Travels round the Island
01.02.2014 - 15.02.2014
Negombo to Anuradhapura
Our first night was in Negombo, which is a small coastal town with colourful fishing boats and palm fringe on its beach. The next morning we set off and stopped at the bustling fish market with its laden wicker baskets and fish laid out to dry. About an hour on we stopped to see toddy tapping. Toddy is tapped from coconut flowers and fermented to become arak. The tappers climb up the trees and move athletically between each tree through a system of ropes, with knives and gourd-like containers strapped to their waists. Just north of Chilaw we visited the Hindu Munnesvaram Temple with its colourful statuary.
We continued to Wilpatu National Park which is Sri Lanka’s largest. It has numerous lakes and we spent several hours on safari, seeing a multitude of wildlife. These included spotted deer, crested serpent eagle, peacock, woolly-necked stork, blue-tailed bee-eater, turtle, Asian open-bill, crocodile, changeable hawk eagle, white-bellied sea eagle, Asian paradise flycatcher, mongoose and grey-headed fish eagle. However the highlight of the visit was a sighting of the rare sloth bears, which have been described as ‘engagingly shaggy, shambling’ animals!
We then drove to Anuradhapura which was founded around 377 BC and rose to prominence in 246 BC with the king’s conversion to Buddhism, becoming the island’s temporal and spiritual centre. It covered many kilometres and contained dozens of magnificent monasteries and stupas. There were also hospitals, travellers’ hostels, artificial tanks and the Sacred Bo Tree. In 993 AD it was laid waste by King Rajaraja and Chola invaders from India, to be ‘found’ by the British in the 1830s. We visited the old city’s monuments and remains, starting at the Mahavihara Monastery (the oldest one). This has the Sacred Bo Tree (Sri Maha Bodi), which was surrounded by pilgrims making offerings and prayers. Legend says it was grown from a cutting from the original bo tree in India 2000 years ago. It is at the centre of a raised enclosure amongst other bo trees and prayer flags. Passing grey langur and toque macaque monkeys, we came to the great white Ruvanvalisaya stupa, where we found a procession of monks, musicians and pilgrims. The stupa has a frieze of elephant heads around the sides of its terrace. On the terrace was an unremarkable-looking and weather-worn stone slab with nine square holes in it - a receptacle for offerings.
The 8th/9th century Abhayagiri Monastery was an artistic and philosophical centre and the largest, most influential monastery in the country. Past the white Lankarama stupa we came to Mahasen’s Palace, which is an image house; image houses contain images of the Buddha plus other statues and paintings. This one has a fine moonstone and steps with squatting dwarves. Moonstones originated in India as plain slabs and developed here into semi-circular carved and polished granite stones. They are at shrine entrances and represent the spiritual journey from samsara (successive deaths and rebirths) to nirvana. There is also a fine guardstone; these often flank temple entrances. The great brick Abhayagiri stupa is said to mark the place where Buddha left his footprint on a visit to the island. We then came to the 4th century Samadhi Buddha, a classic example of early Sinhalese limestone sculpture, which depicts the Buddha in Samadhi or meditation pose. The 8th century Kuttam Pokuna twin ponds are remarkably well-preserved and were for the monks’ ritual ablutions. The smaller pond has a very fine naga stone and urns at the top of the steps symbolise plenty. Nagas represent the nagarajas (snake kings), which are symbols of fertility and masters of the underworld. The Jetavana monastery was the last of the three great monasteries built here (274-300 BC), on the site of the Nandana Grove or Jotivana, where Mahinda once preached and was later cremated. Mahinda was the son of Ashoka, the great Buddhist emperor of India. Its huge brick stupa originally stood 120m high - the biggest stupa and third tallest structure in the world. It is still the tallest brick edifice anywhere, although now a mere 70m high.
