In search of the lost Buddhist heritage in Mulle-Duwa or modern day Mullaitivu

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy 

“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” 

– George Orwell 

My last visit to Mullaitivu was in the year 2018 while I was returning back from Kayts. The latest archaeological work commenced in Mullaitivu those days by the Department of Archaeology and the Central Cultural Fund and the entire buzz surrounding the newly planned excavations compelled me to revisit the many archaeological sites in Mullaitivu and to take a voyage to the place’s long lost legacy.

Bordered by four districts (Mannar, Kilinochchi, Vavuniya and Trincomalee) and the Indian Ocean, Mullaitivu district covers an area of 2,617 square kilometres. The dry and semi-arid climate of the area is not ideal for a traveller who looks for comfort travelling. 


The history of this area dates back to the early historic period. According to ancient administration divisions of the Sinhala rule, the northern part of the island or the Uttara passa was under the rule of the Sinhala monarch at Anuradhapura. According to historical records and archaeological data, the ancient port at Dambakola Patuna (Jambukola Pattana) at Jaffna was where the sacred Bo tree was landed by Arhat Sanghamitta. Many ruins of Buddhist monasteries scattered all over the Jaffna peninsula and the neighbouring districts including Mannar, Kilinochchi, Vavuniya and Trincomalee suggest this area was ruled under the Uttatra passa administrative division during historical times. 

According to Pali chronicles the history of Mullaitivu, or known as the Mulle-duwa in ancient times, dates back to the 6th or 5th century BCE. It is stated in the chronicles that Vadunnagala was an ancient Naga kingdom. This Vadunnagala has been identified as the Vaddamana Parvatha Vihara at Mullaitivu. 

However, during the 13th century CE the Jaffna peninsula was under the rule of Arya Chakravartin. The rule of Arya Chakravarthins was limited for a century or so as Parakramabahu VI of Kotte waged war against Arya Chakravartins defeating Jaffna and brought it under the sovereignty of Kotte. 

During the 17th century CE the entire island was going through political turbulence and instability which resulted in many kingdoms under independent rulers including Kotte, Raigama, Seethawaka, Jaffna and later, Kandy. However, according to historical sources it seems that the king of Kotte and later the king of Kandy were considered as King of Sri Lanka despite the fact that there were a few other kingdoms. 


There are many archaeological sites all over the district and many of them are listed as archeological protected monuments by the Department of Archaeology. Many of these are ruins of ancient Buddhist monasteries including ruined stupas, image houses and monastic buildings. 

Kurundawasoka temple 

This place is known as Kurundaka or Kuranda in ancient Buddhist scripts. According to the Mahavamsa King Khallatanga during the 2nd century CE built this monastery. The most striking feature at this place is the notably large stupa which is in ruins today. Also ruins of an image house and a pond can be seen in the premises. 

Folklore says that Lord Buddha visited the place during one of his visits therefore making this place sacred for Buddhist devotees. Archaeological work has begun at this site in recent times which will definitely shed light on the unknown past. 


Out of all the places I visited in Mullaitivu, Kumbhakarna-malaya is one of my favorites. Kumbhakarna, according to folklore, was a mythological king in Sri Lanka. Pali chronicles say that King Gotabhaya built a temple called Kumbhasela and this place is identified as that temple. The cave and its remains such as ancient wall plaster, stairs, stone pillars, and the ruined pond suggest that this has been a monastery for Buddhist monks during historical times. The inscription and the ruined stupa were in a really devastated state and they should be restored as early as possible. My journey to Kumbhakarna-malaya was not at all easy as the dense forest was not welcoming and my guide said that bears inhabit the surrounding caves. 

Vardhamana pabbatha  vihara 

As I have mentioned at the beginning this is known as the Vardhamana pabbatha (the ancient Naga kingdom) mentioned in the chronicles. The harsh journey is actually worth it as the beauty and serenity of the place is truly memorable. The rock is surrounded by ruins scattered all over it. Once you reach the top of the rock, you encounter the ruins of two stupas that have stood the test of time for more than ten centuries. The drip ledges of the caves reveal that these caves were once inhabited by Buddhist monks. The antiquity of this interesting place can be easily traced back to the 3rd century BCE based on the early Brahmi inscriptions found here. 


Out of the many unexplored archaeological sites in Mullaitivu district Othiyamale is one. The rock situated close to an abandoned tank, with a ruined cave shelter is definitely a place for the hermit or an artist who wants to capture the beauty of nature. If you wander around the place you will see a ruined Buddha statue made out of stucco inside one of the caves. Stone pillars and brick walls can be seen all over the place. 


These ruins are situated close to an abandoned tank. The large number of small and medium sized tanks in the district reveal the agricultural prosperity of the area in the past. Unless archaeological work is commenced at this place at the earliest, the ruins will be destroyed further. 


I was fascinated by the ruined Buddha statue and the Bodhisattva statue I encountered at this place. These statues display characteristics of the mid-Anuradhapura period Sinhalese sculptures. The ruins of the brick stupa are in much need of immediate restoration work. 

