The ancient cities : Anuradhapura, Pollonaurwa and the religious sites - Matale, Mihintale,Sigiriya, Dambulla
Thursday 8 November
Anuradhapura is a long way from anywhere! The Tissewewa Resthouse is a delightful old colonial pile with large verandahs, ceiling fans ... and mosquitoes .. by the hundred. The landscaped grounds are huge and has groups of two types of monkeys. Rain seems to come regularly as clockwork (as it did in Kandy ..) late afternoon and early evening. There was one really spectacular downpour with thunder for over an hour here. This hotel is far more unspoilt than I expected .. the pictures on the Website make it seem a bit upmarket. Real lack of customers.. apparently the recent attacks have resulted in many cancellations and tour guides are giving the area a miss..
I decided on the spur of the moment to rent a bicycle instead of using a driver and am really glad that I did (once I got my cycle skills back .. they say you never forget how to ride a bicycle but it took 20 minutes or so to get comfortable). Anuradhapura is a big site and there is almost no traffic in these parts, so cycling felt safe, This was an old style sit up and beg bicycle (see below under Practical Details if you don’t know this phrase) .. with no gears but it went quite fast enough for me, thank you very much.
The Archaeology Museum had many interesting objects in a rather decaying building much in need of a clean and brush up. The 'keepers' lounged around gossiping .. must be a cushy job. In one area which was being refurbished (major construction works) the exhibits seemed to be dumped in a pile .. (no other word for it). I suspect security is non-existent here. The grounds were very well maintained and the best objects there were the sanitary goods .. urinals, bidets from, monasteries. This country had advanced drainage, sanitation and irrigation from as early as 1 Cent BC. I was also impressed at the clay roofing tiles from 5th Cent BC which were nailed to a wooden frame in the same way as our modern ones.
One interesting aspect of the temples in Anuradhapura is that many are in active use and therefore it is not purely a tourist scene. In fact, I learned that this is a major city for religion at 4:30 am when the drums started and chanting came from the nearby monastery of over 100 monks. At first it was disturbing but by the end of third night I found it relaxing and it set me off to sleep again (not their intention, I am sure). I visited Ruvanvelisays Dagoba; Thuparama Dagoba and the Abhayagiri Museum ) donated by the Chinese Government in 1997 - who would have thought the Chinese would support religion? - to commemorate Chinese + Sri Lanka ties and to celebrate the visit in 524 AD of the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Fa Hein who reported about life in Sri Lanka at that time.
Abhayagiri Monastery was a very important place. Its active period was 1st Century to 1100 Cent AD. At its peak (probably 8th Century) over 5000 monks were here. The Dagoba itself has eroded over the years and was covered in scaffolding and is undergoing restoration ; what I found far more interesting was the adjacent archaeological site (of no interest to visiting Sri Lankans : I was they only person there, two days running). Not much left in the way of buildings. but the UNESCO Fund has landscaped the whole place and rebuilt the walls to a few feet so you can see the outline of buildings. The tanks were built in stone and therefore survived and one (the Elephant Tank) is huge and impressive. The important thing is that these tanks were all part of the bigger irrigation system which linked reservoirs to tanks, rice fields and ponds. This is a lovely peaceful setting with birds, butterflies and monkeys.
A special feature in the Refectory was a huge (19 metres / 62 feet long ) stone container resembling a canoe which held rice (and a smaller 4 metre one nearby which held curry). This is where the monks came for their twice a day meals (last meal at noon). Subsequently a guide told me that the stone canoes held hot water in them and above that was a copper lining where the food was placed (makes sense).
Lots of monkeys around and unlike my experiences in Thailand (where they can be aggressive) they seemed to go for peaceful co-existence.. I suspect that the free handouts in Thailand made the monkeys both dependent and bold. there are three types of monkeys in Sri Lanka : Common macaque, purple faced langur and the common langur. I preferred the latter .. rather shy and extremely acrobatic.
Big night at the Resthouse ... just as I am finishing dinner 8 men arrive .. turned out to be two VIPS, two drivers and 4 bodyguards. Somehow this does not fill me with delight. I had to ward off images of Tamil Tiger attack on the place.. luckily they were downstairs in the posh rooms so unless some one dropped a bomb on the whole Resthouse, I might be overlooked in any affray. The bodyguards were certainly nervous when I came into breakfast the next morning. I was glad to see the last of them .. they travelled in two 4 Wheel drives with blacked out windows.
