Mulkirigala Raja Maha Viharaya | Ancient Muhudugiri Temple

Not to be confused with Mulgirigala Viharaya, Mullegama

Mulkirigala rock
Mulkirigala/Mulgirigala Viharaya (Sinhala: මුල්කිරිගල රජමහා විහාරය) is a famous Buddhist monastery complex situated in the village of Mulkirigala in Hambantota District, Sri Lanka.

The history of Mulkirigala Viharaya is dated back to the 3rd century B.C. The existence of a few cave Inscriptions Written in Early Brahmi Scripts provides evidence that the Mulkirigala was serving as an abode for the Buddhist monks since the 2nd century B.C.

Mulkirigala cave inscriptions
Period: 2nd - 1st centuries B.C. | Script: Early Brahmi. | Language: Old Sinhala
Inscription I; Transcript  : Bata Cudatisaha lene 
Translation: The cave of lord Culatissa
Inscription 2; Transcript  : Majhima banaka bata Upasonaha lene agata ana[gata].. .. ..
Translation: The cave of lord Upasona, the reciter of the Majjhima [Nikaya], [is given to the Sangha of the four quarters], present and absent.
Reference : Paranavitana, 1970

However, the name Mulagiri (the Pali form of the Sinhalese name Mulkirigala) is not found in the country's early chronicles such as Dipavamsa or Mahavamsa (Jayawardhana, 1985). The first reference to the Mulkirigal temple is found in Pujavaliya, a Sinhalese chronicle composed in the 13th century (Jayawardhana, 1985). According to which this temple has been constructed by King Jetthatissa I [(263-274 A.D.) Jayawardhana, 1985]. However, existing early Brahmi inscriptions indicate that this reference found in Pujavaliya may not mention the original construction but a subsequent renovation (Jayawardhana, 1985).

A rock inscription of later Brahmi scripts found from the temple premises confirms that this temple was functioning during the 6th-7th centuries A.D. This inscription was copied by the Archaeological Department in 1929 (Dias, 1991).

Mulkirigala rock inscription of 6th-7th centuries A.D.Mulkirigala rock inscription
Period: 6th-7th centuries A.D. 
Script: Later Brahmi.
Language: Old Sinhala
Transcript  : (1) Hidila Salihi cidavi vaharala
(2) Pahapavapadapagana cadava vaharala
Content: This Vaharala (manumission) inscription says that Hidila-Salihi and Padapagana of Pahapava were made free from compulsory service in the monastery.
Reference: Dias, 1991.

The Dhatuwamsa, a Sinhalese chronicle of the 13th century mentions a temple named Samudda Vihara built by Kavan Tissa (205-161 B.C), the father of King Dutugemunu [(161-137 B.C.) Jayawardhana, 1985]. A 9-10th century rock inscription found at the bottom of the pond on the summit of the Mulkirigala rock reveals that this temple was called at the time Muhundu-giri Viharaya (Abeyawardana, 2004). The Sinhala name Muhundugiri is translated into the Pali language as Samudda-giri.

The pond on the summit of the Mulkirigala rockMulkirigala rock inscription near the pond
Period: 9th-10th centuries A.D.
Script: Mediaeval Sinhala
Language: Mediaeval Sinhala
Transcript  : (1) Muhundu giriya kaha (2)val kiyana ral maha (3)llan keta vu .... (4) massatake (5) tu satara piyageta
Content: This inscription mentions that an elderly person named Kahavelkiyana Rala caused the construction of four stone steps to the pond at Muhundugiri Vihara.
Reference: The information board at the site by the Department of Archaeology and the Ministry of National Heritage.

The Katagamuva inscription of Manabharana of the 12th century mentions a grant made to Talamuhundgiri Vihara and therefore, according to Nicholas (1963), there were two temples named Muhundgiri and one of which was present Mulgirigala Viharaya (Nicholas, 1963). The Sinhalese chronicle Rajavaliya wrongly equates the Dakkhinagiri Viharaya, which was near Sigiriya, with Mulkirigala Viharaya (Nicholas, 1963).

