Special Feature — Mysteries in the Jungle: the Batatotalena Cave Temple

Current belief is that Batatotalena is the Divaguhawa of legend, though the argument on its authenticity goes on.

The characteristic triangular shape of an arch cave can be clearly seen at the mouth of Batatotalena.

The arch cave or lena of Batatota, in Sri Lanka’s Ratnapura District, is still a mystery waiting to be solved. Naturally carved into a cliff of Proterozoic gneiss, it is triangular in both plan and cross-section; a characteristic of arch caves. The area is famous for its caves and history, the latter both natural and religious. The Batadombalena cave, some kilometres south of Batatotalena, was once home to Balangoda Man, a prehistoric hominid, whose skeletal remains, discovered in the cave, date to 14,000BC. The local aboriginal Veddhas claim Batatotalena and the other nearby caves as both worship and habitation sites that predate the arrival of Buddhism in 306BC.

The mystery of Batatotalena, however, is a more Buddhist one. The Buddha is believed by many to have made three visits to Sri Lanka during his lifetime, visiting almost a dozen places across the country. Though the exact number of places visited varies according to chronicle, they are all included in the Solosmasthana, the sixteen holiest Buddhist sites in Sri Lanka, linked to the Buddha either by an actual visit, or by the enshrining of a personal relic like a bone or hair, or an item once worn or used by Gautama Buddha. Fifteen of them have been definitively identified. On his third visit to the island, from 519 to 520BC, the Buddha climbed Sumanakuta, also known today as Adam’s Peak, and left what is thought to be his footprint on its summit. Thus, the mountain came to be commonly called Siripada, or the Sacred Foot. Ancient scripts go on to say that after descending the mountain, the Buddha and five-hundred of his disciples then rested at a nearby cave. This is the sixteenth site in the Solosmasthana, and named the Divaguhawa, or Daylight Cave; and its location remains in dispute. Current belief is that Batatotalena is the Divaguhawa of legend, though the argument on its authenticity goes on.

Stunning views of the Kuru Ganga Valley below reward the visitor at the cave mouth. In the distance is the Kunudiyaparvathaya, with Adam’s Peak beyond.

Centuries after the Buddha’s visits, King Nissankamalla of Polonnaruwa, who reigned from 1187 to 1196AD, discovered the cave while visiting Adam’s Peak, and instructed one of his ministers to build a temple inside it. This is likely the beginning of the legend of Batatotalena being the Divaguhawa.

Fading into obscurity, the area around the Batatotalena was reclaimed by the jungle, and the ancient temple stood neglected and unknown until it was rediscovered by chance in 1908 by a passing monk named Sri Subethi. Renovating the interior, Sri Subethi added a shrine to the existing temple, and maintained it until his death. The temple was then abandoned once more until, in 1995, it was declared by some to be the site of the legendary Divaguhawa. Restored once more, the cave is now a site of regular pilgrimage by thousands of Buddhists almost daily.

Kuruwita is around two hours drive from Colombo, and Batatotalena is 7km north of Kuruwita, on the road to Erathna and Adam’s Peak. Regular signs point the way, but visitors should be aware that these signs often refer to the site simply as the Divaguhawa, and not Batatotalena. Beyond a large car park, the walkway to the temple gets gradually steeper, the last part being up a covered series of stairs. The climb, however, shouldn’t take more than half an hour.

Batatotalena attracts the most devotees between March and November, and during these months the cave as well as the access route can become quite crowded. For a more relaxed experience, visit in December or January, when the temperature is also markedly cooler. The climb, as well as the cave mouth, offer spectacular views of the valley below, with the shape of Adam’s Peak towering in the distance. This view, however, is not guaranteed, and depends on the weather. On the day I visited, Adam’s Peak was visible throughout the climb and for much of the time spent in the cave, but had completely disappeared in cloud at the time of descent, a couple of hours later.

Occasionally steep stairs lead the visitor to the cave temple.
The first glimpse of Batatotalena, with its distinctive hanging ferns dripping cool welcome onto sweaty pilgrims.

The cave entrance is the largest part of the recess, as with most arch caves, 15m high and 18m wide, with a small shrine built onto a rocky outcrop outside. A Platform encircles the shrine, and this is the best spot for views of the valley and the surrounding mountains; prominent among the latter is the steep square-shaped Kunudiyaparwathaya, halfway between Batatotalena and Adam’s Peak.

