The Ceylon Traveller – Medirigiriya

Originally published in The Sunday Leader on 04/03/2012 (http://www.thesundayleader.lk/2012/03/04/the-ceylon-traveller-medirigiriya/)

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The first time I went to Medirigiriya, it was because of my father whose travel bug is still infectious. He had a professional interest in the place after reading about the ruins of an ancient hospital that are located there so we made a stop during a trip. And Medirigiriya became one of my favorite places to visit in Sri Lanka and so far I have revisited it a few times.

The main reason why I love going there is because it is unpretentious. Most ancient ruins have a touch of modernity, or dare I say pretense, in them, whether it is the renovations or the throngs of people or the signboards, gift shops, etc. But Medirigiriya has remained largely untouched and unchanged from my first visit many years ago. It is like visiting a slice of history that is not making a spectacle of how ancient or valuable it is. While it has been ravaged more than once by treasure hunters, there are still lots of interesting sights to be found.

It is generally quiet with not many visitors (though sometimes large groups of pilgrims could turn up so it all depends on your luck) and you can meander around in peace, looking at the remains of an ancient civilization.

The main attraction at Medirigiriya is the Vatadage. A vatadage is the outer housing of a stupa and were built back when stupas were quite small in size. The vatadage at Medirigiriya is unique, not only because of its longevity but also because it is built atop a small hill and is therefore different to those you find in Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, etc which are on ground level.

While the roof of the vatadage that covered the stupa no longer remains, the stone pillars that held it up are mostly intact. Their workmanship is not as intricate as those found in other locations but are still beautifully constructed. To get to the top of the vatadage, you have to climb some steps carved out of the rock and while I didn’t count them at the time, I later read that there are 27 steps.

Once you get to the top of the vatadage, in the centre you see what remains of the stupa there once was. But before you wonder why you climbed all the way up, four Buddha statues around the stupa will grab your attention. They are beautifully preserved and are all in the seating position.

Another attraction in the Medirigiriya site is the Pichcha-mal Viharaya (as it has come to be known locally). This consists of two image houses built close to each other, each containing Buddha statues, both in standing and seating positions. These are not as well preserved and statues have limbs or heads missing. And it is evident from some of the ruins that entire statues are also missing.

The area is strewn with many other interesting ruins. On the opposite side of the vatadage, there is a small stupa to be found which is also built on a rock. Near the main entrance, there is what has been identified as remains of an ancient toilet. Medirigiriya is often cited when discussing the existence of sanitation systems in ancient civilizations.

There are also three stone inscriptions (one in Tamil) though apparently many others have been destroyed, both by man and nature. They refer to the management of the hospital, proper conduct of hospital employees, etc.

The ruins of the hospital are a short walk away from the rest of the ruins. The foundation of the hospital can be found which was restored after discovery of the Medirigiriya ruins in 1897. From what remains, it is clear that the hospital was highly functional with rooms, medicine boats, etc.

There is a well-preserved medicine boat to be found, which is essentially a trough carved from a rock. The trough is carved in human shape and is big enough to fit persons of different sizes. They are very similar to those found at the ruins of the Mihintale hospital.

All in all, Medirigiriya is well worth a visit and while it is disheartening to learn that many of the various ruins that used to be at this site have been stolen or destroyed, there is still an untouched quality about the place that would etch it in your mind as permanently as the beautiful stone carvings that are found at Medirigiriya.

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