Mihintale: a perfect blend of culture and nature

Mihintale hill contains ruins of some of the oldest Buddhist monuments in the country. A small rock on top of the hill is a major pilgrimage destination. Numerous stupas and ruins are scattered in a beautiful landscape. Expect viewpoints, rocks, ponds and even freshwater turtles. If you’re visiting Mihintale, Anuradhapura is a good place to spend a night, (especially if you stay at the tranquil Tissa Wewa lake). 

A view at Mihintale Hill with a massive, whitewashed stupa, a seated Buddha statue and a rocky outcrop filled with pilgrims, set against the backdrop of green plains and lakes below
A giant stupa dominates above a sacred rock full of pilgrims

As we still had a few days left till our flight to India, we headed to Anuradhapura to check out the nearby Mihintale hill. We decided to skip visiting Anuradhapura ancient capital, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Anuradhapura sacred city is quite similar to the one in Polonnaruwa (which we had already seen) and the entrance fee to both is equally high. Mihintale surpassed our expectations. You shouldn’t miss it if you’re visiting the Cultural Triangle area.

Anuradhapura on a budget

We spent over an hour at the bus stand in Polonnaruwa, waiting for the bus to Anuradhapura. After a 3 hours ride, we arrived at Anuradhapura New Town bus station. To our surprise, the eateries near the bus station were quite pricey. We had to walk at least 10-15 minutes to find a 150 rupee rice and curry buffet.

Giant, ancient stupa rises from above the treeline along the Tissa Weva lake in Anuradhapura
Some of the ancient Anuradhapura remnants are so huge they can be seen from the banks of the lake

Our guesthouse was located on a quiet lane leading to Tissa Wewa lake. To my great delight, we saw a small star tortoise on that empty stretch of tarmac. (as I read later – a threatened species). The accommodation itself was basic but worth staying, because of its beautiful location.

A small turtle with a black-and-yellow pattern shell walks along the tarmac in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
A threatened star tortoise we stumbled on near our accommodation in Anuradhapura

Anuradhapura: Tissa Wewa Lake and Vessagiriya ruins

It was already afternoon when we went to the Tissa Wewa lake, which was just 5 minutes walk from our guesthouse. We had a clear view of the three tall stupas on the other bank of the lake. We walked along the lake, watching numerous birds and admiring old trees growing along the path.

An egret wades through the blue waters of Tissa Wewa lake in Anuradhapura, while the horizon is dominated by three giant stupas on the other bank
Mighty stupas of ancient Anuradhapura on the other bank of Tissa Wewa lake

After a short walk, we reached rather unimpressive Vessagiriya ruins, the remnants of a monastery and caves where the monks used to live. We climbed a small rock with a nice view of the ancient city further in the distance.

A few columns surrounded with trees is all that is left of Vessagirya monastery in Anuradhapura
A view from a small hill at Vessagiriya ruins

We followed the tarmac road toward the old Anuradhapura in order to reach Isurumuni Vihara. This 6th century rock temple with a stone-cut pool is famous for its beautiful carvings. This particular monument has a separate entrance fee of 200 LKR, so can be visited independent of the entire ancient Anuradhapura complex. Unfortunately, we were too late to get in. Instead, I got drawn to a massive stupa covered with scaffolding, still under construction. The guards allowed us to take a metal staircase up the top. I climbed with a hope of a better view of the ancient site, but it wasn’t high enough for that. It was getting dark when I got down.


The following morning we went to Mihintale. We caught a bus to the Anuradhapura New Town bus station and after a bit of searching found a bus to Mihintale. It was just a half an hour drive or so. We walked towards the main entrance, passing by the ruins of the hospital on our right. We stopped for a short while at a free museum with a couple of excavated artefacts and information on the daily lives of monks living in the ancient Mihintale.

Groups of pilgrims walk up long, stone steps to Mihintale hill
Pilgrims going up towards the Mihintale Hill

As it was Saturday, plenty of white-clad pilgrims came to pray. Instead of going directly up by the first fleet of stairs, we turned to the right, taking the stairs up to Kantaka Chetiya stupa. We were standing alone in front of a beautiful stupa with four well preserved, carved gates with little statues of animals.

