This past weekend, I got the chance to explore a little bit more of Mihintale, the small town where Rajarata University is located. Mihintale is of extreme importance to Sri Lankan Buddhists, as it is believed to be the site where Buddhism was founded in Sri Lanka thousands of years ago. This makes it a sort of holy site, popular for half-day visits by devout Buddhists and curious tourists, but not very popular for much else (besides being the home to Rajarata, of course). That means the growth and development around here is slower than other parts of Sri Lanka: there aren’t many restaurants or hotels, there’s less traffic (yay!), and fewer tourists know of its existence. Being a holy site, that means the sale of alcohol is prohibited. This doesn’t really affect me, but Rajnish was quick to tell me this on my first day here.
On Saturday, I was invited to join an undergraduate class as they sampled freshwater streams and ponds in the area. The goal of the class is to teach students how to conduct environmental impact assessments to inform policymakers and government officials how proposed development may affect the environment (we have a similar process in the US that is overseen by the EPA). I learned that the class is popular among students, as they get to take these field trips quite frequently. We spent a few hours at a stream. The students enjoyed themselves, especially when learning from local fishermen how to cast nets to catch larger fish. I got a bit sunburned, but that was bound to happen at some point. I’m just surprised it took this long.
The next day, one of the students from that class, Thilina, volunteered to take me to see what Mihintale is best known for: the mountain peak called “Mihintale.” I guess that shows how important this religious site is for most Sri Lankans. In fact, when people outside of Rajarata ask where I’m staying, I just tell them Anuradhapura (the closest large town), lest they think I’m joining a Buddhist monastery to find enlightenment. I do pass a monk on the way to campus everyday…I think he’s taking classes at Rajarata.
Thilina and I left campus relatively early to beat the heat and the crowds as we walked towards the mountain. I was disappointed with myself when I realized how close it was to where I was living. Just a short 20- to 30-minute walk away, I could have been enjoying the scenery the whole month I’ve been here. On the way over, Thilina and I talked about the differences between universities in the US and Sri Lanka (look at that Fulbright program, cultural exchange). Thilina is a Buddhist himself, so he explained to me the importance of what we were about to see. He also told me that the trek would be broken into three parts: the lower base of the mountain, a midway point, and the peak.
As we reached the midway point of the mountain, I was already beginning to sweat and breathe heavily. Now I’m not the most active person, but I don’t usually get winded after 45 minutes of easy walking. I’ll blame the local conditions, as there were old Buddhists who were obviously Mihintale regulars all around me, effortlessly climbing up and down the steps. Thilina was a bit winded too, so we took a break from the stairs and he showed me some of the notable features of the ancient site. As a preface: Thilina was very knowledgeable, but my memory for names (especially in Sinhala) is lacking. I’ve looked up all of these things afterward using this handy Wikipedia article.
We caught our breath, then climbed up a few more flights of stairs. We passed some European tourists (my first white-people sighting in a few weeks, actually), then reached a point where we had to remove our shoes out of respect for the holiness of the site (at least I’m assuming so). A few more flights of ancient stairs later, we reached the Ambasthala Dagaba. As I learned that day, a dagaba (also called a stupa) is basically an architectural form that resembles a dome, and dagabas are thought to be invented by ancient Sri Lankas. They essentially mark sites of some sort of importance to Buddhism. The Ambasthala Dagaba marks the place where King Makalantissa met the Buddhist monk Mahinda, sparking the start of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. A fairly important event, I guess (sarcasm). We had been passing other stone dagabas throughout the trek, marking other Buddhist relics, but this was the first prominent one we encountered.
Surrounding this dagaba were other important monuments. To the right, we climbed a rocky hill with some steps carved into it (this place would’ve never passed safety standards in the US…sort of refreshing, actually) to reach the Maha Stupa, another dagaba. This one is the biggest on Mihintale at 136 ft in diameter. It’s been restored, but you can see it prominently from the base of the mountain. Thilina told me this is his favorite place to go and think, especially in the evening. Besides the elephant I saw last week, the view from the Stupa was the most beautiful thing I have seen in Sri Lanka. Of course to mark this occassion, we took a selfie. And we weren’t the only ones, either. Hoards of milennial Sri Lankan teenage boys were recruited to take the perfect shot for their girlfriends’ Instagram accounts. **Shakes fist at sky, cursing the younger generation**
We climbed down from the stupa to visit the other landmarks. One of those was a giant Buddha statue. I would’ve taken a selfie there too, but there was a sign expressly forbidding photos to be taken with your back towards the Buddha.
The highest point of Mihintale is Aradhana Gala, basically a giant rock. But it’s a special giant rock. Ancient Buddhist texts describe that the monk Mahinda arrived in Sri Lanka by travelling through the air (I’m assuming not on a commercial flight), and this is the spot where he landed and first saw King Makalantissa. As such, it’s very popular for Buddhists and tourists alike, even during poor weather. There are very shallow steps carved into the rock, and a railing present, to make climbing the thing easier. I saw a bunch of old people climbing it (again, without sweating or panting), so I figured I could do it too. I’m glad I did, because it offered another splendid view.
The mountain was starting to get crowded, so Thilina and I decided to head back down and walk towards campus. Funny how climbing down the mountain is always easier. It was great to talk with a new friend about our shared experiences and different experiences, and Thilina volunteered to take me to more places nearby in the future. I’ll have to take him up on the offer soon.
The rest of my week has been pretty boring, but important. I’ve spent the last several days making final preparations to be in the field full-time. This means gathering equipment, finalizing data collection protocols, and finalizing field assistance. I will spend this weekend relaxing at Rajarata before Rajnish, our field assistant, and I head towards Wasgamuwa (aka “elephant land”) on Monday. As you can imagine, I’m very excited to be around elephants again, and I’m also eager to share photos with you all. I’ll be more isolated (including less frequent access to a good cellular signal), but this is what I came here for. If I don’t post here next week, don’t worry about me, I’m fine. I’ll be in touch with family, colleagues, and close friends who know who to call if they don’t hear from me. I’ll be back to Rajarata in a few weeks, where I’ll definitely be able to update the blog, and my advisors from the US are coming at the beginning of January to make sure everything is going smoothly.
Off to see elephants!