Cultural Triangle, Sri Lanka - 11 to 14 April 2012


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Published: April 26th 2012
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We arrived at Dambulla where we saw a huge Giant Golden Buddha, recent rains had uprooted a large tree so we had to detour down a side road to visit the site. Although Dambulla is famous for its five cave Temples our guide, Jaywa said he would take us to a less visited similar site called Aluvihare Cave Temples near our hotel. This hotel was much more luxurious than the last and we had a little bungalow to ourselves set in a delightful garden full of birds with wild peacocks in the field nearby - it was good to see these magnificent birds in their natural environment. The hotel also had a lovely pool and we spent some time enjoying the surroundings and chilling........

Not too much rest though as in the afternoon we set off for Sigiriya, sometimes called the 8th Wonder of the World. From a distance it looked like a smaller version of Uluru (Ayres Rock) which we had visited last year. Sigiriya is home to a 5th Century ‘Fortress in the Sky’. It is also known as Lion Rock because of a huge lion that used to stand at the entrance to the fortress. Within its triple-moated defence the huge rock rises almost to a sheer height of 500 feet and I must admit when I first saw it I did not think I would be able to get very far up although my vertigo had greatly improved! The climb up was very exhausting due to the intense heat and we had to stop many time before we encountered a series of rickety staircases nailed into the rock wall.

We continued up a circular staircase, a bit like climbing up a lighthouse and emerged soaked to the skin into a small cave. On the walls were the only known ancient work of Sinhala secular paintings survived in the form of frescoes of life sized damsels looking as though they had just been painted. The colours and clarity were astonishing and you soon forgot that you were literally hanging on the side of a huge rock. Of the original hundreds of paintings only 22 remained. The guard at the site chatted to Jaywa about the issue of a Tsunami warning following a massive earthquake off Indonesia. We were probably in the best place possible - high up on a rock fortress in the middle of the country but were concerned that our family may be worried. We continued along a pathway where a Mirror Wall was built into the cliffside and this was covered in graffiti dating from as early as the 8th Century AD. Jaywa said that this provided linguists with a useful insight into the evolution of the Sinhala language. We climbed more steps and emerged on to a platform where monkeys were playing in the trees amongst the ruins Far below you could make out the ramparts of the lower citadel enclosing a multitude of ruined palaces, water gardens and swimming pools and yet more steps led to the upper citadel between the paws of a once colossal brickwork lion. Jaywa said we could climb to the top if we wanted as the views were stunning but he said he would give it a miss as it was just so hot - so we said we would take his word for it. In any event the views from this platform were pretty good anyway!!!! I think we both lost quite a few pounds that day but it was well worth it.

As we were driving back to our hotel we were really surprised to see an elephant appear out of the forest trying to cross the busy road but the traffic just would not stop. The elephant was leading a small group which waiting behind it at the edge of the road. Jaywa stopped the car but the other traffic kept coming and the elephant finally turned back into the forest. Back at the hotel we emailed family to let them know that we were inland and therefore away from any potential tsunami. Thankfully later on the tsunami warning was lifted but still people have been requested not to venture close to the sea. As mentioned earlier, Sri Lanka was among the worst sufferers of the 2004 tsunami and the housing for some of the displaced is still under construction. Lots of people we have spoken to have horrible stories to tell of family and friends taken in the disaster.
The next morning Jaywa said we could walk down the lane to the Aluvihare Cave Temples he had promised to show us. We walked for a little while passing small houses where the children came out to chat and followed us with huge smiles on their faces, two little girls wanted to come with us but their father said they had to stay at home. We arrived at a small temple to be greeted by a young Buddhist monk as we viewed the inside of the temple. He then produced some keys and opened a door which led into a cave and inside was a huge sleeping Buddha and the whole cave was adorned with paintings and statues, even the cave ceiling was brightly painted the most amazing place we had seen in Sri Lanka. He then told us to follow him to the top of the rocks which the cave below was built into. At the top was a white Stupor just being constructed, a group of local children followed us playing with ‘fire crackers’ on the steps all the way up. The views at the top looked out over the countryside with the magnificent Sigiriya Lion Rock in the distance.
The next day was my birthday and we visited Polonnaruwa Sri Lanka‘s medieval capital which replaced Anuradhapura which we had visited a couple of days ago as the capital still survive after all this time the most impressive of which were the Royal Palace with 10 feet thick walls with carved elephants forming a frieze around the lower walls and with the Royal Bathing Pool originally fed bt the stream which ran through the grounds. A 13th Century Hindu temple of Shiva dating from the period of South India rule. The Quadrangle which encloses the richest collection of ancient building in Sri Lanka including the Vatadage, a circular shrine which was 59 foot in diameter and housed four seated Buddha images. The Moonstone, a distinctive decorative motif that occurs frequently in ancient Sri Lankan Buddhist architecture, basically a semicircular bottom step or door step decorated with a half-lotus flower expanding in rings with carvings of birds, leaves and flowers and the four symbolic beasts, lions, elephants, horses and bulls. Next to the Vatadage was another temple which after all these years still had its roof in place. However the most impressive sight in the Quadrangle was the Gal Potha (Stone Book). A 29 foot stone slab which mimics the palm-leaf books used to record Buddhist text and royal genealogies. How they managed to get this huge slab to its location is baffling though probably similar to how the stones of Stonehenge ‘travelled’ from Wales to Wiltshire!