This place is certainly remote .. very convenient for the ruins, but as they are on sacred ground, no alcohol served .. no bar .. and no nearby shops. I cycle into town to find an Internet connection .. and that is really an equally underwhelming place. Went to four places that had signs for the Internet, only to be told in each place that they had No Connection. Finally a local guy who saw me walking up and down (I'd parked the bicycle on the edge of town .. too daunting a task to deal with heavy traffic).. asked what I wanted. He took me to a place that had said no 20 minutes before .. and I got a connection. Few people here speak English (so many people in hotels speak it that it is easy to assume everyone does) .. perhaps they just couldn't be bothered. They certainly do not seem to be a particularly commercial or resourceful people (like the Thais or Cambodians, for example).
Cycled back by a different route to miss heavy traffic and two nasty dogs (the only ones I encountered). Isurumuniya Dagoba is part of a large complex dating to 3rd Cent BC. It has three unusual sculptures (unusual because they are not religious), so perhaps the site even predates the arrival of Buddhism in 2nd Cent BC. The
Lovers .. thought to be a king and his lower caste girlfriend (2) elephants carved into the rock of the tank at this site and (3) a warrior and the head of his horse .. quite a striking sculpture carved into the rock above the tank. There is a small archaeological museum (housing The Lovers). Stairs go to the top of a rock overlooking the surrounding area .. these stairs lead under a huge rock that seems very close to falling .. quite stomach churning when I really stopped and looked at it. Local people have placed twigs on one side of it to measure any movement (primitive seismic detectors). This is another place that is exhausting because you have to leave shoes and hat at the entrance ; walk barefoot across hot stone with the sun beating down.
After lunch one of the nice ladies working at the Resthouse showed me through her back garden to a short cut that went to a park which was once the Royal Pleasure Gardens. This is just behind the bund of the reservoir and there are tanks and irrigation channels fed by the lake. It has mature trees, two charming small tanks ; it was built by the 6th Cent AD royal family. the tanks are built below large rocks which provide a great backdrop and which may have had pavilions on them in ancient times. On the short walk back many people were bathing in the channel which flows out of the lake. three young boys insisted on having their picture taken .. then wanted 50 Rupees each for the privilege ; they picked the wrong Old Grouch. Seeing this garden is another benefit of staying at the Resthouse .. I doubt that I would have found it otherwise (it is marked on the map but there is no sign from the main road).
The gardens are below the bund of the gigantic Tissawewa reservoir which is fed by Jaya Ganga canal. Built in the 5th Cent AD, this work of ancient Sri Lankan is considered as engineering wonder in irrigation. This stream is 54 miles long and constructed to supply water from Kalawewa to Tissawewa in Anuradhapura. Even Nowadays irrigation engineers wonder how the engineers of that era could manage to keep the slope of first 17 miles (27 km) so precise - at 6cm per 1.6km ( 2.5 inches per
On my last day in Anuradhapura I cycled to see the Sacred Tree, There was a bonus on the walk towards the site there is an ancient (77 - 89 BC) Dagoba Dakkhin Dagoba. the top is gone but the outline is beautiful and a herd of goats roaming well up the side of it added a special touch.
Security is tight at the Sacred Tree .. one general police check and then two intensive bag and body searches before you enter the grounds. This tree is over 2200 years old (oldest historical tree in the world says the guidebook). It is from a cutting of the Bodhi Tree in India under which Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment around 400 BC. This is a highly sacred site for Buddhists and during full moon festivals in June over 1 million people visit it ; there were no other tourists in sight when I visited. I was expecting some gnarled old fragment of a tree (something like the 1000 year old olive tree in Palma) but this is a huge vigorous tree, an extremely healthy specimen. It sits up on a platform and is surrounded by golden railings ; there are several other trees nearby said to be off shoots of this original one. Photographs are not allowed while on the platform, so I didn't get a very good photo but I will certainly remember it .. the leaves shimmer in the sun and for a tree lover like me, this was quite an experience. The botanical name is Ficus Religiosa.
Next stop was the Jetavana Museum where I had a bit of a hassle over my ticket. I thought the round ticket ($40 to visit several sites) was valid at all sites for 13 days but in reality it is only valid one day at each site .. they wanted me to pay another $20 for the day. I objected and won and will write to the Cultural Fund who administer these sites .. $20 a day seems excessive when you have already paid $40. it would seem to encourage the whole scene of people batting around in mini-vans spending 10 minutes at each site and also work against the interests of the local hotels. The most interesting thing in the museum (for me) were the large (nearly 3 feet in diameter and 2 foot high) backed clay rings used to line wells back in the 3rd Cent BC.