The Kantamari shrine looks out over the dense jungle (above), and (below) dead lamps on Kantamari’s altar.

Below the cave, on a ledge above the jungle, is another shrine in its own compound at the end of a flight of dilapidated stairs. It has a strange and forlorn atmosphere about it; a certain eeriness. This is the shrine to Kantamari, a female demon who is said to have occupied Batatotalena for seven-hundred years, until exorcised in the late 1980s. Part of the exorcism was a compromise; an agreement that Kantamari would leave the cave in exchange for being given her own shrine. But the compromise is apparently simply that, for Kantamari is said to leave Batatotalena only during the day, returning each night. Pilgrim visits stop at sunset and, after dark, the cave is left open and empty, with not even a nightwatchman willing to stand guard.

Inside Batatotalena, the cave gradually narrows as one moves down its 25m length. Long hanging ferns line the roof of the cave, constantly dripping water that gathers in a pool on one side. As with many fountains all over the world, the Batatotalena cave pool glitters with coins tossed in for luck by visitors over the years. A slightly incongruous statue of a frog sits in the centre of the pool, a symbol of a worship ceremony conducted for the Hindu god Bhairava in the 1990s, when the temple was renovated. A recess on the right holds a stupa,or dagoba, and the platform in front of it also affords sweeping views of the countryside below.

Two views of the main part of the cave (above & below) with the intricately frescoed curtain wall of the shrine, a stupa, and a statue of Sri Subethi, the monk who rediscovered Batatotalena in 1908.
Entrance to a small Hindu shrine, (above) incongruously decorated with a Victorian-era British royal coat of arms, and (below) interior of the shrine.

Deeper in the cave, another recess houses a bright blue statue of the Hindu god Vishnu. The outer wall of this shrine room is festooned with a stylised version of the Royal Coat of Arms of Great Britain, indicating that it dates to the renovations of 1908, when Sri Lanka was still a British colony.

The far end of the cave is blocked off by another wall, behind which is the main shrine room. The entrance to this room is via the Makara Thorana, a fresco that forms the actual doorway and is one of the few surviving features of Batatotalena that dates back to the original temple built by King Nissankamalla. Many of the ancient artifacts were stolen in the early 20th century when the temple was abandoned after the death of Sri Subethi. Inside the shrine room are three statues of the Buddha; the largest being a 10m reclining Buddha that takes up most of the cave wall. All three statues are in surprisingly good condition for Polonnaruwa Era creations, but this is because they have been restored many times over the years.

Makara Thorana doorway (above) to the main shrineroom, and (below) several views of the interior.

A visit to Batatotalena can be easily completed in a morning, if one is driving from Colombo, leaving the rest of the day open for other activities. For those in the mood for something more strenuous than the thirty-minute climb to Batatotalena, a visit to the nearby Batadombalena would be just the ticket. However, be warned that the hike to the home of Balangoda Man is not for the faint-hearted. For this one, it is necessary to hike a kilometer and a half through what is at times primary rain forest, along a steep jungle track that is often nothing more than a line of jumbled rock or a narrow streambed. An hour and a half later, sweaty, tired, and carrying a few hitchhiking leeches, I hadn’t found Batadombalena. I gave up. One mystery was enough for the day. Balangoda Man had been waiting for thousands of years; he could wait a bit longer.

It is customary for Buddhist pilgrims to ring a bell when they reach their destination, the number of peals corresponding with the number of visits by that individual to the holy place. The bell at Batatotalena has a twin atop the summit of distant Siri Pada, and it is said that on quiet nights, when the wind is right, the ringing of that distant bell drifts down the Kuru Ganga Valley to the weary Gautama’s place of rest.

The Batatotalena diagram was reproduced from Caves & Karst-Like Features in Proterozoic Gneiss & Cambrian Granite, Southern & Central Sri Lanka: An Introduction, R. Armstrong L. Osborne, Wasantha S. Welliange, Pathmakumara Jayasingha, A.S. Dandeniya, A.K. Prageeth P. Algiriya, Ross E. Pogsons.

A version of this article ran in the February 2016 issue of Serendib, the inflight magazine of Sri Lankan Airlines. Since that long-running magazine’s website has ceased to function, I will, in an effort to keep accessible the pieces I wrote for it, be posting versions of them here on this blog. The photos have not been re-edited, and continue to display whatever skills I had at the time.


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