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A guide to the Ritigala archeological site – 1

A guide to the Ritigala archaeological site

Ritigala is a valuable patch of forests with natural and historical value in the district of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. Ritigala is one of the most imposingly situated topographical features often glimpsed as a background to the beautiful view from many a tank-bund off road between Maradankadawala and Habarana, is that conspicuous range of hills which seems to burst out of the plain from practically sea-level. The mountain range rises to 2514 feet from the sea level. The beginning of the mountain range associated with the Hanuman traditions told in the great epic, Ramayana, which is more than a thousand years before the Christian era.

According to the Ramayana great epic of Rama Sita, Ritigala is the highest upheaval between the central mountain range of the Ceylon and the very similar hills of Southern India. Hence the tradition, that from Ritigala, Hanuman jumped across to India when he was carrying the joyful message to Rama, that he had discovered where Sita was being held captive in Sri Lanka, by the mythical King Ravana.

The legend goes further to say that when Lakshmana was wounded and a medicinal herb was required for his cure, Hanuman was sent to the Himalayas to fetch it.  On the way, he had forgotten the name and nature of the plant, whereupon he snapped a fragment of the Himalayas and carrying it to Sri Lanka twisted in his tails, dropped his load which contained rare medicinal herbs on the top of Ritigala. He then asked Rama himself to seek for the special herb he wanted.

Historically, this has been called as Arittha Pabbatha (the mountain of Aritta) which can be translated as ‘Dreadful Rock’ or ‘Safety Rock’ or even ‘Riti trees’ growing upon it. Around 3rd Century BC, Aritta, who was the Chief Minister of King Devanampiyatissa, who later was ordained as the First Sri Lankan Monk and became an Arahath, spent his monastic life at Ritigala.

This mountain range comprises many peaks and highest peak is called Ritigala and the Kodigala or flag rock is the highest point of the mountain range. This mountain range is located in the heart of the dry zone in Sri Lanka. Mountain range is about 5 Sq. km in extent. Even though the mountain range located in the dry zone, this mountain range comprises of three types of forests. The bottom part of the mountain range is categorized under dry mixed evergreen forest and the middle part of the range is comprised of tropical mountain forest vegetation while the highest terrain comprised of upper mountain forest type. The mountain summits attract more rainfall than the surrounding areas and amidst dry weather at lower plains; the peaks get wet with clouds and mist lowering the temperature at the summits.

History of Ritigala

Upon hearing the word ‘Ritigala’, one would think of a mountain with a unique shape and a place which enables the access to all the major climatic zones in the country. It was earlier known as Aritta Pabbata. The name Aritta Pabbata derived after two reasons, monk (Aritta), who was the first monk to move into the forest first in 3rd Century B.C is the first reason and the second reason being, it was inhabited by the first Sinhalese monk also called Aritta, who attained the Arahat hood. According to the one explanation the forest is named Ritigala, due to a large number of trees known as ‘Riti Gas’ (Anfiaristoxicaria). Whatever it is called Ritigala is one of the most valuable natural wealth of the island of Sri Lanka.

The origin of Ritigal is dating back to many centuries. First historical note of Ritigala is attributed to the legendary epoch of Ramayana. According to the legend, it was derived from a patch of forests that was brought to the island by Hanuman from Himalaya. Even today Ritigala harbours a large number of herbal plants, and popular in the island especially due to the abundance of medicinal plants.

According to another historical note, Ritigala was used as the camping ground by the King Pandukabhaya, in order to organize his army to fight against his uncles. The most prosperous era of Ritigala is recorded in the 3rd century BC. This period had been very important for the whole country due to the introduction of Buddhism. After the introduction of Buddhism, Aritta, a nephew of King Devanampiyatissa became the first Sinhalese monk of the island and attained the Arahat hood after practising the teaching of Buddha. Later the king Devanampiyatissa built a monastery complex at Ritigala and donated to the monk Aritta. The monastery was consisting of all the important elements of a Buddhist temple. It was consisting of dwelling places, dagobas, bathing ponds, mediation paths, meditation rooms, and fasciitis to prepare Ayurveda medicine. Even today the ruins of these constructions can be seen at the site. One can observe about thirty granite caves, which believed to be inhabited by Buddhist monks.

