One of the World’s Oldest Hospitals: Exploring Mihintale

How old is the world’s oldest hospital? When did hospitals first become a concept? And how did the idea of a hospital pass from one nation to another? On a recent visit to Sri Lanka I spent time at Mihintale- reputedly the world’s oldest hospital.

Today lizards laze on the ruined stones of Mihintale Hospital. It’s a peaceful place with only the sound of the birds in the trees as the heat begins to rise. But in 853 AD this area of Mihintale was a busy hospital and possibly the oldest one in the world. It is believed that healing took place in this area long before the hospital was founded.

Mihintale is one of the sixteen sacred sites visited by Buddha in his lifetime. It is also where an Indian monk called Mahinda converted King Devanampiya to Buddhism in the 3rd century. It was highly significant with Mahinda Thale (Mahinda’s Plateau) becoming a place of pilgrimage and giving the name of Mihintale to the current location. Before Mihintale was a place of worship it was a royal hunting ground. It was on one of these hunts that Mahinda encountered Devanampiya and the conversion to Buddhism took place.

The Old Hospital Ruins at Mihintale.

The hospital at Mihintale was built by King Sena II in around 853 AD but healing took place here centuries before. Several of the ancient Sri Lankan kings had knowledge of medicine. How did they acquire this knowledge? Evidence from architectural digs on site has revealed blue glass jars from Persia and even surgical instruments. Spices were a valuable commodity in Sri Lanka and it appears medical knowledge was also traded on the silk routes that traversed Asia. Much of the treatments at Mihintale followed the principles of Ayurveda and the hospital was run by Buddhist monks. However the presence of scientific instruments suggests a lot more occurred here and I’m curious to know what and whether any great scientific discoveries were pioneered from Mihintale.

I’m fascinated by what appears to be a stone sarcophagus near the hospital entrance. Immediately I assumed it was a tomb for a small person but I couldn’t be further from the truth. The hospital was famed for its herbal treatments and the stone object is a bath where patients were immersed in oils and herbs. It is deep, narrow and appears very claustrophobic but featured in treatments here. One of the most common disorders treated in the stone bath was snake bite. Even today, ayurvedic medicine is used to treat some snake bites in parts of Asia.

A Stone bath at Mihintale used for Immersion Therapy and Herbal Treatments.

Stone pillars remain in the hospital ruins. The inner part of the complex was for living. Each day alms were brought to the hospital to be blessed in the inner court. Rice and porridge bowls had been excavated from this part of the hospital. Beds for patients were arranged round the outer courtyard. Cisterns supplied water to the hospital. One of the other treatments delivered here was steam therapy using hot water. There was also a dispensary close to the entrance.

I wandered around the ruins, trying to imagine what it must have been like in the 9th century and the developments that took place here. Is this the oldest hospital in the world? Is there one that is even older than this one?

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