MIHINTALE, 12km east of Anuradhapura, is famous as the place where Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka. In 247 BC (the story goes) the Sinhalese king of Anuradhapura, Devanampiya Tissa (reigned 250–210 BC), was hunting in the hills of Mihintale. Pursuing a stag to the top of a hill, he found himself confronted by Mahinda, the son (or possibly brother) of the great Buddhist emperor of India, Ashoka, who had been despatched to convert the people of Sri Lanka to his chosen faith. Wishing first to test the king’s intelligence to judge his fitness to receive the Buddha’s teaching, Mahinda proposed his celebrated riddle of the mangoes:

“What name does this tree bear, O king?”

“This tree is called a mango.”

“Is there yet another mango besides this?”

“There are many mango-trees.”

“And are there yet other trees besides this mango and the other mangoes?”

“There are many trees, sir; but those are trees that are not mangoes.”

“And are there, beside the other mangoes and those trees which are not mangoes, yet other trees?”

“There is this mango-tree, sir.”

Having established the king’s shrewdness by means of this laborious display of arboreal logic, Mahinda proceeded to expound the Buddha’s teachings, promptly converting (according to the Mahavamsa) the king and his entire entourage of forty thousand attendants. The grateful king gave Mahinda and his followers a royal park in Anuradhapura, which became the core of the Mahavihara, while Mihintale (the name is a contraction of Mahinda tale, or “Mahinda’s hill”) also developed into an important Buddhist centre. Although modern Mihintale is little more than a large village, it remains an important pilgrimage site, especially during Poson Poya (June), which commemorates the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka by Mahinda, during which thousands of white-robed pilgrims descend on the place.

The ruins and dagobas at Mihintale are relatively ordinary compared to those at Anuradhapura, but the setting – with rocky hills linked by beautiful old flights of stone steps shaded by frangipani trees – is gorgeous. Mihintale can be tiring, however: there are 1850 steps, and if you want to see all the sights you’ll have to climb almost every single one of them (although you can avoid the first flight by driving up the Old Road to the Dana Salawa level). It’s a good idea to visit in the early morning or late afternoon to avoid having to tackle the steps in the heat of the day.