Apart from these places I have mentioned here, I encountered a large number of ruined brick stupas, broken Buddha statues, stone pillars, and ruins of guardstones, balustrades, ruined ponds and irrigation work, a large number of Brahmi inscriptions, drip ledged caves, and abandoned tanks all over the district. The early Brahmi inscriptions and cave shelters reveal that many of these caves belong to the reign of King Devanampiyatissa. A notable amount of inscriptions have been found in the Mullaitivu district bearing the names of Sinhalese monarchs of Anuradhapura who have constructed temples or tanks. These names are verified through the data in the chronicles. 

The need to take   immediate action 

It is vital that the Department of Archaeology take immediate measures to commence archaeological work at these many sites in the Mullaitivu district. For centuries these places have fought a losing battle against the harshness of fierce forces of nature and for the past decades have faced the cruelty of certain extremist groups. Still, scholars who visit these places and officers who commence archaeological work at these sites face numerous challenges. 

As we all are aware of, archaeological sites in Sri Lanka are the targets of many groups as they stand as silent witnesses of a once lost legacy and these objects and sites are always linked with the concepts of land inheritance and national identity. Therefore it is urgent to take measures to ensure the safety of these sites. It is also important not to add fuel to the fire as we do not want our heritage to pay the price for it. 

1.    It is important to conduct a survey and list all the sites and monuments and gazette them as archaeological protected monuments. 

2.    Secondly, it is vital that the relevant authorities understand that Sri Lanka is a country with a living cultural heritage and as long as these sites and monuments are detached from the ‘living’ aspect (spiritual and intangible) they will continue to be dead objects; merely a bunch of stones and bricks. These places should be protected as living cultural heritage places. 

Heritage is to be protected, to be cherished… 

Destroying archaeological sites and monuments with the intention of whipping the identity of a past community is not a solution and that is indeed an act that brings disgrace on humanity. “Such acts are similar to what the Taliban did in Afghanistan,” said eminent scholar and senior archaeologist Professor Emeritus T. G. Kulatunga. “We should not deliberately destroy archaeological monuments that belong to another group with the hope of proving rights over land. We all know that the Hindu kovils built at Polonnaruwa by the Cholas were not destroyed by the later Sinhala monarchs. Instead they were well preserved. The Government takes necessary measures to protect these monuments. We cannot destroy evidence of past human activities based on our preferences or by being biased towards one race or religion.” 

He further stated that even though politicians play their political games, citizens should be more responsible and not look at these sites and monuments from a racist point of view. “We have seven Tamil inscriptions belonging to the Anuradhapura period but Professor Paranavithana or anyone after never attempted to destroy them or misinterpret them,” explained the professor. 

“Take Borobudur as an example. Although the country was earlier a Buddhist state, later invasions never attempted to demolish these wonderful Buddhist monuments. Today it is one of the major tourist attractions they have. They generate a large income through that. Another similar example is Bodhgaya. There are enough examples like this in Pakistan. Look at Nagadeepa. The Tamil community around Nagadeepa is benefitted when more and more pilgrims visit Nagadeepa.” 

We need to concentrate on a “community based conservation” at these archaeological sites, which means a “people-centred approach.” 

Let’s unite for ‘our’   heritage 

“It is important to get together and take part in archaeological excavations at these disputed sites to reveal their true identity. These archaeological works should be done collectively. If not, we are actually placing heritage at a bigger risk. Also, we might lose more and more lives due to these conflicts.” said former Director Conservation of the Department of Archaeology Dr. Gamini Wijesuriya, who is now Special Advisor to the DG of ICCROM, Rome, Italy, Special Advisor to the DG of WHITRAP Shanghai, China and Senior Vice President International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) Sri Lanka. 

He further stated that, these newly built Hindu kovils can be also kept aside at the same Buddhist sites. This is not new to us. “The most sacred shrine at Kandy, the Temple of the Tooth, has four devalas in front of it. Kataragama is another example. We are a nation that always practiced religious harmony and reconciliation throughout our long history.” 

Let us protect ‘our’   heritage, not our ego… 

Yes, almost all of these sites are Buddhist monasteries. However, some were being venerated by Hindus in later times. Proper archaeological work conducted collectively, can reveal the true identity of these sites. It is important that both parties agree upon what the archaeological work reveals, not what we prefer to believe since it a fact that archaeological data do not lie or cannot be fabricated. It is also important to understand that Sri Lanka is a country that has suffered terribly due to racism and ethnic conflict; hence we do not want to be wounded further. These conflicts may lead us towards further turbulences and rifts between the two communities. And as a result we may further lose more valuable heritage sites. 

“We should feel empowered by where we came from and who we are, not hide it. It is important to acknowledge that everything we do affects our ancestors as much as they have affected us.” 

– Lorin Morgan-Richards

Uncategorized, Buddhist heritage, Eelam, Mullaitivu, Sinhala Buddhist heritage, Sri Lankan archaeology, SRI LANKAN HISTORY, Traditional Tamil Homeland