The most imposing rock temple in the south of the island is situated on an isolated rock 210m high, rising almost vertically from the surrounding forest. Terraces are found across the sloped southern side of this rock, where cave temples nestle beneath ledges of overhanging rock. The ancient origins of this temple are unclear, but it is learned from Brahmi scriptures carved into the rock that this has been the site of a Buddhist monastery for millennia. The general belief is that Mulgirigalla Vihara was founded around 130 BC and has been a place of tranquillity and sanctity ever since.
The various cave temples contain fine murals of historical importance, which have been created during different periods of Sri Lankan history. In some of the most recent murals, white men in Portuguese and Dutch uniforms can be seen, signifying the advent of the European colonization of Sri Lanka.
However, Mulgirigalla is most famous for the discovery made here by the English colonial administrator George Turnour. In the year 1826, he found some olas (palm-leave manuscripts) in the library of one of its temples. After translating these from Pali to English he found that he had discovered the key to translating one of the ancient Chronicles of Sri Lanka, the “Mahawamsa”. The “Mahawamsa” is one of three ancient Chronicles which together form the uninterrupted historical record of the Buddhist and Dravidian kings of Sri Lanka from 543 BC until the British takeover of Sri Lanka in 1815 AD. The translation enabled scholars to piece together the eventful history of the island.
The climb of this rock begins near the dwellings of the bhikkus (fully ordained Buddhist monks) at the base of the rocks, after which a stone path and flight of steps lead to the first terrace. The inner wall and the entire ceiling of the twin cave temples here are covered in fine murals.
On the next small terrace stands the Madamaluwa Viharaya, where many devotees come to ask for favours at the shrines. It is believed that favours asked at these shrines are invariably granted, making them very popular.
The next and largest terrace is reached after a steep climb, and is the location of four cave temples, the most prominent of which is the Raja Maha Viharaya. Inside is a reclining Buddha statue 15 meters in length and the temple serves both as the library, where Turnour made his historic discovery, and an image house.
The ascent to the next terrace is very steep, and at one place a flight of almost vertical steps must be climbed with the aid of an iron railing. A dagoba and image house stand at the summit which can be reached by another flight of stairs.
The view from the summit is breathtaking and unique; as the rock forms the highest point for many kilometers around, the panoramic view is unrivalled in the south of the island. To the northwest lie the hills of the Sinharaja Forest, directly north the central massif can be seen in the far distance, and to the south there is the coastal plain, beyond which the Indian Ocean stretches over the horizon. Walking around outside the temple wall, one can descend to a beautiful and secluded rock escarpment to take in more of the magnificent views.