During the reign of King Suratissa (187 BC-177 BC) another Buddhist temple knows as Sanka Vihara was constructed at the foot of Ritigala. Another temple known as Ritigala Vihara came to being during the reign of King Laggatissa (59 BC-50 BC). According to the historical chronicle ‘Chulkawansa’, King Jettatissa organized his army at Ritigala, before he rescued the country from Indian invaders. Most important period of Ritigala was started in 831 and ended in 851, during the reign of King Sena. The monastery was given maximum patronage of the state rulers of that time. The monastery was heavily damaged and unusable for the monks by Chola invaders in 1200 AD.

Discovery of the site in the modern period was done by the British administration in the early 1800’s. It was first explored by R.C.P Bell, first archaeological commissioner of Sri Lanka in 1887. He has discovered 32 caves that were inhabited by Buddhist monks. Again it was explored by James Mental in 1872. The author of the German version of Chulawamsa and Mahawamsa, Willhelm Giger and Prof. Senatrath Paranavitana has also studied the ruins of Ritigala.

A visit to Ritigala monastery complex starts at the office of the archaeological department. It is located near the bund of the Banda Pokuna. A few steps leading to the top of the bund can be used to reach the viewpoint of the bund. One can have a breathtaking view over surrounding area from the viewpoint. The tank is in very good condition, even though it is one of the oldest constructions of the monastery. The inner face of the bund is lined with continuous stone steps which, in the past, paved the way to the bottom of the tank. The bund is built after a polygonal shape and circumference are about 1200 feet. According to the historian the Banda tank was not used by the resident monks of the monastery. It was serving the outside visitors for the ritual bathing.

The bund is breached and the present path follows the edge of the tank in a clockwise direction. At the far side, one must clamber over the bed of the main intake stream to reach the principal entrance staircase. This stream was bridged over in earlier times. The staircase leads to a small circus, the first of three which punctuate the footpath, and thence to the reception buildings. The main entrance enclosure contains buildings 2, 3 and 4; building No.2 appears to be an adapted form of double platform. The further northern platform leads to a narrow passage between buildings 3 and 4. A few meters to the east of the main enclosure is a second compound in which is an interesting building set around a sunken court. The court itself was open to the sky and surrounded by a roofed arcade. Buildings of this type have been identified at a number of sites, and there is a one which is almost identical in the Ashokarama Monastery of Anuradhapura. Opinion is divided as to whether they were used as bathhouses, or whether they were for the reception of food donations.

The passage between buildings 3 and 4 leads to a small open terrace from which, on the left, the main Ritigala ‘pavement begins’. Immediately below the terrace is a deep valley and steps lead down to the ruins of a bridge and bathing place. This valley forms the northern boundary of the monastery precinct but does not connect with the Banda Pokuna.

The stone pavement leads up the main spur in a westerly direction and links the reception buildings eventually to the two principal double-platform enclosures. It has been beautifully restored and is now unbroken except for the two ‘round-about’ which punctuate its length. Some commentators have suggested that this pavement served as a meditation path, though it seems much more likely that it was simply the main processional spine route of the monastery.

After 90 m the pavement turns slightly southwards. At this point, a short ruined pathway leads down on the right to the remains of a simple, early double-platform of the single-cell type. A second pathway leaves the main pavement on the left after a further 30 m. this leads through thick under-growth past the ruins of another slightly larger double-platform to the monolithic stone bridge. The bridge is formed by three massive stone slabs which are thrown across the void between neighbouring boulders. Some 6m below is the bed of the mainstream which flows into the Banda Pokuna. Each slab is about 450 mm thick and spans 4.5 m. the bridge leads into an area of enormous boulders and tangled vegetation, which as well worth exploring.

Back on the main pavement, a few paces bring one to the second and the larger of the roundabouts. While these roundabouts doubtless served some purpose that purpose has yet to be discovered.

A rough path leads from the left back towards the stream bed. On the opposite bank are two double-platform perched high above the stream on enormous boulders. Both of these reveal peculiar radiating foundation structure below their second platform.

33m beyond the roundabout is the starting point for two further scrambles. On the left, an almost non-existent path leads to a small, stone-lined bathing pond which is associated with a double-platform. On the right lies a separate spur which forms the northern part of the precinct. Here there are a number of platforms, dominated by one enclosed building of the larger and more complex type.

