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North to Jaffna

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Like a feather in Sri Lanka’s cap, the Jaffna Peninsula pokes out of the top of the island, pointing towards India. The long, narrow peninsula is separated from the rest of the country in about every way imaginable: culturally, ethnically, religiously, linguistically and geographically.

Clock Tower Jaffna

We took the bus from Anuradhapura, sitting in the back row (the only place where 6’6″ Jürgen fit). Six hours of psycho-driving on unconscionably bumpy roads. We spent as much time in the air as seated and, after arriving, I felt like I’d just ridden a bucking bronco for six hours. We’re not teenagers anymore, and it took a full day for our bodies to recover from the beating.

Of course, the deplorable state of the road which leads to Jaffna isn’t entirely surprising. The Civil War raged for 26 years, only ending in 2009, and ravaged the north of Sri Lanka. The road past Vavuniya (the dusty transit town which serves as the gateway to the north) was like one long construction site, so recovery efforts are underway. But there is a lot to work on, and it won’t be done for years.

Due in part to its proximity to India, the peninsula has always been the stronghold of Sri Lanka’s Tamil population, and the great majority here are ethnically distinct from the rest of the island. Tamil-only signs and colorful Hindu kovils predominate, as opposed to loopy Sinhalese and serene Buddhist temples. The people, who are still recovering and largely still returning from self-imposed exile, don’t speak nearly as much English as in Kandy or Anuradhapura, and things don’t run as smoothly here. It would be shocking if they did.

We spent ten full days in Jaffna, and had an experience that was fascinating, frustrating and exciting, all in equal measure. Not too many foreigners get up to the north; the bus ride is difficult, and really only worth it if you can spend an extended amount of time. But with remote islands, bizarre temples, a beautifully arid landscape and its unique atmosphere, so different than the rest of Sri Lanka, there’s plenty in Jaffna to occupy weeks.

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March 26, 2012 at 9:32 am Comments (0)

Get Those Sexy Calves of Steel at Mihintale

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A few kilometers east of Anuradhapura is the small town of Mihintale, famous as the place that Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka. While on a hunt in the woods, the reigning Sinhalese King Tissa encountered a monk named Mahinda, who had been sent to the island by the Indian King Ashoka to spread the faith. Mahinda found a willing convert in King Tissa, and Sri Lankans quickly embraced their ruler’s new religion. Ever since, the country’s Sinhalese majority has been staunchly, proudly Buddhist.

View Point Rock

Today, the mountainous site of Mihintale is filled with stupas, ruins, statues and temples dedicated to the glory of the historic encounter between Tissa and Mahinda. It’s a wonderful place to visit on a day trip from Anuradhapura but, before leaving, make sure to lace your sneakers up tightly and do some stretching. To see everything Mihintale has to offer, you’ll have to climb 1840 stairs. Stop laughing, that’s not a joke.

From the bottom of the mountain, the path up looks ominous. Luckily, it’s split up rather frequently by cool things to see. After the first fifteen minutes, we found ourselves at the remains of a large stupa called the Kantanka Chetiya. Around the back is a set of caves which can be explored. We spotted giant squirrels here, and watched a family of langurs play in the trees before heading back up the hill.

After climbing hundreds of more stairs, we arrived at the main terrace, which is an active place of worship requiring the removal of our shoes. A large white stupa is the centerpiece, flanked by statues of Tissa and Mahinda. Around the stupa, a number of paths lead to various sites: up to a seated Buddha, then down to the cave where Mahinda slept, then up to a lookout point, then over to a pond where monkeys were swimming. And then we seriously wanted to collapse.

But the path continued on. After recovering our shoes, we climbed yet more stairs to arrive at another stupa, where a monk invited us into an adjacent temple and smilingly urged us to make a contribution. We were exhausted, easy prey. Past this, another awful, endless flight of steps led to Et Vehera, where we found another small, completely ruined stupa and a view which stretched to Anuradhapura. Gleefully, I looked about — yes, we were as high as possible! Not another step remained! My calves were burning, and I laid down for a bit, daydreaming about all the people who’d be fainting at the sight of my newly muscular legs, or shyly approaching to ask if they could but touch my bulging, heroic calves. But I would not let them! They may take pictures, or present offerings, or compose poems to my strength…

Later that night, as I was laying exhausted on the bed, stuffing chips into my mouth and lazily drinking a beer which had mostly slobbered down my chin to form in a fetid pool at the bottom of my neck, I allowed the daydreams of my calf-worshipping acolytes to continue. So what? I think 1840 steps earns a man a little self-delusion.

