Buddhism in Sri Lanka is inextricably linked to Mihintale, the place of an extraordinary meeting during a June full moon, where the mystery of the mango tree, properly solved, changed the history of Sri Lanka forever.
Overcoming another one of the 1840 stairs leading to the top of the Mihintale hill, a picturesque vista of greenery, my imagination goes into overdrive and re-enacts the course of one of the most important events in Sri Lanka’s history; the meetings that took place in the 3rd century BC.
It was a June full moon in 248 BC. King Devanampiya Tissa (247BC-207BC), with his court, went hunting in the vicinity of Anuradhapura, once the capital of the kingdom. During the deer chase, he met a group of monks. As it would turn out, they were the Buddhist emissaries sent from India by Emperor Aśoka, among them Arahat Mahinda, the son of the Emperor himself. A short conversation, a few questions, and the king’s right answer forever changed the history of the island, and the “hill of Mahinda” or Mihintale becomes the cradle of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
The Mahavamsa recorded:
“What name does this tree bear, O king?”
“This tree is called a Mango.”
“Is there yet another Mango besides this?”
“There are many mango trees.”
“And are there yet other trees besides this mango and the other mangos?”
“There are many trees, sir; but those are trees that are not mangoes.”
“And are there, besides the other mangoes and those trees which are not mangoes, yet other trees?”
“There are yet more of those than of my kin.”
“Is there yet anyone besides the kinsfolk and the others?”
“There is yet myself, sir.”
“Good. Thou hast a shrewd wit, O ruler of men.”
Satisfied with the king’s quick wit and intelligence, the thera Mahinda preached to Tissa and his court.
What you can see in Mihintale
The place of this historic meeting is located on the highest terrace of the hill in Mihintale, at the end of a road shaded by a tangle of white-grey twisted branches of frangipani (Plumeria). The central place of the terrace sits the Ambastala Dagoba (also known as Mango Tree Dagoba). In this place, marked only with a golden fence, King Devanampiya Tissa was presented with the riddle of the mango tree. As fate would have it, he was indeed the right person to ask and fully understand the Buddha’s philosophy.
The rocky uneven steps lead to the nearby rock called Aradhana Rock. Groups of white-clad pilgrims follow this path to the top to celebrate the place of the first sermon of Arahat Mahinda. There is an unforgettable view from the top. The white majestic stupa of Maha Seya dominates the neighboring hill, where the Buddha’s relic is said to be located. Next to it is the smaller stupa of Mahinda Seya, containing the ashes of Arahat Mahinda. From the next hill, from under the closed eyelids, the white giant figure of a sitting Buddha looks at the pilgrims who have arrived.
From the highest terrace, you can reach the cave where Arahat Mahinda lived and meditated. During his life, Mihintale became a great monastery and an efficient center of Buddhism consisting of 68 rock caves for monks, a chamber of relics, an Alms Hall, water tanks with a complicated water hydraulic system. There was also a hospital for 2,000 ascetic monks.
On the way down is the Naga Pokuna or Cobra Pond, a water reservoir named because of a five-headed cobra carved on one of its walls. The irrigation system in Mihintale with the Naga Pokuna as its center, was very important as the Buddhist monks resided in the area. In the middle terrace, there is Sinha-Pokuna or the Lion Pond, a pond or rather a water rail, which was supplied with water using a channel from the Cobra Pond. The Cobra Pond also provides water to the Alms Hall, one of the most impressive places in this monastery, with a large rectangular area with a huge stone gutter in the shape of a boat, which was used to prepare rice for 2,000 monks. Next to it is a porridge cistern and a stone semicircular cutting board for vegetables.
It’s worth noting that there is also a historic hospital located at the foothill of Mihintale, reportedly one of the oldest in the world. Among the ruins, a medical room with separate cabins for patients, a place for oily medical baths and stone storage vessels for medicine were uncovered.
The Poson Full Moon Poya day
Every year in June, hundreds of pilgrims come to Mihintale during the Poson Full Moon Poya day and face the all steps leading to the top of the Mahinda’s hill, just like I have, and they devote themselves to thinking about absolute truth, nirvana.
Perhaps, they also mention one of the most important meetings in the history of the island, which gave rise to Buddhism in Sri Lanka.