Homes of Elephants and Kings

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March 22nd 2012
Published: March 23rd 2012
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We had been slightly at a loss as to what we were going to do whilst in Kandy, mainly because there were quite a few things in the area that we wanted to see and very little time, so we had to be selective. After much deliberation and changing of minds we decided that our destinations would be the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage, Sigiriya Rock and Dambulla Cave Temples: we hoped we had made the right decision.

We were not going to splash out on a guide and driver to the elephant orphanage and instead opted for a local bus. The guesthouse owner advised us to get an intercity bus towards Columbo, as it would be less congested and more comfy, get off at Udamulla and then catch a tuk-tuk or hop on a local bus to Pinnewala. So we took her advice and, after eventually locating the intercity bus which confused us by not leaving from the same part of the bus station as all the other buses, we eventually negotiated our way to the orphanage for a fraction of the cost of hiring a car and driver, albeit slightly more long-winded. Although, after a hot and humid day, sitting on plastic seats on the bus on the way back reinforced my desire to hire a car for the following day, which would be a much longer journey.

Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage was originally set up in 1975 to look after 5 orphaned baby elephants, but has dramatically expanded now and houses more than 80 of all ages. The numbers include orphaned and abandoned elephants and some who have been injured in the wild, one of the saddest to see is the three-legged Sama who lost a leg from a landmine. One shame is that this information came from the guide book not the orphanage.

We had the feeding times and the bathing times, so co-ordinated our visit to arrive at the most exciting events of the day. Not sure what to expect we arrived thinking it might be something like Lek’s Elephant Nature Park in Northern Thailand, but we were wrong. The first thing we noticed, well you couldn’t help but notice really, was that we were walking amongst elephants just ambling around doing what elephants like to do (which is eat mainly). An absolutely brilliant, exciting and slightly nerve wracking experience,
Almost made itAlmost made itAlmost made it

to the top
just freely wandering amongst these huge animals who could crush you with a single blow. Lucky for us they were either very contented and well fed, or scared of their mahouts who carried long poles with spikes on the end! “Come here photo, photo” we were greeted with by the eager mahouts so naively we allowed ourselves to be dragged up to stand next to a large specimen for a photo, after which we were encouraged to donate 5 dollars for the privilege. They wanted 5 dollars each, but Chris stood his ground and told them they would have to share. Well we wouldn’t fall for that again and during the rest of our stay we took our own photos, no matter how much they cajoled us; we certainly couldn’t afford it at that rate and looking at the number of tourists there they were definitely on a very good hourly rate.

Mingling over and done with we were herded over the main road and down a narrow road lined with souvenir shops and eager shopkeepers to the river – bath time. Not ours thankfully. When we were all in position the main attraction began with the
Trunk twistingTrunk twistingTrunk twisting

competition between two youngsters
elephants being herded, in much the same way as us, down the narrow road and into the river. What a sight to see, this confined space lined with shops, crowded with jostling elephants of all sizes: all behaving very well and very orderly. Bath time was a relatively tame affair, no splashing around, and it was difficult to see if they were actually having any fun at all, but it was definitely a good time for the mahouts to make some extra cash as they encouraged tourists down to the river’s edge to get some photos taken. Oh we weren’t falling for that old chestnut again, so we happily stood at an excellent viewpoint mesmerised by what we were seeing. Although, on the surface, the experience wasn’t full of splashing trumpeting thrills what was wonderful to observe was how they immediately split into friendship groups and the interactions between group members who obviously used the time to strengthen bonds. Some small groups were happy to just stand quietly, gently touching each other with their trunks, reassuring each other and being happy in each other’s company. Some of the younger ones used it as a time to test each other’s strength

He would have made it if only he went a bit faster!
with trunk twisting competitions. One particular group just wandered around and every now and then tried to make a break for freedom, when I say break it wasn’t a serious escape attempt as it was more of an amble to freedom. Other young ones tried their climbing skills, which were remarkably good actually, and some were just plain naughty. Every time I see elephants I am astounded by their different characters and behaviour: from gentle and caring to just plain naughty. I could have stood watching them for hours upon hours but the heat made it necessary to go and get something to drink before we collapsed.

After bath time was over we decided to go back into the park to have a look at some of the other things there and came across a couple of injured elephants who obviously were unable to make it down to the river with the others. One was the poor three-legged Sama, who had not only lost its foot, but was also quite deformed, maybe from having to walk on three legs. Absolutely heart breaking to see any noble animal injured in this cruel way, but we hoped the orphanage was a final safe haven. We decided not to hang around for feeding time, mainly because we couldn’t afford it at the rates the mahouts were charging.

