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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)

Creeped Out at Isurumuniya Temple

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We had just arrived at the Isurumuniya Temple at the southern end of Anuradhapura’s Sacred City, and were scoping out the grounds. The temple is set in a large rock near the Tissa Wewa lake, and just to the left of the main shrine was a small cave. “Hey, check this out!” I shouted to Jürgen, immediately regretting the volume of my voice. The cave was filled with thousands of bats who came swooping out above me. Jürgen might have been impressed, if he hadn’t been busy with his own terror: a six-foot long serpent had slithered across his path. Welcome to Isurumuniya.


After recovering from our fright, we explored the rest of the temple in peace. The shrine is beautiful, in a spacious cave carved out of the rock. Above the Buddha’s head are what look like bat nests. (Do bats have nests? I don’t think so. In that case, I don’t want to know what those were). We were visiting during the evening, and the temple’s setting was made even more gorgeous by the low light. Stairs lead above the shrine to the top of the rock, and we enjoyed a spectacular sunset over the Tissa.

The temple complex includes a small museum where, along with other relics from Anuradhapura’s golden years, a famous carving called The Lovers is kept. It was about to close, though, and we didn’t get a picture (but there’s one here!)

The region around the temple is full of worthwhile sights, as well. Just to the north, you can find the Goldfish Park. This lovely little area holds the remains of the royal baths, which take their water from the Tissa. We were completely alone when we visited, even though these were among the most impressive ruins we saw during our time in Anuradhapura.

South of Isurumuniya are the remains of the Vessigiriya Monastery. We hadn’t been expecting much, but this was another incredibly cool area. A field of mammoth rocks, into which caves and engravings had been cut. As we climbed around, we were in impish spirits, laughing wickedly about some truly disgusting and profane things. We thought we were all alone, but while loudly discussing CENSORED, we turned a corner and came upon a Buddhist Monk who had been using the monastery’s solitude for meditation. He lifted an eye at us, and smiled. So, either he didn’t understand what we were saying to each other, or that was one dirty monk!

If you have extra time in Anuradhapura, don’t pass up the amazing southern zone, which is almost completely ignored by tourists. It’s one of the city’s best areas.

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March 16, 2012 at 11:30 am Comments (6)

The Tanks of Anuradhapura

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Without the presence of its three artificial lakes near the city center, Anuradhapura would never have flourished. Tissa Wewa, Nuwara Wewa and Basawakkulama ensured that the people would always have rice and fresh water, even during the long months between monsoons. At the time of their construction, over two millennia ago, they were among the world’s greatest feats of engineering, and continue to amaze today.


The Kingdom of Anuradhapura was one of the most technologically advanced civilizations of its day, and the creation of three enormous tanks was a singular accomplishment. The reservoirs were designed to capture the rains of the monsoon and then slowly distribute the water among the kingdom’s farms, using a complicated and highly advanced irrigation system.

Today, the city draws its water from larger tanks further afield. But the three city lakes remain an integral part of Anuradhapura’s landscape. Locals swim here and wash their clothes. They provide a perfect place for amorous couples to take evening strolls and smooch under trees. When we were walking along the Tissa Wewa, Sri Lankan kids prodded us to swim with them. Along the raised banks of Nuwara Wewa, we had an incredible view of the city’s stupas, sticking out above the forest. At Basawakkulama, we walked out west, where the lake slowly turns into rice fields, and watched the city change color with the sunset.

Other tanks, smaller and larger, are found throughout the lowlands of Sri Lanka. They’re some of the oldest existing examples of man’s ability to mold the earth to suit his needs.

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March 15, 2012 at 1:25 pm Comment (1)

A Day at the Abhayagiri Monastery

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Of the three monasteries which define the Sacred City of Anuradhapura, our favorite was the Abhayagiri, towards the north. We spent hours roaming the sacred grounds, talking to the people who worship there, and getting lost among remnants of the distant past.


