20th Feb 2017 - 21st Feb 2017 - Sri Lanka
The Cultural Triangle
The centre of Sri Lanka is a mixture of former capitals, palatial ruins and temples most of which are centuries old and in various states of disrepair. The area is known as the cultural triangle and stretches from Anuradhapura and Mihintale in the north down to Matale in the south. With so many sights to see, unless you’re on an unlimited amount of time, it’s almost impossible to visit them all and so you have to carefully select which ones to go and see. For me, I had decided to use the city of Dambulla as a base and then additionally visit Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa. These are all relatively close together, meaning I could hire a tuk tuk for the day in order to get around.
After the unusual arrival of the day before, I woke up in Negombo after a full night’s sleep feeling very refreshed but also like I couldn’t open my eye properly. A quick look in the mirror confirmed that, despite sleeping under a mosquito net, one of the little buggers had bitten me during the night, just under the eye, and it had swollen up. Cue sunglasses on all day! Additionally, I had to figure out how I was going to move on since I had originally planned to get a train from Colombo but was no longer in Colombo.
So after breakfast, I headed to the bus station where I was able to catch a bus for 2 hours to the town of Kurunegala with its very loud, very chaotic bus station. From here, I transferred off the small, air conditioned minivan and onto a “natural air-con” proper bus! Lights flashing inside the bus, music blaring from the TV and windows wide open with the world and his wife hopping on and off at various points. Another two hours later, I arrived in the centre of Dambulla. Within quarter of an hour, I had found a small, family run guesthouse in a little village just off the main road but so much more peaceful with such a helpful owner. I had a couple of hours to relax in the guesthouse garden, before my newly found tuk tuk driver friend, Surinderjit, returned to take me to the cave temples.
The temples are up on top of a hill, within 5 separate caves. It was used as a monastery in the 3rd century BC and the complex is around 2000m2. You enter the complex at the base of the hill and walk up to the entrance of the caves, where you leave your shoes and then find yourself hopping across the very hot ground to get inside the caves. The first cave, Dewraja Viharaya, contains six Buddha statues and one god statue. This includes a 15m long reclining Buddha. My favourite cave, cave 2, Maharaja Viharaya, is the largest of the caves measuring 52m from east to west and 23m from the entrance to the back of the cave. There are a total of 56 Buddha statues in this cave, of which 39 are sitting, 16 are standing and 1 is sleeping.
Cave 3, Maha Aluth Viharaya, was converted in 1747 by King Keerthi Sri Rajasingha. There are another 57 Buddha statues in this cave, 42 standing, 14 sitting and 1 sleeping. There is also a statue of the king near the door. Cave 4, Pashchima Viharaya, was the first of the caves to be built and contains 21 statues, 2 of which are standing, the rest are seated. Cave 5 is the newest, only being built in 1891 and contains another 11 Buddha statues, 5 each standing and sitting and the final one sleeping. Most of the caves had paintings on the walls/ceilings depicting Buddha whilst the whole site is full of monkeys and there are incredible views from the top across the fields, over to Sigiriya, with a large gold pagoda at the base of the hill. From here, Surinderjit drove me back to my guesthouse before picking me up and hour later to take me into town to get dinner at a small diner where I had my first kottu – a traditional meal of roti, chicken, cabbage, carrot, leek, garlic and onion all chopped up into small slices and served with a spicy chicken gravy.
The next morning and it was an early start at 6am followed by a huge breakfast – 2 string hoppers, 2 samosas, 2 fried eggs, 2 egg, tomato and onion toasted sandwiches, 4 slices of toast, a plate of tomato and onion, 3 slices of melon, a mango, 2 teabags and a bottle of water. Needless to say, I did not eat it all. Surinderjit arrived at 7.00 and we left for Sigiriya. It was a 20 min drive and the first view close up elicited a thought of “I’ve got to climb THAT?” or slightly ruder words to that effect. Sigiriya dates back over 7000 years though the mountain monastery only appeared in the 3rd century BC. King Kasyapa built the garden city and palace in 477-495AD, the remains of which are still apparent today. It is believed that Kasyapa killed his own father, King Dhatusena, and then usurped the throne from his brother who was the rightful heir. He then decided he wanted an impenetrable new palace and built on Sigiriya. After Kasyapa’s death, the site became a monastery again until the 14th century when it was abandoned. The ruins were only rediscovered in 1898 and excavated in 1907.
Upon entering the site, you first have to walk through the gardens, a mixture of water gardens, boulder gardens and terraced gardens, and up some rock steps to an initial viewpoint. From here, you have a clear view of the metal grille and spiral staircase that you next have to take. At the top of the spiral staircase are a set of frescos – a series of paintings of large breasted women – possibly believed to be Tara, one of the most important figures in Tantric Buddhism. Back down the adjacent spiral staircase (they are so narrow that they are one way), and you walk along the mirror wall, once polished so much that the King could see his reflection and supposedly adorned with graffiti from the 6th to 14th century. The mirror wall comes out next to the Lions Paws, from which Sigiriya gained its other name, Lion Rock. In the 5th century, a huge, brick lion sat on the rock and the final ascent began with a staircase between the paws and into the lion’s mouth. The lion itself has long since disappeared but the paws were found in 1898 during excavations. Up the final set of stairs, a combination of stone and metal, and finally I came out on the summit.
The summit of Sigiriya stretches for 1.6 hectares and once contained the monastery and later the palace. Today, all that remains are a few foundation rocks and what seemed to be a swimming pool, but was most likely used for water storage. However, the views are fairly spectacular. Given how flat the central region of Sri Lanka is, you can literally see for miles and miles across the plains and the forest canopy. After plenty of time soaking up the views, it’s time to head back down the staircase to the lion’s paws. From here, it is an alternative route back down via the Cobra Hood Cave, a rocky outcrop shaped like, you guessed it, a cobra’s hood. The exit is full of souvenir stands but soon I was out into the car park where I found Surinderjit and we trundled off for the second stop of the day, Polonnaruwa.
Polonnaruwa was a Royal capital about 800 years ago and remained that way for 300 years. Even today, there are still the remains of hundreds of ancient temples, statues and stupas. We arrived in the Old Town and headed to the Museum, which gave a detailed account of the history of Polonnaruwa before heading out to the Island Garden. The ruins are spread into small groups near a huge lake, with the first set at the Island Garden and then further sets at the Royal Palace Group and the Quadrangle. The Quadrangle contained some stunning temples with frescos and some impeccably well-kept carvings. To the north of the Quadrangle, and my final stop, were some of the most impressive, including the white stupa of Kiri Vihara, the very impressive Lankatilaka before ending at Gal Vihara with its three large Buddha statues. It was then time for the long drive back to Dambulla, with a stop in town for dinner and another chicken kottu!