After the excesses of the wedding a whole group of us crashed the beginning of Joe and Shahila’s honey moon and headed up north to Dambulla. Everyone was staying in the very beautiful Kandalama hotel, camouflaged into the banks of the Kandalama Tank with exquisite boutique rooms, restaurants and inifinity swimming pools. Shireen, Jack and myself stayed in a tiny but charming guest house called Little Dream across the other side of the Tank complete with the odd frog in the bathroom, intermittant water supply and a large monitor lizard (we named Henry) watching us lie around in the hammocks!
Sigiriya Rock Fortress
The following day we all went to visit the 3rd century rock fortress at Sigirya, built on top of a huge volcanic magma plug with stunning views of the surrounding forest. It was strange for me to suddenly be in the midst of a large tourist party, no chance of blending in and pretending to be local any more! You approach the fortress through the site of the original water gardens where apparently the king’s 500 concubines would bathe, and then walk up through bolder gardens, past the remaining foundations of the palace and between two huge lion paws carved into the rock. Originally these were part of a giant lion’s head and you approached the summit through mouth itself! From the top the jungle stretches out for miles in all directions, with views of distant tanks and mountains. The tanks were built by the Singalese kings centuries ago to collect the monsoon rains to irrigate the rice paddies. An extraordinary feet when you consider most of them are the size of large lakes!
We got back extremely hot and sweaty and spent the afternoon lounging by the Kandalama’s pools and walking down by the tank watching tourists going on elephant rides as the sunset. Shireen and I borrowed Rash and Lou’s shower which has a glass window that overlooks the lake, the balcony draped with the thick vines than cover the front of the hotel. Groups of grey-bodied, black-faced Hanuman monkeys scamper around the hotel and quite often decide to peek at the showering guests!
The following afternoon, once the heat of midday had passed, a group of us set off for the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, occupied for three hundred years around 10th century AD. You really feel as if you are walking back in time, the site is covered in ancient ruins everywhere, monkeys run around the tree tops and across the paths, century old bathing pools, audience chambers, the stone columns remaining from 11 storey high palaces, buddha statues, the huge stone book (Gal Pota) and chambers that held the budda’s tooth before it was moved to Kandy. We saw the beautiful carved buddhas at Gal Vihara, standing 7 metres high and the reclining one which is 14 metres long, all carved from the same granite rock. As the sunset over the site we walked around the Kiri Vihara dagoba and the sky behind turned from blue to pink and finally a deep indigo as darkness fell.
Most of the group headed off south yesterday so I went with Joe and Shahila and their driver to visit the final of the ancient cities, Anuradhapura, which was the centre of the Singalese kingdom for over 1000 years and also the place that buddhism was first introduced to Sri Lanka. We stopped off en route at the temple of Aukana which was a beautiful rock buddha. According the legend a cocky student claimed that the time his master had estimated for the carving of this Buddha was far too long, and that he, the pupil, could complete it in less time. The king then found a second site, 11km away and sent the student there commanding both men to begin their work at the same time and make an owl call to announce the completion of their work. After some time the master made the call and the king came to inspect his impressive completed buddha. They then went to visit the student’s rock which was only half finished and so he conceded and never completed his work.
From here we reached the extensive ruins of Anuradhapura, in fact it seems impossible to walk or drive anywhere around the town without seeing the remains of ancient buildings or stone columns. We visited the first ever buddhist temple which also holds the first Bodhi tree in Sri Lanka. Over two thousand years ago a sappling of the tree, under which the buddha gained enlightenment, was brought to the country and planted here. Every buddhist temple in the country has a wide leafy bodhi tree which is usually adorned with brightly coloured prayer flags, jasmine and lotus flowers and burning pots of coconut oil, a smell I think I will forever asscoiate with Sri Lanka. It was so hot that walking barefoot around the temples required soles of leather and more than a few times we ended up almost running across courtyards to find a cooler patch of shade. We also saw the three huge dagobas, the white Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba which rises 55 metres into the sky and is surrounded by carvings of stone and plaster elephants and images of the four Buddhas that have been.
The Thuparama Dagoba is the oldest in Sri Lanka and parts are still being excavated from the jungle that reclaimed it after the city was abadoned for Polonnaruwa. And finally the partially restored Jetavanarama Dagoba which reaches 70 metres although apparently it would have originally been over 1000 metres high. We saw groups of old women dressed in white sarees that visit the city on pilgrammages to meditate, although our driver says he thinks they spend most of the time gossiping about news from their villages. I saw my first female buddhist monks, dressed in long sleeved versions of the orange robes worn by the men but with indentical shaved heads. And there were monkeys everywhere, hanumans and macaques, combing each other for flees, eating the offered lotus flowers on the temples or just sprawled out asleep in the branches of cedar trees.
I left Dambulla this morning after a huge breakfast with a German mother and daughter who were family of the guesthouse owners; bufalo curd, palm honey, cocnut rice and fresh fruit. I arrived in Kandy for my final night and back to the guesthouse I stayed in three weeks ago where I was greeted like long lost family member and have been showing everyone photos of the wedding. When I leave on Saturday I really am going to miss the warmth and kindness of the Sri Lankans, far from encountering any difficulties on public transport people have helped me with my bags, swapped seats with me so I can take photos, offered me lifts on tuk tuks to guesthouses and given me popcorn to eat. I have been given directions, advice, help and almost without exception people have been warm, friendly and genuinely interested in where I’ve been and what I think of Sri Lanka. It’s wonderful to spend time in a place where the art of chivalry and kindnes to strangers is alive and kicking!