In the first century BC, a Sinhalese King by the name of Vattagamini Abhaya had been forced to flee and abandon his capital during a Tamil invasion. During his retreat, he overheard the gleeful mocking of a Hindu priest named Giri. “The great black lion is fleeing!” Fourteen years later, the king returned with a mighty army and crushed the occupation. In celebration, he established a monastery, and named it after himself (Abhaya) and the priest who had stoked his ire (Giri).

We started our exploration of the zone at an immense, scaffold-covered stupa. Major refurbishment was going on here and, around back, we found a long line of women balanced on dangerous-looking slats of wood, passing buckets of cement to the top of the stupa. They asked me to join in, and the woman I had replaced clapped and laughed at her luck. I felt bad eventually leaving, since I was twice her size and half her age… the buckets were heavy enough for me, and must have been awful for her. These people working for free, restoring the stupa out of a sense of good, Buddhist civic duty.

For nearly a kilometer in every direction from the stupa, the ruins of Abhayagiri are scattered about. You can’t walk six feet without kicking an ancient stone or stumbling upon another half-decayed statue. We wandered aimlessly, finding a litany of treasures. A large Buddha statue, sitting serenely under a Bo Tree. A huge pond cut out of stone, known as the Elephant Pool. Not far away was an odd cave temple and, further to the east, the Twin Baths, where monks would cleanse themselves for rituals.


Following signs, we made our way to a couple of amazingly intact moonstones. These semi-circular pieces of carved rock are found at the entrances to temples, and depict five levels of existence. The outermost layer is a ring of fire, representing the pain and agony of life everlasting. Next is a parade of animals: elephant, horse, lion and bull, representing birth, old age, illness and death (in that order). Next, a circle of creeper vine, which symbolizes craving. The following circle shows swans, who represent purity and wisdom. Underneath them, another smaller layer of creeper vines, which demonstrate the lessening of human craving. The final layer is of lotus petals turned towards a seed cup in the center, symbolizing the attainment of nirvana.

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March 14, 2012 at 1:34 pm Comments (5)

The New Town and Weekend Market of Anuradhapura

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It can’t match the Sacred City for ancient splendor, and by itself wouldn’t warrant a visit on even the most comprehensive itinerary, but the New Town of Anuradhapura is unavoidable on any visit to the city. We spent a lot of time here, shopping, drinking and eating, and visiting the wonderful weekend market.

Sunday Market Anuradhapura

Like the Sacred City, the New Town is long and narrow. Between the train station down and bus stand, roughly three kilometers, Main Street is packed with shops, restaurants, traffic and commotion. It’s all rather ugly — every block looks the same, and if there’s a reason to eat at this grimy restaurant as opposed to that one, or the sixteen exactly identical ones down the street, I couldn’t see it.

On weekends, the New Town hosts an incredible market, just south of the New Bus Stand. This was one of the first things we discovered during our time in the city, and we spent a long time walking up and down the aisles, checking out the food, and having tortured mime-conversations with the market sellers, all of whom wanted to sell us strange zucchinis, or have their picture taken.

While the New Town isn’t the most memorable place we’ve been in Sri Lanka, it offers an interesting peek into the day-to-day life of the country.

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March 13, 2012 at 1:52 pm Comments (3)

The Stupas of Anuradhapura

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Found at temples, on hills, in caves, or just along the side of the road, the dome-shaped structures called stupas are one of the hallmarks of Sri Lankan Buddhism. They range in size from modest to monumental, and pop up all over the island, but nowhere are they more impressive than in the sacred city of Anuradhapura.


Since our arrival in Sri Lanka, stupas (or dagobas as they’re also known) have confused us. The simple, round domes aren’t particularly lovely, and you can’t even go inside them. Most of the stupas we’ve seen are smallish, painted white and occasionally decorated with orange ribbons. Nice enough, but they seem kind of pointless. “What do you do, stupa?” I be round! “What may I do with you?” You may look!

