October 2010


Illuminating a distant past
October 2010




The aged doorway to the image house of the main cave complex, dating back to the 18th Century Kandyan period - within lies a reclining Buddha statue

Aluvihara - it is a name of the olden ages that still resonates, a place held in deep reverence, a temple, where a historical episode unfolded; it invites one to appreciate an unprecedented event of religious significance, dwellings and artefacts of archaeological value and a curious and picturesque setting, all of which define its existence. The Aluvihara Cave Temple has irrevocably etched a place in the annals of Sri Lankan history.

Words: Prasadini Nanayakkara | Photography: Prabhath Chathuranga

Ask any local familiar with the history of the Island of the Aluvihara Cave Temple and they are most likely to say that it is where the mammoth task of transcribing the Buddhist teachings or Tipitaka (colloquially termed Tripitaka) - the three baskets of law - took place centuries ago. Till then the Buddhist teachings had been preserved through word of mouth for centuries. This knowledge alone draws pilgrims, historians and archaeologists from far and wide to visit the temple precincts and explore its hidden mysteries and even legends. Notable figures from neighbouring countries have themselves left indelible marks of their visits to the temple as venerations.

Along the Matale-Dambulla road of the A9, the Cave Temple lies 30km north of Kandy. It is a convenient stop en-route the renowned cultural triangle of the Island. Its entrance is unmistakable in that the arched gateway is flanked by boundary walls bearing a series of sculptured elephant heads. Through the arches the road stretches like a straight ribbon to a flight of fairly steep steps that leads to the heart of the rock temple.

Large precipitous boulders leap into view. Upon entering the main cave complex it appears as though a large boulder fell upon the earth and cracked open leaving a dramatic, deep cleft. Craggy landscape springs up at each turn towering over the narrow alleyways. It gives one the impression that a tirade of boulders fell one upon the other. Snuggled beneath these boulders are ‘len' or the caves that appear to strain timidly beneath. These rugged structures overtime have become swathed here and there by the lushness of nature.

The Historical
The era that King Walagamba came to rule was one of strife due to foreign invasions and famine that plagued the island for many years. Following a self-imposed exile of 14 years the King reclaimed the throne and in 88 BC the urgency to preserve the Buddha's teachings was felt as its verbal transmission was no longer deemed safe. Some of the Arahant monks who had sought refuge in India from the 12 year long famine returned and converged with the remaining Arahants in the Island to commit the teachings to writing. Thus the Fifth Buddhist Council was held at the Aluvihara Cave Temple in the 1st Century BC. It is thought that King Walagamba deemed the Aluvihara Cave Temple suitable due to its secluded setting away from the conflict ridden capital, Anuradhapura.

One can only imagine a conclave of 500 scholarly Arahants reciting the doctrines while the scribes embedded the words into the written form on palm leaves with the use of a special stylus. Reaching a consensus on acceptable versions of the doctrines, thereafter its reciting, and finally transcribing along with commentaries justifiably lasted many years to reach completion.

However these treasured manuscripts were wholly destroyed by the British in 1848 during the Matale Rebellion. An attempt to repeat history with the rewriting of the Tipitaka was made during 1981 - 1991 marking the Sixth Buddhist Council held once again at the Aluvihara. These manuscripts are stored to this day at the Temple's museum.

Following the narrow alleyway farther upwards finally leads to the pinnacle upon which sits a small pearly white stupa built in 1812. Walking around its small circumference one can alternate between an overview of the rock monastery complex below and the mountainous backdrop in the distance. Deeper below lie more of the natural caves hidden away from the main complexes in the grooves of the landscape amidst the surrounding greenery and an abundance of cocoa trees. One can almost picture an ascetic seated within. Even today, monks reside here and give sermons to the gathered devotees.

Exploring the many sections of the temple one wonders where 500 Arahant monks would have resided. Yet there are many caves hidden from view in and beyond the premises and the immediate precincts are home to 11 natural caves. The main cave complex is an image house sheltering the reclining Buddha statue and is supposedly where the Fifth Buddhist Council was held. The walls within are intricately muralled and even the aged doorways adorn inimitable designs belonging to the 18th Century Kandyan period. Farther down the complex is a cave housing a replication of the historical event.

Further to the many murals pertaining to Buddhist scriptures, Buddha statues and the intriguing caves, there are many ancient markings of interest that one can keep an eye out for. The first of these is a short Brahmini inscription on the exterior of the main cave complex beneath a dripledge - a rock-hewn ledge to shelter the cave from rainfall.

The name
Originating from the terms ‘Alu lena' or ‘Aloka Lena' that translates to ‘luminous cave', the name evolved to ‘Alu Vihara' or ‘luminous temple'. There are many reasonings and legends behind the name. One theory is that the main cave where the writing of the Tipitaka took place faced east and thus received the morning rays and remained illuminated. Another reasoning is that the writing of the Tipitaka bestowed a doctrinal illumination to mankind and is hence suitably named.

The second is a carved bas-relief of a bo tree on a large boulder that lies beneath the ancient tree. Another, an imprint of Buddha's footprint at the summit near the stupa believed to be a replication of the one at the Adam's Peak summit.

Another structure of interest is the sand bench situated inconspicuously beside the main complex. In ancient times apprentices first practiced their writing skills with the tip of their forefinger on this sand bench before proceeding with the arduous task of writing holy scriptures on palm leaves. More valued artefacts recovered from the ruins are stored in the Temple's museum including the Yantra Gala, a stone slab cut into 25 compartments in which offerings to the Buddha relic are placed and Chatra Gala, a circular stone slab used as an umbrella shade for the stupa.

Of the many cave temples in Sri Lanka, the Aluvihara is one that simply cannot be overlooked. Its tranquil and captivating surroundings are nature's tribute to ancient monastic dwellings. Feet that may ever stray upon these premises will assuredly stumble upon an authentic account of history, a spiritual encounter or an air of the mystique - shedding light into a distant past.

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    Inside the image house, with Buddha statues surrounded by murals of vivid detail

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    Statues within the image house set against intricately muralled walls

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    Crevices within the rock to place oil lamps seen opposite the main cave complex

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    A view of the main cave complex

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    The route from the entrance leading to the cave temple

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    The temple situated within the large cleft of the boulder

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    One of the caves found in the temple premises hidden from view

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    The carved bas-relief of a bo tree

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