The sun was really hot that day and Paul was feeling unwell and had to use the ‘local facilities’ as we were too far from any others so he had to make do! Jaywa and I continued to view the Gal Vihara which I did not want to miss, four colossal Buddha images carved from a single granite cliff, two seated, one standing (a massive 23 feet high) and one reclining. Luckily Paul was feeling better and found us wandering around the site which was good as it is one of Polonnaruwa’s most impressive sights. We later stopped for a break at the Polonnaruwa Rest House which has its very own “Queen’s Suite”- built in 1954 to mark the visit of Queen Elizabeth to Sri Lanka.

In the afternoon we were going to visit a national park to hopefully see some wild elephants, however on the way we encountered another three separate incidents of elephants crossing the road in front of us - a lovely birthday present for me. We turned into a local restaurant and Jaywa said that they would make us a meal for when we finished the safari so we ordered a Sri Lanka Curry, one chicken and one egg curry. Our jeep and driver was waiting outside the restaurant and we proceeded into the national park where we paid our fees to enter, Jaywa our guide also came with us. Hurulu Eco-Park is not as big as Minneriya National Park nearby but we were assured that we were have the opportunity to see more wildlife here. On the edge of the vast Hurulu Biosphere Reserve which stretches west of the Habarana/Trincomlee road herds of elephants freely roam the parks crossing between them. Currently there was plenty of water so we were told to expect smaller groups, but when water is short they congregate together following the limited watering holes. We saw four elephants a few minutes after entering the park strolling amongst the long grasses Our driver continued through the park along little tracks only just large enough for the jeep and the going was very bumpy, we had to literally hold on to the bar above our head and duck out of the way of branches and prickly shrubs entering the jeep - quite a few times I thought it would tip over....... However it didn’t and we were so lucky that day as we came across a family group of about nine elephants and further on more and more. In all we saw about fifty that day, even though they are so large with the tall grasses they were really hard to spot. Our expert driver managed to manoeuvre the vehicle as near as he could so we could see and hear them feeding on the grasses, trees and shrubs. We saw a couple of young being led by their mothers a truly lovely experience.

Back at the restaurant the owner had prepared a huge curry for us both which was extremely tasty and was a memorable end to a wonderful day. The owner even let us have a couple of ‘beers’ even though he should not be selling alcohol due to New Year restrictions. During Poya (worship) Days and in particular at New Year people travel all over Sri Lanka to worship at local shrines and visit family and friends. Many shops were closed and no alcohol is sold or served at the Sinhalese and Tamil New Year which takes place over several days - 12/13/14 April. So we experienced two alcohol free days as even the hotels did not serve any and our hotel even removed all the bottles from the bar so as not to ‘tempt you’ I suppose.....

The next day we travelled on to Kandy, the hill capital in the centre of the island and also the last stronghold of the Sinhala Kings which was finally ceded to the British in 1815. Surrounded by cool lush mountain scenery, Kandy was so very different from the coastal areas of the country and we were glad we decided to come into the heart of Sri Lanka as it was so beautiful.

The city itself had many temples, shrines and monasteries, keeping alive Buddhist traditions with ‘The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic’ being the most famous. The Buddha’s Tooth itself is claimed to have come to Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka some 1600 years ago from southern India hidden from bandit hands in a princess’ hair. Since then the Relic has grown in repute and holiness throughout the Buddhist world and is considered Sri Lanka’s most prized possession. Overlooking the lake in the centre of Kandy it is a place of pilgrimage for millions of devout Buddhists from all over the world and whilst we were there the place was ‘alive’ with people bringing offerings even though the rain was falling in torrents. Even Sri Lanka’s presidents traditionally deliver their first speech from the balcony of the impressive building. Inside the decorative wooden halls and the gilt-roofed chamber was the casket which held the tooth. We were lucky enough on the day we visited to also see the library of Ola (palm-leaf) Manuscripts in a pagoda-like moat tower next to the halls.

In the afternoon Jaywa dropped us at the Botanical Gardens and we spent a few hours wandering around these delightful gardens which housed a fine collection of orchids. Close to the banks of the Mahaweli Ganga these gardens were first planted in 1747 and cover 150 acres of trees (covered in fruit bats when we visited), lawns and flowering shrubs. Under British rule, the once royal park became a botanical garden in 1821. Exotic crops such as coffee, tea, nutmeg, rubber and cinchona (quinine) were tested - all of which later became important exports. A giant Java fig takes centre stage on the lawn and whilst we were there it was surrounded by families enjoying the New Year holiday having picnics and playing ‘cricket’. In the centre of the gardens was an artificial lake in the shape of the island of Sri Lanka and whilst taking photographs I was approached by a group of teenagers who wanted me to take their photograph with my camera then wanted to take one of them with me using their camera - see photo!

In the evening we visited a local cultural show featuring various types of cultural dance performers and we had a very enjoyable evening watching some very talented local artists. The evening ended with several dancers walking on fire outside the hall. Ceremonies with priest or pilgrims walking barefoot across a bed of hot coals are part of Buddhist and Tamil festivals. With the lights on the lake of Kandy in the distance even the heavy rain which had just started did not ‘dampen’ the spirit. Tomorrow we are going to visit an elephant orphanage - see you there.

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