But they’re ubiquitous and play a big part in the island’s religious life. Stupas are built as reliquaries to hold sacred objects, in commemoration of historic events, or just because a ruler decided to buff his Buddhist credentials a bit. During the centuries that Anuradhapura was the capital of Sri Lanka, the country was at its political zenith, and the world’s most important center of Buddhism. A dizzying number of stupas were constructed, reflecting the kingdom’s power.


Constructed by King Tissa in the 3rd century BC, Thuparama was the first stupa built in Sri Lanka, shortly after the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. The monument might be moderately sized, but is believed to hold the right collarbone of the Buddha. Surrounding the stupa are the ruined pillars of a vatadage: a circular fence used to protect small stupas, unique to Sri Lankan architecture.

Stupa Pool

A hundred meters down a monkey-infested, ruin-strewn path is the Ruwanwelisaya Stupa, or the “Great Stupa”. Built sometime around 150 BC by King Dutugemunu, who had freed Anuradhapura from Tamil rule, this stupa is of a tremendous size and still actively in use. Hundreds of elephants are carved into the stone fence which surrounds it.

Glowing Budda

Further south into the Sacred City, we found the Mirisaveti Stupa, also built by King Dutugemunu. According to legend, the king wished to bathe in a nearby lake, and threw his spear into the ground. When he returned, he could not remove the spear, try as he might. Clearly: miracle. So he left the spear in the ground, and had this stupa built on top of it.


Stupa’d out? Just one more. The Jetavanaramaya Stupa is one of the most impressive ancient constructions we’ve ever seen. When it was built in the 2nd century AD, it was one of the tallest structures in the world, surpassed only by Egypt’s pyramids. Today, it’s still the world’s largest brick-made building. The ancient red dome measures 400 feet in height, and 576 feet across.

I’m still not sure that stupas are my favorite style of building, but I’m starting to warm up to them. There’s something appealing in their simplicity, and the sheer size and age of Anuradhapura’s ancient stupas leaves one breathless.

Locations on our map: Thuparama | Ruwanwelisaya | Mirisaveti | Jetavanaramaya
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March 12, 2012 at 3:17 pm Comments (2)

Echoes of the Past – Anuradhapura’s Ruins

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The only thing more abundant in Anuradhapura’s Sacred City than monkeys, is ruins. Pools, prayer halls, refectories, temples, residences; ruins great and small, in varying states of decay. These vestiges of the past serve as silent testaments to the former glory of Anuradhapura.

Guard Stones of Sri Lanka

The former capital of Sri Lanka was defined by three great Buddhist monasteries. The Mahavihara was the first and sits in the center of the Sacred City, around the Sri Maha Bodhi tree. Just to the north is the Jetavana, founded in a petulant rage during the 2nd century BC after the king fell out with the monks of Mahavihara. Further north is the Abhayagiri, founded in 88BC and known as a liberal center for new Buddhist ideas — a stance which earned it the ire of the other, conservative monasteries. All three were home to thousands of monks, who needed buildings in which to live, eat and worship.

The traces of those buildings are what we see today when touring Anuradhapura. Most of the walls have crumbled and many of the ruins are nothing more than scattered stones, outlines of the foundations, or an odd column planted crookedly in the ground. But an amazing amount has survived the passage of two millennia in excellent shape. Guardstones with serpent kings, or moonstones which depict the levels of human existence in exquisitely carved patterns. Long troughs which were once filled with rice for the resident monks. Ancient baths now inhabited by turtles, and key-shaped wells used for fresh water.

Roughly situated in the middle of Anuradhapura’s three great monasteries is The Citadel, a large secular area, protected by a moat. Here, we found the Royal Palace and the ruins of the first Temple of the Tooth — nowhere near as large as the relic’s current house in Kandy. A large tent covered an archaeological dig, at least six meters deep, which revealed buried roads and layers of construction. And, blending into the scenery, an innumerable number of ruins lend the Citadel an ancient, romantic atmosphere.

