuwa Province, and the Walawe River flows across this village. Paddy cultivation is the main source of livelihood of the villagers of this area.
We stopped at an Archaeological Department signboard and parked on the side of the narrow road. There was hardly any traffic, and hardly any room for two vehicles to pass. We crossed the canal by a narrow bridge and reached the small watch hut built by the Department of Archaeology at the entrance to the site.
Although the site meeting our eyes seemed interesting, there was hardly any information available. Since we visited the Budugala ruins in Kaltota on a drought ridden day, the area was surrounded by clumps of yellow sunburnt grass and brownish shrub jungle. There were hardly any visitors. It was quiet, save for the sudden wind that took a fancy to howl through the huge trees. But, in a bygone era, this was a main spiritual hub and part of the ancient site in Ruhuna and may be in Anuradhapura – far enough for seclusion, and yet, near enough to maintain some kind of contact. Both were essential requirements for a forest monastery.
The word ‘Padhanagara’ which was used to describe Budugala, has the same meaning as ‘Aranya’ or forest monastery. However, these monasteries were also large, well-planned and exhibited a clever, skillful architectural style suited for a monastic community.
The sylvan surroundings of this ruined monastery are also home to extensive archaeological findings. Strewn in the entire hill of the precincts are remnants of large stone tablets on stone pillars. All around us lurked stone hulks of every shape and size. The rock cuts seemed to link us with the monastic monks who lived and perhaps attained Nirvana here. The rock seats they sat on and the clean air which they breathed and meditated, still pervade the area.
Entering the site, we first encountered two large rectangular foundations of buildings connected to each other at the centre by a narrow bridge. Somewhat long polished granite slabs comprised its construction, while a few upright stone pillars stood bravely in several places on this foundation.
From this structure a neatly built stone flight of steps led uphill. The steps sometimes accompanied by balustrades at different levels had been built of stone in perfect geometrical harmony, with boulders littering the sides and the soaring tree-scape creating an idyllic frame to a serene setting.
We climbed further, and came upon more ruins of the stone structure in similar design, but slightly smaller than the earlier one at the slope of the mountain. The monks sanctified this place by occupying it for more than a millennium. According to archaeological evidence, it is believed that the Budugala ancient monastery and the constructions found here go back to the 1st Century BC.
This 1st century monastery was constructed on a forested hill. Ancient inscriptions have revealed meditation halls, stone-faced double-platform structures and ambulatories for the ‘Tapowana’ (forest-dwelling) sect of austere Buddhist hermits. Typically, the platforms aligned east-west with the entrance porch to the east, would be bridged by a large monolith. The smaller of the double-platform structures were probably divided into monks’ dwellings, the roof supported on columns. Budugala was supposedly a retreat of hermits and Arahats.
Unlike Ritigala and Arankela, also reputed forest monasteries in the sixth century in the North Central Province, here at the Budugala monastery, we couldn’t find any typical pond known as, ‘Jathanagaraya’ where the monks bathed. The stone pillars, slabs and bricks left behind are witnesses to its past glory.
We walked across grid after grid of exposed stone foundations with ancient bricks and tiles, and fallen polished stone pillars at the centre of the slope of the hill where the second structure lay. Scattered around are stone pillars and remnants of ancient buildings. Among the ruins are a frontispiece, ancient toilet slab and a ruined flight of steps. Some of the ruins, especially, foundations of the buildings and stone flights of steps have been restored by the Department of Archaeology. It is believed, further archaeological excavations would reveal many more artifacts buried at the site.
Our interest began to pique as we walked into the heart of the complex and saw the beautiful bond of religion and nature. Walking around the wooded shade is balm to the stressed nerves. Gigantic trees, their barks entwined with three-inch thick vines, add to the feeling of being in the thick of the forest, while the leaves rustle in the breeze.
The best time to be at Budugala is at dawn, before the heat of the day sets in. The stirring sounds of nature awakening to a new day and the crisp coolness are quite invigorating. One could take a picnic breakfast, making a firm resolve not to litter the place in any manner whatsoever, and spend a quiet, relaxing day. Enjoy nature and the refreshing environs but do so quietly.