Jetavara Dagoba was built in the 3rd Cent BC and the only taller structures at the time were the Pyramids of Egypt. The top has eroded but the main structure is intact and impressive. There was a monastery for 3000 monks .. and one tank is in excellent condition.
My next stop (making good on some things I missed on Day 1) were the Twin Ponds at Abhayagiri .. brackish water but beautiful stone linings to tanks which were carved out of stone and therefore said to be very cool. An elaborate system of inlets and beds filtered the water before it entered the tank and was said to be pure enough to drink. Final stop in this complex was the Moonstone ; said to one of the finest in Sri Lanka , symbolising Heaven and Earth,. etc. These stones are half moon shapes placed at the bottom of a set of stairs and said to bring good luck when you step on them. (By the way, because of their texture, they also act as doormats)
I got back to the Resthouse just before a torrential downpour with lightning but by that time I was suffering from Dagoba Fatigue so it was nice to prop my feet up and watch the rain (no beer alas, as no alcohol served in this sacred area).
When will I learn that Coca Cola is a stimulant (caffeine is the problem). I had a Coke with the last of my coconut rum (Arrack) and had a restless night. I must have slept but it did not seem like it. Maybe there was something in the air because the monks overslept as well and did not start their chanting until nearly 5am (usually you could set your watch .. 04:30 precisely). Possibly to make up for being late they turned up the volume .. really loud!
Nice leave taking .. the Resthouse is a good spot and the staff are nice, but sometimes just a bit too quiet. I don’t feel the need to talk to other people but being the only person in a hotel is slightly un-nerving (why?). Also .. the mosquitoes here are a real problem.
Short drive to Mihintale. This site was not part of my plans but the book on Anuradhapura insisted that it was critical for an understanding of Sri Lankan Buddhism. The story is that Mihin, the son of an Indian king, was in Sri Lanka trying to convert people to Buddhism (from Jainism and Hinduism). By coincidence he met the king on this spot and converted him .. naturally the rest of the people followed the king’s recommendation. This was in 247 BC. Buddhism later died out (or at least died down) in India and Sri Lanka became the de facto centre for Buddhism and the place from which it spread to Thailand and other parts of Asia.
There are caves dating back to 250 BC and inscriptions in Brahmin, Pali and other languages in use before Sinhalese was invented. Some of those early letters look at bit like Greek letters (possibly the Brahmin). Most buildings on this site dates from the 10th Cent AD and there are a couple of ghastly additions from the past 50 years.
The Cobra Pond gets its name because the rock into which it was built hangs over the pond like a cobra hood. This pond fed both the Alms House (there was an large monastic community here in addition to solitary monks meditating in the caves) and a shower for monks .. down the hill from the Cobra Pond. Even today the water is clean and pure ; the pond is fed by springs from the rock and rainwater running down the rock face.
Part of the sculpture here is not religious (the lion that forms the shower (you put your hands on its paws and that centres you for the flow of water), so this was probably an important place before Mihin arrived.
My driver had paired me up with a local guide (I normally resist that sort of thing, but time was of the essence). This man really knew the spot, was low key and informative. Two Western monks (one American) were touring the site using a book and notes but they missed several spots and he was able to help them.
The guide introduced me to the fat cat who is the head of this monastery .. he spoke good English and said they had a temple in Chiswick and mentioned others in Wimbledon and Croydon. Sorry but I cannot help but thinking that for many of these religious types, this is a business. He seemed a classic case ; I wouldn’t trust him for a minute.
Much to my surprise, we got right to the top of the rock at Mihintale .. the site of Mahoney Dagoba which houses Mihin's relics. the building up there are just 'OK' but the view very impressive indeed. The guide pointed out the boundary line between us and the Tamil Tigers in the north ; it had good views of Anuradhapura (7 miles away) and various reservoirs, forests and mountains.
One interesting thing the guide showed me .. there was a Bodhi tree in the centre of the compound and he took a dead leaf from the ground, folded it in half and there is the outline for the Dagoba (or pagoda or stupa ..). I kept the leaf for my Faith Trash collection.
