Sri Lanka, the origin of Ceylon Tea and the
home of Arthur C. Clarke is also the origin and the home of Theravada Buddhism,
the "save your own skin" variety of Buddhism which is also called
Hinayana or small vehicle by opposition to the Mahayana or big vehicle
variety that espouses the "one for all and all for one" strategy
for the attainment of nirvana.
|Lonely Planet CIA|
The old and the new. In the foreground, Cargill's, a vestige of the British Empire (it is really like a museum inside, with wooden display cabinets and all the trimmings), and in the background, the twin towers of international finance just next to the Presidential Palace!.
Personally, I was not overly impressed by Colombo. I did visit the National Museum (whose best feature is the old building that houses it), and walked around Beira Lake where I spotted this fine Buddhist island temple but that was about it... After investigating the problem of getting to the northern ancient cities I realised that renting a car with driver was the best solution, even for a backpacker, so that's what I did.
Anuradhapura is the odest and largest of the ancient cities. It is also the most northerly and thus the closest to the Tamil populated areas that are best avoided presently because of the ongoing civil strife. Strife between the Sinhalese and Tamil has ancient roots in the history of Sri Lanka. Anuradhapura had already been the capital of Sinhalese kings for a century before they converted to Buddhism in the third century B.C. Its northern location and extensive layout made it vulnerable to invasions from South Indian dynasties (ancestors of the Hindu Tamils imported as cheap labour by the British), and it changed hands several times. In the 10th century, the capital was moved about 80 km to the south east to the more compact and fortified Polonnaruwa. The Mirisavatiya Dagoba shown here was built over 2000 years ago by king Dutugemunu after regaining the city from a South Indian invader.
The king's role as the supreme authority over water management was as important as his military responsibility because the growth and prosperity of communities were largely dependent upon efficient irrigation in these dry northern regions. The great kings were therefore great builders of irrigation canals and of water reservoirs of all sizes (tanks). The well crafted twin pools shown here were built in the 1st century for the monks attached to the Adhayagiri Dagoba.
When the capital was moved to Polonnaruwa in the 10th century, Anuradhapura began a slow decline and had largely been reclaimed by the jungle when the British reached the interior of the island in the 19th century. The Jetavanarama Dagoba shown here was built in the 3rd century A.D. and is now being restored as have been most of the important structures of the ancient city. Dagobas, called Stupas in Nepal, Chorten in Tibet, Pagodas in Myanmar and Chedi somewhere else, are a fundamental symbol representing the buddhist cosmos. They are generally solid and may sometimes contain relics but cannot be seen as tombs; they are holy places on which to concentrate meditation and worship.
This is all that is left of the magnificent Palace built in the12th century by Parakramabahu, the greatest of the Sinhalese kings to reign here. The capital was located in Polonnaruwa for about three centuries until persistent South Indian invasions caused its displacement in the 13th century to Dambadenia about 110 km to the south-west of here and later to Panduvasnavara close by.
These ruins were king Parakramabaku's audience hall located next to the royal palace inside the inner fortifications of Polonnaruwa. It is notable for the frieze showing elephants in various positions around its base and for the two lions at the top of the stairs.
A short distance north of the Royal Palace lie a number of interesting religion related buildings of which this Vatadage (circular relic house). Four staircases adorned with fine guardstones lead to a low dagoba surrounded by four seated Buddhas.
About two km further north, lies this relatively small but beautiful dagoba called Kiri Vihara which is still covered with its original lime revetment after 700 years of neglect.
A large rock outcrop a short distance north of the Kiri Vihara was given religious significance by carving a group of Buddha figures called Gal Vihara. This 14 meter reclining image represents the Buddha entering nirvana. The 7 meter standing Buddha in the background is unique because of its unusual crossed arms posture.
Finally here is the third great Buddha of Gal Vihara in a very classic sitting meditation posture. Polonnaruwa has about 50 sites of interest. It's a shame to show only six but we do have to move on before some of you get bored with Buddhist ruins.
In the 5th century the Anuradhapura king Kasyapa, fearing attack from the half brother whose throne he had usurped, built himself an impregnable and luxurious Palace Fortress completely covering the 4 acre top of this spectacular rock outcrop. After his death, Sigiria became a monastery but it later fell in disrepair and was in ruins when rediscovered by British archeologists.
This small site, 50 km north of Kandy, was the last of my three day tour of the ancient cities. Its particular interest lies in the association of a solid traditional Buddhist Vihara on the right with the thick walled hollow temple of Hindu inspiration called a Gedige on the left.
The Portuguese came to Sri Lanka in 1505 and soon took over the Tamil kingdom of Jaffna in the north and the Sinhalese kingdom of Kotte in the south-west (close to Colombo), but they were unable to subdue the Sinhalese kingdom of Kandy in the central mountains. A century and a half later the Dutch took over from the Portuguese but they were also unable to dominate Kandy who fell only in 1815 to the invading British. The botanic gardens shown here were already a royal pleasure garden before the British invasion almost two centuries ago..
