Kuragala Ancient Buddhist Monastery

Kuragala (Sinhala: කූරගල පුරාණ බෞද්ධ ආරාම සංකීර්ණය) is an archaeological site consisting of the ruins of an ancient Buddhist cave temple. It is situated in Balangoda, in Ratnapura District, Sri Lanka.

A prehistoric site
An excavation done in 2012-2013 in Kuragala revealed evidence of prehistoric occupation and a field survey in 2014 recorded prehistoric tools on the northern slope of the hillock (Deegalle, 2019; Somadeva et al., 2014). The human specimens found from this site have been dated by scholars to the period between 12,000 and 4000 cal yr B.P (Roberts et al., 2015).

Buddhist ruins
Ruins of an ancient Buddhist monastery dating back to the 2nd century B.C. have been found at the site (Abeyawardana, 2002; Deegalle, 2019). The drip-ledged caves (cave shelters), Early Brahmi Inscriptions, Siri Pathul Gala (the rock-cut footprint of the Buddha) and the remains of an ancient Stupa (now conserved) indicate that the site was occupied by Buddhist monks as their dwellings (Deegalle, 2019; Gnanawimala Thera, 1967). According to Buddhist belief, this site had been known in ancient times as Thundulaiyaka Pabbata (Gnanawimala Thera, 1967). An ancient tunnel is also said to have been found in this place (Abeyawardana, 2002).

Cave shelters
Kuragala inscription
The drip-ledged cave shelters were prepared in ancient times by their donors as religious gifts to support the monkhood in Sri Lanka and these caves provided shelter for monks during the annual rainy season (vassa) retreat as prescribed in Theravada Buddhist tradition (McGilvray, 2016). Thus, the drip-ledged caves at Kuragala, like more than 1,200 others scattered across the island, were evidently Buddhist merit-earning gifts from locally powerful chiefs, constructed in the hope that some pious monks might occupy them for three monsoon months every year (McGilvray, 2016).

The Stupa controversy
The remains of an ancient Stupa at one of the three peaks at Kuragala were conserved in the early 1970s by the Department of Archaeology and now it has been declared an archaeological protected monument (Deegalle, 2019). According to the account given by Gnanawimala Thera in 1967, this Stupa had been vandalized along with the Siri Pathul Gala by the occupants at Kuragala Muslim shrine (Gnanawimala Thera, 1967).

Some observers, including Aboosally (see the below "Muslim shrine: Daftar Jailani" section), have alleged that this Stupa is a modern construction built by the Department of Archaeology using local bricks and Kankesanthurai cement, and the construction of it was stopped half as Jailani trustees obtain a cabinet order (Deegalle, 2019; McGilvray, 2004). However, according to the view of Deegalle, this is a misinterpretation of the original situation (Deegalle, 2019). The Register of Ancient Monuments published in 1972 by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs clearly mentions there were remains of a brick-built Stupa in one of the rock hummocks at Kuragala (Deegalle, 2019).

On a craggy site…is the ancient Buddhist monastic site of Kuragala. At the site are several drip-ledged caves. Some of which contain Brahmi inscriptions of the second and first centuries BC. On one of the rock hummocks here are the remains of a brick-built dagoba [stūpa]” (ibid.: 702)
Citation: Deegalle, 2019. p.11.

Also, the notice issued by the Department of Archaeology on 13 September 1972, confirms that they had commenced the conservation works of an ancient Stupa at the site (Deegalle, 2019). It further mentioned that they had no intention of building a new Stupa at Kuragala (Deegalle, 2019).

Muslim shrine: Daftar Jailani
Besides the Buddhists, Muslim devotees also perform religious rites at a shrine at Kuragala (Abeyawardana, 2002). Known by the name Daftar Jailani, this shrine is considered one of the few Sufi shrines in Sri Lanka (McGilvray, 2004; McGilvray, 2016).

Aboosally's book
The only available history of this Daftar Jailani shrine is a self-published book written by the late chief trustee, M.L.M. Aboosally, who had served as a long-standing United National Party (UNP) member of Parliament and cabinet minister representing the Balangoda constituency from 1977–1994, and whose father and grandfather led the first efforts to establish Jailani as a saintly shrine (McGilvray, 2016). According to this book, the history of Kuragala is related to Sheikh Muhiyadeen Abdul Qadir Jilani (1077-1166 A.D., buried in Baghdad, Pakistan), the founder of the Qādiriyya, a Sufi order that is widespread in South Asia as well as in Southeast Asia and is found throughout the Muslim world (Deegalle, 2019; Kalus & Guillot, 2006; McGilvray, 2016). It is said that he meditated for 12 years in a rock cave at Daftar Jailani after paying his respect to Sri Pada Mountain (McGilvray, 2004; McGilvray, 2016). However, the shrine itself preserves no evidence to substantiate this claim (Deegalle, 2019; McGilvray, 2016).

As further mentioned in Aboosally's book, Kuragala had been used by many Muslim pilgrims as a resting place and later on as a place of prayer (Kalus & Guillot, 2006; McGilvray, 2016).

