Rocks, Ruins and Relics

The Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka is a must see on any traveller’s list so off we headed. This is made up of Kandy, Dambulla, Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura. We had spent the previous day sleeping and recovering after climbing Adam’s Peak and we both woke in agony – putting one foot in front of the other for the next two days was so painful and I won’t even mentioned our attempts at stairs.

We struggled downhill from our hostel in Kandy to the Temple of the Tooth Relic. This tooth relic is reportedly the tooth of Buddha which was saved from his cremation and smuggled away in someone’s hair. A belief grew that whoever held the tooth had the right to rule the land so it has been the subject of some removal attempts and various resting places. The tooth nowadays is kept in a very elaborate gold casket, shaped like a pagoda and locked away apart from being displayed three times a day during puja. We went for the second viewing between 9.30am and 11am. It was such a scrum! There was a lot of pushing and shoving and people were acting very unBuddhist like to catch a glimpse of the casket. (There is another rumour that the casket itself does not hold the original tooth but instead a replica). All this and you don’t actually get to see the tooth in question! We then explored the temple complex which itself is quite interesting and contains lots of statues and various displays, including one with photos from when the temple was bombed during the civil war and subsequently rebuilt. By then it was approaching 11am so we decided to try and see the tooth again. As we were now at the end of Puja all the crowds had dispersed and we were lucky enough to get right in front of the casket without any pushing or shoving. So my tip would be go towards the end of Puja! Also within the temple complex is the World Buddhism Museum which was utterly fascinating. It has displays on Buddhism from various countries such as China, Malaysia and Myanmar, all on our itinerary, and as they are laid out next to each you can see the subtle differences in statues and temples from all over Asia and I’d like to say that we can tell now tell the difference between a Thai Buddha and a Sri Lankan one.

The casket containing Buddha’s Tooth. Look how much we had to zoom in to get this shot!

On our last day in Kandy we took it easy and went for a gentle walk around the lake and to the British Garrison cemetery. Some of my friends know we love a good cemetery and this was no exception. The caretaker showed us around and told us stories about the ways in which people had died. There were of course the usual tropical diseases but there was also someone who had been impaled on a stick and someone who died running away from an elephant. The story goes that he ran away from the elephant and died from sunstroke/ a heart attack. The caretaker counted this by saying that the moral of the story was that fat people can’t run. Very politically incorrect!

The cemetery definitely had a very British look and feel to it
Until you saw these guys

Kandy was definitely a lot busier and more hustling than any of the other places we’ve been to in Sri Lanka and leaving the city tested our patience. Even our hostel tried to scam us by overcharging us for our laundry (unlucky for them I wasn’t born yesterday), tuk tuk drivers wouldn’t leave us alone even though we were waiting at the long distance bus stop. Then when we finally got on a bus it smashed into the back of a tuk tuk. Luckily no one was injured but it did mean stopping the bus, calling the police and all of the passengers piled out of the bus to gather round while discussions were had between the two drivers. This delayed us for an hour and when we finally got moving again the driver actually seemed to drive faster and more crazily. I guess we’ve been lucky (?) that we’ve only been on two buses which have been involved in minor collisions – one in India and one in Sri Lanka – but I hope this doesn’t mean that we’re destined to be in a crash in every country!

We made it to Polonnaruwa eventually and early the next morning borrowed bikes from our guesthouse to explore the vast ancient ruins. Polonnaruwa was established as the capital city in the late 10th century and held that accolade for three centuries, enough time to build a royal palace, various temples and carve impressive Buddha statues from a single rock. All of these now lie in ruins but are important and impressive enough to have been declared a UNESCO world heritage site almost 40 years ago.

We wanted to get an early start to avoid the worst heat of the day and because we needed to travel onwards in the afternoon, but our first problem was finding the bloody ruins in the first place! We passed one vague sign pointing up the road to the ticket counter but it seemed that was where the signage ended. We eventually found it thanks to the help of a local going the other way. Polonnaruwa’s ruins are set out in five main groups and our guesthouse told us it would take around 5 hours to see them all. We started with the Royal Palace group – not that there was much left of the palace and what was left looked like two huge teeth!

The ruins of the Royal Palace. They look like teeth (not Buddha’s tooth though)

The next group was the Quadrangle and this seemed slightly more impressive with temples still holding strong. This is where we were first introduced to the concept of the Moonstone, not the precious stone, but instead a semi circular stone carved with fire, four animals (elephant, bull, lion and horse) swans and a lotus flower at the centre. Depending on what you read you get a different meaning but our understanding was that the flames represented desire, the animals the circle of life, death, decay (the bull bizarrely – such a strong animal) and disease, the swans are the distinction between good and bad and the lotus flower represents the attaining of nirvana. We saved the best group to last – the northern group. These contained the ruins of a temple with a huge headless Buddha statue but also large statues of a sitting Buddha, a standing Buddha and a reclining Buddha, all carved from the same piece of rock. The detail was breathtaking and you could see the use of the natural marbling in the stone. From here we decided we’d had enough and we didn’t have the energy to venture to the other smaller groups, entry to those was also free so we figured they may not be as impressive as what we had just seen so best to finish on a high!