After Anuradhapura we visited Mihintale, the legendary location where the king of Anuradhapura, whilst out hunting, met Mahinda at the top of a hill in 247 BC and where Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka. To test the king’s fitness to receive the Buddha’s teachings, Mahinda set him the riddle of the mangoes. The king answered the riddle and converted on the spot along with his 40,000 attendants. It doesn'tcompare with Anuradhapura, but the rocky hill setting with its frangipani trees is memorable. At the bottom are the remains of a hospital with treatment rooms and a large stone medicine trough for treating patients in oils and herbs using the Ayurvedic method. To reach the top there are 1850 steps and the first broad flight leads to the remains of the Chantaka Chetiya stupa. The next flight leads to the remains of the Medamaluwa Monastery. The Alms Hall (Dana Salawa) is where daily alms were provided for the monks. It has an enormous stone trough for their food, a sort of early self-service buffet. The Chapter House has two large stone tablets in the Sinhala language. They bear inscriptions about the administration, the work involved and regulations for the monks, plus the wages and allowances for all the varied employees, such as physician who uses leeches, chief of dancers, refectory manager, astrologer and flower suppliers. The Conversation Hall still has a few of its original 64 pillars standing. A long flight of steps then leads up to the top. In the middle of this terrace is the white Ambasthala stupa with two rows of pillars which originally supported a roof. From here a steep path with irregular rock-cut steps leads up to the Aradhana Gala (invitation rock), where Mahinda preached. There is also a short path up to a modern white seated Buddha, which has an unusual pose: the left hand in the meditation and the right in the vitarka (explanation) position. A final set of steps leads up to the Mahaseya stupa, which is reputed to hold one of the Buddha’s hairs.
Aukana, Dambulla and Habarana
The next day we set off for Giritale and on the way visited the Aukana Buddha, an imposing 12m high figure from the 8th/9th century AD. It has the asisa mudra (blessing) pose with the right hand turned sideways (unusual in Sri Lanka). It is carved in the round but connected to the rock. We then went to Dambulla which has remarkable cave temples and is a World Heritage Site. At the bottom of the steps is the Golden Temple, a modern kitsch building with a huge golden Buddha towering over it; beside it is a row of monks’ statues. The five 8th century BC cave temples are amazing grottoes full of statues and murals which are the pinnacle of Sinhalese Buddhist art. King Vattagamini was ousted by Tamil invaders and hid in the caves. After regaining his throne he constructed temples in each as an offering of thanks. There are reclining Buddhas, wall paintings, decorated ceilings, seated Buddhas including one under a makara torana arch. Cave temple 3 was built by King Kirti Sri Rajasinha and there is a statue of him with four attendants painted on the wall behind. Cave temple 2 is the biggest and most spectacular. It is over 50m in length and 7m in height. There are multiple seated Buddhas and other statues, including Hindu gods such as Vishnu, and fine wall and ceiling paintings. Cave temple 1 is named after Vishnu, who is deemed to have created the caves. This is small, about 15m long, and is filled by a magnificent sleeping Buddha still with traces of gilding on his elbow. His faithful servant Ananda stands at his feet. Our final visit of the day was to Habarana Lake, where we opted out of the elephant ride and walked round the lake. We saw some interesting wildlife, including a chameleon, a brown fish owl and pheasant-tailed jacanas.