Mulkirigala was the headquarters of the Sekantara Mula and therefore, it was a great seat of learning during the Kotte Period (Sumanasuriya, 1985).

During the reign of King Kirti Sri Rajasingha (1747-1782 A.D.), a novice from this area entered into the higher ordination under Ven. Weliwita Sri Saranankara Thera (a Buddhist monk who was the pioneer in the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, after the decline of the religion in the 17th and 18th centuries). The novice received the name Vatarakgoda Dhammapala and was appointed as the high priest of Mulgirigala Viharaya. The present line of Bhikkus at Mulgirigala, thus, comes from Vatarakgoda Dhammapala Thera.

It is said that the image house presently known as Rajamaha Viharaya was renovated by Vatarakgoda Dhammapala Thera with the patronage of King Kirti Sri Rajasingha (Jayawardhana, 1985). Several gifts (including a golden Buddha statue, and two elephant tusks) presented by the king are preserved in the temple to date (Jayawardhana, 1985).

The Dutch who were in Sri Lanka from 1640 until 1796 (Dutch Ceylon: 1658-1796), called this Mulkirigala temple rock Adam's Berg as they confused it with Sri Pada (Adam's Peak) mountain (Abeyawardana, 2004; De Silva, 2014; Jayawardhana, 1985). More historical information about this temple is found in descriptions by Johann Wolfgang Heydt (Heydt's Ceylon, 1744), and Rev. James Cordiner (A Description of Ceylon, 1807.). In 1827, George Turnour, the then government agent of Sabaragamuwa, discovered the Vamsatthappakasini or the Tika on Mahavamsa at this temple (Jayawardhana, 1985).

The temple
The temple complex has been mainly constructed within three levels of Mulkirigala rock [180 m (590.55 ft. amsl)] and on each platform is one or a few cave temples with old paintings and sculptures. The first platform has a Bodhi tree and a twin cave known by the name Paduma Rahat Viharaya (Jayawardhana, 1985). Each cave shelters a recumbent Buddha statue about 45 ft long (Jayawardhana, 1985). The inside walls of the caves have been painted with decorative motifs and other Buddhist murals such as Jataka stories (Vessantara Jataka, Telapatta Jataka, etc.). A small Stupa and two standing statues of God Kataragama and Visnu are also found.

The birth of Prince Siddhartha
The second platform, which is relatively small in size, is known by the name Meda-maluwa Viharaya (the middle terrace temple). This platform consists of a cave temple, one Stupa, and two Devalas. The cave temple shelters a recumbent Buddha statue accompanied by two images of Sariputta and Moggallana, the two chief disciples of Gautama Buddha. The inner walls contain a large number of paintings of the Buddhist tradition. "The birth of Prince Siddhartha", "the mythical lake Anotatta" and the figures of the deities Kataragama and Visnu are found among the wall paintings (Jayawardhana, 1985).

The oldest line drawings and wood carvings in Mulkirigala
The third platform contains four cave temples and a pond. The four cave temples include Rajamaha Viharaya, Alut Viharaya, Naga Viharaya and Pirinivan Viharaya (Jayawardhana, 1985). The paintings and sculptures belonging to the 18th century adorn the inner walls and the space of Rajamaha Viharaya. A recumbent Buddha statue about 45 ft. long, a seated Buddha statue, and eight standing statues are found inside the cave (Jayawardhana, 1985). The walls are covered with drawings depicting Buddhist themes such as the Sat-satiya (the seven weeks after the Enlightenment). The line drawings depicting the Telapatta Jatakaya are the oldest paintings of the temple and are found painted on the outer side of the front wall of the Rajamaha Viharaya.

