Of lotuses, elephants and dragonflies

Energized and elated by our brilliant experience on the Sorabora Lake, we piled into the car eagerly anticipating our next escapade. Our destination was the little village of Hasalaka, from where we would trek to Rathna Falls, one of the widest waterfalls in Sri Lanka. As our route took us through Mahiyanganaya however, we decided to make a stop at the Mahiyanganaya Rajamaha Viharaya, revered as the location of the Buddha’s first visit to Sri Lanka and also the site of the first dagoba ever to be built in the country.

As we bought two bunches of soft pink lotuses at the entrance to the Buddhist Temple, I drank in their subtle scent, which always reminds me of a large, serene body of water. It was almost as if the flowers held strong memories of their place of origin, and whenever I inhaled their fragrance they would tell me a wordless tale of their home. So evocative is their story, that an irrational desire grips me; the desire to drop everything at hand and go and see their place of birth. Unfortunately, I’ve been able to subdue the desire each time it has arisen.

Long-stemmed lotuses in hand, we passed by an adolescent elephant (he was 17) who seemed quite the rambunctious sort. Drawn to young Isuru by his playfulness, we decided to pay him a visit before we left.

A crowd of white-clad devotees had gathered around one of the little buildings of the temple. They thronged the stairway that led into the main chamber. We had arrived only ten minutes before the morning pooja (similar to a service) ended. The chamber is only open when a pooja is in progress, so we were fortunate enough to enter and see the golden casket that held several sacred relics of the Buddha. We placed a few of the lotuses by the casket, which is much like the one holding the Tooth Relic of the Buddha at the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy.

Devotees leave after the pooja

At the Image House of the temple, a statue of the meditating Buddha was placed before a table of lotuses and water lilies left in offering. I laid down a few more of my pink, fragrant friends and took a step back to gaze at the paintings on the walls. They depicted the story of the Buddha’s visit to Mahiyanganaya and the events that followed. I was able to get an inkling of the story, but as the narration under the murals was in very formal Sinhala, I didn’t understand all of it.

Finally, we made our way to the historic dagoba. Bathed in mid-morning sunlight, its brilliant-white exterior and perfectly symmetrical, bell-shaped form was an impressive sight. This was believed to be the site of the Buddha’s visit nine months after he had attained Enlightenment more than 2500 years ago. This dagoba is believed to have been built by God Saman, one of the four guardian deities of the country, and enshrined in it are two sacred relics of the Buddha: strands of his hair and his clavicle.

The brilliant white dagoba, thought to be the site of the Buddha’s first visit to Sri Lanka and the site of the first dagoba in the country

When we had offered up the last of our lotuses at a small statue of the Buddha placed by the dagoba, we still didn’t have all the pieces of the history of this special place. So we started to seek out someone who could fill up the gaps in the tale. When it comes to history and folklore it’s probably best to approach the elderly and that’s exactly what we did. He was a friendly old man with hardly any teeth. Although it was difficult to understand him, we were able to gather together the fragments of the story once we had politely asked him to repeat several times over.

Foreseeing that Sri Lanka would be a land where Buddhism would thrive for centuries, the Buddha had decided to visit Mahiyanganaya and convey a sermon to the four indigenous tribes living on the island. Saman, a chieftain of one of the tribes, was so inspired by what he had heard that he attained a higher state of spiritual being called Sovan. Later on, he came to be known as God Saman. Granting the request of Saman, the Buddha offered some strands of his hair, which Saman enshrined in a ten-foot tall dagoba built in the very location that the present day dagoba stands. While this was the first dagoba in Sri Lanka, it was built during the lifetime of the Buddha. Forty five years later, upon the death of the Buddha in India in 543 BC, Arahat Sarabhu Maha Thera retrieved the left clavicle of the Buddha and brought it to Mahiyanganaya, where it was also enshrined in the dagoba that Saman had built. In the years to come, several kings, including King Dutugemunu, renovated and enlarged the original dagoba and now it stands more than a hundred feet tall.

On our way out of the temple, we saw Isuru by the Saman Devale (a shrine dedicated to God Saman). He was still impatiently swaying and his naughty antics had drawn a crowd of enchanted children and amused adults. All Isuru could think about, it appeared, was food. Already several people had fed him little snacks of bananas, pineapples and other fruits. But the insatiable Isuru kept reaching out and searching people with his trunk.

I took a seat on a little log by him so that I could watch his childlike mischief. One of my friends suggested we buy him some annasi, or pineapple, and at the mention of the word Isuru turned around, started to lean towards us and reach out with his trunk. Someone once told me that teenage boys are just gigantic appetites with skin wrapped around them; Isuru certainly seemed to fit the bill! I laughed at his eagerness and reached out to him with my hand, which he held in his trunk only for a split second. As soon as he realized there was no food there, he let go and went searching elsewhere. He must’ve had a cold, because he left my hand wet with snot!

Snotty-nosed Isuru

For all his impishness, Isuru was actually a good elephant. As soon as his mahout gave him the order, he stood absolutely still. A mother had handed over her baby to the mahout, who – with the baby in his arms – began walking under Isuru’s great belly a few times. There is a belief that the cure for being startled awake by nightmares is to walk under an elephant. Wrapped up in her soft quilt and sleeping soundly, it looked like the walk under Isuru’s belly had already started working its magic for the baby. So if you ever meet Isuru, don’t take his ridiculous behaviour at face value; he’s got some serious powers.

