Kurunegala or Hasthihaliyapura was a royal capital for over half a century. It boasts of numerous historical sites venerated by generations of Buddhists and other communities, built by kings in the bygone era. These magnificent monuments are testimony to a proud ancient grandeur, bearing a historical, artistic and cultural identity.

Twenty-four kilometres north of Kurunegala lies a fascinating forest hermitage, a 6th century archaeological site known as Arankele, in the foothills of a mountain covered in thick forest. Approaching the place through the Ibbagamuwa-Moragollagama road, we turned right from the Hiripitiya junction, which leads to Kumbukkgate.

On this road is a signboard indicating the road to the Maliyadeva Arankele Aranya (hermitage) an archaeological site. After a ten-minute drive from the signboard Arankele could be reached easily.

The archaeological site of Arankele and hermitage lie in the forest canopy. Calm and quiet Arankele was the abode of a famed bhikkhu, Arahat Maliyadeva, who, along with other monastic bhikkhus lived here over 2,000 years ago.

The sylvan environment of this hermitage has led to many archaeological findings. Stretching out in many acres of the forest canopy are rock caves used for meditation, long pathways across the dense forest, Padanagara buildings, massive bathing ponds and drip-ledged caves where monastic bhikkhus dwelled.

Excellent craftsmanship

A flight of steps made of polished stone slabs display the excellent craftsmanship of yesteryear.

Arankele is famous for the longest meditation pathway in Sri Lanka. It is 250-feet long and was discovered during excavations by the Department of Archaeology over 30 years ago. According to officials of the Department, Arankele is a hermitage in the Padanagara style for monastic bhikkhus who completely devote themselves to meditation.

The archaeological site set up in the recent past and the ruins of the site belong to the early Anuradhapura period. Strewn in different areas of the precincts are remnants of large stone tablets on stone pillars.

There are a few natural rock caves lying on the slope of the mountain once dwelled by monastic bhikkhus for meditation. Some interesting features are the interior walls carefully plastered with clay, the stone doorways at certain entrances, and stone walls cut to divert rainwater getting inside.

Walking under the green canopy of wooded trees is balm to stressed nerves. The huge trees give the feeling of being in the thick of the forest, while the whisper of leaves rustling in the breeze adds to the bird song. During our stay at Arankele, we experienced the salubrious and serene atmosphere which was truly breathtaking.

The bhikkhus meditating in the hermitage are in the dense forest which we did not tread for fear of disturbing them. The surrounding forest affords them complete privacy from the noisy world. With the wide variety of trees, shrubs, insects and other creatures of nature, it was a respite for us too, away from our tight routine in Colombo.

Arankele was supposedly the retreat of hermits and arahats, who, although having attained the piety and holiness requisite for Buddhahood, refrained from entering Nirvana to help others walk in the path of virtue. One such was the saga Maliyadeva, who made Arankele his abode nearly 2,000 years ago.

Today, many monastic bhikkhus dwell in this 6th century cave hermitage on a forested mountain, meditating and fulfilling religious rites. Ancient Brahmin inscriptions reveal meditation halls, stone-faced double-platform aligned east-west with the entrance porch to the west, bridged by large monolith structures and ambulatories for the tapowana (forest-dwelling) sect of austere Buddhist hermits who resided here.

Stirring sounds

In another area is a large stone step-covered ancient pond, now partly filled with earth and water lilies, although it would have been quite deep at the time of the ancient sages who meditated here.

Arankele has been declared a protected area by the Department of Archaeology with the primary objective of preserving its pristine forest and intricate workmanship of the ruins. Dr. Senarath Paranavithana, renowned archaeologist and Director General of the Archaeology Department said that hermitages such as Arankele are rare worldwide, especially, those that reflect the skilled work of ancient Buddhist civilisation.

The best time to be at Arankele is dawn, before the heat of the day sets in. The stirring sounds of nature awakening to a new day and the crisp coolness are quite invigorating and help to spend a quiet, relaxing day.

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  • May 21, 2024 10:16 pm local time

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