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March 25, 2012 at 12:53 pm Comments (4)

The Cave Temples of Dambulla

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An extensive complex of ancient cave temples is found in Dambulla, a bustling town just twelve kilometers from Sigiriya. It’s awfully convenient that two of Sri Lanka’s best cultural sites are within such easy access of each other, and we visited one right after the other. The Dambulla Temple was constructed in the 1st century BC and inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991.

Famouse Cave Temple Sri Lanka

On arriving at the temple’s gate, we were immediately put off by its gaudy modern facade, which makes the complex look suspiciously like a bargain China Buffet. But after buying tickets and skirting around the massive golden Buddha and smiling dragon, we found a much better atmosphere on the other side. Rocks, forest, monkeys and, after a steep fifteen-minute climb, incredible views which stretch to the Lion Rock.

The temple is spread across five caves of varying size. We started at the back, in cave #5, which is the best way to tackle them, since they become more impressive as you walk back towards the entrance. The caves are rather shallow, the maximum height reaching no more than about ten meters, and are filled to the brim with ancient sculpture and artwork. Over 150 Buddha statues and a mind-blowing collection of murals that cover over 20,000 square feet.

The caves had been used for shelter long before Sinhalese King Vattagamini Abhaya found refuge here. After having been driven from Anuradhapura by an Indian invasion, he lived in the caves for fifteen years, biding his time, nursing his wounds and building an army. He eventually returned to the capital and drove out the foreigners. In celebration, he built the Abhayagiri Stupa on the site of his victory, and Dambulla’s Cave Temple at the place of his refuge.

At over 160 feet in length, Cave #2, the Temple of the Great Kings, is the largest and most impressive of the five. Buddha statues line the walls and the murals cover every inch of ceiling. Two sections paintings show the attempts of Mara (the Buddhist Satan) to distract Buddha during his meditation under the Bodhi Tree. In the first, Buddha sits in the “Have No Fear” pose, while on all sides a horrifying array of demons shake the earth and threaten attack. In the next, Mara has switched tactics and sent a bevy of busty beauties to tempt Lord Buddha from the path of enlightenment.

Although the murals have been touched up and repainted numerous times over the centuries, the age of the caves is jaw-dropping. It’s an amazing feeling to be in a dark mountain temple, which looks much as it did over 2200 years ago when a victorious Sinhalese King was celebrating the recovery of his kingdom. Dambulla is yet another must-see experience in Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle.

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March 25, 2012 at 9:57 am Comments (3)

The Back of Beyond Eco Lodge in Sigiriya

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For our three-day road trip that would bring us to Ritigala, Sigiriya and Dambulla, we needed a lot of energy. Luckily, we couldn’t have chosen a more restful place to spend our down hours: The Back of Beyond Eco Lodge in Sigiriya.

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Located just past the temple which sits in front of Pidurangala Rock, Back of Beyond certainly lives up to its name. After arriving at the correct approximate location, we searched for the entrance but eventually had to call for help. Minutes later a kid appeared on a bike, and led us into the woods down a tiny dirt path marked only by a tall stone slab. We’d have never found it ourselves.

We checked in at around 3pm. Having spent the day at Ritigala, we were tired and the sight of the bungalows and quiet forest setting was extremely welcome. Guests get their own cabins, which are nicely decorated, comfortable and very eco-friendly. All of the buildings at the lodge were built without harming a single tree — wherever one might have stood in the way, holes were cut out of roofs, or walls erected at strange angles, to accommodate it.

The first thing I did was hop in the shower, located just outside the cabin behind a set of high walls. It’s not often I get to shower outside, but with central Sri Lanka’s consistently pleasant temperatures, it makes a lot of sense. We had a full board during our stay, and the meals were fantastic — Back of Beyond offers a wide selection of Sri Lankan food to choose from, like rice and curry, string hoppers, barbecue chicken and paratha.

