Marvellous Mihintale but not a UNESCO World
religious attention is on Mihintale on this 19th day of June – Poson
Poya day. It was on such a day 236 years after the death of the Buddha
in 306 BC, that a momentous meeting took place between Venerable Mahinda
Thera, son of Emperor Dharma Ashoka of India and the king of Lanka –
Devanampiya Tissa (307-287 BC).
"Monks are we, O great King, disciples of the King of Truth.
Out of compassion for you have we come from Jambudipa"
said Thera Mahinda to King Devanampiyatissa after he had called out to
him. The king stopped in his tracks, and looking up saw on a high rock a
brown clad monk with four others similarly robed, and a lay person. The
day being festive, the king had gone deer hunting to Missakha-pabbatha
(now named Mihintale) eight miles north east of the capital city,
Anuradhapura. He dropped his bow and arrow and saluted the saintly
figure standing on a high rock. An intelligent conversation ensued. And
thus the conversion of the king of Lanka and its people to the way of
life as preached by Gautama Buddha.
UNESCO’s criteria and Mihintale’s
I found with some surprise that Mihintale, though within the demarcated
Cultural Triangle, was not a UNESCO World Heritage site. The selected
are the ancient cities of Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura and Sigiriya (1982);
sacred city of Kandy (1988); Galle and its fortifications (1988); cave
temples of Dambulla (1991) and the natural sites of Sinharaja Forest
(1988) and Central Highlands (2010). Mihintale is not included as part
of the sacred city of Anuradhapura. Thus for interest’s sake I went
through UNESCO’s 10 criteria for selection of a building or place as a
heritage site of outstanding universal value.
The first is that a site has to represent a masterpiece of human
creative genius. We could pass that.
The second is exhibiting an important interchange of human values. There
was a most significant interchange of values at Mihintale when Mahinda
Thera preached to King Devanampiya Tissa the doctrine of the Buddha.
What greater value than a philosophy and perfect way of life as preached
by the Buddha. The values imparted on that Poson day more than 2300
years ago are fast spreading in the world as more acknowledge the Dhamma
introduced by the Buddha.
The third criterion is to be a unique or at least exceptional testimony
to a cultural tradition or to a civilization … Here Mihintale definitely
scores. With the introduction of Buddhism to Lanka there occurred a
resurgence of a civilization that was in the island, but with a
socio–cultural impact which resulted in a new tradition and saw the
development of sculpture, art, even painting with stupas and viharas
criterion stipulates that to be declared a World Heritage site a place
must be an outstanding example of a type of building, of architecture or
a landscape which illustrates a significant stage in human history.
Mihintale definitely does this.
Firstly it represents a significant stage in this island’s history and
so of human history. It could be safely said that it is the most
important historical event of the country because the people of the
land, and the traditions and culture changed so much, with the
introduction of the way of life as preached by the Buddha and
transferred by Mahinda Thera, further cementing the ties between India
and Lanka, and later lands in Asia which received Buddhism.
Regards the buildings, architecture and landscape, consider the hill of
Mihintale with its towering Aradhanagala and the huge Ambatthala Chetiya
or Maha Stupa. Consider the two unique rock-hewn ponds. Kaludiya pokuna,
cupped by dark granite, 200 feet long and 70 feet wide, and roughly
rectangular in shape. The water is so dark that its depth cannot be
gauged nor the bottom of the pool seen. The other pond, named Naga
Pokuna of almost the same size has at its farther edge where water meets
rock, a five-headed cobra, etched in light relief. A flat long stone
with a smooth surface is venerated as Mahinda Thera’s bed, so it is
almost five centuries old.
Almost at the bottom of the hill is a stone trough for immersing
patients in medicines in the believed-to-be first hospital in the world
(885-887 AD). 1,840 steps which must have been hewn of stone buried in
the ground long, long ago are still the same that pilgrims tread to
reach the summit. Two large stone troughs 23 feet in length lie in the
flat area toward the bottom of the hill. These are believed to be of the
monks’ refectory used for dishing out cooked rice. Thus the wonder of
buildings and ancient amenities in Mihintale of architectural
The landscape as seen on Mihintale and down below is spectacular,
immersed in an atmosphere of sanctity and history.
The fifth criterion is that the site has to be an outstanding
traditional human settlement. Mihintale was an ancient settlement of
Buddhist monks who lived a traditional life observing the vinaya rules
set down by the Buddha. It is believed that Mahinda Thera refused to
make his abode in the Maha Megha Uyana constructed for him in
Anuradhapura. He and his followers lived in 68 caves dotting the
hillside of Mihintale. So here was a traditional settlement, albeit of
Buddhist monks. The existence of two ponds and the vast troughs for
serving rice are further indications of a large community resident here.
The sixth criterion further promotes this fifth stipulation: to be
directly and traditionally associated with living traditions. Yes,
because Buddhism is a living tradition in this land and its beginning is
traced to this site.
The seventh criterion goes thus: to contain superlative natural
phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty or aesthetic
importance. The hill of Mihintale has a charm of its own at all hours of
the day and night. The verdant paddy fields and jungle areas
interspersed with irrigation tanks and in the distance the dagobas (stupas)
of Anuradhapura spread out below and visible from all edges of the flat
spaces and precipitous inclines of the hill of Mihintale, is scenic.
criterion specifies the presence of outstanding examples representing
major stages of the earth’s history, including the record of life. This
is not relevant to the question at hand, as are the next two criteria
which deal with natural resources and scenic beauty. Sri Lanka’s two
World Heritage sites under these last two stipulations are the Sinharaja
Forest and the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka.
To us Buddhists, Mihintale holds a special place in our minds, hearts
and way of thinking and behaving. Buddhism which is the religion
followed by more than 70% of the population was introduced at Mihintale
with a very receptive and intelligent king understanding Ven Thera
Mahinda’s discourse and questions.
Mihintale is wondrous seen in Poson Poya moonlight when the full moon
appears extra large and a mite closer at hand. Mihintale is unique and
wonderful in its stillness and natural beauty. Both now are sadly marred
by insensitive pilgrims who throng the place, especially at the Poson
Poya with scant respect for silence, genuine piety and regard for the
Mihintale is significant as a national heritage site since it was here
that a renaissance of sorts occurred in the third century BC. With the
gentle religion introduced, a new way of life was adopted and a cultural
heritage born of which we are duly proud.