Sithulpawwa: the hill of the quiet mind | Daily News

Sithulpawwa: the hill of the quiet mind

Elephants can appear early morning and evening from the bushes
Elephants can appear early morning and evening from the bushes

Driving in the heart of Yala National Park seeing nature first hand has a deeply calming effect and combine this with the experience of also seeing its sacred historic sites, which are protected by park wardens in one of the islands most spiritually rewarding areas. The wardens look after not only the wildlife, but also protect the pilgrims from being attacked by elephants, when they walk barefoot through Yala game reserve to Sithulpawwa temple.

When ever you decide to make a tour of Sri Lanka’s most popular national park, make sure you combine it with spending time exploring this mystical rock and cave temple complex. A great legacy to Yala’s historic past, Sithulpawwa thought to have been built in the third century is a fascinating and very special spot. A place that is both spiritual and historically fascinating owing to its temple cave drawings done in red and yellow, on a thin layer of plaster, in the 3rd century, which give a wonderful snap shot of earlier times in this remote area of the island.

Known throughout the island as one of the great pilgrim sites of Sri Lanka it is all the more exciting and dangerous for the un-initiated as it lies inside Yala’s wildlife reserve, which requires crossing a bridge from Block One to Block Two on foot. Risking ones life among the bull elephants and frisky leopards is truly a test of faith as they will if hungry happily take a whole cow or monkey, in one jaw dropping moment, as they pounce on their prey. However, my driver guide laughs saying the risk is minimal as usually the elephants only want to steal the pilgrims’ lunches or cameras and the greatest danger is them being crushed by one of them in the process. Talking to the park’s guides one has to admire those that will risk all for their religion; some might even say it is a religious test to navigate your way through the wildest of places and survive to make a holy pujas. A true test of faith or a faith that is tested by one of the worlds most challenging pilgrimage routes. Complaining on other world famous pilgrimage routes about big backpacks, blisters and aching legs is nothing compared to coming face to face with a sloth bear with razor sharp nails or a hungry leopard.

If foreigners want to go to Sithulpawwa temple through the park without a safari operator and warden please check in advance and organise special permission in advance so that you can do this on foot, or you can go on the road to Katagamuwa, running alongside Block Two, where if you are lucky you will see, as we did, a leopard crossing the road outside the park boundary along Tissamaharama-Yodhakandiya road, where even in a car you will have plenty of wildlife encounters from peacocks fanning themselves in season to wild deer and even occasional sloth bears.

Revered and exalted, Sithulpawwa Rajamaha Viharaya, built around the 3rd Century BC, is stunning and a place of true mindfulness and natural wonders. There are many ancient buildings of interest below the rock temple, which you have to climb up to, to get to the inner sanctuary, where you can enjoy spectacular views of Yala and its dramatic terrain. The rock temple has small water features cut out of the rock surface, probably formally for the monks to bathe in daily and now home to a couple of pairs of white ducks.

Sithulpawwa is derived from the word “Chiththala Pabbatha”, meaning ‘the hill of the quiet mind’, which was famous at one time for its hermit religious community. You park up in the lower car park and walk up one side, taking your shoes with you or facing a long walk back to pick them up later in the day. At the top of this naturally beautiful spot one crosses a path from the main Stupa to get to the other side, through jungle and a rock climb to the top that takes one and a half hours. From here you have amazing views of Yala National park, which is home to many different animals and some of Yala’s 250 birds. Yala boasts half of the 495 different types of birds to be found in Sri Lanka, and if you are lucky, on a cool day, you may also encounter a handful of the 47 species of reptiles that can be found in the park and occasionally, if you do not walk too loudly, you might even see one of the country’s three venomous snakes. Monks say there have been snakes from time to time on the jungle path, including the Indian Krait, the Indian Cobra and Russel’s Viper.

For history buffs this ancient monastery is full of different ruins in diverse places that go back over 2,200 years, to a time when it was a place of worship for devotees as well as a centre of Buddhist education for Buddhist monks teaching learned pilgrims. Things to look out for are the paintings of the first Kingdom, during the Anuradhapura era, and the fascinating Image Houses and Circular Relic Houses, which are spread throughout the monastery premises. It is a good idea to hire expert with you on this adventurous walk. The serene quietness of the place, even when busy with pilgrims, is why people say it is so uplifting as one is not only close to nature and what many refer to as the original Garden of Eden, but also touched by the words of the Buddhist monks that live inside the temple grounds. Seeing Yala game reserve through its religious buildings reminds one how until recently this was open land and the only way to see the area was on foot or by ox cart, as cars and jeeps in the bigger scheme of things are very new to the area.

Watching the sun set over this sacred spot is breath taking and also means, on the journey home you are more likely to see nocturnal wildlife as they are at their busiest at dusk. It is a great time also to see rogue elephants returning from a wash and drink in the waterhole. Just remember elephants if frightened can charge vehicles at night and so bring a book, snacks and extra water to sit it out while they amble across the road, which can take quite a long time if they decide to hang out in the middle of it. Something I discovered on one trip to Yale with the children, who were over joyed to watch a troop of elephants cross the road. However for them seeing these spiritually wise creatures being given right of way was all the more reason for making a trip to the Hill Of The Quiet Mind, where mindfulness is a way of life in a place truly at one with nature.