Wednesday, 22 December 2021

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka

After an overnight stop in the fishing resort of Negombo, we drove inland to the North Central Plains of Sri Lanka, covered in thick forests and isolated mountainous outcrops - surrounded by flat land. These plains are known as the Cultural Triangle, with Buddhist Temples, Sculptures, Ancient Monasteries and Stupas - some over 2000 years old; including many UNESCO World Heritage Sites. After a long drive we reached Dambulla cave temples, a UNESCO Site dating back to the 1st Century BC. - known to have the best preserved and largest cave temple complex on the island. It was a steep hike up to the cave complex, but we were rewarded with spectacular views, 160 metres high over the surrounding plains. We had to leave our sandals with a “shoe-man” before entering the complex; as it was the middle of the day, the ground was scorching, and it was a struggle walking on the hot floor.

The major attractions are the 5 caves, which contain paintings and statues depicting Lord Buddha and his teachings. Tradition says the caves were excavated by king Vattagamani Abhaya in the first century B.C. and he and his successors had them enlarged, smoothed and cut a drip-ledge along the rock to protect them from rainwater. There are 150 Buddha images in these caves. The early paintings in Dambulla are believed to belong to the 8th century, but this can’t be proved because of ‘over painting’. The 1st Cave is the Temple of the King of Gods - so called, because the god Sakka (King of Gods) gave finishing touches to the image of the Buddha in here, which is about 47 feet long, and carved in the natural rock. Although there are wall and ceiling paintings in this cave, these can hardly be seen because of damage done by incense burnt over the years. 

The 2nd Cave – is the temple of the Great King, as its founder King Vattagamani Abhaya assisted in its formation, and it is the largest and most impressive cave which you enter through an archway. The entire 172-foot-long cave is painted in brilliant colours – the walls and ceiling are amazing – I have never seen anything like it. 

There are 53 images or statues of Buddha in here – all in different poses. A real surprise is an 18-foot-high white stupa, with 4 figures of Buddha, each facing a different direction, and seated under the hood of a Cobra. 

The 3rd Cave - The Great New Temple was used as a storeroom before the 18th century, when it was transformed into a Buddhist Church. This cave is painted with frescoes depicting various events and scenes and contains 50 figures of the Buddha. 

The 4th Cave - The Western Temple has a roof which dips inwards, it only has 10 figures of the Buddha; in particular a beautiful figure seated in the meditation pose that has been hewn out of the natural rock. There is also a neat stupa at the middle of this cave. The last cave was closed when I visited – but I had seen enough images for one day.

The caves are set back under a ledge that was carved from the hillside many centuries ago, and the front section now has white painted archways – with the cave openings behind them. There is also a lotus pond and great views into the distance – it was a very interesting place to visit. 

The following day we were taken to Polonnaruwa, the second most ancient of Sri Lanka’s Kingdoms which was the capital in 1070. Over the next 3 centuries it became a thriving commercial and religious centre, reaching its height under King Parakramabahu I, who created beautiful parks, huge buildings and an enormous reservoir. Today the archaeological park contains many well-preserved ruins within a compact area, as well being home to hundreds of ‘toque macaques’ - a species of monkeys. We started off at the visitor centre and museum, to learn more about what we were going to see. Unfortunately, you can’t take photographs inside – which is a pity, as it would have been helpful to remember what things were as the day progressed.

Close to here was the ruins of the ancient palace that had been built on the shore of the reservoir – a fabulous location overlooking the water. The Audience chamber, with its many columns was very impressive, with the Lion Throne, upon which the king would sit and listen to his subjects. 

The next stage was a visit to Dalada Maluva, an area with the oldest and most sacred monuments of the city city; The Vatadage was the first one we saw, a circular building with concentric terraces, described as a 12th century masterpiece – originally intended to house the Sacred Tooth Relic of Buddha, which is now in The Sacred Temple of Tooth in Kandy. Almost every surface of its walls are decorated with carvings and friezes. Each of the 4 entrances has a staircase starting with a moonstone – an elaborate semi-circular ornate welcome step, flanked with arched guardian stones.  Even all the steps leading up to the 4 seated Buddhas are beautifully carved.

Gal Potha (The Stone Book) is one of the famous works of the 12th century King Nissanka Malla, in which he describes himself and his rule. This massive slab is just over 8.2 meters long and contains over 4300 characters and described as the largest book in Sri Lanka.

Next to this is the Sathmahal Prasada, a pyramid-shaped, 7 storey building, thought to be an unusual shaped stupa from approximately the 12th century – The Polonnaruwa Period. 

Many of these sites were quite a distance from each other, around one shore of the lake. The 3.4-metre-tall Statue of King Parakramabahu – one of the greatest ancient kings of Sri Lanka, is protected from the elements by a roof type cover. You are allowed to take photographs of these outdoor monuments, but you can’t take them with your back to the images – selfies! 

