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The Kitsch Madness of Wewurukannala Temple

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The village of Dickwella’s claim to fame is the Wewurukannala Temple, which houses the largest Buddha in Sri Lanka. But there’s more to see here than just some big statue. A marvelously kitschy image house, an illustrated Hall of Sin, colorful statues and a resident elephant are among the secondary highlights of this entertaining place of worship.

Wewurukannala-Temple

Entrance to Wewurukanalla is just 200 rupees, although by the end of our visit, we had dropped considerably more than that in assorted donations, tips and bribes. The first building we explored was the image house, surrounded by a colorful collection of statues depicting gods and princes involved in a bevy of surreal scenes. I would have liked to have a guide during this part of the tour, because: why is the horse licking the blue-skinned maharajah’s feet? I don’t know. Inside, four massive Buddha sculptures dominate the image house, which is also filled with wall paintings and smaller statues of lesser gods.

The next building was a long hall dedicated to Buddhist Hell. As we learned at Aluvihara, Buddhist Hell is no place we’d like to visit. Demons gleefully rip humans in two, skewer them, or dunk them in boiling lava. And this was just in the foyer! Down the narrow hallway, which resembled the entrance to some sort of evil underworld, the walls were lined with an exhaustive catalog of sins and their punishments. In the top row, paintings of various offenses such as “disrespecting a monk” or “gossiping”, and below, the corresponding castigation you could expect in hell. Such as having your eyes ripped out, or being skinned alive. Charming.

Doubtlessly, the highlight of Wewururkannala is the mosaic-covered Buddha, which reaches a height of 162 feet and was built in the 18th century. Unfortunately, the Buddha was covered in scaffolding during our visit, as restoration work was being done on the mosaics, but it was still impressive.

We didn’t linger long at the Buddha because, in the adjacent clearing, my eyes had happened upon another peaceful, larger-than-life character. Temple Elephant! Now, the best thing about temple elephants is that they’re used to people, and they’re chained down so they can’t escape your hugs and kisses (if they try, they get punished) We paid the requisite bribe to its handler, and then petted the elephant and posed for pictures, just giving ourselves over completely to the role of ‘obnoxious tourist’. Yes, we noticed that “Wewu” kept rocking back and forth, probably mentally impaired from his long years of captivity, but we bravely pushed such unpleasantries from our minds and continued petting him.

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April 22, 2012 at 9:35 am Comments (2)

The Temple Town of Kataragama

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A major center of Sri Lankan pilgrimage for Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists, Kataragama is a normally sleepy village which completely transforms every evening when a riotous spectacle of color, fire, music and worship gets underway.

Waiting Kataragama

We planned on taking the bus from Ella to Kataragama, but the tuk-tuk driver taking us to the station offered such an unbelievable price for the entire 2.5 hour journey, we couldn’t say no. Sampath had a brand new, comfy, large tuk-tuk, which he drove safely and sanely — a rare combination! We talked a lot during the trip. He’s a big fan of American wrestling, and forced me to promise that I would get him John Cena’s email address (reasoning, I think, that we’re both Americans and likely to know each other). Sampath had been a soldier for twelve years, and was the most genial driver we could have hoped for. If you’re in Ella and need a tuk-tuk for a long haul, he’s worth hunting down.

Our Tuk Tuk Driver
Sampath the Man! Mr. Cena, if you’re reading, contact us for his email address

We arrived in Kataragama at 1pm and while Sampath went straight to the temple to pay his respects, we checked into our hotel: the Ceybank Rest. Though intended for Ceybank employees, they also rent rooms to travelers, and we can recommend it. Not only were the rooms cheap, clean and comfortable, but the vegetarian rice & curry buffet dinner was fantastic, and cost just 250 rupees per person.

Kataragama is a strange town, existing almost entirely for the benefit of pilgrims. Most of the town’s shops only sell offerings for the gods. I tried to buy a coconut from one of the vendors without realizing it was part of a fruit platter meant for Buddha.

The sacred precinct is large and contains nods to all of Sri Lanka’s major religions. We first visited a green mosque and then a small Hindu Kovil dedicated to Shiva. To the north, we found a stupa and a statue of Dutugemunu. The centerpiece of the complex, though, was the Maha Vihara: a set of Buddhist temples in a round enclosure. As the sun disappeared, we joined a crowd gathered around the door of the Kataragama temple and got ready for the puja (the gods’ feeding hour). The number of other people wasn’t overwhelming, but this was a rainy Monday night, immediately following a holiday weekend. Usually, it’s a crush.