Telapatta Jataka painting
(Mulkirigala rock temple, 18th century A.D., replica: Colombo Museum)

Bodhisattva Telapatta who was travelling to Gandhara along with his friends entered a forest infested with demons. A group of female demons who had disguised themselves as a group of musicians and dancers tried to attract these travellers towards them. The friends of Bodhisattva Telapatta became victims of this ambush (The painting shows one of the friends of Bodhisattva Telapatta is eaten by a female demon). A replica of this painting copied by M. M. D. Peiris (the assistant of traditional art) for the Department of National Museum in 2007, is presently found on the display at the Paintings Gallery of the National Museum of Colombo  (Rambukwella, 2014).

Telapatta Jataka

The Alut Viharaya is also an ancient cave temple renovated in 1921 (Jayawardhana, 1985). The Naga Viharaya which is located on the left side of the platform contains a recumbent Buddha statue together with seven smaller images (Jayawardhana, 1985). The other cave temple, the Pirinivan Viharaya is located on the right side of the platform. This temple which was in a dilapidated state has been renovated in 1944 by some devotees led by the late D. M. Rajapaksa, a politician and a member of the State Council of Ceylon (Jayawardhana, 1985). 

The pond located on the third platform is significant for its 9-10th century rock inscription which contains the ancient name of the temple, Muhundugiri (read the above History section).

The summit
A Bodhi tree, a pond, a Stupa, a small image house, and a Devalaya are found on the summit of the Mulkirigala rock. The Bodhi tree is highly venerated by the devotees as they believe that the tree is one of the 32 saplings of the Sri Maha Bodhi tree at Anuradhapura.

Archaeological Museum
Archaeological Museum of Mulkirigala
A small site museum of the Archaeological Department has been established near the entrance gate of Mulkirigala Viharaya. The museum is used to exhibit antiquities recovered from the temple premises and its surrounding areas (Rambukwella, 2014). The information leaflets and publications of the department are also available for visitors.

A protected site
The ancient cave temple with paintings in the Mulkirigala Raja Maha Vihara situated in the Weeraketiya Divisional Secretary’s Division is an archaeological protected monument, declared by a government gazette notification published on 8 April 1988.  

The carved wood pillars in Rajamaha Viharaya Telapatta Jatakaya from Paduma Rahat Viharaya Vessantara Jatakaya from Paduma Rahat Viharaya
1) Abeyawardana, H.A.P., 2004. Heritage of Ruhuna: Major natural, cultural and historic sites. Colombo: The Central Bank of Sri Lanka. ISBN: 955-575-073-4. pp.118-119.
2) De Silva, P., 2014. Colonialism and religion: colonial knowledge productions on Sri Pada as ‘Adam’s Peak’. Sri Lanka Journal of Social Sciences 2014 37 (1 & 2): pp.19-32.
3) Dias, M., 1991. Epigraphical notes (Nos 1 -18). Colombo: Department of Archaeology. pp.33-34.
4) Jayawardhana, S., 1985. Mulgirigala. Cultural Publications Co. Ltd. pp.9-10, 27-35.
5) Nicholas, C. W., 1963. Historical topography of ancient and medieval Ceylon. Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, New Series (Vol VI). Special Number: Colombo. Royal Asiatic Society (Ceylon Branch), p.68.
6) Paranavitana, S., 1970. Inscription of Ceylon: Volume I: Early Brahmi Inscriptions. Department of Archaeology Ceylon. p.53.
7) Rambukwella, M.W.C.N.K., 2014. Heritage representation in culturally diverse societies: a case study of the Colombo National Museum in Sri Lanka (Doctoral dissertation, School of Museum Studies). pp.364,415.
8) Sumanasuriya, K. T. W., 1985. Review: Mulgirigala by Somapala Jayawardhana. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Sri Lanka Branch, New Series, Vol. 30. (1985/86), pp. 137-138.
9) The Gazette of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. No: 501. 8 April 1988.

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This page was last updated on 10 December 2023

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