Set in a chasm in the hills, surrounded by giant boulders, this monastery is an intriguing site. There's a unique series of monastic caves, some spectacular religious paintings and a stupa or two. It's easily accessible (just off the road, 3km north of Matale).
Legend has it that a giant used three of the rocks as a base for his cooking pot, and the name Aluvihara (Ash Monastery) refers to the ashes from the cooking fire.
Reclining Buddha Cave
The first cave you come to contains a 10m reclining Buddha and impressive lotus-pattern murals on the ceiling. Another is filled with cartoon-like murals of the realms of hell – if you’re considering straying from the straight and narrow, you may think twice after seeing the statues of devils meting out an inventive range of punishments to sinners in the afterlife. One scene shows a sexual sinner with his skull cut open and his brains being ladled out by two demons.
Up a flight of rock steps is a cave dedicated to Buddhaghosa, the Indian scholar who is supposed to have spent several years here while working on the Tipitaka. Although histories affirm that Buddhaghosa lived in Anuradhapura in the 6th century AD, there’s no clear evidence he stayed at Aluvihara. Nonetheless the cave walls are painted with scenes showing Buddhaghosa working on ola (palm-leaf) manuscripts.
Stairs continue to the summit of the rock bluff, where you’ll find a dagoba and sweeping views of the surrounding valley. To the west, atop a rocky outcrop 150m above the monastery, is a seated golden Buddha offering protection and blessings with an abhaya (palm facing-outward) gesture.
The Tipitaka was first transcribed from oral and Sinhalese sources into Pali text by a council of monks held at Aluvihara in the 1st century BC. Two thousand years later, in 1848, the monks’ library was destroyed by British troops putting down a revolt. The long process of replacing the ola manuscripts still occupies monks, scribes and craftspeople today. You can see their workshop (a donation includes having your name inscribed on a small length of ola ).
A three-wheeler from Matale to Aluvihara will cost about Rs 500 return, including waiting time; the bus fare is Rs 10.