Eventually the bells began to ring, and temple doors opened. A parade of pilgrims marched in, presenting plates of fruit to Kataragama. This blue-skinned multi-armed deity is actually Hindu, but has long been worshiped by Buddhists as one of the island’s principal guardians. The puja ceremony was a confusing mish-mash of activity, and I had very little idea what was going on around me. Monks bringing pillows to the gods. People consulting a shaman in the Ganesh temple. Coconuts being lit on fire, then smashed against stones. Then, worshipers eating the offering fruits after Kataragama had had his fill. Especially with the light rain and mind-shaking droning of the bells, it was a surreal experience.

I wish we could have timed our visit for one of the island’s poya days, because that must be a gathering to behold. But regardless, Kataragama provided a unique look into a fascinating bit of culture.

Location on our Sri Lanka Map
Sampath the Tuk-Tuk Driver can be contacted here: sampath_wa@yahoo.com

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April 20, 2012 at 10:24 am Comments (3)

Lahugala Forest and the Magul Maha Vihara

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The Lahugala Reserve, occupying a mere six square miles in the jungle east of Arugam Bay, is one of Sri Lanka’s smallest national parks. We combined a short tuk-tuk excursion to the reserve with a visit to the remains of a legendary queen’s palace.

Magul-Maha-Vihara

It may be small in size, but a tremendous variety of animals prowl the grounds of the Lahugala Reserve, including leopards, sloths, barking deer and the rare Rusty-spotted Cat. But we were most likely to see elephants — a herd of up 150 lives in the park.

Our visit was timed to coincide with the elephants’ meal time, but unfortunately also coincided with darkening skies and a late afternoon storm. A solitary elephant had ventured out to the feeding grounds, where there are usually up to fifty (elephants are apparently as lazy as humans when it comes to rain). Oh well. We had recently gotten lucky with the big guys in Habarana, and hadn’t paid anything to visit Lahugala — the highway cuts through the reserve and passes the elephants’ favorite stomping ground, making a ticket to the park’s interior unnecessary.

So Lahugala wasn’t a resounding success but it was only part of the excursion. Our next stop was the ruins of the Magul Maha Vihara, which date to the 5th century AD and are said to have been the palace for one of Sri Lanka’s most famous queens.

According to legend, good King Kelanie-Tissa had been tricked by his wicked brother into murdering an innocent holy man, whose body was then tossed into the ocean. Furious at the injustice, wrathful sea gods unleashed a storm whose waves surged over the land and killed many people. In order to appease the gods, the king was advised to make a terrible sacrifice: that of his only daughter, Devi.

The king was grief-stricken, but the lovely and pious Princess Devi bravely accepted her fate. Content that her death might save countless lives, she allowed herself to be strapped down in a golden ship, then pushed out into the storm. The sea gods were impressed by her courage, and decided to spare the princess, re-routing her ship to the nearby realm of King Kavan-Tissa.

The soldiers of Kavan-Tissa who had been patrolling the shore were astounded by the arrival of the golden ship, but even more so by the beautiful maiden they found unconscious within. They carried her to the royal palace, where Devi finally opened her eyes. Dazzled by the opulence of the King’s court, she assumed that her sacrifice had been accepted, and that she was in heaven. When Kavan-Tissa (who had fallen in love with her at first sight) explained the situation and asked Devi to be his bride, she immediately accepted.

The ruins at Magul Maha Vihara were the palace of this fortunate Queen, who was much beloved by her subjects, and who eventually gave birth to King Duttugemunu: one of the island’s greatest heroes. It was just recently that had I heard the story of the princess, and I had assumed it to be nothing more than a legend. But Princess Devi existed… and here was her palace as proof! So how much of the story was true? Her father’s crime? The floods? The terrible sacrifice? The golden boat? The love-struck king? It’s impossible to say where fiction ends and fact begins.

Although we didn’t have much luck with the elephants, this was a great day trip, easy to arrange with any tuk-tuk driver in Arugam Bay. Definitely worth your time, if you find yourself with a free afternoon.