The drive to Hasalaka took us through lime-green paddy fields and the rising temperature lulled us almost into a happy stupor. That is, until it was time to get out of the comfy car and trek through the humid jungle! The little village was charming with its narrow lanes, stretches of paddy and surrounding forest.

By this time I had started to feel the exhaustion from a sleepless night inside a lurching tent catching up with me. Fortunately, the walk to the falls, although long, was easy. There was a bit of an uphill climb in the beginning, during which we passed by rice fields set out in steps on the side of the hill. Some were green with tender rice shoots and others were still messy with mud. A totally nonchalant herd of tame buffalo sat in one of the muddy sections, chewing absently and persistently staring at us as we passed by, which was a little disconcerting for us.

At the end of the relatively steep climb we were met by a narrow canal that channelled water from the river that the Rathna Falls flowed into. Its shallow bed was pebble strewn and its clear ripples exuded a promise of refreshing coolness. For the remainder of our walk we followed the little canal along a trail that led gently uphill, which meant there were many times when I was tempted to step into the little stream to continue my walk; so sultry was the afternoon. But I managed to resist and stay on the narrow concrete ledge that rimmed the canal.

The rim of the canal sometimes led us over large boulders like this one

The walk was fabulously laid-back. We kept up an easy pace so the climb was almost effortless. To our right the canal gurgled at the foot of a steep hill and on our left the jungle-clad incline continued downhill. Soon enough there was a clearing in the thick forest that looked down into a valley of rice fields, and beyond, cascading down coal grey rocks, was a glimpse of the Rathna Falls. Even at this distance the falls appeared striking as it spilled down in frothy layers and disappeared behind a field of rice.

A view of Rathna Falls from a distance

The falls disappears behind lime-green paddy fields

A short walk after our brief sight of the falls brought us to the bank of the river. Following some embarrassingly klutzy acrobatics that got us from the edge of the canal to the rocky bank of the river, we stopped a while to take in our surroundings. The jungle was thick on either side of the river and much of the rocky riverbed was exposed due to the delayed monsoon. Having had an endless stream of water slide over it for millennia, the rock had been indented with large grooves and crevices. Wherever there was enough water flowing, the gaps and crannies filled up to make shallow pools of invigorating, cold water. As tempting as it was to immerse ourselves in one of the pools we decided to continue to the waterfall and then give ourselves the reward.

The walk to the falls from this point was a little challenging. Given the thick forest on the banks of the river, the best way to proceed was along the middle of the river. The trick was to negotiate a path through the labyrinth of boulders and pools of water along the way. I had to use my hands, my feet, my knees and my bum to make any kind of progress through that boulder-strewn riverbed. By this time I had changed into swimmies and shorts because an ill-placed foot could easily have landed me in one of the pools. Needless to say, grace had completely abandoned me. But hey, I scored high on perseverance.

The boulder-strewn riverbed

Figuring out my way past a pool of water

The clear, fresh water spills over rocks on its way downstream

A knarled old tree trunk seems to fuse with one of the boulders

After scrambling up a particularly hefty rock, we found a large, calm pool of water into which the Rathna Falls poured. Thankfully, from this point onwards there was a bit of riverbank to walk on; the pool was much too deep for inept swimmers like myself. My feet sank a little in the spongey-soft soil as I waded in, all ready to sit inert and neck-deep in water for the next hour or so. But no, my trigger-happy photographer friend wanted to climb up the vertical cliff down which the falls tumbled, to get the best pictures possible.

The Rathna Falls: this was the view I was treated to when I could finally sit still in the water

So for the next 20 minutes or so I did a bit of unskilled, although very cautious, rock climbing. We found ourselves right next to a gushing torrent of water that fell over the rocks below and ended up in the round pool. It was exhilarating to be so close to the surging water. But this wasn’t the summit of the waterfall and there was no approach we could see that would lead us there from where we were. We climbed back down so my friend could find another way up. I decided to wallow in the shallow water until he came back.

My view after I’d done a bit of rock climbing

Little rivulets of water surge out to create the wide Rathna Falls

What my friend saw when he went climbing up the hill

So mad at myself that I didn’t go with him!


He had a spectacular view down river

I found the perfect spot, where I could rest my head on a conveniently placed rock and gaze up at the falls. It seemed the water had the same relaxing effect on the fish. Tiny schools of them appeared to sit almost perfectly still next to me; they looked as lazy as I felt. Sunning herself on the rock by me was a pretty, brown dragonfly. I sat with my newfound friends and we all watched the incessantly falling water in front of us. A little while later I started to feel cold so I hopped up onto the rock next to the dragonfly. As I folded my legs under me, I was afraid I would scare the dainty creature, now so close to me. But I was happily surprised to find she didn’t flutter a wing. So I settled down to enjoy the sun and admire the dragonfly’s delicate beauty. Occasionally, I would see the miniature figure of my human friend on the hill before me, sometimes making his way up the rock and disappearing behind trees, sometimes waving down at me.

My dainty little friend

As fast-paced and hectic as this journey has been for us, it has also paved the way to the rarest of nature’s treasures that inspire wonder and peace. Rathna Falls was one of those special places; a little bit of a challenge to reach, but once there we felt entirely enveloped by the magic of being alone with nature. So when it was time to leave I went with the happy anticipation of more rare experiences ahead of me.

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