Sri Lanka's most important relic is housed here in the Temple of the Tooth (Dalada Maligawa) built three centuries ago. The sacred tooth of Buddha is said to have been saved from his funeral pyre in 543 BC, brought to Sri Lanka in the 4th century AD and moved from place to place until it arrived in Kandy. To enter you must remove your shoes and leave them in the shed seen here next to the entrance.
Of course you cannot see the Tooth but if you are willing to wade through the throng of worshippers and tourists around 6 am, 10 am and 7 pm, you might get a glimpse of the outer of a series of smaller and smaller gold caskets holding the holy relic. In the meantime there is less traffic in the temple and the matrioshka like relic caskets are kept in a special room of the gold roofed inner temple, one floor above the screened entrance shown here.
The temple is open 24 hours a day and features prayer rooms, oil lamp stands and shrines like this one to occupy the faithful between the tooth casket showings (which are called pujas). There is even a stuffed elephant to look at!
Kandy is not only an interesting place, its lake, botanical gardens, Royal Palace Park and the Udawattakelle sanctuary definitely make it a beautiful place. The golden roof across the lake is where the Tooth is kept.
Apart from worshippers and tourists Kandy also has real people as you can see in this busy commercial street scene..
I stayed a couple of days in Kandy and then took a very ancient train for a 6 hour ride through the hill country to the small village of Ella almost half way between Kandy and the southern coast.
The views from the train of jungle, of gorges, rivers and falls and of tea plantations hanging on to steep slopes kept my nose on the window pane for the whole trip. It was cloudy but it was great anyway. I spent only one night in Ella. The following day was Sunday. There were no busses going south to the coast so I hitchhiked and met Diane, a backpacker from the Montreal area also hitchhiking to Tissamaharamama to do a safari in Yala Park just like me!
It took us only two rides to get to Tissa where we met a French family who also wanted to see the elephants of Yala Park. We left the following morning at 5:00 am and I took this sunrise shot a little later.
Our driver took this picture of Martine, Patrick, Amélie, Diane and I in front of our safari vehicle in Yala Park. We saw a lot of animals, elephants, buffalo, gazelles, warthogs, otters, monkeys and a big 5 foot varanus lizard. We had a great day topped by a fish feast at the hotel.
Young elephant waiting for us to pass before crossing th road.
Us, waiting for an elephant family to finish crossing the road. The little elephant baby was real cute, if it had not been for the mother I would have liked to get out and pat it.
Bull elephant feeding on roadside trees and blocking our way home. We watched and waited...
We took a bus to Matara on the following day. As you can see the bus was somewhat crowded, we stood with the other 50 standees while 30 lucky early birds sat though the three hour ride.
We split in Matara, Diane went to Polhena for a week of beachside farniente and I stayed to visit the market, the temple and the Dutch star fort before looking for a dive shop.
I stopped in Unawatuna but as the dive shop was closed so I moved on to Galle which I found most attractive and interesting. The old Galle, pronounced Gol, is a totally enclosed fortified port originally built by the Portuguese in the 16th century. It reminds me of El Jadida also built by the Portuguese on the Atlantic coast of Morocco and of the port of St-Malo in Brittany from which the French sailed in the 16th century to the land that is now Quebec
Built by the Portuguese, taken over by the Dutch in the 17th and by the British in the 19th, Galle is finally governed by Sinhalese but it has kept the old world look left by its past masters.
This is the family hostel next to the western seawall where I had a room with private bath for 7 US$ including breakfast.
Galle is now almost completely Buddhist but it had an important Catholic population in the 16th and 17th centuries as evidenced by this Portuguese church transformed into a Buddhist temple complete with adjoining Dagoba. Then the Dutch came and built a Protestant Groote Kerk which the British used when they took over and which is still operating. A fine Mosque on the south seawall completes the image of tolerance typical of the Buddhist religion.
I finally found a dive shop I liked here in Hikkaduwa some 15 km north of Galle. This village is a three km string of hotels, shops and restaurants along a golden sand beach 100 km south of Colombo. This must be a pretty hectic place during the high season (December January and February) but in mid March it was just fine, not too crowded and none of the shops had closed yet.
There were three or four dive shops in town, some big and expensive in the better hotels and some very small and without accommodations. I chose the the Poseidon Diving Station, the price was attractive (only 15US$/dive) the atmosphere was right and they had comfortable motel units for 7US$.
I stayed here a few days to dive with a friendly bunch of Peace Corps workers on holidays from their posting near Colombo. I also met an interesting much travelled 67 year old Danish retired sailor who spends his winters here because of the climate, the hospitality of the people and the low prices.
This elephant was crossing the village just as I was leaving for Colombo and from there, to the Maldives. When I inquired what was going on, I was told not to worry, that this big fellow was just going home after a day's work at the saw mill!