The sacred Mihintalava provided shelter to hundreds of Arahants headed by Mahinda Mahathera. Sanctified by the feet of these Arahants Mihintalava, the sacred mountain is situated about eight miles east of Anuradhapura.
The ancient capital of Anuradhapura rose on the banks of the old Kadamba Oya which is today called the Malwatu Oya.
Mihintalava during the reign of King Devanampiyatissa in the third century B.C. was a thick jungle inhabited by wild animals and a hunting ground for the rulers. The area as it was known then was called Missaka, an appropriate name for a beautiful forest mountain.
The site was reached from the city by a road leading from the Kadamba river. King Devanampiyatissa with his retinue climbed this Missakapabbata or forest mountain for deer hunting along this route on foot. The village close to this forest was then called Doramadalagama.
Mihintalava – the area as it is known today owing to its association with Mahinda Mahathera, consists of four mountains, namely:
1. Mihintalava Kanda 2. Atvehera Kanda 3. Anaikutti Kanda and 4. Rajagirilena Kanda
Each mountain is about one thousand feet high and the four mountains together cover an area of about four hundred and fifty acres. The whole area was then called Missakapabbata or Missaka mountain. The stretch of mountains expanding to the east ends in a deep slope.
It is also considered one of the sixteen sacred places of worship (the solosmasthana) in the island and therefore subject to the veneration of the pious. In those days, everybody travelled to Missakapabbata from Anuradhapura on foot. Even the king who went hunting walked up that distance.
The Chronicle tells us how the Mahathera after returning from Anuradhapura to Missakapabbata took a bath on the first day itself. As the Mahavamsa points out the Missakapabbata became known as Cetiyapabbata because the relics brought from India were temporarily deposited on the mountain.
At the beginning this sacred mountain was only a residential area for the Bhikkhus headed by Arahant Mahinda Mahathera. But soon the area was covered with monastic buildings, Stupas, Uposathagharas, Bodhigharas converting it into a sacred place.
Beginning with Kantaka Cetiya and sixty eight cave dwellings in the vicinity Cetiyapabbata very soon became one of the important Centres of Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka. It became second only to the Mahavihara in Anuradhapura.
The Buddhist civilization of the Sinhala people undoubtedly began at Mihintalava. It is no easy task to describe all the historical monuments that came up on the victorious grounds of Mihintalava over the centuries owing to the goodwill and patronage of the Sinhalese kings and with the blessings of the Maha Sangha the great community of Bhikkhus and by the merit of the people.
The difficulty in describing these monuments are two fold. One reason is that most of the original monuments are no more in existence and secondly the non-availability of source material to describe most of them.
Visitors to Mihintalava first encounter the Mihintalava new town associated with the village of Mihintalava or Mihintalagama.
The reservoir close by is the Mihintalava Vava. From the main junction one road leads to Jaffna from Kandy and the other from Anuradhapura to Trincomalee. Near this is situated the bazaar of Mihintalava.
On the Galkulama-Kandy road after a few yards one comes to a narrow road on the left that leads to the foot of the flight of steps leading to the summit of the Sacred Mihintalawa mountain. Pious Buddhist devotees take this difficult route in climbing the sacred mountain. They consider that in this way one can acquire more merit.