Sri Lanka is shaped like a teardrop and sits above the equator, just 30 miles from India. It’s not a big island (about 25,000 square miles) but its history is rich and diverse, with various empires warring for control over the land rich with spices and fertile farmland. The beginning of our tour took us through the ancient ruins of Anuradhapura (former capital city, from 4th century BC, until invasions and fighting led to its abandonment in the 10th century), Mihintale (an important religious site that attracts a large number of Buddhist pilgrims), Sigiriya Rock (a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and upon which sits the ruins of a fortress built, incredibly, between AD 477-485), the Dambulla Cave Temple (another UNESCO site dating back to 1st century BC), and the Ruwanwelisiya Dagoba and monastery. If that all seems like a lot of syllables and dates, just look through the photos below and remember that all of these places were designed, carved, and constructed by hand, brick by brick.
Ajith tells us about the guardstone symbolism
Offerings. Even the Buddha likes his spices.
The Dambulla Cave Temple is literally built into the walls of the rock. Part of the reason it is so well-preserved is the drip eave (seen here) carved along the top to prevent hundreds of years of rainstorms from washing away the temple.
The inside of the this flower has a little bud shaped like a stupa (or maybe the stupas are shaped like this flower)
That these four giant statues were all carved into one giant rock just blows your mind. What if the last guy to finish messed up??
Note the guy halfway up the side, cleaning the moss off the bricks. Sure, he’s tied off…. sort of. And barefoot.
There something beautiful about monk robes, meant to eschew luxury in line with the ascetic lifestyle. I especially love that their color originates from saffron (one of the most expensive natural materials in the world), which was once used as an antibacterial treatment, and just happened to dye them a lovely hue.
Encircled by elephants, 2nd century BC
A monk blessed this string as he tied it around my wrist
These are prayer flags requesting help for illnesses and trouble; kind of sad, actually.
Exceptionally well-preserved examples of the moonstone (on the ground) and guardstones (along the stairs)
The Gal Pota (stone book) explaining the achievements of the kings. These carved historical records will outlast our digital photo galleries, for sure.
Some of the ruin sites were so big we rode around on bicycles to visit the various parts of the once booming cities, which are now quiet parks, partly reclaimed by nature.
Great stone cisterns, all carved and built by hand
Elephant pond, where we stopped for lunch
Lots of photographers in our group
Let’s focus on the beautiful carving and paintings, and not the sinister lighting…
These statues are also special because the town was warned of approaching Tamil invaders, and they came together to bury the statues in dirt and gravel so that the marauders couldn’t destroy them. They remained hidden for centuries until a British explorer in the 1930s (I think) shot at a bird and heard his bullet *ting* of something hard. Upon further investigation, he found a giant Buddha head slowly emerging from the soil, and the excavation began.
On our way north, we stopped at a Hindu temple (no photos allowed), and after removing our shoes and hats, we walked around inside while Ajith explained the iconography and varying holy legends associated with Hinduism. He also explained the different stories associated with the Indian vs the Sri Lankan versions (such as how Ganesh ended up with an elephant head).
Some devotees came through while we were learning, and we were even there when a young man came in with offerings. A priest in a brown sarong came out and chanted the prayers as he set the offerings in front of the shrine. Priests must act as the go-between people they are the only ones allowed inside the shrine, though it was open so that we could see inside. We stood quietly as the priest sang the rites and circled a small candle plate in front of the statues. I actually felt a twinge of discomfort, as it seemed like a personal thing and that we shouldn’t be there, but the shrine is open and it’s not meant to be private.
Eventually the priest dipped his finger tips into small bowls of white cow dung ash (cows are sacred), yellow turmeric powder, and red sandalwood powder and then touched the young man’s forehead, leaving three dots indicating he’d visited the temple. He also received a burning coconut from the priest, which had been part of his plate of offerings. Cradling the coconut in both hands, the young man walked out to a flat stone in front of the entrance. The flames attract any “evil eye” influences disrupting the life of the faithful, and the evil is then entrapped in the coconut. Once he reached the flat stone, the man smashed the coconut, thereby disseminating the evil spirits and freeing himself from their influence. Meanwhile, the priest had brought the plate of fruit back to what I assume was the man’s mother, who then offered it to us. She didn’t speak any English but she shared her blessed fruit with us. The belief is that the gods take some of the flavor of the fruit during the offering, so blessed fruit tends to be a bit bland. However, after feeling unsure we should even be there to witness this personal ritual, I found the gift of blessed fruit to be quite sweet.
