Girihadu Seya: Oldest Buddhist Temple In Sri Lanka

Up in the northeastern corner of Sri Lanka lies an amazing place named Trincomalee but often referred to as heaven. The beaches are pristine, the scenery is like something out of a movie, the temples are breathtaking, the food is delicious and the people are friendly. And it is the home of Girihadu Seya

This is the place which impressed me most.  

Girihadu Seya in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka is the oldest Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka

The oldest Buddhist temple in all of Sri Lanka — and one of the oldest in the world — is Girihadu Seya, which translates as “the stupa on top of the rocks.” This stupa was built 2,500 years ago, back in the 5th century BC when Lord Buddha was still alive, and the story behind it is a fascinating one.

Girihadu Seya panoramic in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka

After Lord Buddha achieved enlightenment he spent seven weeks just meditating, nothing else, not even eating. On the eighth week two merchants — brothers Thapassu and Balluka — were passing by when their 500 carts got stuck in the mud. While they stopped to fix this situation they noticed Lord Buddha.

Flags at Girihadu Seya in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka

Seeing that Buddha needed to eat they offered him some rice and honey. With no possessions and nothing to give them as a show of thanks, Lord Buddha gave them a lock of his hair.

Buddha statues at Girihadu Seya in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka

The brothers took that hair to Sri Lanka where they eventually ended up in Trincomalee. However when they tried to depart the hair had become too heavy to move. They were told that the hair would remain there for 5,000 years and as such decided to build a stupa over it, to protect and enshrine this valuable artifact.

Girihadu Seya in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka

As time went on the site became a holy site and five kings who reigned over the region all added to the stupa, making it more and more grand. But during the 11th century Raja Raja Chola I invaded Sri Lanka and the temple was eventually lost.

Girihadu Seya in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka

It was not until 1929 that Girihadu Seya was re-discovered.

After being cleared of the 900 years of overgrowth that had hidden the temple, the first monk arrived in 1950 and built a new house of worship there. However in 1985 the Tamil Tigers captured the region and destroyed the monk’s house.

As the story goes, the Tamil Tigers also tried to destroy the temple but were unable to because it was still being protected by Lord Buddha.

House of worship at Girihadu Seya in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka

Now that the war is finally over a new monk has returned to once again preside over the house of worship. My friend Marysia and I had the honor of providing him with his food on the day we visited. (It happened in a rush and all I could manage was a couple quick phone photos, sorry.)

Giving the monk at Girihadu Seya his daily meal


Preparing food for Lord Buddha at Girihadu Seya in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka

After preparing a portion of the food for Lord Buddha we went with the monk into the house of worship for morning prayers and daily offering.

Morning prayers at Girihadu Seya in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka

After morning prayers we left the monk to eat his daily meal in peace while we ascended several hundred stairs up to Girihadu Seya. Along the way we passed a couple of caves hidden among the trees of the hillside.

Cave nestled in the hillside of Girihadu Seya
View from the top of Girihadu Seya in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka
View from the top of Girihadu Seya in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka

So if you should find yourself in Trincomalee then do not to miss out on Girihadu Seya. It is best to arrive no later than 11am or noon and I highly recommend bringing a complete meal to provide food for the monk and make an offering to Lord Buddha.

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About Derek Freal

"Some people eat, others try therapy. I travel."   Cultural enthusiast. Adrenaline junkie. Eater of strange foods. Chasing unique and offbeat adventures around the world since 2008. Derek loves going to new destinations where he does not speak a word of the local language and must communicate with hand gestures, or places where he is forced to squat awkwardly to poo -- supposedly its healthier and more efficient. For more information (about Derek, not squat pooing) including popular posts and videos, check out his bio.

11 thoughts on “Girihadu Seya: Oldest Buddhist Temple In Sri Lanka”

  1. What a wonderful story and how priveleged you must feel. I would love to visit this sacred place and do as you have done.A fascinating shrine, Photo’s are great love the tree cave?

    Reply
    • It was a very fascinating place and one that I feel is overlooked by many visitors to the region who only come for the beaches and resorts….but that only made it a more rewarding experience. The tree caves were intriguing as well, there were several along the stairs up to the temple. The reasoning behind the tree branches is because (according to local beliefs) they help prop up the cave and prevent it from collapsing.

      Reply
    • Let me know when you start to plan your trip and I’ll point out some other amazing places you should visit. I spent a month in Sri Lanka, transversed it up, down and all around, even got special permission from the military to visit the forbidden (to foreigners) provinces up north. Absolutely amazing country. I only left 48hrs but am already planning my second trip back.

      Reply
  2. Quite an interesting story.
    The cave, the stairs, the surrounding environment is quite beautiful and seems so peaceful.
    If someone visit this place, i think they would find a moment of peace here in Girihada Seya, one of the oldest buddhist temple in Srilanka.

    Reply
  3. I think Girihadu Seya Buddhist temple was constructed after the missionaries were sent by Emperor Ashoka in order to spread the knowledge and wisdom of Buddhism.

    Reply
  4. Regarding bringing a meal: 1) Theravadin Buddhist monks do not eat after noon. 2) Check with the monk first – He may already have dana (lit. generosity, or in this case, lunch, the main meal) for the day. Generally monks keep a schedule in advance where laypeople have committed to bringing them food for a particular meal (breakfast or lunch) on a particular day. Monks do not store food and can only accept food for a meal once – so any food you brought without checking in advance would likely go to waste.

    Reply
    • Tharpa, THANK YOU SO MUCH for that detailed information. Yes, our local host had spoken with the monk beforehand and arranged everything. And yes, we did arrive before noon….around 11am or so if not mistaken, and the entire blessing ceremony took at most 30 minutes before the monk was able to eat for himself. Anyway, appreciate the extra information and hope that my readers will keep your words in mind. Cheers 🙂

      Reply
  5. This was indeed a fascinating story. I am not certain that the Tamil Tigers tried to destroy it as you say it only propagates racism. We should do everything spiritually to stop racism in that beautiful country. I hope to visit Trincomalee one day and visit this lovely place you shared and pay my respects to this place. You are so fortunate to have done this.

    Reply
    • My apologies if it came across that way, I was merely reciting the details as we learned from the locals while there. On a more positive note, shortly after publishing this post Jaffna and the northern part of Sri Lanka finally re-opened to foreign tourists — without requiring special permission from the Sri Lankan government in advance, as I had to do. When I first visited Trincomalee was still overlooked by the majority of tourists due to its proximity to the off-limits northern region. Located 20+ km from Trinco town center, remote sites like this are especially neglected and in need of repair.

      While I cannot vouch for the authenticity of past drama and stories , I can vouch for the military guards. Clearly Girihadu Seya is obviously an important destination. As such, hopefully the increasing number of tourists to the north will lead to this place getting a proper restoration 🤞 Hope that you can the chance to visit!

      Reply

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