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Aluviharaya Cave Temple

Aluviharaya Cave Temple
Probably one senior monk renowned for his knowledge of the doctrines would have slowly recited them, while monk-scribes wielded their styli and positioned the olas. The others monks would almost certainly have been involved in discussion when occasional questions of interpretation arose. The process of transcription must have taken many years, for the doctrines alone are said to be 11 times the length of the Bible, and that's not counting the commentaries.

The library at Aluvihare, which had safely housed the volumes of this precious manuscript for so many centuries, was totally destroyed by the British during the Matale Rebellion of 1848. Along with it went much of the rest of the temple complex. This came about when the British pursued a notorious rebel leader to a hiding place in the rock caves nearby, and then set about punishing the neighbourhood. The consequences of this sacrilege are still evident today, for since that time generations of monks have been painstakingly rewriting the Tripitika. As there are only a few monks involved it is taking an extraordinarily long time - the first of the three 'baskets of the law' was only completed in 1982.

The tranquility of Aluvihare is in contrast to the better-known and more frequented rock temple at nearby Dambulla with its numerous caves shrines. Aluvihare has many caves, too, with ancient inscriptions, comparatively modern wall and ceiling paintings of interest, and impressive images of the Buddha. The main cave, for instance, has a large reclining statue of the Buddha 10m long, together with standing and seated images. In the vestibule of another cave with a reclining statue of the Buddha there are terrifying depictions of the hellish afterlife that awaits sinners. Some of these unfortunate beings are shown having their eyes pecked out by crows, being disembowelled, dismembered and impaled on spikes.

One cave is dedicated to the revered Indian monk-scholar Buddhagosa, who resided at Anuradhapura but is supposed to have spent several years here during the 4th/5th centuries AD. Buddhagosa, whose name means The Voice of Buddha, was regarded as the greatest exponent and interpreter of the Pali canonical scriptures. Born in North India, he was ordained as a monk and travelled to the island, settling at the Mahavihare at Anuradhapura, where he spent most of life studying the scriptures and writing. His greatest achievements were the new status he gave to Pali scholarship and the development of a coherent and systematic Theravada Buddhist school of thought.

Don't forget to climb up to the dagoba on top of the rock just beyond the cave temples. From this vantage point there are excellent views of the dramatic topography of the North Central Province, with its expansive plain and scattered, blue-hued rock escarpments.

Visitors to Sri Lanka who take the opportunity of witnessing some of the island's varied Buddhist temples will come away with many positive impressions. The pervasive spiritual atmosphere is one such impression, which Aluvihare has in quantity. Another abiding impression is of the neatness and cleanliness of temples, epitomised by the monk who sweeps the ubiquitous sand with geometric precision yet intricate design. Raven-Hart believed that Aluvihare was 'exceptionally tidy, so much so that my footprints seemed intrusions, and I felt like asking for a palm-leaf branch to sweep them away.'
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