There are many interior Sri Lankan towns that have mysterious mountains and towering rocks as backdrops, and Kurunegala is one of them. Thanks to its picturesque setting with eight peaks, most especially the famed Elephant Rock, Kurunegala has much that makes it remarkable. Once an ancient capital, it also has a history worth becoming acquainted with.
Kurunegala was a royal capital for only 50 years, from the end of the 13th century to the start of the next, though even before this it was strategically placed in the middle of other majestic strongholds such as Yapahuwa to the north, Dambadeniya to the south and Panduwasnuwara in the east.
King Bhuvanekabahu II, who reigned from 1293 to 1302, and his successor Parakramabahu IV, who reigned until 1326, were but two monarchs who took Kurunegala as their capital. The famous tooth relic was housed here after it was returned by the Pandyan kings of southern India, who had captured it during a previous incursion, before it was moved for safety to Polonnaruwa. There is little left to see of where the ancient relic was housed except for a doorway and some stone steps.
Kurunegala, now the capital of the North-Western Province of Wayamba, is described as a crossroads town because it is located at the junction of routes from Kandy to Puttalam and from Colombo to Anuradhapura. However, though this does make the town a good base for exploring many important ancient landmarks a short distance away, it deserves to be recognized for more than its convenience.
The town itself is a busy commercial hub surrounded by rubber estates and coconut plantations. It enjoys a beautiful position, situated beside an ornamental lake that stretches a considerable distance. There are some noticeable large rocks that encircle and dominate the town. They are very visible as you arrive in Kurunegala. Little wonder that the town is always hot, for these rocks increase and retain the heat of the day. The largest is the dark rock, Etagala or “Elephant Rock” (though the translation is actually “tusker”), which at 325m is virtually unmistakable and in any case has a sitting Buddha statue perched on its summit.
Kurunegala’s rocks, eight in number, rise from the plain below. All have characteristic names, six of which come from the animals that they are imagined to represent. They are the Elephant, as mentioned before, Beetle, Eel, Goat, Tortoise and Crocodile. Legend has it that during a drought these six animals were magically transformed into rock since the residents feared they were threatening the town’s precious water supply. It is up to you and your imagination to decide whether the rocks live up to their names!
There are two more rocks that stand loftily over the extended Kurunegala area, one with its own legend. This is the towering Yakdessa or “She-Demon Rock”, so-named because a princess named Kuveni of the Yakka (demon) tribe, having been forsaken by her husband, climbed the rock to cry out her woes. It is apparently cursed! The eighth rock is simply, though not imaginatively, named Gonigala or “Sack Rock”.
It is Etagala or Elephant Rock, however, that overshadows the town and can be climbed either by foot (rewarding) or reached by transport (Rs200 by tuk tuk for a return trip plus waiting time). From the top are breathtaking views over the town of Kurunegala, over the crescent-shaped lake, across to the other rocks, and beyond to paddy fields and coconut plantations.
Not even two-years-old, the magnificent seated Buddha watches over the landscape. You can go upstairs inside the base of the statue to see a small, encased representation of the Buddha and appreciate the small number of artefacts enclosed within. A very popular place, it is nice to appreciate it at sunset when the sun descends directly behind the town and when the air is a little cooler. If you are walking down the steep steps carved into the sheer rock you must be careful, as they are uneven and only suitable for those with a good fitness level and balance!
Ibbagala or “Tortoise Rock”, on the eastern side of Elephant Rock, can also be climbed to reach a small temple situated under an overhanging rock. Here you can see a tiny replica of Adam’s footprint that is found on the summit of Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak). There is also a little dagoba and some paintings depicting the Buddha and his disciples.
The other rocks give beautiful views over the surrounding area. One that forms the bare backbone of the lake also has a small dagoba on its much lower summit that gives a nice view over the lake. It makes for a peaceful evening or morning stroll where you can see many birds and butterflies.