Deep inside the Ritigala Strict Nature Reserve, off the Anuradhapura–Habarana road, are the partially restored ruinsof an extensive monastic and cave complex. The ruins lie on a hill, which at 766m isn’t exactly high, but is nevertheless a striking feature in the flat, dry landscape surrounding it. The 24-hectare site is isolated and almost deserted. The site is included in the Cultural Triangle round ticket; otherwise, individual tickets cost Rs 1800/1000 (adult/child).

The true meaning of the name Ritigala remains unclear – gala means ‘rock’ in Sinhala, but riti may come from the Pali arittha, meaning ‘safety’. Thus Ritigala was probably a place of refuge, including for kings, as long ago as the 4th century BC.

Ritigala also has a place in mythology. It’s claimed to be the spot from which Hanuman (the monkey god) leapt to India to tell Rama that he had discovered where Sita was being held by the king of Lanka. Mythology also offers an explanation for the abundance of healing herbs and plants found in Ritigala: it’s said that Hanuman, on his way back to Lanka with healing Himalayan herbs for Rama’s wounded brother, dropped some over Ritigala.

Monks found Ritigala’s caves ideal for an ascetic existence, and more than 70 such caves have been discovered. Royals proved generous patrons, especially King Sena I, who in the 9th century made an endowment of a monastery to the pamsukulika (rag robes) monks.

Ritigala was abandoned following the Chola invasions in the 10th and 11th centuries, after which it lay deserted and largely forgotten until it was rediscovered by British surveyors in the 19th century. It was explored and mapped by HCP Bell in 1893.