Construction of the present shrine
As recorded in the book, it was a South Indian Muslim of Lakshadweep origin, who visited Balangoda in 1857 and first discovered the precise location of Jailani, which is said to have been known previously only by legend (McGilvray, 2004; McGilvray, 2016). In 1875, his nephew came from India, enlisted the aid of local Muslims to clear the Kuragala site, and eventually married and settled in the same area (McGilvray, 2016). By the late 19th century, the existence of a Muslim shrine at Kuragala had been noted by colonial government agents in Ratnapura (Collins, 1932; Deegalle, 2019; McGilvray, 2016).

The present Muslim shrine under the Hituwangala rock at Kuragala was built in 1922 by C.L.M. Marikar Hajiyar, the father of M.L.M. Aboosally (McGilvray, 2004; McGilvray, 2016). The rock-cut flight of steps that lead to the Jailani shrine is said to have been cut in 1984 with the help of a wealthy Muslim donor from Chilaw (McGilvray, 2004).

Arabic writings: non-authentic?
The book also lists a certain number of Arabic writings, carvings and tombstones dating back from the Hijri year 300 [(907 A.D.) Kalus & Guillot, 2006]. However, Kalus and Guillot who published a scholarly article in 2006 about Arabic Inscriptions in Sri Lanka revealed that the Arabic inscriptions in Kuragala are certainly recent although they contain old Hijri years such as 300, 715, 718, 883, 1318 (see the below "Inscriptions" section). Except for the inscription depicting the Hijri year 1318, all the other inscriptions were listed by them in their article as non-authentic (Kalus & Guillot, 2006).

The Dutch painting: depicting a Buddhist shrine?
A watercolour painting created in 1785 by Jan Brandes, after anonymous, is currently in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Netherlands and it has been titled "Islamitisch rotsheiligdom van Kuragala op Ceylon" which means the "Islamic rock shrine of Kuragala in Ceylon". Although the landscape that is depicted in the painting has not been identified, some believe that it shows the early Muslim shrine at Kuragala. However, the Muragalas (guard stones) and the Makara Torana (dragon arch) that are depicted in the painting associated with the entrance of the cave chamber indicate that it is probably a Buddhist cave temple. Muragalas and Makara Torana are common architectural elements of Buddhist temples and are not found in Islamic shrines or mosques in Sri Lanka.

Sinhalese inscriptions
Revealing the evidence of the ancient Buddhist cave monastery, three Early Brahmi Inscriptions dating to the pre-Christian era have been found at the site (Deegalle, 2019; Gnanawimala Thera, 1967; Paranavitana, 1970).

Kuragala early-Brahmi inscription I
Period: 2nd-1st century B.C.                Script: Early Brahmi                Language: Old Sinhala
Transcript: ......................dataha Samudaha lene
Translation: The cave of ...................... datta [and] of Samudda
Citation: Paranavitana, 1970. p.59.

Arabic inscriptions
There is a certain number of Arabic inscriptions in Kuragala. Of them, some were published in 2006 in a French scholarly article by Kalus and Guillot (Kalus & Guillot, 2006). According to Kalus and Guillot, only one inscription (below the 5th inscription) is probably original and others are non-authentic and recently originated (Kalus & Guillot, 2006). 
(I) Inscription of Hijri year 300 (907 A.D.): A stone with the Arabic carving "Ya Allah Hijri 300". Identified as non-authentic by Kalus and Guillot (Kalus & Guillot, 2006; McGilvray, 2016).
(II) Inscription of Hijri year 715 (1315 A.D.): A tombstone with the words "Darvesh Mohiyadeen Darvesh 715". Identified as non-authentic by Kalus and Guillot (Kalus & Guillot, 2006).
(III) Cave inscription of Hijri year 718: This inscription was identified as non-authentic by Kalus and Guillot (Kalus & Guillot, 2006)
(IV) Inscription of Hijri year 883: A tombstone with the word "Rookeetam Roohullah 883". Identified as non-authentic by Kalus and Guillot (Kalus & Guillot, 2006).
(V) Inscription of Hijri year 1318: A tombstone with the word "Sheikh Muhammed 1318" (Kalus & Guillot, 2006).
The opinion of Kalus and Guillot about the Kuragala Muslim shrine and its inscriptions has been given in their article as follows;

Text (In French): En parcourant le site et à la lecture du texte de M.L.M. Aboosally cité plusieurs fois cidessus, on acquiert vite la conviction que l'occupation du site par la petite colonie musulmane est récente, elle remonterait à la 2ème moitié du XIXe siècle. Il s'agit sans doute d'un ancien lieu sacré non musulman revendiqué actuellement par les musulmans. Les traditions qui s'y rattachent sont naturellement à prendre avec précautions, voire à rejeter. Les inscriptions énumérées ici sont certainement récentes et leurs «interprétations » actuelles se situent au même niveau que les traditions évoquées.
Translation: By browsing the site and reading the text of M.L.M. Aboosally quoted several times above, we quickly acquired the conviction that the occupation of the site by the small colony Muslim is recent, it dates back to the 2nd half of the 19th century. It is undoubtedly an ancient non-Muslim sacred place currently claimed by Muslims. The traditions attached to it are naturally to be taken with care, or even to reject. The inscriptions listed here are certainly recent and their current interpretations are at the same level as the traditions mentioned.
Citation: Kalus & Guillot, 2006. p.65.