Brick Kantaka Chetiya stupa in Mihintale with four carved gates
Kantaka Chetiya

We descended using another fleet of stairs straight to Sinha Pokuna– a high standing, stone cut pond with a lion carved on its wall. Sinha Pokuna was close to the ticket counter. The path to the right was empty. The other one was leading straight on and was full of devotees. Naturally, we chose the empty one.

Sinha Pokuna: a sculpture of a lion standing on hind legs carved into a side of a stone water tank in Mihintale
Sinha Pokuna: a lion sculpture carved into a side of a water tank

It led us to an image house without any images left. There, again, we could choose between three paths. According to maps.me, the path to the right led to a viewpoint at Eth Vihara. The path to the left led to Naga Pokuna. The path behind the image house would take you to the main stupa.

The author stands at teh bottom of long, stone stairs leading to Eth Vihara in Mihintale
Stairs leading up towards Eth Vihara

We started climbing the stairs up the Eth Vihara. The last few steps were cut directly into the rock. After a short walk, we ended up on a rocky platform with absolutely stunning views. We loved Pidurangala, but it would be hard to choose which one was better. There we were, completely alone, soaking in the panorama and the clear view of the pond, the large stupa and the holy Aradhana Gala rock swarming with people.

A view from Eth Vihara at Mihintale Hill with the giant white-washed stupa and the green plains and lakes below
Stunning views at Mihintale hill from Eth Vihara viewpoint

The viewpoint wasn’t the end of the path- a short walk further took us to a small stupa, te Eth Vihara. Although it was the peak, the vegetation obstructed the view.

Weather-worn, narrow steps cut in the bare rock leading to Eth Vihara and a landscape of green plains, lakes and mountains in the backdrop
Steps cut in the rock leading to Eth Vihara

After a longer while spent at that incredible spot, we came down and took the path to the left, leading to the Naga Pokuna. It was a small stone pool full of frogs and fish.

A small, ancient pool cut huddled to a rock in Mihintale.
Naga Pokuna

Finally, we took the path to the main site. It led through a large boulder with steps cut into it and then up to two stupas. The brick stupa wasn’t in use anymore. The whitewashed Maha Seya stupa behind it was much larger. Its altars were full of flowers left by the devotees. At this point, we had to take off our shoes. I managed to find a plastic bag that would hold both pairs. It was much more convenient to carry them around since we didn’t need to go back up just to collect the shoes.

A set of steps cut in a bare rock lead to a giant, whitewashed stupa on top of Mihintale Hill
Set of stone-cut stairs lead from Eth Vihara to Maha Seya

Below the stupa stood the most sacred site, Ambasthala Dagoba- a very small Vatadage (stupa surrounded with columns) with a couple of statues around it. It marks the exact spot of the meeting of monk Mahinda with king Devanampiyatissa and a place where the monk’s relics are enshrined. There was a giant, modern statue of Buddha to the left. We didn’t feel like climbing up to see it. 

A small, white stupa is surrounded with stone pillars and a circular platform on top of Mihintale hill
A cat chilling out on the sacred Ambasthala Dagoda

To the right, there was a path up the Aradhana Gala rock. This is one of the top pilgrimage destinations in Sri Lanka. It is believed monk Mahinda came flying from India, landed on top of this rocky outcrop to convince king Devanampiyatissa to convert to Buddhism. The queue of mostly schoolchildren and adult Sri Lankan devotees was reaching the bottom. Sayak passed on the dubious attraction of climbing to the top, but I was curious to know what’s so special about it. The view, as expected, didn’t differ much from that from Eth Vihara. There wasn’t anything to see on top either, although the pilgrims laid lots of lotus flower at one particular spot.

