Just north of Matale and hardly noticed by tourists as they speed by to the Dambulla cave temples is another of the wonders of Sri Lanka, the extraordinary Alu Vihare Temple.

Set in the hillside it is an oasis of peace and tranquillity with an extra feature – a cautionary message vividly etched, painted and carved on the granite walls and ceilings of the caves. Think, speak, act and do good right now in this life or face the consequences in the future!

Here at Alu Vihare, the caves depict not only the life of the Buddha . . .

. . . but also the afterlife in hell for those who do wrong in this present life!The story of Alu Vihare goes back to the 3rd century BC when King Devanampiyatissa, the king responsible for the take up of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, planted a Bo tree and had a dagaba built here. That’s way back in time!

Monks were already living in quite a number of these caves here and soon a sizable monastry was formed. Before long they were to perform a most important function for the longevity of Sri Lankan Buddhism, the recording of the canons which traditionally had been passed down orally from each generation of monks to the next and committed to memory.The need to have the canons recorded for all time came about because Sri Lanka had become weakened, by not only an ongoing series of wars with invading Indian kings but also a long period of famine. As the monks were dependent on food being offered as alms by the communities they served, the famine meant that the offerings were meagre and often not enough for survival and so their numbers were depleted.

The loss of so very many monks laid open the possibility of the extinction of Buddhism and led to the decision to record the Dhamma [doctrine], thus ensuring its  continuity to this day. Some powerful senior monks then selected Alu Vihare as the place where this work would be done. It is thought that five hundred monks were engaged in this important task. After much reciting, discussion and finally agreement, the doctrines were written on ola [ palm] leaves and formed into books. You can see some examples of these ancient books behind glass in the library at the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy.

Amazingly, these precious books remained safely protected in the temples at Alu Vihare until 1848 when a rebellion against the British garrison at Matale led to a fire which destroyed a large part of the temples. many of these important books were lost and had to be rewritten – this time by only five monks.

Before you leave, visit the museum where you can have your name written on one of these palm strips – a demonstration of how the monks transcribed the Buddhist scriptures.

Poya days bring a crush of the faithful, bringing their offerings, praying and chanting, renewing their efforts to gain merit and achieve a better life next time around. On these days I feel somewhat of an intruder, an unwilling observer of their sincere and devout rituals. Today, however was not a Poya day so I comfortably followed the path between the encompassing rocks, through the granite tunnel to the Bo tree and then to the top of the mountain.

Soaking in the calm, peaceful environment, hell seemed far away.

Good though, to be warned so graphically to keep trying to be a good person, sending loving kindness to all!

[Alu Vihare is just 3 km from Matale town and 61 km from Dambulla. There is an entrance fee or donation. It is possible to park your vehicle at the top of the drive. Respectful clothing – shoulders and knees covered for both women and men and no hats.]