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Arankale – The Sacred Grove


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By Aysha Maryam Cassim

Arankale is a forest monastery that can be found, nestled in the groves of Hiriyala Hathpathtuwa in the Kurunegala District of Sri Lanka. This sacred site is believed to be one of the significant Buddhist monasteries in Sri Lanka, where 6th-century monks sought spiritual enlightenment and lived in adherence to Buddhist values and practices. 

The hallowed abode of Arahat Maliyadeva can be found here. Historical evidence and folklore suggest that over the course of 700 years, around 12,000 Bhikkhus attached to the Arankele Maliyadeva Senasana continued to 

practice meditation on the grounds of this forest monastery.

Arankale is neither a kingdom nor a Viharaya where Dagobas or statues of Deities can be found. According to historical evidence, the origin of this monastery belongs to early Anuradhapura period. It is believed that the Arankale Monastery was improved upon by the Kings of Anuradhapura era, including King Sadhdhathissa, Valagamba, Buddhadasa, Siri Sangabo and Jettatissa II. Remains of the building complex date back to 8-10th century AD. The monastery was declared as an archaeological reserve in 1922. 

How to get there?

From Kurunegala, you can reach Arankale in 45 minutes (24km) by following this route. Via Kurunegala-Dambulla Road – Ibbagamuwa Junction – Madagalla Road – Godagaala Junction – proceed 3km ahead to reach Arankale Aaranya.

Alternative route:  Wariyapola – Kumbukgate – Bannagamuwa Junction – Arankale.

How did Arankale get its name?

There are interesting folk stories behind the name “Arankale”. The popular opinion is that the word is derived from ‘Aaraama’ (monastery) or ‘Arahath’ (The enlightened one) and ‘Kale’ (forest). The V-shaped pond in the forest reveals a legend about a mysterious golden pot (Ran Kaley) which would appear from the waters. It is believed that the word Ran Kaley became, Eran Kaley and Arankale. 

Galey Devindu Theda Paamin Aran Kaley

Diya Yata Sangawala Yatakarapu Rang Kaley


Arankale makes a great retreat and a brisk escapade for anyone who wishes to get lost in a beautiful forest hermitage. Surrounded by Dunkanda to the west, Madukanda to the east and Dolukanda to the South, this ancient monastic complex is scattered with stone pillars, chambers, caves, ponds, and pathways shrouded with ‘Kadurugediya’ and ‘Pus’ creepers. 

The peaceful surroundings of Arankale monastery give us a clear picture of the life of ascetic wandering and meditation practiced by the monks in the vast wilderness. 

There are two entryways to the Monastery. You can either take the off beaten track to the Aranya from the Maliyadeva Viharaya or straightaway follow the ‘Peth Maga’ which starts from the archaeological site of Arankale. At your request a guide from the Archaeological Department will take you on a tour around the monastery premises, educating you on the historical and architectural details of the remnants. 

As you enter the sacred grove, you will feel a sense of Samadhi – a state of tranquillity. This used to be a place where meditating monks made of small units dwelt. They chose to abide by the strict principles of ‘Vinaya’ (discipline), devoid of any religious decoration. Monks would retreat into the depths of the forests and mountains, seeking solace in pursuit of a spiritual quest. They developed a great appreciation of nature and love frugally with a few materialistic possessions.

The vast forest land which spans across 65 acres is scattered with ‘Patanagara’ (chambers designed for meditation) bathing ponds, meditation halls, walking paths, inquiry points, a latrine and twin dwellings which served as a space for ‘Kammaṭṭhãna’ that provided meditation training within the Bhikkhu Sangha.

Peth Maga

Peth Maga is a paved path on the ascending foothill along which ascetic monks would walk at a brisk pace. As you walk along the trek, you’ll come across secluded places hidden in the forest where one could meditate without the interruptions and schedules of community monastic life. 

Janthagaraya

You can start the trail from Janthagaraya – A massive hot water pool which is guarded by a protective wall. The pool is surrounded by 24 stone furnaces and a few grinding stones where monks would prepare remedies from minerals, extracts of leaves, and roots in order to treat ailments. The architecture of Janthagaraya provides a clear evidence of the connection between medicine and Buddhist Monasticism.  

The caves

Monastic settlements can mostly be found in caves and chambers hewn out of the rock. There are canals and waterways around the ‘Kuti’ (complex/chamber) which provided a natural cooling effect for the monks who resided on rocky boulders. The waterways also represent the demarcation between laymen and the Upasampadha bhikkhus (monks of higher ordination) 

Chankamanagaraya

‘Chanakamanagaraya’ aka Sakman Maluwa in Arankaley Monastery is where monks used to practice ‘Sakman Bhavana’ – An art of meditation, which encourages you to experience mindfulness while walking. Archaeological evidence shows that it’s the only Sakman Maluwa to have had a roof that sheltered the monks from rain and sun.

The latrine

The ancient latrine in Arankale Monastery boasts a sophisticated sewerage and sanitary system that is at least 1600 years old. The toilet consists of a urinal (Wajja Kutiya), a pit for excrement (Kajja Kutiya) and a gully (Dhroniya) to let the liquids safely seep outwards. Users would have squatted over the toilet and performed their human needs in privacy. The latrine is built out of carved stone slabs to represent the asceticism of Monastic life. 

Maliyadeva Lena

When you follow the main promenade of the monastery, proceeding Padhanagara, Chankamanagara, Seema Malakaya and the ponds, you will be lead to the Maliyadeva Cave. Local legends believe that the last of the Arahats of Ceylon, Arahat Maliyadeva lived for a short while in one of the caves of Arankale Monastery. The drip ledges and mortise holes above the rock indicate that the cave must have been a prominent place over centuries. Inside the cave are a shrine hall and two separate rooms. 

Just as we completed the trek around the forest hermitage it started to drizzle. Water droplets fell through the canopies of trees. We overheard an old pilgrim, completely undisturbed by the rain, say, “When you come to an Aaraanya (monastery), you have to absorb what nature bestows upon you.” We got wet but the walk in the wilderness purified our minds, leaving us with joy and an unburdened heart.

 

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