Once a great seat of learning in the East of Sri Lanka, Shasthrawela was the abode of five hundred Arhants and was known as the Pabbatha Bodhigiri Vihara. Today only ruins of a once grand complex of preaching halls, viharas, dagabas and Buddha statues remain of these grand vihara initially built by King Kawantissa during the second century BC.
A stone inscription on site states that King Maha Dhataka Maha Naga, son of Pudakana Gamini Abhaya, grandson of King Devana Piya Gamini Naga has built and donated monastery to the Maha Sangha. The Mahawamsa, great chronicles of Lanka also refers to a monastery constructed by King Dhataka, known as “Mani-Naga Pabbatha Vihara,” in the Kalayana Kannika Kingdom, an ancient reference to the kingdom of Rohana.
Situated on the road leading towards the beach from the Pottuvil to Panama highway is the Pan Kande Hela, a series of undulating hills that creates a natural fortress around the monastery. The mountain faces are scattered with drip ledged caves, which were used by the meditating arhants nearly 2000 years ago.
At the base of the hill stand the ruined remains of a large stupa, almost 500 feet in circumference, and 60 feet in height, one of the largest stupas in the Eastern Province. Its centre has been hallowed apart by treasure-hunters, and the brickwork is now held together and kept from crumbling to pieces by the gnarled roots of the trees which have grown atop it over time.
A little further in lies the entrance to the monastery, through a narrow and steep uphill pathway strewn with the ruins of an ancient rock staircase and adornments. Forlorn stone pillars bear silent witness to the invading jungle from either side. The stairway leading to the upper caves has become twisted with the roots and undergrowth, making the path a precarious one. It opens up into a clearing with a large cave facing the northwest. Within it lie the remains of a large reclining Buddha statue, almost 30 feet in length, and destroyed by treasure hunters. The cave wall had been plastered over and adorned with frescoes, but only glimpses of mauve and hints ochre remain today, and one can only imagine what a wondrous sight the cave may have been as the early rays of morning sun bathed this very cave two millennia ago, giving life to the paintings on the wall and flowing gently over the Buddha’s saffron robes.
Further uphill is a vantage point from which affords the entire seascape of Arugam Bay and the temple provides a vast and beautiful view from the ocean. Standing near the plundered ruins of two stupas, each over 20 feet in diameter, another larger stupa on the adjacent hill a little inland and a smaller one on the rocky outcropping near the sea one can only wonder at the glorious and welcoming sight the temple may have been to vessels sailing in from the far east. Four stupas of Mani-Naga Pabbatha, standing proud and glistening in white, reflecting the rays of morning sun, serving as a beacon to indicate that they have reached the Isle of Serendipity, the resplendent land.