Special Feature — THE FORGOTTEN TEMPLE: Dakkinagiriya & the Other Kaludiya Pokuna

A thousand-year-old ‘mountain monastery’, lost in the Kaludiya Pokuna Forest, east of Dambulla; forgotten by the tour guides, and seemingly by time itself. For the visitor seeking something literally off the beaten track, the Dakkinagiri Viharaya is an intriguing but serene detour away from the well-trodden sites of Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle.”

The stupa of the 9th century Dakkinagiri Viharaya, with Erawalgala behind it.

The road through the Kaludiya Pokuna Forest to the Dakkinagiri Viharaya really is just a jeep track. There’s a signboard by the main road, right next to the Thimbirawa Reservoir and, if you aren’t driving a jeep, it’s best to leave your car here and walk the two and a half kilometres into the jungle. The track is deceptively smooth at first, and there are even a couple of hotels next to it, but it gets progressively narrower and uneven the further one goes.

Road conditions aside, walking is certainly the best way to experience the area. At first the land is relatively open and cultivated with bright green fields of rice interspersed with patches of jungle and grassland. But after a kilometre or so the jungle crowds in close to the track, long grass brushing my legs, and the branches of ebony and other hardwoods droop overhead.

In the flatlands below Erawalgala, the jungle is interspersed with broad swathes of grassland.
A small reservoir, alongside the path to Dakkinagiriya, with Erawalgala in the distance.
Jungle and water seem to surround Dakkinagiriya (above & below).
A bund divides the waters of a tank from the rich paddy fields it irrigates.

I knew that the Dakkinagiri Viharaya is at the base of the 600m high Erawalgala Ridge, now hidden from view by the enclosing jungle. The trail slopes gently upward, but is an easy stroll in the mild morning weather. Big tufted grey langurs crash through the branches above me, angry at my intrusion.

The Kaludiya Pokuna Forest is rich in wildlife, and I have been warned to delay my visit to the viharaya so as to not encounter the herds of elephants attracted to the jungle’s edge by the fertile farms immediately to the north. The Asian elephant is easily the most dangerous thing in the Sri Lankan jungles, but even a startled wild boar could do me serious damage at close range.

The small reservoirs on both sides of the trail are the best place for spotting the area’s avian life, and my approaches to the water’s edge sends them splashing or flapping for safety, regardless of my attempts at stealth.

The jungle (above, below & bottom) crowds in close to both the viharaya and its approaches.

My destination is marked by a small Archeological Department building, and the short climb beyond brings me to the edge of the Dakkinagiri Viharaya complex. The ruins are an example of a pabbata viharaya, comparable to better-known sites like Menikdena in Dambulla, and Toluvila in Anuradhapura.

Inside the characteristic rectangular wall and protective moat, Dakkinagiriya’s brick stupa is all that is instantly recognisable. A barely legible inscription on a guardstone flanking the stupa’s steps attribute it to King Sena II, dating it to the 9th century, towards the end of the Anuradhapura Period. Other inscriptions range from the mundane – a slab with a set of rules for monastic life – to the amusing – a warning carved on the wall of a meditative cave, by a certain Mr Dathanaga, that if the monks fought over the rice and curd donated by him the food would instead be given to the cows and dogs.

The Pabbata Viharaya
Literally translated as “mountain monastery”, this distinct form of viharaya seems to have appeared around the 7th century, and was first labelled thus by archaeologist Senarath Paranavitana in 1970, and alludes to the nominal fact that mountain sites were often chosen for monasteries in India and Sri Lanka. This distinction is mostly contradicted in Sri Lanka by the fact that most pabbata viharas are not on mountains. They are, however, all located outside the ancient urban centres of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. In short, the pabbata viharayas are suburban or rural monasteries, architecturally distinct from those in the cities; their sacred precincts consisting of four structures — a meeting hall, a stupa, an enclosed bo tree, and an image house — on elevated rectangular land, enclosed by a moat. The latter feature led anthropologist Arthur Hocart to first isolate these monasteries as “moated sites” in the early 20th century.

The vihara grounds are in fairly neat and tidy condition, the ancient trees having been allowed to stand but the undergrowth cleared away. There is a great air of calm, but also of neglect. Many older photographs I have seen of the guardstones, inscriptions, and artefacts reveal that there has been much recent deterioration.

As I walk on past the stupa, the stone columns of the patimagharaya (image house) and the upasathagharaya (meeting hall) are locked in eternal battle with the trees that grow up through the ruins; stone and wood sometimes indistinguishable one from another. The fourth building, the bodhigaraya (enclosing a sacred bo tree), has long disappeared.

The first glimpse of the Dakkinagiri stupa as one approaches through the trees.
The characteristic decorative wall and moat of a pabbata viharaya is instantly recognisable.
Stone steps takes the visitor up and into the viharaya grounds.
(above & below) A carved Nagaraja, the king of snakes, a Hindu deity) guards the steps leading up to the ruined stupa. Next to it, a smaller guardstone carries medieval Sinhalese script, identifying Dakkinagiriya to the time of King Sena II of Anuradhapura.
Large portions of the stupa have crumbled away.
A cracked guardstone lies amidst the ruins of the ceremonial meeting hall.
Stone and wood seem to wrestle in the ruins of the monastery.
A barely legible stone inscription outlines regulations for monastic life.

Beyond the viharaya, a path leads up the lower slopes of Erawalgala, through thick undergrowth and gigantic trees. It is here that ascetic monks spent lives of meditation in shallow kutis – recesses in the rock, often deepened with hammer and chisel – perhaps long before Dakkinagiriya was created.

It is here that I finally come upon the Kaludiya Pokuna, or “Black Water Pond”, that has lent its name to this place and, indeed, to the forest itself. Unlike its more famous and picturesque namesake close to Mihintale, it is shallow and still and black; overhung with underbrush and covered in reeds and lotus pads. It is a rather forbidding spot, deep in the jungle, and I shudder inwardly at the thought of having to rely on it for my daily water. Those monks must have been a tough bunch.

I follow the path’s circuitous route back down the hill and into the sunlight, breakfast on my mind. Right now, I’d fight any dog, cow, or monk for some rice and curd.

Gigantic trees tower into the green gloom (above & below), dwarfing visitors.
A kuti, a shallow cleft hollowed out of a rock (above), was used for meditating. Medieval Sinhalese script warning against fighting over food (below) can be found on the lower right side of the shelter.
The rather unspectacular Kaludiya Pokuna or “Black Water Pond” for which the site – and the forest – is named.
A Ceylon brown fish owl (Ketupa zeylonensis) launching itself in search of breakfast made the cover of the March 2018 issue of Serendib. The countryside around the Dakkinagiri Viharaya is dotted with many small reservoirs, none as famous as the Kaludiya Pokuna.

A version of this article ran in the March 2018 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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