Wandering through the forests spotted with decayed temples, while water buffalo are grazing to your left, monkeys are playing to your right, and shimmering paddy fields stretch off in front of you… it’s hard to remain unmoved. One can only envy the British explorers who first discovered the Sacred City. But when there are no other tourists around, and you’re pushing through shrubbery to arrive at an ancient temple half-covered in plants, it’s not hard to imagine that you’re the intrepid adventurer who’s discovered it.

Location of the Royal Palace
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March 12, 2012 at 5:14 am Comments (0)

Anuradhapura’s Sacred City

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I’ve never been in a city as schizo as Anuradhapura. Its two sides are basically equal in size, but opposite in everything else. East/West. New/Old. Secular/Religious. Chaotic/Serene. Humdrum/Magical. New Town/Sacred City.


The Sacred City stretches out for five kilometers along the west of Anuradhapura, and contains approximately [let me do a little napkin math] seventeen million ruins. Seeing everything in the Sacred City would take about [scribbling, scratching head, checking equations] 642 hours. Rough guess. The number of ruins is mind-boggling, but not altogether surprising. After all, Anuradhapura was the capital of Sri Lanka for about a thousand years; the cradle of one of the world’s most enlightened religions and advanced civilizations. And for most of modern history, it was abandoned. Its buildings, temples, monasteries and stupas were left alone to fend for themselves against monkeys and the encroaching jungle, and protected from the interference of humanity.

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It’s impossible to see the entire Sacred City in one day, though that doesn’t stop people from trying. One of the more common sights is a huge bus stopping in front of a stupa and unloading forty harried tourists wearing safari hats, who climb on top of each other to snap identical pictures and then scurry back onto the bus. Off to the next sight, no time to waste! Needless to say, it’s not the best way to see the Sacred City, as you get no sense of its grandeur or mystery. (But if your schedule only allows a few hours to see Anuradhapura, make a beeline for the Abhigiriya zone, which is the most atmospheric and offers a little of everything that makes the city so amazing).


No, the best way to see Anuradhapura is over a couple days, and on bikes. Which is the way we did it [pats back, uncorks tiny bottle of champagne]. Perfectly flat, largely free of traffic and spread out over a great distance, the Sacred City is made for bikes. Most guesthouses rent them for the day, and we found a shop (here) which lets bikes for 350 Rs, and is open to haggling for multiple-day rentals.

Another important tip is that, unless you’re going to a museum, you don’t need tickets to visit the Sacred City. Officially, you’re expected to shell out about $25 per head, per day, as a foreigner. We spent five days exploring the Sacred City, which would have cost us $250. It’s ridiculous and completely discriminatory: anyone who looks like a Sri Lankan is free to come and go as they please. Again, the fee is part of the government’s maneuverings to capitalize on tour groups, who pay the inflated entrance charge as a part of their package deal. Luckily, independent travelers can easily skip it, since tickets are rarely checked. Over the course of five days, we were asked to show our tickets once. We just said, “don’t have them”, turned around and reached our destination from a different route.

During most of our ticket-less days in the Sacred City, we passed by the Sri Maha Bodhi. One of the most venerated objects in all Sri Lanka, this large Bodhi was grown from a slice of the tree under which Buddha gained enlightenment. It stands near the center of the Sacred City and, at any time of day, worshipers surround its pavilion, chanting, praying or just standing there looking at it. After his enlightenment, Buddha spent seven days staring at his Bodhi tree, unblinking, in admiration and thanks. Sri Maha Bodhi is a good orientation point in the Sacred City, and serves as a convenient starting spot from which to see the other sights.

Location of Sri Maha Bodhi on our Map
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Buddhist Flags
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March 11, 2012 at 5:43 am Comments (4)
Get Those Sexy Calves of Steel at Mihintale 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.
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