Dimbulagala near Polonnaruwa, the 12th century capital of Sri Lanka, has been a Buddhist monastery for well over 2000 years. Meditating monks have lived in caves in the rocky outcrops here since Buddhism was brought to the country in 3rd century BC. Today, the focus is on a flourishing modern temple at the base of the rock on top of which is a thin, tall stupa.
At the base of the rock, a new stupa is being built next to the modern octagonal image house. A man sits with a monk next to a pile of small bricks and urges devotees to become stakeholders of the new venture and accumulate ‘merit’ by buying and donating bricks at Rs.10 each.
A short distance away, unusual for a Buddhist temple, there are male and female toilets with an attendant who charges Rs. 20 from visitors to use them. Steep steps lead up the rock. A colorful statue of the Hindu god Ganesh sits on a collection box at bottom of the path. A kiosk further up sells soft drinks, tea and fruit.
It is a hard climb up the rock. The new concrete steps are steep and unequal in height and width making the climb more arduous. Three young men wearing Dialog shirts come panting up the steps. “We make this climb every three months to service our transmitters at the top of the rock” one says. It is generous of the temple to allow the telephone company the facility at a sacred place. “We pay the priests big money for it” the boy smiles. Thick power cables dangle overhead and snake up he rock towards the transmitters at the top.
A Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill, an endemic bird, flies across the path and settles on a near by tree. We eyeball each other. A bored macaque yawns. At the top of the rock, steps disappear and you haul yourself up the steep slippery surface hanging on to the iron railings and hope they can stand the strain.
At the top, a multistory Stupa and other religious buildings share the cramped surface with transmitters and tangled cables. A giant footprint next to states of a kneeling deity and an elephant is littered with coins and twenty-rupee notes. A disproportionate image of the Buddha sits in a tiny image house. An adjoining room is adorned with colourful religious paintings.
There is a good view of the surrounding countryside from the top. At the base of the rock, smart new accommodation for the priests stand out. They have all mod cons including air conditioning I am told. Further out, there are many little known and little visited archaeological sites and caves with ancient paintings and Brahmi script where monks used to meditate. Next time I visit Dimbulagal, I will seek them out instead of climbing the rock. (See “Archaeological Sites Near Dimbulagala“)
The decent is easier and quicker. I stop to buy oranges and wood apple from a Vedda woman. “I have to collect and sell fruit from the forest to support my two children” she tells me. Like in most places, rows of shabby shops sell tacky plastic toys from China. I watch men and women spreading newly harvested rice to dry on the hot, hard road surface, working the grain with their bear feet, almost like dancing to a slow rhythm.
I head towards Polonnaruwa.
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The trip to Dimbulagala was arranged and led by Padmini Hussein of Flamingo Tours.