Mihintale was the first Buddhist monastery in Sri Lanka, dating back to the 5th century BC. We walked through the ruins of their wrestling room (one of the few exercises in which they were allowed to participate), and next to the cistern where the gravity-fed stone troughs served as a shower in the shape of a lion. We stood on the same stone floor where thousands of years ago, 3000 monks lined up by seniority to receive their alms in the form of rice and curry, and ran our fingers over the smooth, rounded stone that they used as their spice grinder. When a storm cloud passed over, we took shelter in of one of 68 meditation caves burrowed into the rocks where monks would fill a small hole with water and then sit in meditation and prayer until the water had evaporated.
We were able to visit and photograph a Buddhist shrine near the stupa, and once again had Ajithl to share the associated stories and legends as we watched the sun set.
This is the rice boat where the piles and piles of rice would be served to the monks
The pillars once supported a roof meant to protect the stupa beneath. The pillars remain, and the stupa has been rebuilt, but the roof turned to dust centuries ago.
Worth the climb (barefoot, up a rock)
Sigiriya Rock is one of the premier sites to visit in Sri Lanka. It’s a 200 meter rock rising above the surrounding countryside, and a paranoid (rightfully so, it turned out) king built a palace and fortress on top, because he expected his half-brother to come after him to resolve some long-standing family drama. The king constructed this fort for 11 years, and then lived in it for 7 more, but when the time finally came and he heard that his half-brother’s army was approaching, he sat safely inside the outer mud moat, inside the outer ramparts, inside in the inner water moat filled with crocodiles, inside in the inner ramparts, and atop this giant rock with views and tactical advantages in all directions…. and decided to leave so he and his army could meet his brother halfway. See, humans have been making bone-headed decisions for all of time.
The rock is in full blazing sunlight, so the king built water gardens and pond all around the fortress to provide some evaporative cooling. If you go, get to the gate as it opens, before the heat of the day comes on (and before the hoards, and I mean hoards, of other tourists arrive). Our day was misty and didn’t provide miles and miles of view from the top, but it also was slightly less scorching hot, so it worked out ok. Also, this climb is not for the faint of heart. I have no idea how this king brought all the bricks up to the top of this rock…
Throughout our ascent, we saw brick walls built into the side of the rock.
There it is.
My favorite part of the story, which I didn’t capture in photos, is that the king had the paths cut from a quartz-like stone. At night, the moonlight would glitter off the paths to guide the way through the darkness.
Yep, this is pretty much what it felt like.
The king’s swimming pool
The last part of the climb requires some commitment.
These stairs are no joke.
The rock has some well-preserved frescoes along the way up, but no photos allowed. That spiral staircase bolted to the side of this rock did not inspire a lot of confidence in me.
Ajith brought us cheese and crackers for a surprise snack on top!
We made it.
This balance rock was a defensive weapon. Upon an invasion (if the king had decided to actually stay in his badass fortress), he’d send his least favorite guys to knock out the small vertical rocks, sending the top slab sliding down. How did they get those vertical rocks in there? I have no idea.
In Kandy, we visited the Temple of the Tooth and got to observe an offering ceremony. I was kind of templed-out at this point so I didn’t take many photos (plus, it was such a crush of people, both faithful and tourists, that I was just trying to keep sight of my group). Later in Colombo we stopped to see the amazing stone carving of the Independence Memorial Hall.
Gold lotuses on the ceiling
The faithful often wear white when visiting a temple.
Independence Memorial Hall
This guy reminded me of the dog statue in the original Ghostbusters. Friendlier, obviously.
Back to Sri Lanka