But best of all was the peace and solitude, especially after tiring days of sight-seeing and hiking. Just sitting on the balcony’s porch, with a good book open on my lap (there’s a small library at the lodge), pretending to read while listening to the sounds of the forest… I couldn’t have asked for more.

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March 24, 2012 at 1:09 pm Comment (1)

Pidurangala Rock – Sigiriya’s Overlooked Brother

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After our tiring ascent to the summit of Sigiriya Rock, we deserved to spend the rest of the day lounging around the hotel. But too many people had recommended a climb up Pidurangala Rock. “Sigh, I don’t know. Well, it’s right next to our hotel. But I’m so tired.” We debated, deciding to skip it, then deciding to go, and then giving up on the idea again. Eventually, our better natures won out and, grumbling, we set off on our second uphill trek of the day. And we’re happy we did.

Magical-Sigiriya

Pidurangala is where King Kassapa relocated the Buddhist monks who had previously occupied the area around Sigiriya. Just beyond an old temple which sits at the base of the hill, we found the path leading upwards. It was a blessedly easy hike, with a well-marked trail and manageable stairs, and it didn’t take us more than a half-hour to reach a giant Buddha reclining in a shallow cave.

The path disappeared beyond the Buddha, but we had been told to carry on through the forest. It was perhaps the only time I’ve been thankful for litterbugs; without the messy trail of plastic bottles and bags, we’d have been lost. Soon, we reached a collection of boulders and, after scaling up and through these, we emerged onto the top of Pidurangala.

Although it’s almost the same altitude as Sigiriya, Pidurangala’s summit couldn’t be further away in feeling. An expansive, flat field of rock, completely bare of anything save a small patch of cacti and trees in the center. No ruins, and no people. We had an amazing view of nearby Sigiriya, which looked even more impressive from this height.

During the whole excursion, we were completely alone, which was a real treat after the morning at busy Sigiriya. It’s unbelievable that Pidurangala should be so neglected. The hike through the woods was gorgeous and atmospheric, the Buddha was impressive and emerging atop the rocky summit was unforgettable. Apparently, you’re supposed to pay $2.50 at the temple, but there was nobody there when we entered or left, and so it was free — another relief, after having blown $30 apiece at Sigiriya. If you have time left over when in Sigiriya, Pidurangala is worth the effort.

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March 24, 2012 at 4:08 am Comments (4)

The Deadly Snakes of Sri Lanka

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An unavoidable prelude to any journey is convincing my mother that the destination is safe and that I won’t suffer an agonizing death in a foreign land, far from those who love me. In this respect, Sri Lanka presented more of a challenge than usual.

Oh, did I pick and choose the statistics which I casually revealed to my mom! “Huh, would you look at that? Sri Lankans have one of longest average life-spans in Asia.” Or: “Wow! Who’d have thought that Sri Lanka’s literacy rate would be so high? Isn’t that amazing, Mom?” And: “It’s so nice that the Civil War is over and done with, completely, and there’s nothing more to worry about on that front, at all, since it’s finished now, and peace and love reign supreme in this magical place that I think I’ve heard some people call The World’s Very Most Safest Island.”

But my trickery was for naught. “Michael. Come over here.” Oh no, she’s opened up the internet! She’s gone straight to Google and keyed in Sri Lanka Danger Death. (Though it’s doomed me in this case, I remain silently proud of her web smarts). “Michael Ross Powell! It says here that Sri Lanka has the highest per capita rate of snakebite deaths in the world“.

Busted! Fine, mother, it’s true. In no other country are you more likely to drop dead of a snake bite than in Sri Lanka. It’s the world leader. Tropical, verdant Sri Lanka is a snake paradise; a fertile breeding ground of evil. 96 species of snakes have been recorded here, more than half endemic to the island. 32 of them are venomous, and twenty of these are deadly: seven land snakes and thirteen sea serpents.