I gave the guide 1000 rupees ($10) and he asked if I had the money in US Dollars. He is the bread winner for his family (parents are farmers ; he is oldest son) He travels to Colombo because he is trying to pass exams in German and French to become an accredited guide (he told me this earlier and was able to speak quite a bit of German). I suspect that Rupees go into the family kitty and he can save the US Dollars for his own use. (I hated to tell him that the outlook for the Dollar was bleak and he shouldn't hold on to it for too long).
The road from Mihintale to Polonnaruwa was rough, very rough. It is being expanded and improved but for long stretches we were on dusty unmade road with construction equipment all around. I fend off the offers to visit spice gardens, furniture factories, batik shops and elephant rides. When we saw some elephants in a stream we stopped and I got out to take pictures .. people appeared from no where and then demanded money for my taking photos. I chose the oldest (and toughest of the lot) gave him 200 Rupees and told him to sort them out.
We stopped at a posh hotel - the Cinnamon Village - in Habarana.. There appears to be nothing in this town and it seems to be a centre for elephant rides. There is a national forest nearby so the signs for safari might be genuine. It is of note because it is on the railway line to Colombo ; otherwise nothing there. An attractive 'troop' of monkeys amused me while the guide was doing some business in the hotel.
We came through Giritale on our way .. sited on a large lake but otherwise not much there. This is the place offered by AsiaRooms and other travel agents under the heading Polonnaruwa. That’s wrong ; it is 10 miles from the archaeological ruins (on bad roads). Am certainly glad I did not stay there.
Polonnaruwa Resthouse (PRH) was in the best possible location. Right on the lake .. the dining room juts out over the lake .. small (only 10 rooms) ; much of their business involves doing lunch buffets for tour groups. The ruins are literally out the front door. The Old Town nearby has a few shops .. a slow Internet connection - no booze shops - and a Post office.. The market was for locals and busy.
The lake (more like an inland sea ; it is 5600 acres was the work of King Parakrambahu the great (1164-1196 AD) ; he great built or restored 165 dams, 3910 canals, 163 major reservoirs and 2376 minor tanks. During his reign of 33 years Lanka became "The granary of the orient" achieving the zenith of development in irrigation and agriculture of the Sinhalese civilization. He restored three great dagobas at Anurdahpura yet reserved his greatest efforts on a building spree on his capital, Polonnaruwa erecting huge buildings, planning beautiful parks. Parakrama Samudraya (Sea of Parakrama) is his crowning achievement.; probably built as a series of tanks unlike the present huge reservoir which was repaired and restored in 1930s by the British. It is fed by a 40 km ( 26 mile) canal.
Warm greeting from the Manager of PRH : I spoke to him from Kandy when booking the place. That was a stroke of good luck .. I was going to find a place on arrival in Polonnaruwa but the bar man at Hotel Suisse told me PRH was part of the Ceylon Hotel Corp group, and was a good place which was well run. (TripAdvisor website gave it bad reviews .. more on that in due course). The rate was $50 a night half board (Breakfast and dinner), air con room was clean and spacious. In fact dinner proved to be an ordinary affair (Western menu) until I twigged and asked for Rice and Curry and got the same food as the staff.. excellent veg curries.
A young man came up to me during my sunset beer and started promoting his services as a driver .. he was part of the hotel staff. I was going along with this until he told me to beware of the bad boys in the town who would cheat me. Those were words he should not have spoken but sure enough I enquired and found I could make the next leg of the journey for less than half of his quote. He pestered me several times about it until I gave him a firm NO.
The manager pointed out elephants on the other side of the lake but as it was over a mile away I couldn’t see them (my photo shows some big brown spots so I guess he was right. Sunsets over the lake a treat (and different each evening) but the real highlight was shortly after the sun went down .. hundreds (seemed like thousands but I am certain there were a few hundred) of very large bats flew over the Resthouse en route to .. who knows where? I tried without success to get photos .. they are so fast. At least I know what that dark spot in the sky is.
This really is a humid country, I noticed this morning that the vitamin pills in my pill box had soaked up so much moisture that they crumbled ; I don’t recall that happening in any other SE Asian country.
Wednesday 14 November
Long (long!) walk from PRH through adjacent ruins, across main road to the important ruins which make up the ancient city of Polonnaruwa (8th to 12th Cent AD) ; it became the capital when Anuradhapura was abandoned after several attacks by Indian forces in the 7th Cent. While there are more structures here (or at least big portions of them) it does not have the same impact because it seems more like a tourist destination ; Anuradhapura feels quite unspoilt and because it covers much bigger area, never feels crowded.