Being able to witness the social interactions of these gentle giants is always a privilege, but we felt it fell short of the genuine caring environment created by Lek, at the Elephant Nature Park, in a number of ways. There was the constant pressure from the mahouts to pay for photos which did give the impression it was all about the money and the welfare of the elephants was secondary. There was no information about the elephants themselves, whereas Lek treats all her elephants as individuals. There was also no attempt to educate visitors about what is happening to the elephants’ natural habitat and how wild elephants are domesticated, which is the prime reason Lek started her sanctuary in an attempt to change attitudes and care for those who had suffered abuse at the hands of humans. All we could hope was that the high entrance fee was used to pay for the elephants to be treated with kindness and respect in their safe haven and not line the
Just hold it there a minuteJust hold it there a minuteJust hold it there a minute

while I stamp on your head.
pockets of some official and that the mahouts were not driven solely by money.

That evening we once more tried to find a local eatery so we could sample some of the famous Sri Lankan fare we had heard so much about – failed again.

Bright and early the following day, our driver (well it wasn’t actually the one we booked but his friend!) turned up to take us to Sigiriya Rock and Dambulla CaveTemples. As Asian drivers go he wasn’t too bad, only relatively scared for my life part of the way so that was a definite improvement. Our first destination was the imposing Sigiriya Rock, which we had been advised should be visited either early in the morning or later in the afternoon when it is cooler. And when you see its size and the number of steps you have to climb visiting it at the cooler times of the day seems very sensible indeed. Rough guide also has a slight warning for anyone suffering from vertigo and I would agree with that, as the last thing you want is to have a panic and be stuck halfway up (or down) which would be truly scary.

Sigiriya, also known as “Lion Rock” sits on top of a huge plug of gneiss rock which towers 200m above the dry flat terrain. The citadel of Sigiriya may well be the shortest-lived of Sri Lanka’s medieval capitals but I can’t imagine it could be beaten for location. Originally it was used as a place of religious retreat as far back as the third century BC by Buddhist monks, but in the fifth century AD it underwent a change of use: combining pleasure palace and impregnable fortress for Kassapa. After the reign of Dhatusena a dispute broke out between his two sons, Mogallana and Kassapa (the son from a lesser consort), about who should rule. When Mogallana was declared heir Kassapa drove him into exile in India and imprisoned their father, who he later had walled up and left to die. Kassapa knew his brother would return for the throne so he had Sigiriya built in, so the story goes, just 7 years. In the year 491 Mogallana returned and, to cut a long story short, Kessapa killed himself to stop from being captured. Sigiriya was once more returned to the Buddhist monks
The final stepsThe final stepsThe final steps

not for those who suffer vertigo
and what had become a place of pleasure was returned once more to a place of religious peace and solitude.

As the rock came into view, from quite a distance away, it looked very imposing jutting out from the flat surrounding landscape. After getting tickets and eventually convincing a guide we didn’t want his help we made our way through the water gardens, then the boulder gardens and the terrace gardens to the main attraction the climb up the rock itself. From the bottom of the rock it looks a hell of a climb, but actually it is not too taxing, but there are sections of it where you are climbing up steel steps bolted onto the side of the rock with only a railing to hold on to, so be warned if you are terrified of heights. The first stage up the rock takes you up mesh enclosed spiral steel steps to the Sigiriya Damsels and the Mirror Wall. The Damsels are in fact the only non-religious frescoes to have survived from ancient Sri Lanka, and lovely they are too. It was thought that originally these frescoes would have covered an area of 140 metres long by 40 metres high, although now only 21 of the busty beauties survive out of a possible 500 and only a few are on show to the public. Originally thought to be portraits of Kassapa’s consorts (obvious now why it was known as a pleasure palace) it is now thought that they actually represent apsaras (celestial nymphs). If you look carefully you can see a couple of errors made on the portraits, one of the damsels has 6 fingers while another has 3 nipples. One of the tour guides was explaining to his group that the portraits represent buxom ladies of a certain age, which were considered of great beauty by the ancients: glad to see those ancients had good taste in women!

