Mihintale, 15 km east of Anuradhapura, is one of the holy places of Sinhalese Buddhism, the scene of the meeting between King Tissa and Mehinda or Mahinda, Ashoka’s son or nephew, about 250 BC. With its various shrines and other buildings scattered this holy site is considered as the seat of Buddhism.
Within the vicinity are the ruins of the ancient hospital complex which served as one of the support facilities for the resident monks (there were around 2,000 monks who once lived on the mountain). Moving off the hospital and walking towards the foot of the mountain is the great stairway that leads up Mihintale. It is one of Sri Lanka’s great centres of pilgrimage; and those who have once visited it will realise the appropriateness of references to it as the sacred mountain. The ascent is made on a flight of 1840 steps, wide and shallow enough to be climbed by a man on horseback.
At the foot of the mountain to the left of the steps are (1) some confused remains which are believed to be those of two dagabas, the Indikatuseya and the Katuseya.
The mountain rises in a series of stages, and at various points on it are mounds crowned with dagabas. After climbing a hundred or so steps through the perfume of the frangipane trees towards the top on the right is another hundred steps leading to (2) Kantaka Chenthiya, a dagaba dating from before the Christian era. Although partly razed to the ground, it still preserves four vahalkadas or frontispieces at the cardinal points altar-like structures with a finely carved decoration of dwarfs and wild geese. Until recently the remains of wall paintings (lions) could be distinguished, but these are now almost effaced. On the upright slabs flanking these features are traditional motifs (foliage, cocks, lions, elephants, peacocks, bulls, spirits and dewas) as if the whole of nature was present to take part in the Buddhist festival.
From here there is a path back to the road, but it is better to return to the main staircase and continue the ascent. At the first platform, are the remains of a (3) monastery (the Assembly Hall). The square hall has no enclosed walls and its roof is rested on stone pillars. A path on the right leads to the (4) Lion’s Bath, with the water flowing through a granite lion’s head. Note the figures of wrestlers, taking part in what was a ritual Sinhalese sport.
About a half way up to the staircase (which becomes narrower but is still perfumed with flowers and shaded from the sun) is a short path on the right that leads to the (5) Naga Pokuna, the bathing pool of the king cobra. It may be suspected that Buddhism took over the cult of some chthonian divinity. Visitors must take off their shoes before climbing to the second platform, for this is sacred ground.
In the middle of a grove of palms is a small and delicately constructed dagaba, surrounded by slender monolithic pillars with carved capitals. This is the (6) Ambasthala or Mango-Tree, built on the spot once occupied by the tree under which Tissa and Mahinda first met.
Two fairly steep flights of steps lead up to the (7) Maha Seya, the Great Dagaba, that has been recently restored (with a protective concrete coping). This is believed to be the oldest dagaba on the site, for according to tradition it was built by Tissa to house a hair from the Buddha’s head and a few of his ashes, priceless relics which Mahinda brought with him. From its base there is a magnificent view of the forest which extends in great undulating waves from Mihintale to the horizon (alt. 309 m). Nearby is Mahinda’s Bed, a cave which was the cell occupied by Mahinda, the apostle of Buddhism in Ceylon. A little lower down are the ruins of the (8) Mahinda Seya, located only a few years ago, and built to house relics of Mahinda which were recovered by the excavators.
Down to the road, a few hundred metres south is a small track goes off on the left to the (9) Kaludiya Pokuna or the Bath of Black Water. It is the largest pond at Mahintale. Surrounding the pond are remains of an Aramaya.