The little-visited area north of Kurunegala is home to an intriguing range of attractions: the abandoned cities of Yapahuwa and Panduwas Nuwara; the absorbing forest monastery of Arankele; and the beautiful Kandyan-era temples at Padeniya and Ridi Vihara. If you have your own transport, all of these sites could be visited in a leisurely day’s excursion, either as a round-trip from Kurunegala, or en route to Anuradhapura. (If you don’t want to pay for a car all the way to Anuradhapura, ask to be dropped at Daladagama, from where it’s easy to pick up a bus.)
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Ridi ViharaTucked away in beautiful rolling countryside around 20km northeast of Kurunegala, the cave temple of Ridi Vihara is well worth hunting out if you have your own transport (although difficult to reach if you don’t). According to legend, Ridi Vihara, or “Silver Temple”, was built by the legendary King Dutugemunu. Dutugemunu lacked the money to complete the great Ruvanvalisaya dagoba at Anuradhapura until the discovery of a rich vein of silver ore at Ridi Vihara allowed the king to finish his masterpiece – he expressed his gratitude by creating a temple at the location of the silver lode.
Varakha Valandu Vihara
Entering the complex, bear left in front of a cluster of modern monastery buildings and a fine old bo tree to reach the diminutive Varakha Valandu Vihara (“Jackfruit Temple”), a pretty little structure built up against a small rock outcrop. Originally constructed as a Hindu temple, the building was converted into a Buddhist shrine around the eleventh century but still looks decidedly South Indian in style, with heavy rectangular columns overhung by a very solid-looking stone roof.
Beyond the Varakha Valandu Vihara lies the main temple, built beneath a huge rock outcrop said to resemble the shape of a cobra’s hood. The temple is in two parts. The older Pahala Vihara (Lower Temple) is built into a cave beneath the rock. An exquisite ivory carving of five ladies stands next to the entrance door, while inside a series of huge statues pose solemnly in the semi-darkness. A huge sleeping Buddha occupies the left-hand side of the cave, in front of which is a platform inset with blue-and-white Flemish tiles, donated (it’s said) by a Dutch ambassador to the Kandyan court and showing pictures of village life in the Netherlands along with a few biblical scenes – a sneaky bit of Christian proselytizing in this venerable Buddhist shrine. The weatherbeaten statues at the far end of the temple include an eroded image said to be of Dutugemunu himself.
To the right of the Pahala Vihara, steps lead up to the eighteenth-century Upper Temple, or Uda Vihara – the work of Kandyan king Kirti Sri Rajasinha. The main chamber has an impressive seated Buddha set against a densely peopled background (the black figures are Vishnus), while the entrance steps outside boast a fine moonstone flanked by elephant-shaped balustrades. Note, too, the door to the small shrine behind, topped with an unusual painting of nine women arranged in the shape of an elephant. Outside, a dagoba sits almost completely covered under another part of the overhanging rock.
Back at the entrance to the monastery, more than a hundred steps, some cut into bare rock, lead up to a small restored dagoba, from which there are fine views across the surrounding countryside.
ArankeleHidden away on a jungle-covered hillside some 25km north of Kurunegala, the ruined forest hermitage of Arankele is one of the Cultural Triangle’s least-visited but most intriguing sites. Arankele was occupied as far back as the third century BC, although most of what you see today dates from the sixth to eighth centuries AD, while extensive parts of the site have yet to be excavated. A community of pamsukulika monks who have devoted themselves to a reclusive, meditative life still live at the monastery at the back of the site.
The monastery ruins
Just before you reach the entrance to the site, note the fine Jantaghara (literally “hot water bath” – perhaps some kind of monastic hospital similar to the one in Mihintale), with a fine old stone bathing tank enclosed in stout rectangular walls.
The main monastery
Immediately beyond the entrance lie the extensive ruins of the main monastery, distinguished by their fine craftsmanship and the staggeringly large chunks of stone used in their construction – the fact that early Sinhalese engineers and craftsmen were able to transport and work such huge rocks slightly beggars belief. Major structures here include the impressive chapter house, surrounded by a large moat to help cool the air, and, beside it, a large step-sided pond. Nearby you’ll find the monastery’s main reception hall, floored with just four enormous slabs of granite; an elaborate stone toilet; and, next to it, a small meditation walkway, originally roofed – the only one of its kind in Sri Lanka (the roof has long since gone, although the footings that supported the columns which formerly held it up can still be seen).
Beyond the main monastery begins Arankele’s remarkable main meditation walkway: a long, perfectly straight stone walkway, punctuated by small flights of steps, its geometrical neatness making a strange contrast with the wild dry tropical forest through which it runs. After some 250m you reach a miniature “roundabout” on the path, popularly believed to have been built to allow meditating monks to avoid walking into one another, although it probably served as a rest area, covered with a (long since vanished) roof. Close by stand the remains of the principal monk’s residence, with the base of a large hall, the inevitable toilet and a jumble of pillars, partly collapsed, which would have supported an open-air meditation platform.
The meditation walkway continues a further 250m or so, ending at a small cave-shrine built beneath a rock outcrop. This is the oldest part of the ruins, dating back to the third century BC – the original drip-ledge and the holes where a projecting canopy was once fixed can still be seen. Inside, a small Buddha shrine sits flanked by two tiny meditation cells.
Beyond here the path continues to the modern monastery, with a long covered walkway leading to the rear entrance to the site.
- Panduwas Nuwara
YapahuwaAround 45km north of Kurunegala, just off the road to Anuradhapura, lies the magnificent citadel of Yapahuwa, built around a huge granite rock rising almost 100m above the surrounding lowlands. Yapahuwa was one of the shortlived capitals established during the collapse of Sinhalese power in the thirteenth century founded by Bhuvanekabahu I (ruled 1272–84), who transferred the capital here from the less easily defensible Polonnaruwa in the face of recurrent attacks from South India, bringing the Tooth Relic with him. The move proved to be of no avail, however. In 1284, Yapahuwa was captured by the army of the South Indian Pandyan dynasty, who carried off the Tooth Relic to Madurai in Tamil Nadu. Following its capture, Yapahuwa was largely abandoned and taken over by monks and hermits, and the capital was moved to Kurunegala.