The large community of HABARANA Sri Lanka stands on a key road intersection near Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura, and Dambulla (also close to Sigiriya and Ritigala). While it has a reasonable selection of hotels, it is mostly helpful as a base for seeing any of the Cultural Triangle’s key attractions. It’s also the best site to start trips to the national parks of Minneriya and Kaudulla, which offer some of the best chances to see elephants in Sri Lanka.
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Habarana Sri Lanka
The large community of HABARANA stands on a key road intersection near Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura, and Dambulla (also close to Sigiriya and Ritigala). While it has a reasonable selection of hotels, it is mostly helpful as a base for seeing any of the Cultural Triangle’s key attractions. It’s also the best site to start trips to the national parks of Minneriya and Kaudulla, which offer some of the best chances to see elephants in Sri Lanka.
The major attraction in Habarana is the picturesque Habarana Lake, which can be visited in about 90 minutes along a short boardwalk. If you prefer, various hotels and tour organisations offer elephant rides by the lake and other sites (about $25 per hour). When you watch these gigantic animals wandering around town amid a sea of chains, you could feel just as anxious as the elephants themselves.
National Park Kaudulla
Kaudulla National Park, about 22 kilometres north of Habarana, was established in 2002 to connect with Wasgamuwa and Minneriya national parks to the south and Somawathiya National Park to the north and east, thereby providing an additional link in the elephant migration corridor. The focal point, like Minneriya, is a lake named Kaudulla Tank, where elephants congregate when there is no more water. August through December are the best months to visit. In September and October, which is a little later than Minneriya’s “Gathering” period, up to 200 elephants congregate at the tank. During the dry season, much of the park is buried beneath water, making sightings of elephants more difficult. Other fauna that live in the park’s mix of grasslands and scrubby woodlands, in addition to a generally broad assortment of birds, include sambar deer, monkeys, and the inevitable—though exceedingly occasionally spotted—leopards and sloth bears.
The intriguing relics of the Ritigala forest monastery are hidden away to the north of Habarana, on the incline of a thickly forested mountainside protected by the Ritigala Strict Nature Reserve. The monastery is built atop a peak that is thought to represent Aristha from the Ramayana, the location from which Hanuman sprang back to India from Lanka after discovering where Sita was imprisoned. The more mundane answer is that the location is higher and wetter than the surrounding plains, allowing for a greater diversity of plant species. Hanuman is said to have travelled by Ritigala again later, carelessly dropping one of the chunks of Himalayan mountain he was transporting back from India for medical herbs (other fragments fell to the ground near Unawatuna and Haggala).
Ritigala’s isolation drew hermits seeking solitude, and they began to settle here as early as the third century BC. Pamsukulikas, or “rag robes,” refer to the promise made by these monks to wear only rags that had been discarded or collected from corpses. In the ninth century, an order of ascetic and secluded monks moved to Ritigala and dedicated their lives to extreme austerity. The order appears to have been created in an effort to reestablish traditional Buddhist teachings in response to the lavish lifestyle offered to the island’s clergy. Sena I (831–851 AD) was so moved by the order’s renunciation that he built them a splendid new monastery at Ritigala and donated lands and slaves to it; the majority of the ruins that you see today date from this period.
Ritigala is a mysterious and interesting spot, made all the more so by its remote location amid undisturbed lush woodland and the absence of tourists. Despite intensive archaeological work, the original purpose of practically everything you see now is still mostly unknown. Some of the complex has been painstakingly reconstructed, while others remain concealed in the forest. One striking feature of the site is the complete lack of residential buildings; it appears that the monks exclusively lived in the various tunnels dispersed throughout the woodland.
After the doorway, the walkway circles the edge of the fallen limestone bricks that once encircled the Banda Pokuna tank; this could have served a ritualistic purpose, with guests bathing here before entering the monastery. Steep steps at the tank’s far end lead to the beginning of a wonderfully built trail that connects all of the monastery’s principal facilities through the forest. This path is modelled after the Arankele meditation trail. After around 200 metres, the tunnel arrives at the first of several underground courtyards—three raised terraces surrounded by a retaining wall. Which is the most similar? It’s one of the double-platform structures that characterise Ritigala. These are normally composed of two raised, east-west facing platforms connected by a stone “bridge” and surrounded by a tiny “moat”; one platform typically features pillar fragments, while the other is plain. Several hypotheses have been advanced on the original purposes of these structures. According to one theory, the platforms were used for meditation — group meditation on the open platform and solitary meditation in the building on the linked platform across from it — and the “moat” surrounding them was filled with water, acting as a natural form of air conditioning. A few yards to the right (east) of this enclosure lies another subterranean courtyard. It was most likely a hospital, but it could possibly have been an almshouse or a baths.
The pavement continues straight ahead to one of the “roundabouts” that dot its length; it may have formerly been a covered rest stop, similar to the roundabout at Arankele. About 20 metres before the roundabout, a trail branches off to the right, passing through giant tree roots to the so-called “Fort,” which is accessible through a stone bridge that crosses a creek and affords wonderful views of the surrounding woodlands.
After going through the roundabout, look for a few unexcavated platforms off the trail to the left in the trees. These are exactly as they may have appeared to British archaeologist H.C.P. Bell when he first began examining the site in 1893. After 500 metres, there are two additional submerged courtyards. A colossal double-platform structure located in the first courtyard is one of the largest buildings in the entire monastery. On the left, two stele surround the courtyard; one theory holds that monks would have strolled between these while practising walking meditation. A short distance further are the second courtyard and another large double platform.
Minneriya National Park
Minneriya National Park, which is only ten minutes’ drive east of Habarana, is a nice change of scenery for anyone suffering from ruin fatigue. Despite its modest size, the park has a remarkably diverse range of habitat types, including dry tropical forest, ponds, grasslands, and terrain that was originally utilised for slash-and-burn (chena) agriculture. The huge Minneriya Tank, erected by the legendary tank-builder and monk-baiter Mahasena, is the park’s focal point. Beautiful satinwood, palu (rosewood), halmilla, and weera trees can be found dotting the great dry-zone evergreen forest that covers a considerable amount of the land near the entrance; however, seeing wildlife can be difficult due to the dense forest cover.
The main attraction of this location is elephants. The elephant corridor connects Minneriya to the national parks of Kaudulla and Wasgomuwa. Elephants travel through Minneriya at different times of the year; local guides should be able to tell you where the biggest concentrations of elephants are at any given moment. Up to three hundred people travel from as far away as Trincomalee to drink, wash, and feast on the fresh grass that sprouts up from the lake bottom as the waters recede in the tank. They also come to socialise and make new friends. Their numbers are highest from July to October, peaking in August and September when other bodies of water dry up. Every year, the world’s largest gathering of Asian elephants takes place at “The Gathering.” Other times of the year, there may be fewer elephants visible; in fact, it’s typically easier to see them from the main Habarana-Polonnaruwa road, which runs along the park’s northern boundary. Along with a diverse range of birds, the park is home to sambar, spotted deer, macaque and purple-faced langur monkeys, sloth bears, and possibly twenty leopards (though the latter two are extremely rare).