The following morning saw us in the ruined city of Polonnaruwa. It first became prominent in the 3rd century AD developing into a centre of agriculture and local commerce. Its greater distance from India made it less vulnerable to invasion than Anuradhapura, but it was captured by Rajaraja in 993 AD. It was recaptured in1056 by the Sinhalese King Vijayabahu, who made it his capital, as Anuradhapura had largely been destroyed. Polonnaruwa’s golden age now began and the next king Parakramabahu made lavish alterations using architects and engineers from India. In 1196 a period of chaos ensued with Tamil and Sinhalese factions battling for control, until the city was taken by Tamil mercenaries. They were eventually driven out, but the damage caused was irrevocable and the city was abandoned in 1293. It was overtaken by jungle until restoration work in the mid-twentieth century. Polonnaruwa covers a 4km area and was originally enclosed by three concentric walls filled with parks and gardens. West of the city is a 26 square km artificial lake, the Parakrama Samudra, which provided it with water, irrigation and a further line of defence. We started our visit in the Citadel which is still surrounded by walls, although these have been extensively restored. At its heart are the three-storey brick ruins of the Royal Palace, which look more like those of a mediaeval European castle. Legend says it had seven storeys and a thousand rooms. The Council Chamber still has its imposing base with the columns that used to support a wooden roof. Around it are three fine bands of friezes depicting dwarves, lions and elephants. The steps have balustrades embellished with makara, an imaginary animal derived from Indian mythology. They also have two moonstones and a pair of lions at the top. The Royal Baths, in the form of a square superimposed on a cross, are in a very good state of preservation. Water is fed in through two spouts in the form of makaras. North of the Citadel is the Shiva Devale No.1, one of many Vishnu or Shiva temples in Polonnaruwa, which date from the 13th century Indian Pandyan occupation of the city. It is constructed from grey stone without the use of mortar and has an inner shrine with a lingam.
Nearby is the Quadrangle or Dalada Maluwa ( terrace of the tooth relic). There is a legend that one of Buddha’s teeth was rescued from his cremation in 543 BC and smuggled into Sri Lanka. The relic also came to assume political significance and was kept by Sinhalese kings in their capital. The Quadrangle is a walled enclosure on a raised terrace and the tooth was kept in various shrines here. The Thuparama is one of the oldest but best preserved buildings and the only one with a mainly intact and vaulted roof. It is a large brick gedige (a rectangular image house). The exterior and very thick walls display intricate carvings of vimanas, representations of the palaces of the gods. The Nissamkalata Mandapa or Lotus Mandapa is an exquisite open-air pavilion for religious rituals. It has a stone fence, stone pillars shaped like lotus buds on a stalk and a small stupa. The Hatadage was originally two storeys high and may have been built to house the tooth relic. It is relatively well-preserved and the exterior walls have friezes of geese, acrobats and lions. The Vatadage is a fine circular relic house on a raised terrace with a central shrine and small brick stupa within a brick wall. There are four sets of steps decorated with dwarves, lions and makaras, which each have an impressive moonstone and are flanked by two nagaraja guardstones. The terrace also has friezes of dwarves and lions round it. Further steps lead into the central shrine and the stupa with four seated Buddhas facing the four entrances. Two of the statues are intact, but only parts of the others remain. Only the dome-shaped lower part of the stupa remains.
The Gal Pota is a huge granite slab covered in inscriptions praising the wisdom, valour and religious merit of King Nissankamalla, a Tamil prince who married into the Sinhalese nobility and the last king of Polonnaruwa to rule over the whole island. The stone is 8.2m long and weighs 25 tons. On one end is a carving of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi being showered by two elephants (a traditional symbol of wealth) between two friezes of geese. Close by is the Satmahal Prasada, an odd six-storey structure in the form of a step pyramid. It originally had seven storeys and its function is unclear, but it may have been a stupa. A few eroded figures of deities can still be seen on the walls. North of the Quadrangle is the Rankot Vihara, an immense red-brick stupa some 55m high and the fourth largest in Sri Lanka. It has unusually steep sides with a rather flattened top and there are four vahalkadas or shrines round it. This is another of Nissankamalla’s monuments and has an inscription testifying to his spiritual devotion. Polonnaruwa also has hospital buildings, again with a stone medicine trough. There is a hermit’s cave near here – just a projecting rock with no side cover. However it does have dripstone ledges cut into it, to prevent water dripping down. One of the highlights of Polonnaruwa is the Gal Vihara, four Buddhas carved from one huge granite outcrop. The striations in the rock add to the serene quality of these statues. There are two seated Buddhas against an unusually detailed and intricate backdrop, although one of these is now kept behind a grille. They are both in the dhyani mudra (meditation) pose and the larger one is framed by an arch based on the Sanchi shrine in India, with tiny Buddhas looking out from celestial dwellings. The standing Buddha is 7m tall and is the most striking with eyes downcast and arms in an unusual crossed position. The reclining Buddha is a superb and graceful 14m figure, which manages to combine both the spiritual and the human aspects with a face that is particularly serene and beautiful.
