If our stay in Kandy marked the end of our jaunt through Sri Lanka’s hill country, then it was also a narratively-handy segue into the country’s fascinating ancient heart, given its special role as keeper of so much history and culture. In quick succession, the four nights after we left saw us visit three more very important historic sites: the awe-inspiring palace/monastery on a rock at Sigiriya, the serene caves of Dambulla, and the vast ruins of a former capital city, Polonnaruwa.
Fortunately for us – in that we’ll avoid ‘temple fatigue’ – we will return to see the jewel in the crown, Anuradhapura, after a couple of coastal stops; one in the East and the other at the very northern tip of the island.
SIGIRIYA is one of Sri Lanka’s world-famous, must-see attractions. A sprawling 1.6 hectare complex sitting atop a giant rock, towering over the forested plains beneath, it screams historical heavyweight.
By all accounts, it was constructed as a fortress palace for King Kasyapa, who assassinated his father and was obviously concerned that folks unimpressed with his act of parricide might try to enact revenge. Thus he wanted somewhere unassailable, and he couldn’t have chosen much better to be honest. This was late-400s AD. Possibly/probably it was used, after his reign, as a monastery, before being finally abandoned in the 1400s.
We arrived in the early afternoon and, with a luscious intro to local curry & rice out the way, we set out to bike around the local area and climb another rock to see the sunset over the main attraction. It was a glorious sight, and it reminded me of the episode of An Idiot Abroad (I think), where, taking in a marvel of architecture in the ancient Jordanian city of Petra, it was remarked that the best place to live is opposite the best place, because then that’s your view!
We were up and at ’em early the next day, determined to make it to the summit before both the marauding tour groups and the heat arrived. We won on the first count, as there were definitely more people arriving than we had to share the space with, as we were coming down. We needn’t had worried on the second count, as the day was overcast and cool the entire time; no hats or even sunscreen required!
The ascent was certainly nothing compared to our Adam’s Peak escapades, but was a physical challenge nonetheless. Helpfully, the climb is not incessant.
You can say that you climb a third, including a fairly stomach-churning spiral staircase, and arrive at the wall of frescoes, so incredibly well preserved (and how did they climb up there to paint them, whoever they were?). Also there is the ‘mirror wall’, so-called because in certain conditions it apparently gave/gives a mirror-like reflection. Centuries and centuries and centuries ago, it was also a site for graffiti, and it helped linguists to chart the development of the Sinhalese language and script.
Back down a spiral staircase and along and up some more, you arrive at the Lion’s Paw (Sigiriya means Lion Rock) where, as well as the excavated giant paws there apparently once sat a large sculpture of a lion.
Walking up through the paws, the final cliff-hugging ascent begins.
Once on top, monkey welcome complete, Sigiriya reveals itself, and the scale is spectacularly impressive. They must have had a wild ancient pulley system to haul all the materials up to such a height, surely.
Lonely Planet says that the summit is not that visually impressive as is mostly foundations; I’m not too sure I agree. Sure, it’s not intact to the degree of other places, with the famed Machu Picchu being the most obvious comparison. But all this means is that’s it’s not as obvious, and you do have to imagine what it might have been like. It’s not hard.
There are palace complexes, audience halls, water storage facilities, and the most amazing cliff top plunge pool not for hire! We spent ages strolling around and soaking up its bewildering atmosphere, and I was especially drawn to its abundance of staircases and angular features, which reminded me somewhat of M.C. Escher’s famous ‘Relativity’ lithograph; you know one, with all the stairs that go nowhere…
On way down, we spent equally as long exploring the extensive terraced gardens, royal gardens, and huge complex of pools/storage tanks/irrigation systems (probably all three). They spread out from the rock’s lower slopes and around its base. Again, they were full of staircases, symmetry and angles; the designers would have won a Home and Garden award, hands down. It was a brilliant day, and our second installment of curry & rice was well earned!
The next day we took a local bus to the nearby dusty town of DAMBULLA, notable for two things: its ancient caves and the country’s largest wholesale produce market.
We started with the caves.
The five caves are situated alongside one another, in an easily meanderable royal rock complex located on the lower slope of a hill (New Zealanders)/mountain (others) south of Dambulla town. The first Buddha sculptures were carved here over two-thousand years ago, and subsequent kings added successive waves of additions. As a result, the caves are full of Buddha figures, stupas, and sculptures of other deities (showing the influence of Hinduism), and the roofs and walls are completely covered in colourful stencils and depictions too.
Cave number two is by far the largest and walking into it is a breathtaking moment, like walking into the most wonderful Buddhist grotto. We were surrounded by sculptures and stencils en masse. It’s the kind of place that seems to demand reverential silence, yet also, like the myth of Santa’s grotto, makes you want to squeal with childlike wonder and delight.
The wonderful thing about our Dambulla experience, is that we had little prior knowledge about what we were going to see; only that it was something to see. This lack of expectation only served to make its eventual impact all the more pronounced.