Lankathilaka Viharaya was part of the ancient City having a 14th century Great Buddhist ‘Temple of the Kings’. A good deal of this has been destroyed and as much as the colossal building was impressive, the giant statue inside no longer has a head. 

We drove through the Monastery area next, stopping at Rankoth Vehera (The Golden Pinnacle) Stupa, the largest stupa in Polonnaruwa at 33 metres high, built in the 12th century by the King Nissanka Malla. Closeby is another stupa – a white one called Kiri Vehera.

Back in the car to the next attraction, which is situated in its own lawned park. Gal Vihara, known as “The Northern Temple”, is a 27-metre-long cave complex with sculptures carved from the solid rock – making 4 shrines. 

It is a Buddhist Temple described as the most perfect specimen of a Buddha statue carved from solid stone, it was made in the 12th century and has been completely preserved. It was midday now, and really hot; and I didn’t fancy taking my sandals off to get closer to the statues – the ground was stony and uneven; so, I had to be content with taking photographs from a short distance away.

With the carvings being so long, it was difficult to get them all in one shot. The only image I couldn’t see clearly was the centre one – which was behind glass and metal bars.

The last area we were taken to was quite remote; to see the lotus pond, and then a long walk up to the 12th century brick built Thivanka Image House. The thick outer walls have beautifully sculpted arches, columns and figures all the way around the building – but the opposite sides look completely different to each other; one with stripes and the other without. 

There is a sacred Bo Tree by the main entrance to the temple; a Moonstone on the ground and 2 carved stones with guardian statues either side of the short flight of stairs - leading to the wooden grilled doorway. Inside the Temple, its walls and ceiling are covered in paintings dating back to the construction of the temple; depicting the lives of the Buddha. The statue of him here has been damaged – so doesn’t look that impressive; and as with other heritage places – photographs aren’t allowed inside the building!

This temple is said to resemble and have a connection to the caves of Ellora in India and the mountains of Petra in Jordan – making it one of the most important archaeological sites in the country. After a long walk back to the car, we were ready for a relax – Polonnaruwa was such a surprise; I hadn’t expected it to cover such a huge expanse. There had been an incredible amount to see here – but by the end of it, I felt as though I had “cultural overload” and needed a rest. 

The next morning it was another early start – this time to visit The World Heritage UNESCO Site of The Lion Rock or Sigiriya. This is a natural massive rock plateau almost 200 metres high, formed from the magma of an extinct volcano, surrounded by jungle – attracting thousands of visitors every year. 

We started by visiting the museum – another place where photographs are not allowed; before walking through the remnants of the summer palace with its various landscaped gardens - said to be some of the oldest in the world. 

Here at the base of the rock is lawned areas, outlines of the ruined palace, fortifications, ponds and canals – it was an ideal place to get a fabulous view of the rock itself. It was quite daunting, the thought of climbing all the way to the top of it. On top are the remains of King Kasyapa’s 5th century palace, an incredible feat of engineering to even just get building materials up there let alone construct a palace. After this king’s death, Sigiriya became a Buddhist monastery again (as it was in 3rd century) until the 14th century, when it was abandoned.

Following a group of tourists, we headed over the moat, and through brightly coloured rock openings, and began climbing a series of uneven steps which got steeper very quickly. Although it was early in the morning, the heat was an issue – and it was hard going. It was only possible to walk in single file for much of the way – it is a good job that the way down was by a different route.

One of Sigiriya’s most famous features is the Mirror wall (which apparently used to be polished so well - the king could see his reflection in it). There is also a wall which is covered in frescoes from 5th century, of which 18 have survived - mostly depicting naked women that are considered to be Kasyapa’s wives and concubines. These unique, ancient paintings have huge historical significance but unfortunately again, you can’t photograph them. To see these, you have to go up an enclosed spiral metal staircase and then back down another one – it is very cramped.

Halfway up the rock, we came to a flat area (Lion’s Paw Terrace), where we could have a few minutes rest; this was the old gateway to the top - through a structure depicting a huge stone lion, whose paws have survived, but the rest of its body has been destroyed. It is because of this lion that the palace was named Sigiriya - Sihagri, i.e. Lion Rock. It was still a long, arduous climb to the top from here, and I was really concerned whether I was going to be able to make it; but determined to do it, we carried on. 

The final section has metal stairs with handrails, which were such a help; and I was so happy to finally reach the top, where the view was fabulous – miles of rainforest with more stone hills. It was a glorious day, and I was so hot; there wasn’t any shade up there, just 1.6 hectares covered with the remains of buildings from the royal city; and some workers who were carrying out conservation work.