Cobras are the most famous of Sri Lanka’s snakes. They’re found all over the island, except for a small zone in the highlands. This hooded killer is both feared and venerated here; statues of cobras are perhaps only second to Buddhas in places of worship. They’re also popular with snake charmers, who can be found hanging around any large tourist site. We had the chance to meet one during our time in Colombo (Mom, you may want to avert your eyes, now):

Scared of Cobras

The common krait is another of Sri Lanka’s deadly snakes. This fellow can grow over five feet in length and delivers a powerful neurotoxin that results in paralysis and eventual death by suffocation. They’re nocturnal, so encounters with humans are rare. But during the rainy season, they often seek evening shelter inside of a house and are a danger to sleepers. The bite isn’t very painful, akin to a mosquito or spider, so there’s a good chance that you wouldn’t even wake up. Until you’re choking on your own tongue.

The good news about the saw-scaled viper is that it’s mostly confined to the Jaffna peninsula. The bad news? We had ten days planned there!! Its toxin causes massive kidney failure and something called hematemesis (not sure what that is, maybe I should Wikipedia it… [reading] … oh god oh god oh god).

Cobras are perhaps the most terrifying, but they’re not the most deadly of Sri Lanka’s snakes. No, that distinction goes to the god awful Russell’s Viper. These large snakes are common in populated areas, where they hunt the rodents that live among humans. They’re mostly nocturnal and often found on roads at night. If bitten by one, you’re in trouble. They can deliver over 250mg of venom, and it takes only 40 to 70mg to kill a man. Nothing like making extra-sure, eh, you stupid snake? The bite will immediately swell up, and you’ll start bleeding. From your gums. In your urine. You’ll be in severe pain for up to two weeks, after which you might die of kidney failure.

The most important thing in the case of any snake bite is to immediately seek treatment. Even in the case of the Russell’s Viper, you’re very likely to survive if you get to a hospital right away. Sri Lankan clinics, predictably, are well-equipped to handle snake bites. Also, try and identify the type of snake which bit you, and you’ll save a lot of time once you arrive. Our plan (yes, we have a plan) is to take a picture of the snake, and then get to a hospital.

See mom? Nothing to worry about. Hospitals are prepared and we have a fail-proof survival plan! Now, log off Google and WebMD and YouTube, and relax. We’re as safe as can be.

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March 23, 2012 at 12:14 pm Comments (13)

The Summit of Sigiriya

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We had reached the large terrace which marks the half-way point on the ascent to the summit of Sigiriya Rock. Before continuing, we took a break and surveyed the remaining path in dread and awe. The next flight of stairs was framed by an enormous pair of stone paws. Because of its profile, Sigiriya had long been referred to as the “Lion Rock”, but King Kassapa decided to make the nickname somewhat more literal.

Sigiriya

During Kassapa’s reign in the 5th century AD, a massive, 60-foot lion was chiseled out of the rock. The steps which continued up to the royal palace started at the lion’s feet, wrapped around his body and eventually entered his mouth. Today, all that remain are the paws, but they give a good idea of the statue’s scale. It’s hard to appreciate how impressive it must have been 1500 years ago. It would be impressive now.

The final flight of stairs, hugging tightly to the stone wall, is not for those who suffer from vertigo. My mind kept flitting back into the past. If I, on these stable steps of modern steel, was so close to vomiting, how terrifying must they have been during the time of Kassapa? Notches in the wall indicated where the ancient brick steps would have been placed, and the thought of climbing them, with the wind whipping about me, and likely burdened under another load of bricks for the usurper king’s palace, three words kept repeating in my mind: “Oh, hell no!”

Sigiriya Fort

My mantra changed, though, once we gained the summit. Suddenly, the ascent made perfect sense, as I imagined myself in Kassapa’s shoes, surveying the grounds for my new home. “Oh, hell yes!” The view is unobstructed for miles around. From the top of Sigiriya, you truly feel at the top of the world. Unassailable. It is the perfect place for a paranoid pretender.

Over the course of the centuries, the palace has been reduced to mere rubble, but it must have been an amazing building. We wandered about the foundations for awhile and eventually found a set of caves facing the south, originally used as protective cells for soldiers on the look-out, where we hid from the wind and enjoyed the view.

You’ll want to spend a long time at the summit of Sigiriya. The sense of history is palpable, and the panoramas over the jungle and gardens below couldn’t be better. Besides, you just spent an hour getting there, and the descent promises to be no less dizzying.

