Hidden 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).

Meditation walkway

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.