It was so much easier descending the monolith, not so many steps – finally passing through what is known as the boulder garden. I was so pleased that I had persevered and carried on to the top. The hike up and down again can take 1.5 to 2.5 hours depending on your fitness – and there are well over 1000 steps. 

As it was still relatively early in the morning, we opted for a local “Village Tour” which was very reasonably priced; for this we had a ride in an ox-drawn cart, were taken on a wooden “catamaran” over a lake, helped 2 local women prepare a delicious meal (which we had to eat afterwards) and finally had a ride in a tuk-tuk back to our starting place. 

A thoroughly enjoyable few hours – especially as most of it was sitting down, giving us time to recover from our earlier exertions!

Later in the afternoon we went on a jeep safari, hoping to see herds of elephants that come to graze and bathe in the waters there; but due to the elephants’ movements that day – we deviated from Minneriya to the nearby Kaudulla National Park. This time of year (October) is the end of the dry season, when the waters are receding, encouraging the elephants into the open looking to food and water. It is home to the 'GATHERING OF ELEPHANTS’ in what is known as an ‘elephant corridor’ for the herds roaming in the east, to get to the National Parks in the south – moving about 20 kilometres each day.

After travelling through forest and shrubland, where the ground was such a bright shade of red; we came to open plains with the Kaudulla Tank (reservoir) in the distance. We were so excited to see an elephant, and it wasn’t long before we were inundated with the magnificent creatures.

There were numerous family groups, many with small babies – which were the cutest things ever. They were so protected by their parents and siblings, that it was really hard to capture a good photograph of them; I took hundreds of photographs, hoping that just one would be really special.

The elephants weren’t fazed by the safari vehicles at all, and some came so close to where we were parked – just to get into the puddle of mud nearby! 

There were hundreds of elephants all heading in the same direction – it was a wonderful sight; one I felt so privileged to have experienced. The area is also home to leopards, toque macaques, purple faced langurs, sloth bears, sambar and spotted deer, and about 160 species of birds. What an end to an absolutely fantastic day, I had seen everything I had come to Sri Lanka to see; and still had a few more days to go! 

The following morning, we were heading south towards Kandy – on some of the worst windy roads imaginable. We stopped at Matale to visit some spice gardens, where we were told about spices and given the opportunity to buy some. 

Next, we were taken to a Gem factory and shown how the stones are mined and cut by hand, in such primitive conditions – although the finished products were rather beyond our price range! 

Finally, just outside Kandy we arrived at The Ceylon Tea Museum; 4 floors containing old items of machinery, a library, an auditorium, a tea sales outlet, and its top floor is a cafĂ©. Legend says tea originated over 5000 years ago in China; when the science-curious emperor Shen Nung insisted that for hygiene purposes, all water in the palace be boiled. But when he was out one day, he and his men stopped to boil water to drink, and leaves from a nearby bush fell into the water; and the brew that resulted was so refreshing, the emperor ordered samples from the bush be brought back to the palace for analysis. This new phenomenon of using leaves from the tea plant became fashionable and cultivation of tea.

It was afternoon by the time we arrived at Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second largest city, which is set around a picturesque man-made lake, surrounded by green hills. We had a walk around the town and local market, but the weather was against us – so we didn’t manage to see as much as we would have liked. The town has some traditional colonial style buildings and more shops than we had seen the whole time in Sri Lanka – we did feel the need for a little retail therapy. 

Early next morning was a highlight – a visit to the golden roofed ‘Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic’, said to contain Buddha’s tooth - the most sacred temple in the whole of Sri Lanka. This important shrine originally built by the Kandyan Kings between 1687 and 1707, is home to intricate carvings and beautiful Sri Lankan art. After passing the security entrance, we walked through a park-like area until we reached the main buildings – this is a new area established after the temple was damaged with a bomb by Hindu Tamil separatists in 1998 – to keep traffic away from the temple buildings. 

After leaving our sandals with an expensive shoe-man, we entered the complex by a doorway designated for tourists. The temple buildings have white stone walls and striking red roofs, and the inside is elaborately carved and painted with exotic woods, lacquer and ivory. 

The ground floor area is intricately decorated, and it is here where the daily rituals are carried out. Further inside is the Octagon, built by the last King of Kandy as a place where he could address his subjects. 

It was originally part of the royal palace but is now part of the temple containing ancient texts. Inside one beautiful shrine (which has a marvellous black and white chequered tiled floor) is a series of story boards telling the legend of the Buddha and the sacred tooth. 

There are several museums to explore; they aren’t very big and as with most other places – no photographs are allowed. One particularly interesting room (where photographs were permitted) contained a preserved 50-year-old elephant called Raja – who had been the favourite of the Maharaja. 

