Ritigala – The Ancient Stairway to Heaven

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Stone stairway at Ritigala

The alluring Ritigala mountain range is a short drive from the town of Habarana, in the Anuradhapura District of Sri Lanka.

Habarana is ‘Elephant country’, and you can feel it in the very air. Most visitors to Habarana enjoy a tranquil experience that city folks often yearn for. Although situated in the dry zone, the ever-green vegetation in Habarana flourishes throughout the year. There are many aspects of the surroundings that provoke the inner ascetic of a visitor. The Sigiriya rock castle, the Mihintale rock temple, Kaudulla National Park, Ritigala Forest Reserve and the Minneriya man-made tank are some popular tourist attractions of historic and cultural significance that decorate this area. The Sigiriya rock castle is a UNESCO World Heritage site and was declared the 8th Wonder of the World by UNESCO not long ago. The Kaudulla National Park and the Minneriya Tank are frequented by roaming elephants. Ritigala itself is a unique forest, designated as a Strict Nature Reserve, and stands in apparent contradiction with the dry-zone climate that surrounds it. It has a unique wet-zone eco system as one ascends to the summits of the Ritigala mountain range, the only mountain range in the largely flat dry-zone terrain of the north. An oasis in the dry-zone, it is no wonder that it has many romantic legend that surround it.

One doesn’t often experience wild elephants close to human habitation. But tame elephants can be spotted, employed for tourist rides along the tank border, presenting a magnificent view from the top of their bodies. From Habarana town the route A6 leads towards the Ritigala forest and is in good condition having been renovated recently. It eventually winds up in Trincomalee, in the Eastern coast of the island. The turn-off to Ritigala from the main road is narrower, but tarred and in moderately good condition for driving. One might notice posts at regular intervals erected by the forest authorities indicating habitual elephant crossings. These ‘elephant posts’ are frequently ‘knocked over’, according to the officials, by the very giants themselves. Though this seems rebellious at a glance, one may deduce that the posts serve as effective ‘back-scratchers’ to the passing jumbos!

Ritigala remains an unspoiled territory and within it lies the ancient ruins of a monastery. Originally named ‘Arittha-gala’ or ‘dreaded rock’ that is said to have been inhabited by the ‘Yakka’ or ‘demon’ tribes that were the early aboriginal peoples of the island.  It must have served as a forest sanctuary that rendered it a preferred getaway for those who searched for inner peace in those bygone days. The modern changes are welcome though, for the access roads are much better in quality, right up till the foot of the mountain range. The gravel road that leads to the official entrance to Ritigala, however, required a four-wheel-drive effort when we visited it a few years ago. Rains and  floods often wash away sections of the road, leaving pits that could only be tackled by a skilled navigator.

Unique Ecology within the Dry Zone

The Ritigala mountain range is 766m above sea level and is distinguished as the highest point of the North Central region. It has four peaks and the highest is called Ritigala kanda (mountain in Sinhala). It’s eco-system is a remarkable one as we mentioned before. Ritigala earns the title “Nuwara Eliya of the Dry Zone” comparing its micro climate to the cool hills of Nuwara Eliya. It’s interesting to observe the contrasting climate as you climb the Ritigala range. Starting with the dry zone ecology, when you get to the foot of the mountain range you will not fail to notice a hint of wet zone climate, and as you ascend, a rain forest like wet micro-climate develops that is very similar to a wet-zone montane forests of the Central hill region in Sri Lanka. One of the distinct characteristics are the cloud formations that occur at the summit and render into streams that taper downhill. The fauna and flora too correspond to wet-zone characteristics.

History and Popular Legends

Ritigala is also remarkable for its history and legends. Its history traces back to as far as the 3rdcentury B.C. In ancient times ascetics who shun worldly pleasures chose remote and secluded places in the forest to meditate and acquire sublime enlightenment. Although a sprawling Buddhist monastery complex, Ritigala does not include typical Buddhist icons such as the ‘Bodhie’ tree, or stupas. It seems to have served solely as place for meditation and it is obviously a very conducive place for it. The aura of Ritigala emanates a peaceful and detached feeling that is most certainly spellbinding. As you traverse through the path that had been a part of many legends, the spirits of the past are silent, as silent as they had been when they lived as ascetics in deep meditation.

There are two well known legends associated with Ritigala. One is associated with the Ravana legend. It says that the vanara (Monkey) God Hanuman passed over this region in giant leaps, while he was on an errand for Rama, carrying medicinal herbs from the Himalaya Mountains. The medicinal herbs were meant for the mortally wounded prince Laksmana, brother of prince Rama. Hanuman is supposed to have accidently dropped a heap of soil contained in the roots of the herbs at the very place where Ritigala now lies, forming the mountain range. The legend says that this accounts for the unique flora found at Ritigala that is very similar to a particular region in India.

The other popular legend of Ritigala is about a great warrior named Ritigala Jayasena who is thought to have fought for King Pandukhabaya in the 3rd century B.C. Subsequently Ritigala Jayasena was decapitated during a battle. The demon ‘Mahasona’ is said to be his very ghost who, with a headless body, is still spotted at odd hours by unfortunate travelers.

Monastery

The secluded forest environment must have allowed its ascetic residents to engage in deep meditation. The isolated and pristine surroundings were surely meant to detach the spiritual explorers from worldly ties and provocations. Ritigala is a sanctuary remote from common human habitations. Complete isolation would have allowed the inhabitants perfect equilibrium with their natural surroundings. Once a steady supply of water and simple sources of food were established through the abundant vegetation, the dwellers would have been quite self sustained. Medicinal herbs, which were considered essential to cure illness and injury were commonly found or else could have been easily be cultivated. Shelter from the forces of nature was clearly provided by the many caves of the mountain range and the tell-tale signs of early habitation are apparent today. There are thought to be around 70 caves scattered along the slopes of the mountain range.

And so, the significance of Ritigala goes on and on. One can imagine how it would have first existed as a thick jungle during the time of the ‘Yakkas’, how it became a minimalistic monastery and how it would have developed through the years aided by local monarchs. Since King Pandukhabaya, Ritigala had developed with continued royal patronage with various structures supported by granite columns that can be seen even today complete with an ascending granite stairway, courtyards and carvings, and an impressive man-made reservoir. Today the ruins of those structures are still imposing. The perfect contours of some of the 16 foot granite columns and carvings, a feat by the early craftsmen, remain a mystery to modern technology. A granite stairway still survives leading up like a magical path to Heaven – said to be the tallest manmade stairway of ancient times, in south Asia. It cuts a mesmerizing trail through the foliage of the forest. Ascending halfway up the monastery, an ‘Ayurvedic hospital’ emerges. This area was once dedicated to practicing indigenous remedies, and typical granite ‘medicinal’ tools can still be observed. Fragments of terra cotta pieces of tiles leave tell-tale signs of the tiled roofs that once covered the buildings that the scattered granite columns bear evidence of. You can feel the tranquil aura of those who resided within and meditated in the shelter of Ritigala in the ancient times.

The peak of the mountain is off-bounds to regular visitors as it is a Strict Nature Reserve. As such the real wet-zone micro-climate is only fully experienced by those who are permitted to proceed beyond the common boundary. Wild-life such as Elephant, Sloth-bear, various species of Avi-fauna and the four species of wild cats found in Sri Lanka including the leopard are known to reside in this Oasis. But they are uncommon in the permitted tourist areas of the mountain as they probably inhabit the more isolated areas of this enigmatic natural and cultural jewel of the North-Central Province.

Story | Nilu Rajapakse
Photography | Nilu Rajapakse

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