Moonstone
Reclining and standing Buddha carved from the same rock
Headless Buddha in Polonnaruwa

We cycled back to the guesthouse where the mum of the guy who ran the place insisted on getting a photo with me. I was standing my safe distance away from her so as to avoid a repeat of the nit incidence from Rajasthan when she grabbed my head (almost in a headlock) and forced me to rub heads together. I’ve had the nit comb out a few times since just checking!

We had to take two buses to reach Sigiriya, the jewel of Sri Lanka, probably the most famous sight of the country, which towers over the town. We got up early to ensure that we did our climbing before it got too hot or too busy and it paid off. We started climbing the steps and there was hardly anyone in front of us. It seemed though that we couldn’t get enough of stairs at the moment, I’m not sure how many steps Sigiriya has but I’d read various figures between 750-1000. Luckily there are a few attractions on the way so you can take a breath. The first is a small section of frescos featuring lots of topless ladies! These were very colourful and just above these sits the mirror wall. The mirror wall is actually a strip of wall highly polished and we could kind of see a reflection from it although now it’s covered in graffiti from olden days.

The most famous sight in Sri Lanka

Then it’s up to the famous part – the lion’s paws. They are incredibly impressive, very large and definitely leave you wondering what happened to the rest of the lion. Then it’s on up an iron staircase to the summit. This staircase felt very rickety and I was definitely struck by a bit of vertigo going up and no one seemed particularly comfortable doing this part. We reached the top and were greeted by the foundations of an old palace. You don’t really get to appreciate the scale of these ruins until you go to the museum at the bottom and view the aerial photos – it was astonishing and left us with more questions than answers. How did they scale the rock in the first place, never mind carry the material required to the top to construct the palace. It was certainly a prime location though – you could see any attacks a mile off. We headed down and spent some time by the Lion’s Paws watching some very naughty monkeys! I took some great action shots of which I’m incredibly proud. There are ample gardens and other areas to explore at the bottom meaning we spent half a day here.

The Lion’s Paws. You can see the iron staircase in the background.
Favourite action shot ever

Later that afternoon we decided we hadn’t quite had enough of stairs or climbing so we headed to Pidurangula rock from which you can view Sigiriya and sunset. The initial climb was straightforward, up some more steps until you reach a reclining Buddha. From here to reach the summit you must scramble over various rocks, hoisting yourself up and squeezing through gaps. The view was stunning though and sunset was worth the effort. The way down is poorly lit however and it gets dark very quickly here so as soon as the sun disappeared everyone made a getaway, meaning a large queue to squeeze back through the gap before reaching the steps, we’d also decided to walk the 4km there meaning a long walk in the dark back to our tent (we went for a really upmarket hostel this time!) but it gave us the perfect opportunity to gaze at the stars.

The scramble to the top of Pidurangala Rock
Worth it for the view
But huge queue for the tiny gap on the way back down . Not my hand

The next day was jammed packed too. Up early for the fourth day in a row and catching another two buses to reach Anuradhapura. Anuradhapura was the capital of the island before Polonnaruwa and is an important pilgrimage site thanks to the Sri Maya Bodhi, a sacred Bodhi tree, now documented as the oldest Bodhi tree in the world. Yep there are records for this kind of thing. There was no rest for the wicked though for as soon as we reached our guesthouse we engaged a tuk tuk and guide to drive us around some of the free / separately ticketed sites. You can hire bikes to explore but the city was large and it looked as though some of the sites were quite far apart so we decided to treat ourselves! The hot afternoon was spent visiting the tree, quite an awe inspiring sight, as well as various dagobas. Our guide was knowledgeable without being intrusive, giving us the background but leaving us to explore on our own. He dropped us at the royal park, giving us directions on where to go and a trail to follow back around the lake to Isurumuniya Vihara, a lovely rock temple. We spent the majority of our time at this particular temple throwing coins at a small ledge in the rock trying to make them land there and not in the pond! Third time lucky for me, Joey of course was far better at this than me. It was a charming afternoon and we were glad we took the easy option on this occasion – so much so that we engaged Pala the following day!

The oldest Bodhi Tree in the world

This was the big day as it was time to splash the cash on the ticket for the rest of the sites. Being cultural does not come cheap, entry to these three sites cost us $80 each! We actually missed out part of the triangle at Dambulla too as we’d seen plenty of cave temples in India! We covered palaces and temples- some more impressive than others. There was the palace with the 8 metre high door, lots more moonstones and lots of dagobas and stupas. One Stupa was constructed with approximately 90 million bricks – apparently enough to build a 3 metre high wall all the way from London to Edinburgh! There were Stupas that purportedly contain various relics of Buddha such as his right collarbone, a belt and an unnamed relic. The government have commissioned the construction of several new stupas around the city and Pala told us this was mainly to give the army a job since the war has ended.

The 8 metre high door. I look like I’ve shrunk in the wash
What 90 million bricks looks like

It was an exhausting few days, so much so that I actually put off writing about it. We normally don’t do activities on days that we travel (unless it involves going to a beach) so we definitely feel in need of rest over the next couple of weeks before we have to head back to India!

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