Once a year there is an elephant parade through the city, when the Sacred Tooth is carried through the streets in an ornate glass case. After a delightful few hours exploring this complex, it was time to hit the shops again - without getting wet! 

It was a pleasure walking back to the hotel around the lake, without the hustle and bustle of street sellers – although we did come across a snake charmer who demanded a substantial amount of money from anyone who took his photo. 

The lake was built in 1807 and is just over 3 kilometres around, with stalls and boat rides; and seeing as we needed a rest – a boat ride sounded a good idea. It lasted about 20 minutes and as well as having a perfect view of the city, the temple complex and the stunning white wall surrounding the water’s edge – we saw so much wildlife. There were tortoises, gigantic lizards, pelicans, cormorants, eagles and numerous more colourful birds. 

In the early evening we went to a local hall to watch a traditional Sri Lankan show with music, dance and drumming – it was noisy and colourful but rather tame - you do have to see these shows when you are in other countries though don’t you! 

Next morning, we were heading further south to Nuwara Eliya, stopping enroute at the beautiful Peradeniya Botanic Gardens that are home to one of world’s largest collections of plants and trees.  

The Royal Botanic Gardens aren’t far from Kandy and situated on a peninsular - surrounded on 3 sides by the Mahaweli River (the longest in Sri Lanka) – with a swing bridge over it. 

It is renowned for its collection of orchids, and more than 4000 species of plants, including spices, medicinal plants and palm trees. The origins of the Botanic Gardens date as far back as 1371 when King Wickramabahu III came to power and kept court at Peradeniya. 

The Botanical Garden was formally established in 1843 with plants brought from Kew Gardens, Slave Island, Colombo, and the Kalutara Garden in Kalutara. Wandering around this wonderful area, we saw pristine avenues of palm trees; such as Cook's Pine Avenue, Palmyra Palm Avenue, Double Coconut Avenue, Cabbage Avenue, and Royal Palm Avenue. 

Unfortunately, the lake was empty, which was a pity, it has been made in the shape of the island of Sri Lanka; although I did manage to take a photograph of a kingfisher sitting in the trees looking for the water. 

One item with a significant history is the Cannonball Tree planted by King George V and Queen Mary in 1901 - it is often laden with fruit, which are thought to resemble cannonballs. Although there were some huge trees with endless roots. It was a thoroughly wonderful hour or so enjoying these lush surroundings before heading back out onto the nightmare roads driving down to Nuwara Eliya.

After a few hours of winding roads, we were high up at an elevation of almost 2000 metres, and all we could see in every direction was tea plantations on the mountainsides. This drive is renowned as the most scenic highland motor road in Sri Lanka; and it certainly had the most waterfalls I have ever seen.  

We stopped at a tea factory/ plantation and were told about the tea making process and different grades of tea; and were given a drink to try (they sold amazing chocolate cake to go with it too!). A visit to a tea factory has become a traditional part of every Sri Lanka travel itinerary – one I was quite happy to partake in! 

Since the introduction of tea to Sri Lanka in the mid-19th century, Nuwara Eliya has been the capital of the tea industry; for many miles in every direction there are acres of tea plantations and estates.  Nuwara Eliya, the gateway to the Central Highlands, was a favoured retreat of the British in the 19th Century due to its cool climate, it has many Georgian country style homes, giving the town a decidedly British feel.

Although it had started to rain, we were determined to see some of the sights; we walked around the town centre, passing a huge orange Buddha in the middle of the road, the Victorian post office (built in 1894 and one of the oldest post offices in the country), and found lots of interesting shops. It was strange how down here the shops were selling warm winter clothing, whereas earlier in the day the temperature had been unbearably hot. 

The following morning, we left the hotel early to explore as much as possible. We saw the Post Office again – looking far grander in the sunshine and passed Victoria Park (which has an entrance fee), spread over 27 acres with well-kept flowers, shrubs and trees; and has the River Nanu Oya running through it. There is a little train for kids to enjoy with a playground too; it looked a delightful place to visit – if we had more time. 

We caught a taxi to the far end of Lake Gregory and had a leisurely walk back (surprisingly we had to pay to walk on the lakeside path), passing colourful planted gardens, tourist activities on the water and seeing the local horses giving rides. This town also has a quaint 19th century Holy Trinity Church dating back to 1845, constructed by the men of the local garrison; a golf course and a racecourse with its Royal Turf Club Grandstand. 

There are some spectacular walks from here that offer spectacular views of the surrounding countryside and of the entire town. At lunchtime our time in Sri Lanka was over and we had to make the arduous journey back to the airport, it had been a very interesting trip, full of surprises; but for me the best part was seeing those herds of elephants with their babies on the plains of Kaudulla.

Thank you for taking time to follow my adventures,


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