The monastery of Aluvihara sits right next to the main Kandy–Dambulla highway. Despite its modest size, Aluvihara is of great significance in the global history of Buddhism, since it was here that the most important set of Theravada Buddhist scriptures, the Tripitaka, or “Three Baskets”, were first committed to writing. During the first five centuries of the religion’s existence, the vast corpus of the Buddha’s teachings had simply been memorized and passed orally from generation to generation. Around 80 BC, however, fears that the Tripitaka would be lost during the upheaval caused by repeated South Indian invasions prompted the industrious King Vattagamani Abhaya (who also created the Dambulla cave temples and founded the great Abhayagiri monastery in Anuradhapura) to establish Aluvihara, staffing it with five hundred monks who laboured for years to transcribe the Pali-language Buddhist scriptures onto ola-leaf manuscripts. Tragically, having survived almost two thousand years, this historic library was largely destroyed by British troops when they attacked the temple in 1848 to put down a local uprising.

Cave temples

The heart of the complex consists of a sequence of cave temples, tucked away in a picturesque jumble of huge rock outcrops and linked by flights of steps and narrow paths between the boulders. From the first temple (home to a ten-metre-long sleeping Buddha), steps lead up to the main level, where a second cave temple conceals another large sleeping Buddha and various pictures and sculptures demonstrating the lurid punishments awaiting wrongdoers in the Buddhist hell – a subject which seems to exert a ghoulish fascination on the ostensibly peace-loving Sinhalese. Opposite, another cave houses a similarly gruesome tableau vivant showing bloodthirsty punishments meted out by Sri Wickrama Rajasinha, the last king of Kandy.

From here, steps lead up past the side of the second temple to another cave temple behind, devoted to the great Indian Buddhist scholar Buddhaghosa, who worked at Anuradhapura during the fifth century AD (though there’s no evidence that he ever visited Aluvihara) and produced a definitive set of commentaries on the Tripitaka. A statue of Vattagamani Abhaya stands in the corner of the cave, offering the scholar an ola-leaf manuscript, while a brilliant golden Buddhaghosa image from Thailand stands sentry outside. From here, a final flight of steps leads up past a bo tree (apparently growing out of solid rock) to the very top of the complex, where a dagoba and terrace offer fine views across the hills and over to a huge new golden Buddha (also donated by Thailand) that surveys the entire complex from a hillside far above.

Just up the hill to the left of the temple complex, the International Buddhist Library and Museum houses a few random objects including a vast antique ola-leaf copy of the Tripitaka in many volumes. A resident monk may also be on hand to demonstrate the ancient and dying art of writing upon ola-leaf parchment: the words are first scratched out with a metal stylus, after which ink is rubbed into the leaf, causing the invisible words to magically appear.