An ancient cave complex for monks in search of solitude
The Kudumbigala monastic complex in Panama, off the coastal district of Ampara in the East of Sri Lanka was built as far back as 246 BC during the reign of King Devanampiyatissa. It is the very first sanctuary built for Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka and therefore holds immense historical value. The ruins of this pre-Christian abode stretch over a vast 600 acre area in a secluded sector within the confines of the Ruhuna Wildlife Park. There are over 200 caves within this vast monastic complex, each one carved with massive tomb-like slabs to prevent rain from disturbing the monks during meditation. Most of these caves are plastered with frescoes and inscriptions.
A Brahmi inscription in the largest of these caves, the ‘Maha Sudharshana’, claims the monastic complex was donated by the Great Nandika-Mitta, a General of King Dutugemunu’s army, which defeated the Army of South Indian King Elara. Another inscription in the second largest cave claims that it was donated by Deva, another General of the same Army.
Other inscriptions in the caves indicate that the sanctuary had subsequently become an abode for hermits. Sri Lanka’s first and only cylindrical dagoba is also situated within this monastic compound. The dagoba was constructed for the purposes of providing refuge to Buddhist monks of Anuradhapura whenever they visited. It is believed a large number of stupa have been built within the monastery premises, giving Kudumbigala its other name ‘Chethiya Pabbatha’.
A large number of pillars, columns and ponds carved into the rocky compound of the monastic complex dates back to the seventh century AD. There is evidence to suggest that the caves may have been used as a modest hermitage till the early 17th century AD. It is significant to note that the remains of the monastery had barely been disfigured in any way following its abandonment. Having been an isolated monastery within the forest, there is no indication that the surrounding area may have been inhabited at any point in time, which essentially made the sanctuary a lost and forgotten one.
The lost Kudumbigala ruins were rediscovered by Upasaka Maithree, a Catholic from Negombo, who moved to the monastic abode to lead a life of seclusion. After his death in 1971, his remains were safely stored in a glass box and kept on display in one of the rock caves. Kudumbigala also stood resilient during the ravages of the conflict that took its toll in the East. The character around the monastery is one of serenity and tranquillity, essential features to be lost in meditation. Once you climb to the summit the view of the surrounding environment is breathtaking.