Kuragala: a Buddhist or Muslim place of worship?
The British rulers governed Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) from 1815 to 1948. The Ceylon Administration Reports prepared by them for the years 1919, 1922, and 1923 mention Kuragala as a Muhammadan pilgrimage site (Deegalle, 2019). In the report for the year 1927, it is mentioned that Kuragala was frequented by Muslims (Deegalle, 2019). An article published by Collins in 1932, records that Kuragala was a great place of Muslim pilgrimage, though other religionists also claim it (Collins, 1932). The Buddhist monk Gnanawimala Thera mentions that he visited the site in 1939 (Gnanawimala Thera, 1967).

After gaining independence from the British in 1948, the government published the Ceylon Administration Reports focusing more on history, archaeology, monuments, etc. (Deegalle, 2019). The Department of Archaeology, after a field visit to explore the monuments at Kuragala, published details about the site in the Sri Lanka Administrative Report for 1968-1969 as follows;

This area that contains Brahmi inscriptions with drip-ledged caves has now turned into a mosque of Muslim devotees. There are modern constructions of several buildings at the site” (SLAR 1968– 1969: G31).
Citation: Deegalle, 2019. p.10.

In the early 1970s, a group of Buddhist monks backed by Mallika Ratwatte (MP for Balangoda) staged a protest to take the Kuragala for Buddhist worship (McGilvray, 2016). In 1971, the Department of Archaeology designated Kuragala as an archaeological reserve containing the remains of a Buddhist monastery circa 2nd century B.C. (McGilvray, 2016). The Register of Ancient Monuments that was published in 1972 by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs recorded three archaeological sites in the geographical area known as Kuragala and it included Galtemyaya, Kuragala, and Budugala (Deegalle, 2019).

Again in the early 2010s, several campaigns led by a few Buddhist organizations such as Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), and Sinhala Ravaya pressured the then government with the purpose of occupying Kuragala for the worship of Buddhists (Deegalle, 2019; McGilvray, 2016). As a result of these campaigns, all the modern structures (shops, kitchens, restrooms etc.) were removed from the area of the archaeological reserve, except for the mosque and the exposed Muslim tombs (McGilvray, 2016).

Again, the temple underwent a major development process in the early 2020s under the guidance of Wathurakumbure Dhammarathna Thera, the Buddhist monk of Nelligala Viharaya.

An archaeological reserve
Kuragala (consisting of 52 acres, 2 roods, 19 perches) in Uggal Kaltota and Thanjatenna villages in the Divisional Secretary’s Division, Balangoda is an archaeological reserve, declared by a government Gazette notification published on 3 December 1971.

1) Abeyawardana, H.A.P., 2002. Heritage of Sabaragamuwa: Major natural, cultural and historic sites. Sabaragamuwa Development Bank and The Central Bank of Sri Lanka. ISBN: 955-575-077-7. pp.28-29.
2) Collins, C.H., 1932. The archaeology of the Sabaragamuwa Bintenna. Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. XXXII, No 85. pp.158-184.
3) Deegalle, V.M., 2019. Kuragala: Religious and Ethnic Communities in a Contested Sacred Heritage Site in Sri Lanka. In Archaeology, Cultural Heritage Protection and Community Engagement in South Asia (pp. 45-58). Palgrave Pivot, Singapore.
4) Gnanawimala Thera, K., 1967. Saparagamu Darshana (In Sinhala). S. Godage Saha Sahodarayo. pp.18-20,264-271.
5) Kalus, L. and Guillot, C., 2006. Réinterprétation des plus anciennes stèles funéraires islamiques nousantariennes: III. Sri Lanka (In French). Archipel, 72(1), pp.64-65.
6) McGilvray, D.B., 2004. Jailani: A Sufi Shrine in Sri Lanka. Lived Islam in South Asia: Adaptation, Accommodation & Conflict, pp.273-289.
7) McGilvray, D.B., 2016. Islamic and Buddhist impacts on the shrine at Daftar Jailani, Sri Lanka. Islam, Sufism and everyday politics of belonging in South Asia, pp.62-76
8) Paranavitana, S., 1970. Inscriptions of Ceylon: Volume I: Early Brahmi Inscriptions. Department of Archaeology Ceylon. p.59.
9) Roberts, P., Perera, N., Wedage, O., Deraniyagala, S., Perera, J., Eregama, S., Gledhill, A., Petraglia, M.D. and Lee-Thorp, J.A., 2015. Direct evidence for human reliance on rainforest resources in late Pleistocene Sri Lanka. Science, 347(6227), pp.1246-1249.
10) Somadeva, R., Vanninayaka, A., Devage, D., 2014. Kaltota Gaveshanaya, 2014. Adiyara 1 (In Sinhala). pp.6-12,30-32.
11) The Gazette notification. no: 14987. 3 December 1971.

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This page was last updated on 11 October 2023

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