Habarana Sri Lanka

The main draw of Habarana, Sri Lanka, is the stunning Habarana Lake, which visitors can tour in about 90 minutes via a brief boardwalk. Elephant rides near the lake and other sites are available from a number of hotels and tour organisations, if you’d prefer (about $25 for an hour).

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Habarana, Sri Lanka

The large village of HABARANA is situated on a major road junction, close to Sigiriya and Ritigala, and roughly equidistant from Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura, and Dambulla. Although it provides a decent range of moderately priced accommodation, its greatest utility is as a jumping-off point for visiting any of Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle’s key attractions. Additionally, it’s the most practical starting point for trips to the island’s best places to see elephants, the national parks of Kaudulla and Minneriya.

The main draw of Habarana, Sri Lanka, is the stunning Habarana Lake, which visitors can tour in about 90 minutes via a brief boardwalk. Elephant rides near the lake and other sites are available from a number of hotels and tour organisations, if you’d prefer (about $25 for an hour).

National Park Kaudulla

About 22 kilometres north of Habarana, Kaudulla National Park was established in 2002 to provide an extra link in the elephant migration corridor between Minneriya National Park and Wasgomuwa National Park to the south and Somawathiya National Park to the north and east. Like Minneriya, the main attraction is Kaudulla Tank, a lake where elephants gather when the water runs out. The best time to visit is from August through December. A bit after Minneriya’s “Gathering” phase, in September and October, up to two hundred elephants congregate at the tank. Elephant viewing becomes more difficult during the dry season because so much of the park is underwater. Sambar deer, monkeys, and the inevitable (though extremely seldom sighted) sloth bears and leopards inhabit the park’s blend of grasslands and scrubby woodlands, in addition to the usual rich array of birds.


On the slope of a heavily forested mountainside within the Ritigala Strict Nature Reserve, north of Habarana, are the mysterious ruins of the Ritigala forest monastery. The monastery is perched atop a mountainside that is thought to symbolise Aristha from the Ramayana, the location from which Hanuman sprang back into India from Lanka after discovering Sita’s captivity. However, the more common reason is that because the region is wetter and higher than the plains around it, a greater variety of plant species can be found there. After that, it is thought that Hanuman went through Ritigala once more, dropping one of the pieces of the Himalayan mountain that he had been transporting back from India for its medical herbs (the other pieces fell at Unawatuna and Hakgala).
Ritigala’s isolation attracted hermits seeking solitude, and as early as the third century BC, they began to live here. The term “rag robes,” or pamsukulikas, describes the vow these monks took to wear nothing but rags that were either discarded or found on bodies. An order of austere and secluded monks arrived in Ritigala in the ninth century and committed their lives to great austerity. The order seems to have been established in an attempt to bring back traditional Buddhist values in contrast to the extravagant lifestyle that the island’s clergy provided. Sena I (831–851 AD) built a splendid new monastery at Ritigala and donated lands and slaves to it. After being deeply affected by the order’s renunciation; most of the ruins that remain today date from this era.


Due to its remote location in a vast area of dense forest and the lack of tourists, Ritigala is an enigmatic and alluring place. After much archaeological work, practically everything you see here still has an original intent that is mostly unknown. While some of the complex has undergone painstaking restoration, the trees still obscure others. One striking feature of the site is the complete lack of residential structures; it seems that the monks themselves exclusively lived in the many tunnels scattered around the forest.
After the entry, the path encircles the edge of the collapsed limestone bricks that once encircled the Banda Pokuna tank. It’s probable that this had a ceremonial function, with visitors bathing here prior to entering the monastery. At the far end of the tank, steep steps lead to the beginning of an intricately laid trail that winds through the forest and connects all of the monastery’s principal buildings. This walk is modelled after the Arankele meditation trail. After around 200 metres, the walkway reaches the first of numerous underground courtyards, which are three raised terraces surrounded by a retaining wall. Which is most near? Ritigala is characterised by its double-platform buildings, like this one. These are usually composed of two raised, east-west-facing platforms separated by a stone “bridge” and surrounded by a tiny “moat.” Usually, one platform includes the remains of pillars, while the other is plain. Many proposals have been made concerning the initial intent behind these constructions. One theory holds that the platforms themselves were used for meditation, with solitary meditation in the building on the linked platform across from it and group meditation on the open platform. Water served as a natural form of air conditioning in the “moat” that surrounded the platforms. To the right (east) of this enclosure are a few yards to another underground courtyard. Usually called the hospital, it was formerly possibly an almshouse or a bath.

From here on, the pavement continues straight ahead to one of the numerous “roundabouts” along its length; it might have originally served as a covered rest area similar to the Arankele roundabout. About 20 metres before the roundabout, a trail splits off to the right and leads through enormous tree roots to the so-called “Fort,” which is reachable through a stone bridge that crosses a creek and offers beautiful views over the nearby woodlands.

There are a few unexcavated platforms off the trail in the trees to the left after you cross the roundabout. These seem just as British archaeologist H.C.P. Bell must have observed them during his initial 1893 investigations at the site. It’s 500 metres to two additional submerged courtyards. A colossal double-platform structure in the first courtyard is one of the largest buildings in the entire monastery. On the left side of the courtyard are two stele that, according to one theory, monks would have walked between while practising walking meditation. A short distance away are the second courtyard and another large double platform.

Minneriya Park National

Just 10 minutes’ drive east of Habarana is Minneriya National Park, a wonderful change of scenery for anyone suffering from ruin fatigue. The park, which is relatively modest in size, has a very diverse range of habitat types, including marshes, grasslands, dry tropical forests, and areas that were formerly used for slash-and-burn (chena) agriculture. Constructed by the well-known tank builder and monk-baiter Mahasena, the enormous Minneriya Tank stands as the highlight of the park. Lovely satinwood, palu (rosewood), halmilla, and weera trees abound in the superb dry-zone evergreen forest that fills much of the area near the entrance; nevertheless, wildlife viewing can be difficult due to the dense forest cover.
The major attraction here is the elephants. Minneriya is a part of the Elephant Corridor, which links Wasgomuwa and Kaudulla national parks. Elephants pass through Minneriya around specific times of the year; local guides should be able to tell you where the largest concentrations of elephants are at any particular moment. From as far away as Trincomalee, up to three hundred people or more flock to the tank’s continually receding beaches to drink, wash, and feast on the fresh grass that shoots up from the lake bottom as the waters recede. They also come to mingle and find partners. Their numbers increase in August and September when water elsewhere dries up, and they are at their highest from July through October. There may be fewer elephants visible at other times; in fact, it’s usually easier to observe them from the main Habarana-Polonnaruwa road, which stretches along the northern border of the park. Yet, the largest gathering of Asian elephants worldwide occurs annually during what is known as “The Gathering.” Apart from a wide variety of avian species, the park supports sambar, spotted deer, macaque and purple-faced langur monkeys, sloth bears, and possibly as many as twenty leopards (although the latter two are very rarely seen).