‘Ritigala Archaeological Site’ is not the most enticing name for a tourist attraction. It suggests excavations, holes, trenches, mud and dirty, barely recognisable artefacts that have just been pulled out of the ground. That might be the reason why Ritigala is one of the less well-known attractions in the Cultural Triangle of north-central Sri Lanka, which encompasses the historical cities of Kandy, Anuradhapura and Polunnaruwa and other tourist draws such as Sigiriya Rock and Dambulla Caves. Well, I say ‘less well-known’ in an international sense. The day that my partner and I visited, we saw just three other foreigners there. However, the site was still bustling, thanks to the arrival of a coach-party of Sri Lankans and the presence of a number of Sri Lankan students, presumably archaeological ones, who were busy surveying parts of it.
Ritigala is also off the Cultural Triangle’s beaten tourist tracks. We went there by tuk-tuk from our hotel in the town of Habarana, which involved travelling down a series of ever-narrowing and ever-less-tarmacked roads and into ever-deeper woods. Among the trees, bushes, ferns, brambles and long grass encroaching on the roadsides, we spotted several peacocks, while occasional vortices of white butterflies would suddenly and chaotically change patterns as they entered the slipstream of the tuk-tuk.
Among the historical names linked with Ritigala include King Pandukabhaya, who ruled during the fourth century BC and is said to have established a garrison there as well as, according to the site’s Wikipedia entry, building a reservoir called Banda Pokuna near to the present site’s entrance; King Lanji Tissa, who reigned in the second century AD and founded a monastery there, with the monks living in local caves and rock-shelters; and King Sena I, who reigned in the ninth century AD and whose endowment led to the construction of a whole monastery complex at Ritigala. By the end of the 12th century AD, however, the monastery had been abandoned to the jungle and it wasn’t until 1872 that its remains were discovered by a British surveyor called James Mantell.
The site covers 59 acres and is traversed by a path that winds and twists roughly northwards from the entrance. It begins by negotiating two sides of the reservoir, Banda Pokuna, which nowadays is full of vegetation rather than water. Bordered by terraces of long stone steps, it slightly resembles a Roman amphitheatre.
Beyond Banda Pokuna, the path disintegrates and there’s an arduous descent down one rocky and rubble-strewn slope and then a climb up another one, which we found hard going. Gradually, though, the rocks coalesce into a twisting stone staircase that, from some angles, struck me as being like one of those head-scratching illustrations by M.C. Escher.
The path links up several spaces that contain the foundations of vanished monastery buildings. A map we’d seen at the entrance used the English word ‘library’ for one such spot, while describing others as padhanaghara, which in Sri Lankan Buddhism are buildings for meditation. The patterns made by the rectangular depressions, the low, straight lines remaining of the walls, the stumpy remnants of pillars and the shallow trenches that once formed little moats around the structures give these places the look of giant, primitive, stone-hewn circuit boards.
Also along the route are two circular areas whose circumferences were composed of a dozen or more curved stone segments. They’re like traffic roundabouts along a road but without the islands at their centres.
Once we’d navigated the steep, broken parts of the path just above the entrance, we found subsequent stretches of it lovely. It becomes a miniature forest roadway, bounded by lines of long, narrow stones, paved with roughly oblong slabs of various sizes and lengths that fit together like a giant jigsaw, and punctuated by occasional sets of stone steps. We visited on a day of fine weather and it was dappled with tree shadows and speckled by shafts of sunlight that penetrated the leaves and fronds.
In places along the path-sides, we passed big, crudely conical mounds of dried brown dirt, which were sinisterly pitted with small black holes. I assume these were termite-mounds.
The far end of the path is no longer paved and becomes just a forest track. Here we went by a banyan tree with an immense and elevated root system that made it look like a tangle of giant spaghetti oozing off a giant fork. There were baroque gaps in the root-mass at ground-level where it seemed to somehow hoist itself up into the air. The first time we passed the tree, it’d attracted a squad of kids from the coach-group who were clambering up, over and inside it and posing for photos and selfies. When we returned along the path a little later, the kids had gone from the tree and that was when we took some pictures of it.
Though the site is rewarding to explore, it comes to an undramatic end. The track finishes at a northern perimeter, described on the map as the ‘boundary line’, which is simply a wire fence displaying a green sign with some writing in Sinhala. At the bottom of the sign, someone with a warped (possibly heavy-metal-ish) sense of humour had scratched in English the name ‘Satan’.
Finally, as my partner and I are animal lovers, I should end this account of Ritigala with a mention of the cute dog who was living on the site and who intermittently accompanied us during our walk up and down it. Here’s a picture of him posing at the top of some steps with his tail cranked up proudly in the air.