Noisy evening at PRH .. when I heard bangs at 10 pm I wondered if there was some 'local difficulty', It turns out the staff were having a party to celebrate (if that is the right word) the leaving do for several long term employees. Ceylon Hotel Corp is apparently buying many of the hotels (currently government owned but CHG managed), moving them into the private sector and 'offering' retirement packages to the older employees (sound familiar?). One man told me he had been there over 25 years and at age 53 his future was uncertain.
The current manager told me that he had only been there 4 months - he is ex military - and his own future not too certain. So I hesitate to recommend this place until the dust settles .. though the location will not change and that is fantastic. It seems that Tripadvisor’s poor reviews of this place date back to the ‘old management’ ; I certainly found the place clean and staff (except for the pushy driver) pleasant and helpful.
I had organised my trip with a local driver, Vicky, and it turns out that he has a driver .. how's that for posh? The three of us set out in a van which has seen better days (but I am still glad I am not using the hotel’s driver who resembled a nightclub bouncer the more that I looked at him ; would hate the idea of spending a half day with that one). We went back on the same rough road that I came into Polonnaruwa on, but were lucky and did not have as many delays. the driver was a very good one and narrowly avoided a collision when some stupid man pulled right into our lane (he was going the wrong direction) in a tuk tuk with 4 small kids in it. We had to brake quickly as there was a bus in the other lane and we had no place to go. We all had a go at the tuk tuk driver who seemed oblivious.
We got to Sigiriya at 9:15 and spent a hour and a half there .. getting up as far as the cave paintings (halfway to the top) I'd seen picture of the steps which go to the top and that journey was right out of the question as far as I was concerned. There are interesting water and rock gardens at the lower level and I enjoyed it in spite of far too many vendors and self appointed guides .. it annoys me that you have to pay good money to get in these places and then cannot have 'quiet enjoyment'.
After Sigiriya they were trying to get to Kandalama without returning to the main road and we got a bit lost (I wasn't worried .. just wondering how well these guys knew this part of the world). People did not seem particularly helpful and in one case, seemed to give us the wrong directions. Anyway, we soon saw Lake Kandalama and Vicky pointed out the hotel on the other side of the lake. It has 150 rooms but was hard to see, it is so covered in vegetation.
This is one very posh hotel and because I was staying three nights, I was upgraded to a Superior Room (or from Superior to Deluxe) .. it certainly was that. Spacious, smart, minimalist This hotel really is great.. Minimalism can work when they get the balance right. The room seems spare but there is always a light where you need one for reading and the fridge and cold beer never that far away.
Small balcony and best of all, a very swish bathroom with (1) full size windows looking out over the forest and lake (2) a whirlpool bath and (3) Peeping Tom monkeys.
Fascinating building designed by the architect Geoffrey Bawa. Opened in 1999 and was refurbished in 2005. It is built along a huge rock face.. at times built into the rock and at other points set back so you get views of the rock as you walk along corridors. The building is concrete frame and very minimalist .. which seems to emphasise the outdoors all the more. This was a great place to relax after all the Dagoba visiting, stair climbing. heat and dusty roads.
There were two large conferences in progress so lunch proved to be a massive buffet .. far too much food for me at lunchtime. Luckily just before I went to the cafe in the evening for something light, room service appeared with a complimentary tray of fruit and biscuits .. just want I needed.
I can get BBC World Service on satellite telly .. Weather: London - 1C and Colombo 32C - that cheers me up. Three nights here and I have not left the grounds (it is isolated and only options are elephant rides, etc. which do not interest me). It is great just to read and relax, swim (there are three swimming pools) eat and drink .. and relax some more.
One lunchtime I saw an object lesson on how and why monkeys get aggressive. (I noted earlier that monkeys here were not as aggressive as those I encountered in Thailand). A young Japanese couple sat at the end of the terrace near the trees and in spite of several requests by the staff, the girl kept feeding monkeys from their table. Soon they were overwhelmed by monkeys and all hell broke loose ; the girl was screaming, the man hitting the monkeys. After the staff sorted things out, the girl laughed - she thought it was so cute. After they left, we had to fend off monkeys for the rest of my lunch.
I have fully 'recovered' and am ready to face the rigours of Colombo. In fact, I was getting into the mood of the hotel so much that I started to wear black and/or beige so as not to offend the neutrality of the colour scheme here. I called it “Blending In” .. I sent an email to my friend Kevin about this and he commented that it is one image he had great difficulty in imagining – not my usual approach to life.