A short journey on a Sri Lankan government transport bus from the cooler heritage city of Kandy took me northwards to the historic town of Matale. I got down at Aluvihara and was welcomed by an arch with Buddhist elements. The moment I stepped on the hot dusty brownish-gold plains of Matale, though less intimidating compared to the Indian counterparts, I had a sudden realization – I should have stayed at the hillside a little longer, at least a couple of days more – enjoying the temperate climate. But this feeling was momentary as a visit to the Aluvihara monastery in Matale holds much more value than the cozy climate of Kandy. As I walked through the arch on an unpaved path towards the monastery and cave temples, I thought about the 2 reasons for visiting this place.
Aluvihara had a huge collection of Buddhist manuscripts scribed on palm leaves. During the Matale rebellion in the year 1848, the British attacked Aluvihara and mercilessly burned down the manuscripts. They were able to crush down the struggle for freedom and destroyed Buddhist scripts of more than 2,000 years old. As times changed, the Sri Lankans started rebuilding their lost treasure – monks and scholars were sourced from different regions of Lanka and they started re-writing the manuscripts in the traditional way, i.e., on palm leaves. This would be my primary reason to visit this place – to get inspired by their determination and hard work. Rather than feeling miserable thinking about the lost heritage, they went all out to reclaim them.
The second reason is much more personal. You could get your name (or any other text) scribed on the palm leaf – a perfect souvenir from the Island nation
Just before entering the cave temple, an elderly gentleman reminded me to pay a visit to the museum (where all the manuscripts are kept) before leaving. After visiting the cave temples and the Dagoba at the summit, I went back to the entrance where the same old gentleman was waiting for me. He was around 70, formally dressed and spoke good English. He seemed delighted to meet a lone traveler from India. Mr. Bandara was in fact the caretaker of the museum. He enthusiastically explained the history of Aluvihara monastery. Among the different artifacts connected with Buddhism, is a pile of manuscripts divided into 3 sections, inside a glass case – the Tripitaka (3 baskets). Each of the 3 sections deals with a unique aspect of life.
- Sutra Pitaka contains Buddha’s teachings about Dharma
- Vinaya Pitaka sets the rules and regulations for monks
- Abhidharma Pitaka contains philosophical thoughts
The museum occupies the ground floor of the building and I guess monks might be working in the first floor. While I was about to leave Mr. Bandara went up to his desk and took out a piece of dried palm leaf. He eagerly enquired my name and started scribing on the leaf.
“Welcome to Sri Lanka
Sreejith Rema Vijayakumar
2015 07 31”
It was then dyed (using iodine?) and was then scrubbed using some kind of grain powder to remove the excess dye. These palm leave lasts for more than 300 years without any damage.
By the time I had to leave, Mr. Bandara wished me good luck and insisted that I bring my family during my next visit. I wanted to spend more time with this gentleman but that day I had to travel further northwards to Dambulla and then to Sigiriya. Words were inadequate to express my gratitude but still I thanked him and walked back to the bus stop.