The monastery Varana (or Warana) Rajamaha Viharaya is located in the village of the same name. It is one of the picturesque highlights for travellers in Gampaha District which can be reached within an hour from Colombo or from Negombo, located only 5 km away from the A1 main road to Kandy. Though almost unknown to tourists, Varana has a very good reputation among Buddhists. It is well known for study and mediation classes, many monks from all parts of Sri Lanka participate frequently. Considering the number of monks living here, Varana is the largest forest monastery in the western part of the island.
Presumably, the Varana Royal Temple was already inhabited by monks in the very early Buddhist period of Sinhalese history, namely in the 3rd century BC. Varana is one of the rock temples associated with the King Walagamba (Vattagamani) in the late 2nd century BC, who had to hide in caves during his exile, when foreign invaders controlled the capital Anuradhapura.
There are inscriptions recording "This is donated to Tissa Dhatta Thero, the brother of Majjhima Thero". Though tradition has it, that Tissa Dhatta Thero is a student of Mahinda Thero, it is uncommon (and unlikely) that early inscriptions (from the pre-Christian centuries) mention names of monks. In that earliest period inscriptions usually only record donations to the Sangha (Buddhist order) as a whole. But there can be no doubt, that Varana was a forest monastery already in the Anuradhapura time. Later on, Polonnaruwa King Nissanka Malla contributed to the development of this temple on one of his inspection journeys.
The temple compound is a lovely small hill. Caves exist on three levels. The first level, where the monks live today, is the Sangawasayam with a modern preaching hall (Dharma Salaya). The second level called Varana Meda Maluwa (“middle level”) has a dagoba from the Polonnaruwa period and the largest caves. The cave shrines (called image houses, too) are decorated with many Buddha statues and typical flower paintings in the late Kandyan style. Another Dagoba and another painted cave temple can be seen on the top level. Besides decorated caves, there are unpretentious rock shelters, too, some of them remained natural, some of them are monks’ cells. Altogether you will have to climb 200 steps to the top. But it’s worth it, not only for those best examples of typical Sinhalese cave temples in the Western Province, the scenery and the view are very delightful, too.
Increased touristic visitor traffic would be disturbing this tranquil place. Varana is a scenic rock temple perfectly suitable for meditation. But because foreign visitors are rarely seen here so far, they are still welcome. Of course, quiet and respectful behaviour is every guest’s duty. Before climbing the rocky hill, please ask a monk or some staff member for advice on where to go and how to behave. First ask him politely, if he speaks English, many monks don’t. For contacting monks or helpers, it’s really better to travel with a local friend or guide, who can start conversation in Sinhalese. But don’t worry, you will find someone who understands you. If his impression is you are interested in learning more about the monastery and try to be cautious and not disturbing, you can have good luck and he will bring the key for opening the caves. You should not try to enter them alone.
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