Located in the mountains of Central Sri Lanka, and about 30 kms from the city of Anuradhapura, lies the ancient Ritigala Buddhist monastery. Dating back two millennia, the monastic complex is an epic work of mindful architecture connected via a continuous, forest-hemmed stone walkway.
The 1.2 km hike begins at the office of the on-site branch of Department of Archeology of Sri Lanka close to the foot of the Banda Pokuna, an ancient man-made reservoir with a circumference of almost 400 metres. Erected right down to the base are stone steps that circle the entirety of the reservoir. Here visitors to the monastery possibly completed their ablutions before heading on towards one of the many Padhanaghara – double platform structures made from massive pieces of granite linked together by a stone bridge; these served as meditation spaces. There are over 60 such double platforms over 120 acres at Ritigala. Among these structures are also the vestiges of what was once a “hospital” complete with root grinding stones and Ayurvedic oil baths with sophisticated drainage systems; the foundations of “floating air conditioned” rooms; and ornately decorated urinals to remind one of the fickleness of power and glory.
We began our journey at the Banda Pokuna into this ancient realm held as it was in the benevolent arms of nature herself. As soon as we started walking up the granite pathway, we felt the aura around us shift; take on an ethereal feel. The place manifests a melancholic trance in which one becomes completely cloaked, experiencing each of its elements in vivid sensory detail: The murmuring forest, the life force of its roots underfoot, the iridescent salamanders flicking between the stones and the continuous pathway like a silver beacon to venues of meditation and peace.
Trees, some old as age itself, their serpentine roots traversing the forest floor as far as the eye can see, shade the path with their green verdancy. As we hiked uphill, the atmosphere continued to thrum with their primal energy as one ancient one whispered and its murmur was carried like an undulating wave through the rest of the grove. Then all would be quiet except for the chirr of the crickets and the chorus of a songbird. It felt like we were witnesses to the sharing of a sage old secret; the trees of Ritigala retelling it among themselves and then quieting down as 21st century humans hiked up its ancient trails. Then whispering it again, until one stops to listen; and then the pulse slows down as the heart beats to the gentle rhythm of the humming trees. If ever there was a place where one can SEE one’s feelings, this mystical pathway held in the embrace of the ancients is that place.
Serenity is everywhere. The scene is mesmeric. The trees continue to tell their tales in the sun dappled patterns that shimmer on the path and on our skins; like golden runes that speak of the most profound quietude and peace.
To stand there and to take all this in is like absorbing the quiet energy of all that the monsastery once embodied; the tread of thousands of devotees; their quiet meditation, their rhythmic chants and even the ascendency of their consciousness. One can almost see the ascetics of old and the seekers of calm walk up the steps, their spirit energy conjured up again by the gentle cantillation of the trees. The experience rouses in turn, awe and an overwhelming humility; an acute awareness of the smallness of the individual and the profoundness of the collective.
We came away from Ritigala cloaked in the magic of nature that has continued to keep its erstwhile history vibrating through its quadrangles, pillars and its meandering walkway. The Ritigala monastery is truly a mystical portal through time.