After Polonnaruwa we went to the Minneriya National Park for a jeep safari and saw elephants, a lesser adjutant and painted storks, before driving to Sigiriya.
The main event of the day was an ascent of the remarkable and dramatic Sigiriya Rock, a sheer outcrop rising 200m above the surrounding countryside. It was declared a World Heritage Site in 1982. The caves around its base originally served as a religious retreat. In 477 King Kassapa of Anuradhapura, preparing for an invasion by his disinherited brother Mogellana, built a new palace on top of Sigiriya, both a fortress and a place of pleasure. Mogellana managed to reconquer the kingdom and gave Sigiriya to the monks. The caves were then taken over again by religious ascetics. The site was abandoned in 1155 to be rediscovered in modern times. A path leads from the entrance of the site through the water gardens across two moats, past four pools set in a square and then through the Fountain Garden. Two of the original fountain sprinklers are still in working order; they only needed to have their water channels cleared out! The path then starts to ascend through the Boulder Gardens and up to the Audience Hall, of which only the smooth floor and a 5m wide seat remain. From here it is a steep climb with metal staircases attached to the rock face in places. A series of walled-in steps climb through the Terrace Gardens and at the base of the outcrop itself two spiral metal staircases fixed to the side of the rock lead to a cave. This contains Sri Lanka’s most famous frescoes, the 5th century Sigiriya Damsels and the only non-religious ancient paintings in Sri Lanka. Of the original 500 only 21 remain. It is thought they represent asparas (celestial nymphs) rising out of the clouds. Returning from the damsels the path continues along the side of the rock protected by the Mirror Wall. Sections of the original egg-white, beeswax and honey plaster still survive and retain their mirror effect. Beyond this an iron walkway runs along the side of the cliff and then limestone steps go up to the Lion Platform. From here the final metal stairway leads to the summit of the rock between two gigantic lion’s claws, all that remains of a huge lion statue. The summit was the site of the palace, but only the foundations remain. There is still a large water tank cut out of the rock, probably filled by means of a hydraulic system using windmills. There are magnificent all-round views from the top.
We continued to Kandy, Sri Lanka’s cultural capital set in the scenic highlands and dating from the 13th century. It managed to preserve its freedom, along with its customs, music, dance and architecture after the Portuguese and Dutch had taken the rest of the island, as the jungles and hills gave it an easily-defended position. By the time the Portuguese invaded in 1505 Kandy had been established as capital of one of the three kingdoms. During the Portuguese and Dutch occupations it was captured a number of times, but each time the Kandyans burnt the city to the ground and retreated into the jungle, harrying their attackers until they withdrew. Its prestige was enhanced by the arrival of the Tooth Relic in 1592 and the building of the majestic Temple of the Tooth to house it. The Kandyan dynasty ended in 1739, when the king died without an heir and the throne passed to his Indian brother-in-law. The city enjoyed a great Buddhist revival during this period of Indian rule and when Kirti Sri Rajasinha came to the throne in 1747 he devoted himself to reviving religious education and temple-construction. After the arrival of the British in 1798 Kandy held out until 1815, when a British army entered unopposed owing to the unpopularity of the then king. Kandy still managed to retain its laws, customs and institutions. A rebellion broke out two years later, but this was put down and the city developed into an important hub of British trade. The first road into Kandy was built in 1820 and a railway line was constructed in 1867, enabling the city to expand. This expansion continued after Sri Lanka gained its independence and Kandy also largely avoided the effects of the Civil War.
