The Misskapabbata became Cetiyapabbata because of two reasons. One reason could be the presence of several Stupas on the mountain and the other reason may have been that Cetiyagiri at Ujjeni was the birthplace of Mahinda Mahathera.
In course of time Cetiyapabbata became Mihintalava or Mihintalava because of the association of Thera Mahinda with the mountain. Important events took place during the few days following the arrival of Thera Mahinda to Sri Lanka.
The establishment of the Maha Vihara; the great monastery, the future centre of Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka took placed on the day following Thera Mahinda’s visit to Sri Lanka. The establishment of religious boundaries that included the city and the establishment of the Bhikkhu order are some other important events.
After this the Thera with his retinue returned to Mihintalava where the sixty eight caves were being prepared for occupation. Ever since then, Buddhism in Sri Lanka began to prosper owing to the activities that took place on the mountains of Mihintalava.
The oldest known monuments at Mihintalava are thought to be the caves near the Kantaka Cetiya. As mentioned earlier these were the caves prepared for the missionaries as well as for the first Sinhalese Bhikkhus who entered the order of Sangha.
They were constructed on the orders of King Devanampiyatissa. The number of caves thus built was sixty eight. The Brahmi inscriptions above the drip-ledges of these caves show that they were not only donations of the king himself, but also of members of the Royal family as well.
These inscriptions that belong to the third century B.C. reveal some important facts about early Buddhism in Sri Lanka. They also provide important details about the evolution of the Sinhalese language and its alphabet in the early stages.
These inscriptions also tell us about kings, members of the Royal family and about the provincial rulers. They provide us too information on how the rulers propagated the new teaching in its introductory stages.
It is clear from these inscription that the epithets Gamini – Tisa or Devanampiyatisa refer to the famous Devanampiyatissa, and Gamani Uti to his brother Uttiya. Another inscription refers to a Gamani Tisa. According to Paranavitana Gamini Tisa may be King Saddha Tissa the brother of King Dutugemunu.
King Uttiya, who succeeded his brother Devanampiyatissa (250-210 B.C) followed the footsteps of his elder brother. He made substantial improvements to Cetiyapabbata or Mihintalava.
Besides the donation of caves to the monks he also had the fortune to perform the funeral rites of Mahinda Thera who passed away during his reign. The death of the Thera occurred at Cetiyapabbata and the body was taken with great honour to the capital city of Anuradhapura and cremated there.
A part of the ash and bone relics was deposited at Cetiyapabbata and the King built on it the Mahinda Cetiya. The Mahavamsa described this event as follows: “In the eighth victorious year of the King Uttiya the restrained Thera, being sixty years was observing lent at the Cetiyapabbata and on the eighth day of the bright half of the month of Assayuja passed into Nibbana. Hence is the day named after him.”
The Culavamsa records that Sena (833-853 A.D). assigned to the Cetiya mountain the productive Kanavapi tank. King Sena II (853-887 A.D) is given the credit for building a hospital on the Cetiya mountain.
The inscriptions erected by him at Mihintalava describe the land grants he had made to the Vihara and also some rules governing the management of this establishment. The Mihintalava inscription by Mahinda IV (956-972 A.D) gives details about the management of the monasteries during the period.
This inscription itself is sufficient to show the interest taken by the king to maintain the Cetiyapabbata Vihara. The period that followed immediately after this King was not peaceful at all.
Internal and external political disturbances disrupted the development work of the country and the rulers had no time to devote themselves to the propagation of the Buddhist dispensation but were forced to protect the country from foreign invasion.
It is also relevant to mention here that the Cetiyapabbata Vihara at Mihintalava which was the victorious ground of Theravada Buddhism became a centre for Mahayana activities after about seven centuries from the beginning.
By about the seventh or eighth century it also became an active centre for Tantrism. It can be seen that Mihintalava remained under the influence and guidance of the Bhikkhus of the Abhayagiri Vihara at least till the tenth century.
When the capital was shifted from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa at the beginning of the eleventh century, the interest in Cetiyagiri on the part of the rulers became less. However, after a great and decisive battle fought by Parakramabahu I (1153-1186) the country at last found some peace.
He was then able to concentrate on the agricultural and spiritual life of the people. Thus we find in the Culavamsa that Parakramabahu the Great had sixty four thupas on the Cetiyagiri rebuilt and had restored to the old buildings whatever was decayed or fallen apart.
The story of Cetiyapabbata or Mihintalava does not end here. After almost seven hundred years Mihintalava emerged from wilderness again. This happened about a century ago when the thick jungle began to be cleared.
The credit for the rediscovery of Mihintalava goes to the British archaeologist H. C. P. Bell (1890-1912) who started work at Mihintalava in 1891. He was followed by A. M. Hocart (1922-1927) and the Sri Lankan historian and archaeologist Senarat Paranavitana (1931-1956).
The three scholars mentioned above were responsible for the present glory of Mihintalava. They cleared the jungle and removed the earth that had covered the monuments at Mihintalava for centuries and brought it to its present condition.
The jungle which had enveloped the monuments of Mihintalava during centuries of neglect was being pushed back when our story begins. The majority of the monuments were crumbled heap of brick and stone covered with the dust of centuries. Giant trees grew over the buried monuments.
The impressive flight of steps, which led to the main hill, exposed at the time, was found much disturbed. The jungles of Mihintalava still give shelter to many wild animals.
Inscriptions on the brows of the many caves and elsewhere were being collected eagerly by the department. The biggest job undertaken at Mihintalava during the period was the excavation and conservation of the Pre-Christian Dagaba, Kantaka Cetiya.