Sitting on a major road junction almost equidistant between Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura and Dambulla (and close to Sigiriya and Ritigala), the large village of HABARANA is of little interest in itself but has a decent spread of relatively upmarket accommodation, making it a convenient base from which to visit any of the Cultural Triangle’s major sights. It’s also the handiest point of departure for trips to Minneriya and Kaudulla national parks, which offer some of the island’s best elephant-spotting.
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The main attraction in Habarana is the fine Habarana Lake, encircled by a small footpath around which it’s possible to walk in 90min or so. Alternatively, a number of hotels and tour operators offer elephant rides by the lake and elsewhere (around $25 for 1hr), although the sight of these mighty animals trudging lugubriously through town beneath a surfeit of chains may leave you feeling almost as uncomfortable as the elephants themselves.
Kaudulla National Park
Some 22km north of Habarana, Kaudulla National Park was established in 2002 to provide another link in the migratory corridor for elephants, connecting with Minneriya and Wasgomuwa national parks to the south, and Somawathiya National Park to the north and east. As at Minneriya, the centrepiece is a lake, the Kaudulla Tank, where elephants collect when water dries up elsewhere. The best time to visit is between August and December, with elephant numbers peaking in September/October (slightly later than Minneriya’s “Gathering”) when up to two hundred congregate at the tank. Outside the dry season much of the park is under water, and elephants can be more difficult to spot. Other wildlife inhabiting the park’s mix of grasslands and scrubby forest includes sambar deer, monkeys and the inevitable (but very rarely seen) leopards and sloth bears, plus a characteristically wide array of bird life.
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.
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.
Minneriya National Park
Just a ten-minute drive east of Habarana, Minneriya National Park offers something of a change of scenery for anyone suffering ruin fatigue. Its centrepiece is the large Minneriya Tank, created by the famous tank-builder and monk-baiter Mahasena, and despite its relatively small size, the park also boasts an unusually wide range of habitat types, from dry tropical forest to wetlands, grasslands and terrain previously used for slash-and-burn (chena) agriculture. Much of the area around the entrance is covered in superb dry-zone evergreen forest dotted with beautiful satinwood, palu (rosewood), halmilla and weera trees – though the thickness of the forest cover means that it’s relatively difficult to spot wildlife.
The principal attraction here is elephants. Minneriya forms part of the elephant corridor that joins up with Kaudulla and Wasgomuwa national parks, and large numbers of the beasts can be found here at certain times of year during their migrations between the various parks – local guides should know where the greatest concentrations of elephants are at any given time. They are most numerous from July to October, peaking in August and September when water elsewhere dries up and as many as three hundred or more come to the tank’s ever-receding shores from as far away as Trincomalee to drink, bathe and feed on the fresh grass that grows up from the lake bed as the waters retreat – as well as to socialize and search for mates. This annual event has been popularly dubbed “The Gathering”, the largest meeting of Asian elephants anywhere in the world. At other times, you may spot only a few elephants, which in fact are often more easily seen from the main Habarana–Polonnaruwa road that runs along the park’s northern edge. Other mammals found in the park include sambar, spotted deer, macaque and purple-faced langur monkeys, sloth bears and around twenty leopards (although these last two are very rarely sighted), plus an enormous number of birds.