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Mulkirigala rock Temple

  Province Southern
  District Hambanthota
  Nearest Town Mulkirigala
  Period 137BC-118BC
  Ruler King Saddatissa


Mulkirigala is an imposing rock structure with remarkable cave temples, located 21km north from the town of Tangalle in the district of Hambantota. The ancient rock steps lead the visitors through a series of natural caves, with unique wall paintings & Buddha statues, and on to the summit. This enormous boulder, known as ‘little Sigiriya”, rises perpendicularly approximately 200 metres out of the surrounding palm forest. Mulkirigala consists of a series of rock temples carved out of rock outcrop in the 2nd Century B.C. Mulkirigala Viharaya is a Buddhist temple complex that ascends and crowns the rock. It is a temple of great antiquity with fine murals. In one of these rock temples, the British colonial administrator, George Turner, discovered an ancient manuscript, Mahavamsa the great chronicle, in 1826.


Sinhalese haven't spared too many plugs of rocks, monolithic crags, and slabs of gneiss or caves. Then again those were saved to be graced, exclusively with sacred architecture, in turn, converting those almost inaccessible hills to Buddhist monasteries. It is a delightful aspect which enlightens us, how once again, one of the three pillars of the ancient Sinhalese, namely, the temple, held the limelight together with village reservoir & stupa.

Mulgiriga rock monastery, with its remarkable history & unrivalled setting is a prime destination. The monastery has a great historical significance dating back to 2nd century B.C. The Mahawamsa records King Saddatissa (137 BC-118 BC) that built the stupa on the summit & enshrined relics of Buddha. One of the seven stupas at Mulgirigala was constructed by King Datusena (461-478 AD) in fifth century AD. During the reign of King Agbo Giri Vehera was constructed. The temple was further developed when his second son, King Valagambahu ascended the throne for the second time in 88 BC. Renovation work was carried out by King Kirti Sri Rajasinghe (1746-1778 AD).

25 minutes journey from Tangalle

25 minutes journey in-land from the beautiful south western beaches of Dikwella or Tangalla Bay Beach in the district of Hambantota (Port of the Moors) "The singular eminence" with an "air of awesome grandeur" is one enormous boulder rising almost perpendicularly from the surrounding plains, of palm trees, except for one side, which is sloped.

533 steps to the summit

We will be climbing 533 steps to the summit. The steps, although uneven in certain places, are well maintained & the tricky flight to the top can be tough but enjoyable. We commence the ascent to the summit of the sacred rock at the dwellings of the bhikkus (Buddhist priests) at the base. A stone path soon gives way to a flight of steps leading to the flank of the rock.

The first terrace

These steps end at the first terrace, where there is a Bo tree & twin cave temples known as the Paduma Rahat Viharaya with two 14 m Buddha statues in the state of Parinirvana (final extinction-eternal release from the suffering of the cycle of life death & rebirth) & images of Hindu deities God Kataragama, God Vishnu & local deity God Vibishana among others. The interior walls & ceiling of the Paduma Rahat Viharaya are covered with fine murals-some very old, some not so old, but all of them are equally intriguing.

The second terrace

Then we climb once again till the second terrace called Madamaluwa (middle courtyard) on which is situated the Madamaluwa Viharaya. Mulgirigala is another excellent example of an ancient living temple, as it is an important destination for devotees, & this terrace with its shrines is an ideal place to witness their devotions. These shrines are popular with devotees since it is believed that favours asked here are invariably granted. Plenty of vendors to offer you hot Belimal tea (herbal flowers boiled in water) drunk with solid coconut honey called jaggery. There are fresh divul (woodapple) fruit-drink.

The third terrace

Once again we climb along, but now a steep ascent till we turn into a flight of steps hewn from the solid rock, to reach the third & largest terrace, the location of four cave temples. The main temple, the Raja Maha Viharaya, is an ancient temple with a recumbent Buddha statue 15m in length. It is believed to be one of the 64 temples erected by King Kavantissa, father of the hero of the nation, King Dutugemunu (161-136 BC) of Ruhuna.

Sri Lanka's Rosetta stone

The Raja Maha Viharaya serves as both an image room & as the potgula (library). On a visit to Mulgirigala in 1826, colonial civil servant George Turnour found in this library Sri Lanka's Rosetta stone, ola leaf (palm leaf manuscripts) containing the key to translate the Mahawamsa (the Great Chronilcle); Tika (commentary) made it possible for the Mahawamsa to be translated into Sinhala. The translation enabled scholars to study the glorious unbroken history of the island of Lanka since 543 BC to comparatively modern times & correlate with the numerous & varied evidence in the form of inscriptions, great living monuments such as rainwater reservoirs, stupas & temples & archeological ruins.

Three more temples

The other three temples are Aluth Viharaya, Naga Viharaya & the Pirinivan Viharaya. The pond right in front of Naga Viharaya is believed to cure female infertility. The pond also bears a 12th century inscription in Sinhala giving the ancient name of Mulgirigala as Muhundgiri.

The fourth terrace & the legend of the great snake

The ascent to next terrace, the penultimate one, being so steep, we will be climbing with an aid of an iron chain. Now the terrace. It is possible to look down a fissure extending almost all the way down to the ground level, a phenomenon attributed by legend to a great snake that sprang from a tree up at the rock, splitting it asunder. If a couple of coincidences could have caused it, then the snake causing such an impact on a rock ought to have been as large as an Anaconda. South American name Anaconda is said to have been derived from Sinhalese name, Henakadaya. Among many other dictionaries, The American Dictionary of the English Language indicates that the name could be an alteration of Sinhalese Henakandaya. Then again it must have fallen exactly on a fault line of the rock. Then again, that would call for you to stretch your credulity a bridge too far. So we refrain from insisting on the legend. But then again the legends too, like everything else have some origins.

The final climb & the panoramic view

The final climb is a steeper one. We pass a Bodhi tree believed to be one of the saplings of the Sacred Sri Maha Bodhi tree at Anuradhapura, before reaching the summit with a renovated stupa, image house & a temple. A tricky bend takes you to the summit. We have a panoramic view stretching to the southern coast. Mulgirigala contain many beautiful wall paintings based on Jataka (550 previous births of Buddha) stories. These wall paintings are different from Kandyan era paintings. The paintings that show women playing musical instruments are unique to Mulgirigala. The archaeologists say that the painting style is unique to Mulgirigala and differ from the Kandyan style. They also contain images that are more real than Kandyan paintings and contain more colours.