The next detour towards the left takes off after a further 37m. a rough scramble bring one to platform 41 and 40.both are fine examples of double-platform of the later period with beautifully preserved stone retaining slabs., and both appear t today almost exactly as they must have appeared to bell 90 years ago.

The main pavement now crosses a stream bed and climbs steeply towards the last roundabout and finally reaches the enclosure of building 16. It is one of the most important buildings on the site. It is built on a double platform and built with exact precision across the east-west axis. Urinal stone at one corner of the platform is dating back to the beginning of the monastery. Building 17 is to be found little west of this raised structure. It is slightly smaller than the earlier mentioned building.

During the excavations, 50 separate structures were discovered within the main precinct. Most of them are inaccessible while some others are in very dilapidated condition. Today most of the buildings of the monastery are remains as picturesque ruins in a wilderness of boulders and tree roots.

Ritigala Mountain

Ritigala is not only another mountain in Sri Lanka, but also it has rich historical past, natural importance and religious background. These three reasons (historical background, natural wealth, and Buddhist monastery) make the mountains another major tourist attraction in the island. Ritigala is situated in the dry zone of Sri Lanka about 3 kilometres from Dambulla. It can be conveniently added to our itinerary if you visit Anuradhapura. A small detour on the way to Anuradhapura from Dambulla takes you to Ritigala forest reserve.

Ritigala Mountain is rising up to 766 meters above sea level at its highest point. Ritigala archaeological is under the purview of the archaeological department and it contains a lot of historical monuments. Ruins of Buddhist constructions such as image houses, ponds, meditations paths are still visible in the jungle. It is believed that large numbers of monks were residing here in the past. It had been an important monastic complex for many thousands of years. But due to the wrath of south Indian invaders, who arrived here in the latter part of 10th century, Anuradhapura was given up by the kings, who ruled the country after that. Therefore the forest dwelling monks were obliged to give up their residence in Ritigala. According to the historical information, monks were living here since the earliest days of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. There are about 70 caves here and they were inhabited by monks. Similar kinds of cave temples were in existence in the historical city of Anuradhapura and many places on the island.

The monastery complex at Ritigala is categorized under the “Padhanagara pirivena” category and attributed to king Sena 1. It was dedicated to the Pansukulika monks in the 9th century.  But archaeologists opine that Ritigala monastery was in existence since the first or second century. An inscription found at the site provides valuable information regarding its existence during the reign of King Lanjaka Tissa.

One important discovery of the monastery is the urinal that existed in the monastery. it is a feature found in many ancient monasteries around the country. Anuradhapura, Arankele, Veherabandigala are some of the places, where it existed.

The fauna of Ritigala

Ritigala, the priceless natural wealth, which lies in the dry zone of Sri Lanka inherits large array of animals, birds, vertebrates, amphibians and fish species. Most of the wildlife reserves in the country are to be found in the dry zone similar to Ritigala. Usually most of the animal with large physical appearance such as elephant, crocodile, leopard, deer, bear, and buffaloes are living in the forests of dry zone.  Several organizations have studied on the bio-diversity of Ritigala. Sri Lanka Biodiversity Conservation Review is a study conducted by IUCN mainly on the biodiversity of Ritigala. A comprehensive study on the biodiversity of Ritigala was carried out by Prof.

Madom Jayasuriya in 1987.  According to the earlier mentioned studies and many other publications on Ritigala, the forest is inhabited by 30 mammal species. The elephant is the biggest of all mammal species found in Ritigala and about 60 elephants are living in the area. Several other often found mammal species are the bear (Melursus ursinus), Leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya), spotted deer (Cervius unicolor), slender lorries (Loris taridigradus), monkey (Semnopithecus entellus), wild boar (Sus scrofa), porcupine (Histrix indica).

