WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka

Ritigala - mountain of mystery and mist

An ancient medicinal bath

Ritigala is the highest mountain, in the north-central plain of Sri Lanka, measuring 2,513 feet above sea level. It is situated close to Kekirawa and Maradankadawala on one side and Habarana on the other, and can be seen clearly from the Dambulla-Anuradhapura road. The mountain mass is about three miles long and about two miles wide at its widest point; it is covered with dense jungle inhabited by wild elephants, leopards and bears. It is the watershed of the Malwatu Oya which feeds the Nachaduwa tank and Kalueba Ela which feeds Huruluwewa. The upper part of the mountain is well known for its flora, some of which are rare; it has also a range of wild orchids.

The mountain has over 70 known caves which have been used as dwellings by the early inhabitants of the country and subsequently as monasteries by Buddhist monks but there are no paintings in them. It has a long history and is referred to as "arittha-pabbata" in the Mahavamsa, the great historical chronicle which records that Pandukabhaya, the third king of Sri Lanka (377-307 BC) sojourned in the mountain for seven years preparing for the wars to capture the kingdom. The early inhabitants of Ritigala referred to as "yakkas" joined Pandukabhaya’s cause and fought in his many battles. Ritigala appears to have been also used by King Dutugemunu (101-72 BC) and by King Jetthatissa in the 7th century in their wars against the Indian Invaders. There are rock inscriptions which indicate that gradually, Ritigala had become a monastic retreat for hermit (Pamsukulika) monks and a place of religious significance. By the 10th-12th century AD however Ritigala seems to have been abandoned by the hermit monks and soon it was covered by jungle and forgotten.

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century when the country was a British colony, the then Government Agent of Anuradhapura had constructed a holiday bungalow and cut a bridle path to it at Ritigala about 500 feet below the summit, in order to provide a cooler and healthier place of rest to those working in the hot, dry and malaria-infested plains. However, this bungalow does not appear to have been used and when a subsequent Government Agent of Anuradhapura climbed the mountain in 1904 it was in ruins. Ritigala was forgotten for a good part of the twentieth century except for occasional visitors who went to see the ruins.

Then in 1971 it came Into prominence when the insurgents made it one of their strongholds in the insurrection of that year until they were flushed out by the army. Wild life in the mountain was under threat a few years back but I am not sure of the situation today. I still remember a trader in Maradankadawala having dried leopard and bear skins for sale; he had bought them from villagers around Ritigala, who hid killed them by using poisoned (follidol) bait. The jungle hid many of Ritigala’s secrets and it remains a mountain shrouded in mystery and venerated by the people.

Ritigala is indescribable; there are no words in which to express the feelings and emotions that come over you when you even see the mountain from the road while approaching it - but that is only if you are a fan of Pandukhabaya, the prince of destiny who went on to found the city of Anuradhapura and become its first king.

Pandukhabaya sojourned four years on Dimbulagala, getting together an army to fight the wrath of his ten maternal uncles, except one, Anuradha who were out for the young prince's blood, as a soothsayer had predicted at his birth. His mother, the legendary Ummadacitta, managed to smuggle the infant away and give him to a cowherd in Dvaramandaka in exchange for his child.

Pandukhabaya roamed the foothills of Mihintale until the uncles made themselves felt. The prince even had to hide in the waters of the Mahagantota ford where he was protected by a white horse, as the story goes. But back to Ritigala, mountain of mystery and mist which is said to have the rarest medicinal herbs and plants from the Himalayas on its summit. It is said that the plants were scattered on Ritigala by Rama when he was flying to the South of ancient Lanka from the Himalayas.

A part of the ruins of King Pandukhabaya’s palace

Although it is the Mihintale area and Anuradhapura that is most popularly connected with Pandukhabaya, to remember Ritigala at Poson would not be far fetched because it was the home of the prince and his men for four years.

The early afternoon sun glinting through the jungle trees dappled the narrow pathway leading to the vehicle-parking lot. On the way, our excellent tour guide gave the tourists in the coach - it was a domestic tour - a graphic commentary on the mountain and its history. He also gave out a warning that no visitor to Ritigala was ever to take back even a grain of sand from it.

When this writer's fragile chain bracelet was caught in the bracken when we were descending, and dropped to the ground,I asked the guide whether it was in order to pick it up. His answer was quick and positive: 'It belongs to you. You have every right to pick it up.' Which I did. Later I wondered whether I should have dropped it into the square pond where, legend has it, a leech lives, all the while disgorging gold into the water.

Local tourist vehicles festooned with various medicinal plants kept arriving. The plants tied to various parts of the vehicles were to ward off any strong influences that might emanate from the mountain which is surrounded by mystery and enveloped in various legends relating to Ritigala's powers that have been coming down for thousands of years.

WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka