Sri Lanka’s little known slice of history
The hill country of the island is synonymous with royalty, as it was the last kingdom of Sri Lanka, one that fell into the hands of its invaders, the British in 1815. Kandy is a chilly town, and is considered the ‘hill capital’ of Sri Lanka. This time, we took a trip to a beautiful place a few kilometres from Kandy town, one that the adventurous will surely enjoy.
Located in the village of Henagahawela, Teldeniya in the Dumbara valley of central Sri Lanka, the Bambaragala Rajamaha Viharaya is somewhat of a hidden gem. Surrounded by the Victoria reservoir and Knuckles mountain range, it’s an often-overlooked site next to popular tourist destinations like the Sigiriya rock fortress or the Dambulla temple, but is no less historically important or fascinating.
Dumbara valley was, in ancient times, something of a popular religious site overflowing with ancient temples, Raja Maha Viharas and rock cave hermitages (Aranne) that housed Buddha statues. A lot of historical information surrounding the site is sourced from the memoirs of Dr John Davy as he travelled around the country with his palanquin tours circa 1817. Davy wrote quite descriptively about the Monastery in his memoirs and while it’s easy to see many of the things he’s described, treasure hunters, looters and the ravages of time have taken their toll.
The temple is easily accessible from a number of popular hotspot cities including Hatton, Nuwara Eliya and Kandy. For this trip, the journey started from Kandy, travelling through Thalathuoya and Digana before heading down a few by-roads near the Victoria Golf Club to reach the cave temple. I’m told there used to be an old roadway leading to the temple through Henagahawela but it was submerged by the Victoria reservoir – these days access is through Tennekumbura on the Mahiyangana Road leading to Victoria Dam. The site is approximately 135 kilometres from Colombo, and would take about 4.5 – 5.5 hours to get there by bus and depending on traffic. A train journey to Kandy too is quite enjoying, though it doesn’t take right up to Teldeniya.
The temple’s main visitors are devotees and a smaller dagaba has been constructed inside the compound for anyone who would like to pray or just have a moment of reflection. The real journey though begins at the bottom of the rock with your first step up a series of stairs that take you through the many levels of the temple including the cave that houses the reclining Buddha statue – it also gives you a chance to be transported back in time and follow in the footsteps of the ancients.
To reach the summit of the rock temple, you have to climb up an exceptionally steep flight of steps – many advise getting directions from a guide before attempting this last section of the climb but it is not impossible to attempt on your own. Half way up the stairs you encounter the priests lodging quarters or Avasa and right at the top is a collection of ancient rock caves called Lenas. One of the most striking features of the Lenas are the ‘drip ledges’ meticulously carved-in to redirect rainwater, most likely into waiting vessels which the monks could later collect and use for drinking. Venturing into these caves you will find the walls adorned with art, most of which has stood the test of time and retained its vibrancy. While the painted murals probably wouldn’t rival the frescoes of Sigiriya, they are fascinating none the less with their tales – many of the murals depict some of the more epic Jataka stories with flourishes of Buddhist and cultural motifs of the time including vines, leaves and the iconic lotus flower in full bloom.
Following the trail of historical clues, curious Brahmi inscriptions can be seen at the top of the caves which date back to the 2nd and 3rd century BC (more than 2000 years ago!) – deciphering them has revealed that the rock caves were a gift to the Sangha by the ruling monarchs of the time. A further inscription found on a copper plate or a Thamba Sannasa, reveals a royal edict that gifts the surrounding lands to the Bambaragala Rock Temple.
Heading back down the stairs to the virtual safety of being on ground level gives you a chance to reflect on the experience of this ancient site. While it may not have all the tourist comforts or trappings of more popular destinations, it is an important part of Sri Lanka’s history that ties in generations of monarchs, monks and everyday people that remain relevant and just as captivating as it was during its ancient life.
There are many affordable accommodation options available in Teldeniya. Though the area is not as popular as Kandy, celebrated establishments like the Oruthota Chalets which borders the country’s longest river, the Mahaweli offers breath taking views. High-end options include Earl’s Regency and Victoria Golf and Country Resort, which are just a few kilometres from the site.
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