Secreted away north of Habarana, on the slopes of a densely wooded mountainside protected by the Ritigala Strict Nature Reserve, lie the mysterious remains of the forest monastery of Ritigala. The mountainside on which the monastery sits is thought to be the Ramayana’s Aristha, the place from which Hanuman leapt from Lanka back to India, having discovered where Sita was being held captive. According to popular belief, Hanuman later passed by Ritigala again, carelessly dropping one of the chunks of Himalayan mountain which he was carrying back from India for its medicinal herbs (other fragments fell to earth at Unawatuna and Hakgala); this is held to account for the unusually wide range of plants and herbs found at Ritigala, although the mundane explanation is that the area, being higher and wetter than the surrounding plains, supports a correspondingly wider range of plant species.

Ritigala’s remoteness appealed to solitude-seeking hermits, who began to settle here as far back as the third century BC. In the ninth century, Ritigala became home to an order of reclusive and ascetic monks known as pamsukulikas, who devoted themselves to a life of extreme austerity – pamsukulika, meaning “rag robes”, refers to the vow taken by these monks to wear only clothes made from rags either thrown away or recovered from corpses. The order seems to have started as an attempt to return to traditional Buddhist values in reaction against the self-indulgent living conditions enjoyed by the island’s clergy. So impressed was Sena I (831–851 AD) with the spirit of renunciation shown by the order that he built them a fine new monastery at Ritigala, endowing it with lands and servants – most of the remains you see today date from this era.

The ruins

Ritigala is magical but enigmatic, while the setting deep in a totally undisturbed tract of thick forest (not to mention the lack of tourists) lends an additional sense of mystery. Parts of the complex have been carefully restored, while others remain buried in the forest, but despite the considerable archeological work which has been done here, the original purpose of virtually everything you now see remains largely unknown. One striking feature is the site’s complete lack of residential quarters – the monks themselves appear to have lived entirely in caves scattered around the forest.

Beyond the entrance, the path runs around the edge of the tumbled limestone bricks that once enclosed the Banda Pokuna tank – this possibly served a ritual purpose, with visitors bathing here before entering the monastery. At the far end of the tank, steep steps lead up to the beginning of a beautifully constructed walkway (similar to the meditation walkway at Arankele) which runs through the forest and links all the monastery’s major buildings. After around 200m the walkway reaches the first of several sunken courtyards, bounded by a retaining wall and housing three raised terraces. The one nearest is one of the double-platform structures which are a characteristic feature of Ritigala. These generally consist of two raised platforms oriented east–west, linked by a stone “bridge” and surrounded by a miniature “moat”; one of the platforms usually bears the remains of pillars, while the other is bare. Various theories have been advanced as to the original functions of these structures. One holds that the “moat” around the platforms would have been filled with water, providing a natural form of air-conditioning, while the platforms themselves were used for meditation – communal meditation on the open platform and individual meditation in the building on the linked platform opposite. A few metres to the right-hand (east) end of this enclosure is a second sunken courtyard, usually described as the hospital, although it may have been an alms-house or a bathhouse.

Beyond here, the pavement continues straight ahead to reach one of the “roundabouts” that punctuate its length – perhaps formerly a covered rest area, like the similar roundabout at Arankele. About 20m before reaching the roundabout, a path heads off to the right, leading through enormous tree roots to the so-called “Fort”, reached by a stone bridge high above a stream, and offering fine views over the forests below.

As you continue past the roundabout, a couple of unexcavated platforms can be seen off the path in the woods to the left, looking exactly as they must have appeared to British archeologist H.C.P. Bell when he first began exploring the site in 1893. After another 500m you reach two further sunken courtyards. The first courtyard contains a substantial double-platform structure, one of the largest buildings in the entire monastery. The left-hand side of the courtyard is bounded by two stele; according to one theory, monks would have paced between these whilst practising walking meditation. A few metres beyond lies the second courtyard and another large double platform.