A long line of pilgrims slowly make their way up the bare rock of Aradhana Gala in Mihintale
A long queue of pilgrims waiting to get to Aradhana Gala

As soon as I went down, it started drizzling. Expecting a downpour, we didn’t go behind the  Ambasthala Dagoba to check out the Mahinda’s cave. We just quickly glanced at the ruins of the monastery nearby. Among the pillars, where were two stone slabs with inscriptions in Sinhalese. We managed to hide under the shelter of the ticket office seconds before the downpour.

Rock platform, stone columns and two giangt granite slabs are the remains of a monastery at Mihintale hill
Huge slabs with inscriptions within the ruins of a monastery

Around Mihintale Hill

Maps.me still showed quite a few sights scattered around. We headed first towards Kaludiya Pokuna – a large pond surrounded by ruins which we saw from the top of Eth Vihara.

Offerings of fruit given at the brick, ancient Katu Seya stupa in Mihintale
Rituals at Katu Seya

After coming down the last flight of stairs, we took a path to the left, leading among stalls selling refreshing lime juice and various snacks. At the end of it, there was a parking place and two stupas. The one to the right was empty, while the one to the left- Katu Seya– was an active place of worship. We could witness a priest performing rituals in front of the stupa and watch the devotees leaving the offerings of fruit.

A conical, green Mihintale hill reflects in the dark waters of Kaludiya Pokuna pond
A perfect reflection of Mihintale rock in Kaludiya Pokuna pond

We carried on along a more busy road for a few hundred meters until we reached Kaludiya Pokuna on our left. It was a beautiful and very peaceful spot, worth a longish walk. The water in the pond was dark but clear, reflecting the mountains. We saw some local ladies meditating in front of the lake. Most excitingly of all, I spotted some weird shape on a rock in the middle of the lake. Zooming in with the camera, I realised there were five freshwater black turtles, basking in the sun!

A ground of freshwater black turtles lift their heads as they seat on a small rock in the middle of a pond in Mihintale
Strangely shaped rock turned out to be a group of Parker’s black turtles

Exactly across the main road, there was a dirt road leading- according to maps.me- to some cave and finally joining with the main road to Anuradhapura. At 1 pm it was a bit too hot to fully enjoy this walk. We saw a small, natural pond just opposite the path to the caves. With a corner of my eye, I noticed a turtle jumping into the water. The second, smaller turtle sat on deadwood nearby. Once we climbed up, we saw a cave with a few walls covered with scribbles. There was a bit of a view at the neighbouring hills and the lake, but nothing spectacular. We absolutely don’t regret taking this path, though.

A view from a rock over forest-covered plains and hills in Mihintale, Sri Lanka
View from the caves near Mihintale

We found a cheap place to eat on the main road and then caught a bus back to Anuradhapura. It was a lovely, half a day trip. Even if you don’t want to visit Anuradhapura ancient capital, it’s worth visiting Mihintale and stay at Tissa Wewa lake.


How to get to Anuradhapura?
Anuradhapura has two train stations: Anuradhapura and Anuradhapura New Town. You can get there from Colombo Fort in 5h.
If you want to get to Anuradhapura from the south coast, train would be the best. It’s a long 8.5hours from Matara or 7h from Galle.
Anuradhapura has a few bus stands, but most of the buses go to Anuradhapura New Town. Buses from Colombo can arrive both via Puttalam and Dambulla. The journey takes 5h. It’s 3h by bus from Kandy, 2h from Dambulla (same route). Bus from Puttalam would take around 2h. You can also take a direct bus from Polonnaruwa (3h). Trincomalee is 3.5h away.

How to get to Mihintale?

Take a bus from Anuradhapura New Town. It’s just a half an hour journey.

Prices [in Sri Lankan rupees as of Feb 2019]:

1280 accommodation in Anuradhapura, by the Tissa Wewa Lake (basic double room ensuite)
500 Mihintale entrance ticket
180 bus Polonnaruwa to Anuradhapura new bus station
168 semi-luxurious bus Anuradhapua to Puttalam
150 buffet lunch at a budget eatery (away from touristic zones)
110 buffet lunch at a roadside eatery near Mihintale
39 bus from Arunadhapura (new bus station) to Mihintale
25 sweet bun from a local shop

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