The first evening we attended a performance of Kandyan dancing and drumming with its traditional elaborate costumes. It originated in an all-night ceremony to the god Kohomba and continued to flourish until adopted into local religious ceremonies. Now it is a major tourist attraction. We then visited the Temple of the Tooth, which was built between 1687 and 1739 and lies on the edge of the Kiri Muhuda (milk sea), an artificial lake created in 1807. Modified at various times, it was badly damaged by a Tamil Tiger bomb in 1998, but no visible evidence of that remains. There are imposing white buildings including an octagonal tower, the Pittirippuva, which projects into a moat and is where new heads of state give their first public speech. Entry inside is to the Drummer’s Courtyard and the two-storey shrine. This is heavily embellished and has three doors. The principal one, flanked by elephant tusks, is of decorated silver and normally covered by a curtain. Stairs lead to the upper floor and the Tooth Relic Chamber, but admittance to the chamber is not allowed. The temple was originally at the heart of the Royal Palace and significant parts of this survive. A stroll around this area at night is very atmospheric.
Peradeniya Botanical Gardens
The next day we visited the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens near Kandy. They cover 150 acres with a huge collection of both local and foreign trees and plants. In the 14th century a royal residence was created here and a park was constructed in the 18th century by King Kirti Sri Rajasinha as a pleasure garden for the nobility. The British made it into a botanical garden in 1821 and planted the first tea trees on the island here in 1824. There is an orchid house near the entrance and the Royal Palm Avenue is the main thoroughfare through the gardens. They are also home to an enormous colony of fruit bats. Macaques are resident among the clumps of bamboo by the river and seem particularly quarrelsome. There is also an area of strange-looking talipot palms which grow (very slowly) to an average height of 25m. They have crowns of immense fanlike leaves, which are used for umbrellas, sunshades and olas (a type of parchment). The tree produces a huge pyramid of cream-coloured blooms up to 5m long between the ages of 30 and 40; it flowers and fruits just once and then dies.
The following day we drove to Dalhousie. This is the main starting point for the ascent of Adam’s Peak, which is usually made at night, to arrive at the summit in time for sunrise. Adam’s Peak is a 2243m high mountain, one of Sri Lanka’s most striking landmarks and a celebrated place of Buddhist pilgrimage. The original story claims that Buddha was preaching here to an assembly of gods during a visit to the island. Saman, one of the Sri Lankan divinities, entered the path of enlightenment and asked Buddha to leave a footprint at the top as a focus of worship. Different faiths adapted the story and in the 8th century Muslims began to claim the footprint as that of Adam, who stood on one leg in penitence after being cast out of Eden. Hindu tradition says it is the footprint of Shiva, whilst the Portuguese announced that it belonged to St Thomas. However Adam’s Peak has been a Buddhist place of pilgrimage and worship for over 1000 years. The 7km ascent is via a series of steps for the most part, 5200 of them! Dalhousie lies at 1000m, but that still leaves over 1000m to climb, which is an exhausting experience. There are lights all the way up and frequent tea shops. We set out at 2.00am and arrived at the summit around 6.00 along with the throng; it was very crowded at the top. The footprint itself is not very impressive, a mere depression under a gold-painted pavilion. The views however are spectacular and then there is the mysterious shadow of the peak, which is a perfect triangle that hangs in the air at sunrise. There is no explanation as to why the shadow is like this, as the peak itself is irregular in shape. Going down is even more difficult than going up because of all the steps, but it was worth the effort. After breakfast back at the hotel we set off for Nuwara Eliya. We drove through the heart of the tea-growing country and also passed the Devon and the St Clair waterfalls. We stopped at the Blue Field tea factory for a tour and cup of tea.
It was established by the British in the 19th century and gradually developed into a commercial centre with coffee and vegetable growing. During the 1870s the coffee crop failed and planters started to grow tea. This needed workers all the year round, so large numbers of Tamil workers from South India were brought in and settled permanently. The next morning we explored the town. There is a typical local market, a rather strange post office in pink brick and Victoria Park, whose main distinction is a row of very tall eucalyptus trees. Later in the day we drove through tea plantations and vegetable growing countryside to Bandarawela. On the way we stopped at the Hindu Sita Amman Temple, which is said to be the spot where, in the Ramayana legend, Rawana held Sita captive.
