AMONG THE ANCIENT ARAMAS
by Derrick Schokman
 
According to the Ven. Sri Rahula, by the first century BC the basis of the Sasana was declared to be learning and the vocation of books rather than the vocation of practice.

The writing of the Thripitaka scriptures, followed by the Dipawansa and Mahawamsa chronicles, was an affirmation of this. And by the 6th century AD village and town dwelling monks (Gamavasi and Nagaravasi) were quite common.
There were also forest dwelling or meditative monks (Vanavasi or Aranyavasi). The Buddha had accepted that they may live in forested areas or "Arama" to obtain a peaceful environment.

Suitable sites were accordingly selected and converted into habitable environments for the Vanavasi monks, who came into prominence during the 7th to 10th centuries. In the process an interesting local tradition of landscape architecture was created.

Special Feature The special feature of this landscape tradition was the integration of natural elements and the topography in an aesthetic manner, without interfering with the forest. This included the functional use of water as pools, ponds and streams, along with rocks and boulders in the architectural layout.

Terraces were created for buildings by marrying the slopes with earth embankments and retaining walls. Irregular and formal paths and flights of steps were also introduced in harmony with the topography. Join me now in an armchair tour of some of these interesting forest monasteries to trace developments in the landscape tradition.
 
  Rajagirilenakande Cave monasteries were the first to be developed. Rajagirilenakande near Mihintale is a good example.

Most of the caves found there are more than 30 metres above ground level, under the spur of a hill. Protected by overhanging boulders and drip-cuts, and divided by clay walls or plastered brick and stone walls, they made quite airy and roomy shelters.
Many inscriptions have been found in these caves from pre-Christian times, mostly indicating the donors. Flights of stone steps, built, cut into the rock or bending around and blending with natural boulders, connect different levels of this secluded environment.

Sacred buildings like stupa and image house were located at ground level, along with the ponds.
Meditation Houses In time, cave dwellings came to be associated with monastic buildings for meditation and residence. Meditation houses or Padhanagharas are unique to Sri Lanka.

They are typically double platformed stone terraces. The inner platform with pillars that supported a roof was separated from the outer platform open to the sky by a stream or moat of water.

  The remains of such buildings may be seen in the western monasteries at Anuradhapura (8th century) and among the cave dwellings at Ritigala and Arankele. Ritigala King Sena I is said to have established a monastery in the ninth century in Ritigala at the foot of the gorge separating the main peak from the northern ridge.
You can reach it by a stone stairway through the forest going uphill for about a half-kilometre. Wherever streams cross, it is bridged.


The stairway is flanked on both sides by caves and the remains of double-platformed buildings. Footpaths, ponds and stone seats are further evidence of the landscape tradition. There is a Na (ironwood) forest in the cave area to the north.

Arankale In the Kurunegala District, Arankale is somewhat similar to Ritigala. On the left as you enter is an open glade with stone tables which were used by the laity for the alms they offered to the monks. The most striking feature is the stone-paved and colonnaded walkway, bordered by tall Na trees. It keeps a straight path and ascends in an easy gradient of two to three steps at a time. It could have been used as an ambulatory by the meditating monks.  

A large Pokuna served the needs of the monks. A restored Jantaghara or hot house bath may be seen at the site. Several pillars and the ruins of double platform buildings are also seen at different levels in the landscape. It would appear that these buildings were connected by paths. Wherever they crossed, the junctions were enlarged to form an "island" with well defined curb stones.
  The Kaludiya forest monastery near Mihintale is the last on our tour. It is one of the most beautiful settings in the Rajarata. I do not think anyone will disagree with Archaeological Commissioner Bell's view that no better sanctuary could have been selected anywhere else in this country for monks in quiet retreat. Furthermore, the monastery itself is one of the finest expressions of the landscape tradition.

The large natural Pokuna, which is the dominant feature of the landscape, has been architecturally enhanced by dressed stone walls winding among the rocks, and two gateways at the north and south ends. The monastery was laid out by the margin of the pool in terraces skilfully adapted to the varied levels and intersperses between the foot boulders of the hills. The stupa and image house were on the uppermost terraces overlooking the Pokuna, with meditation houses and residential quarters lower down.

There is a well preserved uposathagaraya where the monks assembled for purification purposes, and a cave temple with brick walls, granite windows and ceilings. Hard by the ruins is a restored bath house beneath a large boulder, a good example of the integration of build environment with the natural setting.
A picturesque stepped stone walk with take you through the forest to the monastery.

Do not be disappointed if all you see are the repaired plinths of the old buildings, retaining terrace walls and flights of steps connecting the terraces. With the awareness that you have now acquired of the landscape tradition, it should not be too difficult to have a better picture and a greater appreciation of these forest monasteries, which have been developed from the religion which grew out of the green-shade of the Bodhi.
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