The number of bird species in the area estimated to be around 100.Ritigala is inhabited by eight of the twenty-five endemic bird species in the country. Jungle fowl (Gallus lafayetti), Sri Lanka Spurfowl (Galloperdix bicalcarata), Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill (Ocyceros gingalensis), Spot-winged Thrush (Zoothera spiloptera), Brown-capped Babbler (Pellorneum fuscocapillum), Sri Lanka Hill Myna (Gracula ptilogengs), Ceylon Small Barbet  (Megalaima rubricapilla) and Black-crested Bulbul (Pycnontus melanicterus) are the eight endemic bird species found in Ritigala. Apart from the endemic species large number of resident bird species is recorded in Ritigala forest. Ritigala is the home for several species of meat-eating birds such as Crested Serpent Eagle (Spilornis cheela), Changeable Hawk-Eagle (Spixaetus cirrihatus), and Grey-headed Fish Eagle (Ichthyophaya ichtyaetus).

Several numbers of vertebrates are recorded within the borders of Ritigala. The number of Vertebrate species estimated to be around twenty-five. Sri Lankan bloodsucker (Calotes ceylonensis) and Brown-patched Kangaroo lizard (Otocryptis wiegmanni) are endemic lizard species of Sri Lanka. The lizard, which is capable of runs fast using the hind legs, known as Fan-throated lizard (Sitana ponticeriana) occurs in Ritigala.

Cobra (Naia naia), Russell’s viper (Vipera rasselli), golden tree snake (Criysopelea ornate), Hump Nosed Viper (Hypnale hypnale), little Indian viper (Echis carinatus) are the venomous snakes recorded in Ritigala. Sri Lankan green pitviper (Trimeresarus trigonocephala), an endemic species occurred here often along with the commonly known Indian Python (Phthon molurus).

There are more than 10 amphibian species recorded in Ritigala. Due to the low concentration of water resources, the number of fish species recorded in Ritigala is considerably low, compared to most of the wet zone forests such as Sinharaja, Kanneliya, Dediyagama and Horton Plains. Ritigala is inhabited by several species of butterfly. The number of endemic butterfly species recorded in Ritigala is 11 while the total number of butterfly species occurring here is about 50.

Ritigala is declared as a strict nature reserve due to the highly valuable biodiversity and fragile eco-system. Rich bio-diversity makes it one of the most valuable natural resources of the island apart from the historical importance of the country.

Plants and Trees of Ritigala

The first exploration of the flora of Ritigala was conducted by Henry Trimen in 1887; he compiled a book named a handbook to the Flora of Ceylon, which was included with some of trees and plants to be found at Ritigala. Flora of Ritigala Natural reserve is a very valuable book written on the flora of Ritigala and compiled by prof. Madam Jayasooriya in 1984. The book is a result of his studies at Ritigala forest reserve.

Ritigala is largely differed from the other forests in the island due to the variation of forest types within its borders. Ritigala harbours forest types, which belong to three major climatic zones of the country. At the lowest elevation of Ritigala, the vegetation shows the characters of the dry evergreen forest. The temperature at the lowest elevation of the forest is about 30C˚ while the annual rainfall measured to be around 50-70 inch.

At the highest elevation of the forest, the vegetation resembles the Mountain forest vegetation, where the annual rainfall measured to be more than 200 inch and temperature 15C˚.  In between the highest elevation and lowest elevation is the third forest type, which recognized as a wet evergreen rain forest. At the middle elevation of the forest, the temperature is 27C˚ and the annual rainfall is around 150-200 inch.

Ritigala forest occupies more than 1500 hectares in the north-central province of Sri Lanka. The number of species of trees recorded in the forest is 418. There are 37 flowering plants to be found in Ritigala. Ritigala forest reserve harbours large number of indigenous plants and number of indigenous species estimated to be around 54. Several trees at Ritigala are available only within the forest and they are not to be found anywhere else in the world, namely Kapparawalliya (Coleus elongatus), Mee (Madhuca clavata), and Ritigala tambargia (Thumbergia fragrans). There are many species of hardwood timbers such as Veera (Drypete sepiaria), ebony (Diospyras ebenum). Most of the hardwood trees are to be found in the dry-zone forest area of Ritigala. There is large number of medicinal plants and trees in Ritigala and it is estimated to be around 47.96%. Aralu (Terminalia chebula), Bulu (Terminulia belerica), Nelli (Phyllanthus embalica), Bin-Kohomba (Munronia pumila), Kotala himbutu are some of the noteworthy medicinal plants to be found here.

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