Location of the Magul Maha Vihara on our Map
Poisonous Snakes

Temple Near Arugam Bay
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April 17, 2012 at 11:10 am Comment (1)

The Ruins of Polonnaruwa, Part II

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Exhausted from a morning spent exploring Polonnaruwa’s massive archaeological site, we sat down for a much-needed break. I leafed through our guide book, and took a big gulp. We had already seen a lot, but weren’t even midway through. And the ruins which remained threatened to be even more amazing.

Sri Lanka Travel Guide

After passing the Rankot Vihara, a large but slightly misshapen stupa just south of the Buddha Seema Pasada, we headed east on a side road to arrive at the Shiva Devale #2. This is the oldest structure in the city, and looks it. Built during a brief period of Indian dominance in Polonnaruwa, the small round temple dedicated to Hindu’s “destroyer of evil” is totally out-of-place in the otherwise Buddhist city. Nearby is the more typical Pabalu Vihara, another brick dagoba tucked away in a pleasant little clearing, built under the order of the Queen.

Shiva

We now skipped to the southern end of the ancient city to visit the citadel, which was King Parakramabahu’s palace. Along with the palace remains were administrative buildings protected by a heavy, meter-thick rampart. A guard told us that the palace itself had been seven stories high, with a thousand rooms — though this was almost certainly a bit of patriotic hyperbole. The royal bath is the most impressive remaining feature.

Citadel Pool

Having saved the best for last, we biked to the raised square platform of the Quadrangle. The most impressive building here is the Vatadage, which is a 12th century circular temple considered by many to be the greatest of Sri Lanka’s ancient artistic treasures. The first of the Vatadage’s round terraces is completely covered in decoration: lions, midgets, lotus leaves, and a long inscription giving credit for the building to the crafty King Nissankamalla (it was actually constructed during Parakramabahu’s reign). A second platform includes beautiful guardstones and stone steps which lead to the remains of a small dagoba.

Gal-Pota-Sri-Lanka

Next the Vatadage, we found the Gal Pota, or stone book, which was another of Nissankamalla’s egotistical tricks. This giant block was brought from Mihintale, polished and inscribed with a breathless catalog of the King’s wondrous achievements (most of them probably false). We also saw the Hatadage, which served as Temple of the Tooth while Polonnaruwa was capital. Then, a strange six-storied temple called the Satmahal Prasada, which doesn’t fit in at all with Sri Lanka’s Buddhist architecture, and is thought to have been the work of Malaysian architects.

Lotus-Mandapa-Polonnaruwa

All that was just on the eastern half of the Quadrangle. By the time we made it to the western half, we were running low on energy and enthusiasm, and paid short shrift to ruins like the Lotus Mandapa with its oddly bent columns. We spent 0.38 seconds admiring a life-size statue of Vijayabahu, and darted in and out of the Thuparama, which is the only image house in Polonnaruwa that still has its original roof.

Take a look at the first part of our exploration of the ancient city, and then tell me that this wasn’t a lot to see in a single outing! We had four full days in Polonnaruwa and would have loved to split up the sight-seeing, but (insanely) the tickets were only valid for one day. It would have cost us another $50 to see the monuments at a more human pace. No way.

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April 10, 2012 at 1:39 pm Comment (1)

The Ruins of Polonnaruwa, Part I

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You’ll want to get an early start when you visit the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, for a few reasons. Mornings are cooler. The later the day gets, the more tourists arrive. And the archaeological site is so large that, even with a bike, you’ll need an entire day to see everything. But the chief reason is that you’ve just paid $25 to enter. And damned if you’re not going to get every single rupee’s worth.

Lankatikale
Lankatikale

You might assume that tickets would be sold at site’s entrance gate, but then… you might have forgotten what country you’re in. No, you have to make your way to the Archaeological Museum, which isn’t anywhere near the entrance. At 8am sharp, we stepped up to the desk and, with big grins plastered on our faces, plopped down $50 for two day passes. “Any chance we could get a map?” No map. “Or some information about the ruins?” No info. “How about a hug?”

Our plan was to bike to the northern end of the site (nearly 2.5 miles in length), and work our way back towards the south. This turned out to be a good idea; we were completely alone for the first part of the day, and had a good sense of the park’s layout before checking out specific sights.

