Govinda Hela (Westminster Abbey)
Looking at the 500-meter tall Govinda Hela (Westminster Abbey) rock mountain from a distance, one may need to whip up some courage to walk along hilly forest paths. But once you reach the summit, the weariness evaporates when the eyes behold the spreading vista below at 360 degrees, dotted with tanks, lakes, hills, and lush greenery.
Govinda Hela, also known as Westminster Abbey, is a remarkable natural sanctuary located in Siyambalanduwa, on the border of the Ampara District in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka. This majestic rock formation holds both historical and archaeological significance. It offers visitors an opportunity to immerse themselves in the beauty of nature while exploring its intriguing features and legends.
The Trek to Govinda Hela
The trek to Govinda Hela begins at the Sri Buvaneka Vihara, nestled at the foot of the massive rock. The dry months of the year, particularly July and August, are ideal for exploring the area. The forest surrounding Govinda Hela is protected and home to many ebony trees. As you traverse the forest paths, you will encounter rocks of various sizes, deep caverns, and trees adorned with vines and thick scrub.
It is essential to wear sturdy trekking shoes to navigate the treacherous terrain, which may be covered with a carpet of dry leaves. The path becomes more challenging after half a kilometre, requiring careful negotiation of steep rocks and high slopes. While the journey can be arduous and losing one's way in the jungle is possible, following tell-tale signs of trampled leaves can help you find your way back on track.
Exploring the Summit
At the summit of Govinda Hela, you will find the remains of Adipada Bhuvanekabahu's fortress, where he once fortified himself and resisted Magha's invasion. The area also boasts several ancient reservoirs, including stone ponds and dams constructed to collect rainwater. In addition, the summit holds archaeological importance, with deep holes, ancient pillars, a sandakada pahana (moonstone), and remnants of a palace.
One remarkable feature at the summit is the hulang kapolla (Air hole), a space between two rocks through which a gushing wind blows, creating a distinct "ho, ho" sound. The power of the wind is evident as it swirls leaves in a frenzied dance. After taking in the breathtaking views, visitors can relax and enjoy the tranquillity before beginning the descent.
Legends and British Influence
The name "Westminster Abbey" was given to Govinda Hela by the British colonial rulers due to its resemblance to the famous landmark in London. The rock has been associated with various legends and stories, further enhancing its allure. During the British era, the rock was referred to as "Westminster Abbey Catholic Church," highlighting its significance as a historical monument.
Camping and Sunrise
On reaching the top of Govinda Hela, you will find a Buddha's hut and a large plain behind it. Visitors are encouraged to camp here, enjoying the mesmerizing sunrise from the east and the scenic view overlooking the coastline from Ampara to Arugambay. The summit offers a serene environment and an opportunity to connect with nature.
The history of Govinda Hela dates back to the reign of King Buwanekabahu. Temples were constructed in the vicinity, and remnants and archaeological evidence associated with the Sri Buwanekabahu Purana Rajamaha Viharaya still exist today, bearing witness to its historical importance.
Special Notes and Conservation
Govinda Hela has served as a haven from enemies since ancient times. Its significance extends beyond natural beauty, making it an important archaeological site. Visitors are encouraged to understand and appreciate the value of this place and contribute to its preservation for future generations.
Access and Directions
Access to Govinda Hela is through the Sri Buvaneka Vihara temple, where visitors need to obtain permission and purchase tickets for a small fee. If you travel from Colombo, the recommended route is taking a Colombo-Ampara bus to Siyambalanduwa, approximately 1 hour and 48 kilometres from Monaragala. You can spot the majestic Govinda Hela on the right side from there. Then, following the footpath through the forest, which starts behind the ancient Sri Buwanekabhahu Rajamaha Viharaya, will lead you to the summit.