The Maha Vihare stands on the highest point of the second ridge, nesting beneath a tawny, towering crag with a peak shaped like the hood of a cobra. Situated underneath this great overhanging rock, the Maha Vihare or "great shrine" is the centrepiece of the temple complex.
It is really a gal vihare, a temple which was carved out of a natural cave. It began as a rocky hollow which was used as a shelter by meditating monks. Over the course of time this natural cave was gradually enlarged and smoothed and a drip line was cut around the rock outside to prevent the rainwater from coming inside. At some stage or the other the interior of the cave was walled in to make it safer and more secure. Gradually the cave began to be used as an image house or pilimage and it was here, right inside that the image of the Buddha was placed. As with many other cave shrines, the Maha Vihare cave was probably converted into a place of worship during the Kandyan period.
Some of the beautiful paintings on the lower side of the rock above the main entrance of the mahaviharaya can be seen in today. Among these paintings, there is a precious painting for the artist who study Sinhala Buddhist art.
In the foreground is the Hewisi mandapa (drumming hall) built by King Kirti Sri Rajasinha. It was in this covered hall that the great dawula drum which accompanied all Sinhala rituals was beaten. To the left of the hewisi mandapa, in the very corner of the Maha Vihare Itself is a small cave, the Naga Guhave or Cobra cave.
Before the worshipper can enter the Vihare itself he has to pass through a final barrier. The great arch of the makara torana or dragon gateway. In Kandyan times, the makara torana guarded the entrance to the image house. Its function was to ward off evil spirits and to instil awe and respect for the inner sanctum. The makara was a fabulous dragon-like monster with the trunk of an elephant, the body of a crocodile and the tail of a fish.
There is an eighteen cubits long reclining statue in the mahaviharaya. The robel pleats of this statue are similar to those in the Kandyan era. Pure idols rests on its head side. A few more statues stand up in mahaviharaya. One example is Ananda thero statues. Biblical stories are represented by the ceramic tiles on the flower seat. This is a great occasion in a Buddhist temple.