Up another set of steps and we arrived at the Lion Platform and what catches your eye here are the two large paws that flank the final staircase to the summit. They are all that remain of the giant Lion Statue, a symbol of Sinhalese royalty, where the final steps used to lead into the lion’s mouth. What a sight that must have been, one to put fear and dread into the hearts of
Lion feetLion feetLion feet

All that's left of the huge lion statue
Kassapa’s enemies. There were some strange net refuges on the platform which are apparently there in case of hornet attacks, and their nests can be seen clinging to the side of the rock. Apparently a few years ago a large number of tourists had to be helicoptered off the rock after being attacked by the nasty little blighters. All we could hope for was that the party of boisterous school children didn’t disturb them too much.

After this stage the last push to the summit is reasonably short, but the most terrifying of all if you are afraid of heights, which apparently Kassapa was (which explains why you would build a palace on top of a huge scary rock). In Kassapa’s day the final steps were enclosed by a high wall, to save him from puking probably, but no such luck today as the steel steps are basically bolted onto the rock with a handrail to hold on to. One set for going up and another for going down with an uninterrupted view of the plains below. Breathtaking and nerve racking all at the same time.

The summit contains the remains of the palace, which is not much but foundations, but gives a really good idea of what the site would have been like. The views are truly magnificent, but maybe not for a king with vertigo. Hopefully his lady friends in his pleasure palace didn’t give him much time to think about how high the summit was! The 360 degree views were well worth the climb up and the thought of the climb down again. The whole summit would have been covered with buildings of various sizes and there is even a tank cut out of solid rock which apparently had water channelled into it via a hydraulic system powered by windmills – ingenious when you think how long ago it was constructed. We were pleased that we had made it to the summit relatively early, because for a short while there were few people there and it enabled us to enjoy the views and the sheer brilliance of what had been achieved without the crowds.

The way down was actually scarier than coming up because you had to look down at the sheer drop below you and made slightly worse by hoards of schoolchildren coming up the steps and fooling around. On the way down we managed to get a look at some of the other areas of interest which made up the complex , such as the Cobra Hood Cave, a swimming pool and a cave containing evidence of some ancient graffiti. You have to be careful though, because the very helpful guys who look after the site will try to show you stuff in order to get a tip. We had to be very firm to get them to go away.

Sigiriya is an astounding man-made achievement when you consider when it was built, but it is almost impossible to comprehend the ingenuity and sheer hard work that was necessary to create a king’s palace atop what is, essentially, a huge plug of rock. And because of its location it is more than just an ancient palace: it is a man-made wonder on top of a natural wonder. We were so glad we had chosen to visit and would recommend it to anyone.

After the first excitement of the morning, and as it became hotter, we headed off to our next destination Dambulla and the famous Buddhist cave temples. The five magical caves are cut out of an enormous granite outcrop, some 160 metres above the countryside, which meant another climb up some steps. The temples date back 2100 years when Vattgamini lost his thrown to Tamil invaders and sought refuge in the caves. After he reclaimed his thrown he had temples constructed to show his gratitude for the safe hiding place the caves had provided. Originally the space was one huge overhang, but partition walls were built to create the individual caves that now house the temples. The temples have been added to and embellished throughout the years and the result is 5 temples of different sizes containing religious murals and statues. The beautiful and elegant 14 metre long reclining Buddha in Cave 1 was actually carved out of solid rock which, when you consider the tools they had at their disposal, is testament to the skill and artistry of the craftsmen. The only down side to visiting these caves was that we had to take off our shoes before we could enter the site and the rocks were flippin hot by that time! So all that culture packed into one action-packed morning and we both agreed they were definitely worth the trip.

Just like India, the government in Sri Lanka has decided that all tourists are an easy mark, so whether it is a temple or a National Park you get stung for something like 100-200 times the admission price of a local. We wonder if that would work at the tower of London? Not really a great way to treat people who have decided to spend time and money in your country. As a consequence we have had to pick and choose quite carefully what we want to see, but we both agree that Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage, Sigiriya Rock and Dambulla Cave Temples should be top choices on everyone’ s list.

Additional photos below
Photos: 25, Displayed: 25


Dambulla Cave TemplesDambulla Cave Temples
Dambulla Cave Temples

Nice simple entrance

23rd March 2012

Through other's eyes
Thank you so much for your blog especially this part which has just opened my mind and flooded it with the memories of one of the best holidays I have ever had. I seriously think I could live in Sri Lanka I loved the country so much. Try and eat bread fruit curry whilst you are there, it's delicious. Looking forward to your next installment. Jax xx

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