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March 22, 2012 at 10:57 am Comments (3)

The Damsels of Sigiriya

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Sri Lanka’s most iconic paintings are the Sigiriya Damsels, found halfway up the Lion Rock. When they were originally painted in the 5th century, around 500 naked ladies adorned the wall in a massive mural which spanned 450 feet in length and 130 in height. Only twenty-one damsels have survived into the modern day, though the passage of over 1500 years makes the survival of anything a minor miracle.

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It’s funny to think about tourism in ancient days, but Sigiriya Rock has been a big draw for travelers since at least the 8th century. Although we couldn’t make anything out, the Mirror Wall is apparently full of timeworn poems lauding the damsels’ beauty, etched into the stone by early admirers. Others would visit, though, with less noble intentions. Conservative monks outraged by the nudity removed everything they could reach, and vandals destroyed a big section of the mural in 1967.

That these maidens might inspire poems to their beauty comes as no surprise. With lithe bodies, warm, smiling faces and large, supple breasts, the damsels represent idealized versions of a variety of ethnicities. The guy working was more than happy to point out “China Lady”, “Africa Lady” and “Sri Lanka Lady”. And one of the nymphs should be well-known to anyone who’s visited Sri Lanka, whether or not they’ve toured Sigiriya. She appears on the country’s 2000 rupee banknote.

The damsels were initially thought to depict King Kassapa’s consorts, there to accompany him during the long ascent to his castle. However, historians now agree that they are more likely celestial nymphs. The women are only painted from the waist up, torsos emerging god-like from clouds. Some of them sport three arms or three breasts (though, these might have simply been mistakes during the painting).

Goddesses, consorts, or whatever the women in the paintings are meant to represent, they’re among the most amazing works of ancient art we’ve seen, and almost by themselves worth the trip to Sigiriya.

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March 22, 2012 at 8:20 am Comment (1)

Sigiriya Rock – The Eighth Wonder of the Ancient World

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Nature’s awesome beauty and the ingenuity of mankind come together majestically at Sigiriya Rock. A massive 320-meter granite stone set incomprehensibly in the jungle, the “Lion Rock” was attracting admiration long before King Kassapa built his castle on top of it, and continues dropping jaws today.

Sigiriya

Sigiriya is probably the top touristic sight in all Sri Lanka, and for good reason. There is an incredible amount to see here, the history is fascinating, the ascent to the summit is an attraction in itself, and from the top, among the ruins of an ancient palace, the view over the surrounding jungle is unimpeded and breathtaking. A visit to Sigiriya is truly unforgettable.

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And Sri Lanka knows it. The government charges $30 a head to enter the site. Unless, of course you’re Sri Lankan, in which case you’ll pay $0.40. We almost balked at the price. I understand charging locals less than tourists, but the scale of the difference is outrageous. Yes, foreigners might have more disposable income than Sri Lankans, but 75 times the price? The biggest slap in the face comes when you learn that Sigiriya is mostly funded by UNESCO and other foreign entities. So guess what? Foreigners are already paying for the maintenance and running of the site, and then they’re charged 75 times the normal entry fee. It’s insulting.

But Sri Lanka has a monopoly on the world’s supply of “Sigiriya Rocks”, so we swallowed our pride and bought tickets. I’m glad we did. Once we got done grumbling about the unfairness of it all, we had an incredible day.

Garden of Sigiriya

After crossing the moat to enter the grounds, you’re greeted by the marvelously restored 5th century pleasure gardens of King Kassapa. First, a Water Garden with an expansive and complicated set of pools and ponds, and further ahead the King’s Boulder Garden. Here, we saw the Cobra-Hooded Cave and talked with an archaeologist at work on a dig. His team was unearthing a cave temple, and he was more than happy to take a break to chat. Long before Kassapa’s arrival, Buddhist monks had considered Sigiriya a sacred place, and built temples around the base of the rock. Kassapa relocated the monks to nearby Pidurungala Rock, where they remain to this day.