The next day we drove to the 90m high Rawana Ella Falls near an alternative location for Sita’s captivity. We then headed south through the beautiful hill country. Our next stop was at the 10th century Colossi of Buduruwagala, seven large standing figures carved in relief. At the centre is a 16m tall Buddha in the abhaya (have no fear) pose, with the right hand raised and palm facing outwards. To the left is a group of three figures and the middle one, still with white paint and a red halo, represents Avalokitesvara, an important Mahayana Buddhist god. The left-hand figure is an attendant and the right-hand one is Tara, a Mahayana goddess. The group to the right are Hindu in style and probably represent Vishnu (on the left), Maitreya (the future Buddha) and the Tibetan Bodhisattva Vajrapani. We next visited Handapanagala Tank, a large lake in a beautiful setting, where we saw green bee-eater, white-browed bulbul and brahminy kite. We then continued to the Udawalawe Elephant Transit Home, which looks after 25 orphaned baby elephants. They are bottle-fed until the age of three and a half and released into the wild at the age of five. We also saw an Indian scops owl there. We reached the southern coast a few hours later and stopped at the Dickwella Lace Centre, a women’s cooperative set up to revive and train the traditional art of bobbin lace-making. We drove along the coast through Weligama past rocky outcrops and moored fishing boats. We then stopped to photograph stilt fishermen. However few fish are caught this way nowadays, as net fishing is easier; instead they catch tourists and demand payment for the photographs. They will even throw stones at passing coaches if these fail to stop!
We drove on to Unawatuna for a three-night stay. The following morning we drove along the coast past a team of fishermen hauling in a net on the beach. We went to Galle to visit the Fort, which is the old walled Dutch quarter projecting into the sea. Galle is Sri Lanka’s fourth largest city and may have been the biblical Tarshish, connected with King Solomon. It therefore had an important trading position long before the arrival of the Europeans. First came the Portuguese in 1598 and then in 1640 the Dutch, who set up the street plan and even built an underground sewage system that was flushed out daily by the tide. In 1796 the British took Galle and it continued as the island’s main harbour. However its commercial importance was eroded by the rise of Colombo and by the early 1900s it had become a tranquil backwater. Since independence it has recovered some of its dynamism, especially in the renovation of its historic properties. A stroll along the walls and through the streets is peaceful and atmospheric. The 1755 Dutch Reformed Church is small and elegant, whilst the 1868 Anglican All Saints’ Church is a Romanesque basilica-style building. The white early 20th century Meeran Jumma Mosque has twin towers that make it look more like a baroque church plus a few small minarets and an Arabic inscription. There is a small white stupa, the Sudharmalaya Vihara, which is near the western bastions and was built in 1889.
Back at Unawatuna a number of interesting birds visited the trees just outside our hotel room, including lesser goldenback, brown-headed barbet, and a pair of purple-rumped sunbirds, which also liked the insects on our window ledges. There was a troop of purple-faced leaf monkeys in the hotel grounds. The next morning heralded an early start to go whale-watching from Weligama. We saw six blue whalesand also several hundred spinner dolphins, racing, leaping and spinning. The next day we set off back to Negombo for our last night. On the way we saw the Tsunami Honganji Vihara at Hikkaduwa, a standing Buddha which is a memorial to the victims of the tsunami in 2004. It is supposed to be modelled on the Bamian Buddhas in Afghanistan, which were destroyed by the Taliban. Nearby is another memorial to the 1700 who died when a train was washed away by the tsunami. Finally we paid a short visit to Colombo and saw the new parliament building, Independence Commemoration Hall and the Nelum Pokuna Theatre.
Sri Lanka is a beautiful island with lots to see. The food is similar to Indian but distinctive. It is a relatively well developed country with a good infrastructure and health-care system. Education is free from primary to university level.