It was a quietly sublime experience; serene even. Not a big, brash fort or hilltop palace, but some quite unassuming caves filled with artistic splendour.
A limitation to visiting a stream of must-see historical sites in a row, is that the extensive nature of some of them can sometimes overwhelm, and result in what we might call tourism (or touring) fatigue. Fortunately, here, the caves are perfectly formed for a compact yet comprehensive experience; we left feeling neither underwhelmed nor overstimulated. Just right.
The produce market was equally gob-smacking, although obviously in terms of scale and delicious possibilities, as opposed to ecclesiastical significance. A number of giant sheds lined with wholesalers and fronted with massive mounds of everything that, as I evocatively read somewhere, will be on Colombo dinner tables the next night.
Honking, beeping, yelling and selling, it was your standard market experience writ so very large, and helped to stoke our appetite for a final helping of curry and rice back in Sigiriya.
Our final stop in the historic trifecta was the ancient capital of POLONNARUWA, now in ruins. We hired bikes to explore the extensive evidence of its former royal glory, which lasted a few hundred years from the early 1000s.
It was first made a capital by an invading South Indian Chola dynasty, who moved the capital here from Anuradhapura, which had ruled over the island for 1,400 years and which will be our last stop. The Cholas ruled from here for 53 years, until control of the country was retaken by King Vijayabahu I in 1070; he decided to keep the capital here.
Most of the ruins relate to the reign of the third king, ‘Parakramabahu the great’ (1153-1186), under whose rule the development of the city reached its zenith; however we saw remnants of the first three reigns as well as the Chola empire (and no doubt subsequent kings too).
However it was definitely Parakramabahu who enhanced, expanded and enlarged the city, with much of it having been destroyed by previous wars, and today you can see clearly evidence of the original citadel, the larger walled city with its bazaar-lined main road, and a number of monasteries and temples beyond the city walls (including one that covered an astonishing 35 hectares).
The rather lovely ‘lake’ that sits beside Polonnaruwa, around part of which we took pleasant rides on both nights we were in town, is actually an amalgamation of three ancient tanks, used for water supply and irrigation (and it still seems to function in this way, with canals and sluices controlling the flow, and people also bath and wash in it, too). The lake may incorporate the huge 25-sq/km water tank that Parakramabahu constructed.
A long day’s exploring took us on a journey through palaces, audience halls and meeting rooms, pools, monasteries, shrines, temples and dagobas. Some were large, some were small; some were exquisitely detailed, others more ruinous. Quite a few displayed the influence of Hinduism. In fact, in the ancient city, there are a number of Hindu temples, something that is attributed to a degree of religious tolerance practiced by the Buddhist rulers.
Global trade also made it here, and evidence of trade and exchange with places as far away as Rome and Arabia has been found in coinage, ceramics and a particular type of teapot used only in royal ceremonies, indicating an important delegation from China had once visited.
Apart from ohhing and ahhing at some of the more magnificent remains, one of the more memorable moments of the day came at a Hindu temple that dates back to the Chola empire.
By pure happenstance, we were there as a Tamil family were making an offering to the deity by pouring milk on the idols; it was something I’ve never seen before so was interesting to observe (as was the nearby monkeys, who quickly lept on them to lick the milk before the family had a chance to finish the prayer by cleaning the idols).
One other observation I enjoyed mulling over was that Polonnaruwa is such a vast complex, over which now sits a lot of growth and the modern village. It’s incredible to think about what might still be sitting underneath the surface, waiting to be found and understood. That there appeared to be evidence of ongoing work only added to this archaeology-in-process aura.
Before we came to Sri Lanka, I read about people complaining about the cost of some of these sites; Sigiriya is USD$30 per adult, for example, Polonnaruwa USD$25. Given there are a number of these sites to visit, you are indeed forking out a fair whack of USD to take them all in.
However, the sites are immaculately maintained, and, it appears, there is still a lot of excavation and restoration work to do, to really uncover this country’s rich history. Admission fees go directly to the CCF, the Central Cultural Fund, so my take is that if the money is paying for more archeologists, more archeological research, providing jobs in site maintenance and upkeep and so on and so forth, then I’m all for it.
Pay up or stay home and reflect on the privilege that allows you to complain about paying to see historical sites on holiday! We’ve had an incredible last week, and seen and learnt about things that far exceed the value of some USD!
A final food note
Our attention has certainly been concentrated on the sites in recent days, however one must always eat. Well.
In Sigiriya, we were treated to amazing curry & rice three days in a row, mostly right next door to our guesthouse. New curry flavours were in abundance: winged bean, supersized white bean, banana flower, loofah, and pea eggplant, as well as notable okra, pumpkin and cabbage delights (among others). In order to get around liquor licensing issues, at one place we were curiously served beer in a teapot. As you do.
In Polonnaruwa, vege curries were multiple in our ring a ring a rosy dinner, but this was completely overshadowed by our guesthouse feast the next night: exquisite chicken, okra, potato, eggplant, and a new addiction…amberella.
Yes, it’s been a deliciously eventful few days for the MC-Dyers…