We started our ascent up the Lion Rock at 7am in the morning, well before the sun was at full strength. This was a wise decision; we avoided both heat stroke and the eventual onslaught of tourists. We were able to climb unhurried and took our time admiring the scenery. By noon, bus after bus had pulled up to the gate. Already on our way back down, we watched a never-ending single-file line of sweaty, sun-beaten tourists with amazement and despondency. To be caught in the middle of that would have been a nightmare! I estimated about 200 people ascending the stairs at one time. I have no idea how many people visit Sigiriya daily but the government must be raking it in. So a word to the wise: go as early as you can. The gates open at 7, and you’ll have the rock largely to yourself.

Swalps-Sigiriya

Midway up, we encountered the Mirror Wall and the Hall of Maidens. The rock at the Mirror Wall had been polished smooth and flat and coated with a shiny plaster, so that the King could admire his reflection during his ascent. Facing the west, the wall must have shone brilliantly during sunset, and was perhaps meant as a sort of beacon, announcing the palace and the eminence of its king. Today, though, the luster is gone and it looks basically like a stone wall. Maybe a little flatter than normal. Much more impressive is the fresco gallery, found just above the Mirror Wall. The Damsels of Sigiriya are some of the most famous ancient paintings in the world, in a miraculous state of conservation.

After the Mirror Wall and damsel gallery, we emerged at a large terrace. We were exhausted and stunned to see that we had only completed about half our journey. Before us, two immense lion paws carved out of the rock indicated the beginning of the ascent’s second half. Under the pretense of admiring the lion, we took take a break before climbing up to the summit.

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March 21, 2012 at 5:06 am Comments (7)

The Story of Sigiriya

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Prince Kassapa had always harbored a secret jealousy towards his half-brother Moggallana. Upon the demise of their father, King Dhatusena, the throne would surely pass to Moggallana, whose mother was the Royal Consort. Kassapa, on the other hand, had been born of a common concubine. But he was not the sort of youth to resign himself to his fate. “No”, he told himself in the palace at Anuradhapura one dark evening in 473 AD. “No, the throne must be mine“!

And so it came to pass. Kassapa secretly gathered the support of the King’s General, and then murdered his father by burying him alive. The next move was simple: dispose of the rightful heir. But Prince Moggallana, aware of the danger to his life, had fled with his men to Southern India, leaving the Kingdom of Anuradhapura in the hands of Kassapa.

Like most conspiratorial usurpers, Kassapa was a paranoid ruler who lived in constant fear of his brother’s inevitable return. He worried about low-lying Anuradhapura’s lack of natural defenses and resolved to move his royal city to a more secure place. A place which would be safe, even were Moggallana to return with thousands of men and hundreds of elephants. Kassapa found such a place 50 kilometers to the south, on the top of Sigiriya Rock.

Sigiriya-Rock

Construction on the King’s new home lasted seven years. Stairs were cut into the rock, whose face raises straight up for over a thousand feet, and the materials required for his royal palace were brought up piece by piece. From the top of Sigiriya, King Kassapa enjoyed a commanding view. In front of the rock, a breathtaking pleasure garden was installed, while his loyal subjects settled the land immediately behind. Here, from the top of his impregnable fortress, he waited for his brother’s return. “The Rightful King”, he sneered. He must return!

Moggallana didn’t keep Kassapa waiting for long. In 491, the legitimate heir to the throne returned from India, and strode into sight of Sigiriya Rock. Despite the effort it had taken to construct a palace safe from attack, Kassapa mustered his courage and, atop his war elephant, led his men into battle.

Unfortunately for him, Moggallana was a clever tactician. His men had softened the ground which the defending army would be crossing and, when Kassapa’s elephant reached the unsteady, muddy earth, it hesitated and began to back up. The King’s men saw him backpedaling and assumed that he had lost his nerve. They retreated for the safety of the rock, and left Kassapa alone. Seeing that his fate was sealed, the King dismounted his elephant, raised his sword, and brought it down into his own belly.

Sigiriya was the capital of Sri Lanka for fourteen years.

Sigiriya on our Sri Lanka Map

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March 18, 2012 at 1:11 pm Comments (7)

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North to Jaffna Like a feather in Sri Lanka's cap, the Jaffna Peninsula pokes out of the top of the island, pointing towards India. The long, narrow peninsula is separated from the rest of the country in about every way imaginable: culturally, ethnically, religiously, linguistically and geographically.
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