Kataragama is considered to be a sacred place of worship by Buddhists, Hindus and the Vedda people of Sri Lanka. The Kataragama Temple, a shrine dedicated to the God Kataragama, is also visited by pilgrims from South India. Many of the pilgrims who visit Katharagama also visit Kirivehera, Sella Kataragama, and Vedihiti Kanda. Yet, there is an ancient Buddhist monastery that many visitors miss due to its remote location. Thus, during our last visit to Kataragama, we made it a point visit Sithulpawwa.
We left Kataragama early in the morning and took the Sithulpahuwa road passing the Kataragama bus stand. The first few kilometers of the 17 km road is tarred while the rest which runs through the jungle, part of the Yala National Park, is a gravel road with a few pot holes here and there. Since it was the dry season the road was not muddy. After entering the jungle, we were on our own. We didn’t meet anyone till we reached Sithulpawwa. There were many by-roads that branched out in every direction along the gravel road; which made us wonder if we were on the right track. Since there was no one to ask for directions we stuck to what appeared to be the main road. Luckily that road led us to our destination. Whilst traversing this road you only hear the incessant screeching of the crickets and arbitrary cries of the various birds that inhabit the jungle. We came across herds of Deer and wild boar and a few Peacocks spreading their wings in the morning sun. Fortunately, we did not encounter any elephants but we could feel their presence in the vicinity; confirmed by the presence of fresh Elephant bung by the side of the road.
The Sithulpawwa Temple complex is well maintained, the roads are carpeted and the surrounding areas are landscaped. There is a large parking area and other facilities to cater to the large crowds of Pilgrims and tourists who congregate at this historical site. But, because we visited Sithulpawwa on a weekday, it was deserted. When we prepared to get out of the vehicle a magnificent tusker strolled towards the parking lot. Though, we love Elephants, an uneasy feeling swept across us when we faced the tusker. It was then that the army personnel who are deployed at the venue assured us that the tusker is quite friendly and that there is no cause for fear. The army personnel fed the Elephant Kiribath and we were even able to pat the elephant.
It is believed that the Sithulpawwa Rock temple, was built by King Kawantissa is over 2000 year ago. Situated within the Yala sanctuary, the Stupa is built atop a volcanic rock outcrop which is accessed via a steep flight of steps carved into the rock. The white colored Stupa perched on top of the rock above a pond is a sight to behold.
Once you ascent the rock, you see the adjacent hill on top of which there is another Stupa. From our vantage point we could see a network of foot paths leading towards rock caves. We were told that there are more than a thousand caves which were inhabited by thousands of Arahats, Budhist monks who reached enlightenment, during the time if King Kawanthissa. Legend has it that there were more than 12,000 monks who lived hard lives within these caves; where the silence and solitude provided them with the ideal conditions for meditation.
The main complex is situated underneath the main rock is famous for the presence of early Brahmi scripts and fragments of paintings that can be viewed at the image house. The paintings belong to the Anuradhapura period which makes these paintings quite significant as paintings from this period are quite rare.
After worshipping the temple we continued to Thissamaharamaya via Galkaduwa, which is about 29 km long drive. Close to the halfway point of this road you will see the Magul Maha Viharaya. According to folklore this is the place where the marriage between King Kawantissa and Viharamaha Devi took place. There is yet another belief that the marriage took place at a location close to the Northern edge of the Lahugala National Park; but, lets save that for another day.
Thissamaharamaya was the Capital of the Sinhala Kingdom of Ruhuna during the 3rd Century B.C. The Tissamaharama Dagoba which was built by King Kavantissa is one of the largest Stupas in Sri Lanka. The site of the Tissamaharama Raja Maha Vihara was consecrated by Lord Buddha himself, when he spent some time in meditation along with 500 Arahats during his third visit to the island. On the left side of the entrance to the Dagoba is a Margosa Tree. Magosa leaves are known to have a bitter taste but natives say that the leaves facing the Dogoba are not bitter. Don’t take the my word for it, try it out the next time you visit Tissa.
In the vicinity of the Dagoba is the Tissa Lake, an artificial lake with a sophisticated irrigation system to feed the surrounding paddy fields. In addition to this there are four other main lakes; namely Yoda Wewa, Weerawila Wewa, Pannegamuwa Wewa, and Debarawewa Wewa.
Today Tissa is popular as the gateway to the Yala National Park and Kataragama.
There are many hotels which cater to both Tourists and Locals who visit Yala and Kirinda for recreation and Kataragama Temple and Kirivehera for religious observances. If you wish to go on a Safari at Yala, you can easily hire a Safari jeep to suit your requirements at Tissa.