Caves for the residence of Bhikkhus who visited Sri Lanka as well as for Bhikkhus who entered the Buddha Sasana were found on the mountains of Mihintale, east of Anuradhapura. These were built on the advice of Elder Mahinda.
It was on his advice that parks like Mahameghavana and mountain abodes like Cetiyapabbata were donated to the community of Sangha. These simple abodes meant to suit the life of a Bhikkhu. The advice of Mahinda Mahathera was very useful. The caves found near the Kantaka Cetiya at Mihintale are considered to be the earliest examples of Buddhist architecture of Sri Lanka.
In finding abodes for the Bhikkhus, the Architects were also concerned about the environment. They took special care to protect the landscape, the trees, the rocks and the water springs in the vicinity. The first lesson that we learn from Elder Mahinda was to lead a life in harmony with the environment. The caves and abodes found at Mihintale in a rocky forest are good examples in this respect.
Besides caves, comfortable dwellings were among the kind of dwellings avowed by the Buddha for the use of the Bhikkhus. The Prasada, the abode built by the Commander Dighasanda for the use of Elder Mahinda at Anuradhapura, was such an abode. A Prasada, according to Mahavamsa was a building raised high on the ground with a stone railing and well-built walls. The word Prasada is also applicable to the abodes of royalty as well as of the nobility.
This is a refectory of the Parivena, the cells or Kutis. The monastic residences therefore seem to have been quite similar to the architectural designs of the higher classes of the laity. The Ratnaprasada at Anuradhapura is an example. The earlier Bhikkhus who were residing at Mihintale preferred to live in cave abodes rather than in Prasadas. The caves thus prepared for living are architecturally interesting.
The idea of utilising stone for building and making rock abodes for Bhikkhus was similarly introduced from India as part of the Mauryan culture of King Asoka.
The artifical improvements made to the caves were mainly a drip- line cut along the brow. This was to prevent rainwater flowing into the cave. Some caves were provided with an outer wall in front and covered by a lean roof in order to protect it from rain and sun. A window and a door were also fixed to the cave in order to create a simple abode.
When religious activities at Mihintale began to develop, the necessity to provide the Aramas, the monasteries, Sannipatasalas the Assembly Halls, Uposathagharas, the chapter houses, Vedahal, the hospitals, Jantagharas, the bath houses and ponds also became imperative. Such buildings, suitable for a religious life, were abundantly found at Mihintale.
The buildings associated with monastic life are found at the foot of the mountain near the flight of steps and facing the Lion Bath near Kantaka Cetiya. The Assembly Hall at the middle plateau is a simple but charming artistic creation: the seat at the middle of this building is meant for the chief monk of the monastery. The Alms Hall, too, is an important building. It is also architecturally impressive.
The courtyard of this building was used for such activities as cooking, serving food and providing water. Important utensils still seen there are the boat for providing gruel and another for providing rice. The hospital and the Alms Hall had a middle courtyard while the Assembly Hall had no such courtyard but a square building. The main feature of all these buildings was the presence of stone columns to support the roof.
There are several important features of this quadrangular hospital consisting of two sections. It has a central courtyard. This was used for a shrine room and around it were arranged rows of cells on all four sides. This site which faced south was laid out most symmetrically as an oblong, measuring laterally 118 feet 6 inches from west to east by 97 feet 6 inches in depth north and south.
This permitted the quadrated sides on east, west and north being divided up by cross brick walls into a range of seven cells on either hand – the two end rooms double the length of any of the mediate five – and nine cells in the rear. To the front the entrance passage occupied the central position limiting the number of rooms to four on each side of it. The rooms all faced inwards towards the central shrine. Each chamber was ten feet square; the narrow verandah ran all round their inner face.
Many of the basic features of an Ayurvedic Hospital are found in this hospital. The features of this hospital also disclose that treatment was necessary for a patient not only for the body but also for the mind. Thus, mental health care was also a feature of local treatment. This is suggested by the importance given to the shrine room in the Central Courtyard.
Among the ponds, the Naga Pokuna and the Kaludiya Pokuna are worthy of description. The Naga Pokuna is a natural rock basin in an elevated plateau at the foot of a hillock. The Kaludiya Pokuna is designed to look like a natural pond but it is in fact an artificial pool. The Naga Pokuna has followed the shape of the natural rock. It has a beautiful piece of sculpture of the Five-headed Cobra in the low relief on the rock face. The Lion Bath below it was supplied water from the Naga Pokuna.
Health care was one of the main considerations of the architects who designed the Monastic Complex at Mihintale. This is well illustrated by the presence of an irrigational network, hospitals, lavatories and the protection of the natural environment. Archaeological exacavations have brought to light the extent to which ancient Sri Lankans were concerned about hygienic conditions.
Even urine was to be purified through the use of pots before it was allowed to be absorbed into the soil. Sand and charcoal were used for this purpose. This was done also to protect the life of the creatures under the earth, which the disciplinary rules of a monk demanded. So strict was the disciplinary life of a Bhikkhu that even the lavatory stones were decoratated in the hope that this will help the meditating monk to be detached from wordly life.
A very clear and precise example of an Ancient Monastic Complex is found at Kaludiya Pokuna at Mihintale. The buildings erected at different levels by the side of the pool, allowing the natural environment to remain undisturbed, made a perfect abode for the meditating Bhikkhu. This architectural feature should illustrate amply the condition of aramic planning in ancient Sri Lanka.