Tivanka Image House

First up was the amazing Tivanka-patamaghara image house. The exterior, under a heavy layer of scaffolding, was difficult to appreciate but the interior was breathtaking. Tivanka means “thrice-bent”, referring to the sassy pose of the giant Buddha housed within (bent at shoulder, knee and waist). There was also an impressive collection of original paintings on the walls.

Lotus Pond Polonnaruwa

One of our favorite sights in Polonnaruwa was the modest and graceful lotus-shaped pond, near the image house. Still in a remarkable state of conservation, this was thought to be used for ritual baths. It would make an awesome hot tub.

Polonnaruwa-Travel-Blog

Probably the most famous of Polonnaruwa’s ancient monuments are the four Buddhas of Gal Vihara. Carved from a single rock, these statues are beautifully upheld; the massive reclining Buddha is especially revered. Unfortunately, these amazing relics of the past have been shielded from the sun by an enormous roof of concrete and steel: a modern monstrosity which ruins the magic of the place, and ensures that the statues can never be properly photographed.

Pollonaruwa

Further south, we found the remains of the Alahana Pirivena monastery. These included the Kiri Vihara, a nice-looking white stupa, and the awesome Lankatikale which is a temple that protects a giant headless Buddha statue between its narrow walls (seen in the top pic). A bit further south is the Buddha Seema Pasada chapter house.

The ruins of Polonnaruwa are nicely preserved and the light forest setting is quite beautiful. After we had explored the Buddha Seema Pasada, though, the crowds began to appear. Whereas we were always able to find pockets of solitude in the extensive grounds of Anuradhapura, there was no escape in Polonnaruwa. Weary, we sat down at a canteen near a large pond, for coconut and rotti. This bit of rest and relaxation was vital — we weren’t yet halfway through the ruins, and still had a long day in front of us.

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April 8, 2012 at 11:19 am Comments (7)

The Kanniyai Hot Wells and Velgam Vihara

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After a few days spent recharging our batteries on Uppuveli Beach, we were ready for some sight-seeing. Luckily, we didn’t have to go far. A tuk-tuk driver agreed to take us on a 500 rupee round-trip tour of two great spots near Trincomalee: the Kanniyai Hot Wells and the Velgam Vihara, which is an ancient monastery set near a picturesque lake.

Hot Springs Sri Lanka

Tha Kanniyai Hot Wells are likely to disappoint any pleasure-seekers hoping to submerge themselves in a large spring. This isn’t Iceland. Kanniyai is a place of Buddhist worship where the faithful come to buy trinkets, venerate Buddha and douse themselves with buckets of naturally warm spring water.

The wells are exactly that: wells. You grab a bucket, dunk it in the water, and drench yourself. It’s a lot of fun, especially with the presence of locals urging you on. We had a blast, engaging people in conversation and taking impromptu lessons in proper dousing by a couple of concerned ladies. I had made a major faux-pax at first, washing my head over the well, which allowed the water to run off my face back into the pool. Uncool, and it got me reprimanded.

A bit further north is the beautiful Periya Kulam, a large artificial lake set in a forest, with small islands and vestiges of Hindu worship spotted around it. Just to the west of the lake, we found the Velgam Vihara — the remains of a Buddhist monastery from the 2nd century. The ruins here are gorgeous, especially given their off-the-beaten-track location.

Velgam-Vihara

Monks are still active at Velgam Vihara in an adjacent modern temple. One of them ushered us into a makeshift museum dedicated to a brutal 2000 LTTE bomb attack. After having admired such ancient beauty, this was an unexpected and sickening jolt back to reality. Photos of dead children and piles of mutilated corpses lined the walls, and brought me close to vomiting. We pushed a little donation money into the monk’s outstretched hands and left.

Together, Velgam Vihara and the hot springs make for a great day trip away from the beaches of Trinco. Find a tuk-tuk and agree on a price. The 500 rupees ($4) which our guy charged us was way too little, and we gave him a nice tip once we got back. A small price to pay for such a surprisingly fun excursion.

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Location of Velgam Vihara
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April 7, 2012 at 1:19 pm Comments (2)

Poya Days

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Twelve times a year, and occasionally thirteen, life in Sri Lanka grinds to a halt for the observance of a Poya Day. Sri Lanka’s brand of Buddhism follows a lunar cycle, and full moon days are especially meaningful. These poya days are public holidays, allowing the faithful to visit their favorite temple and take a break from work. It’s forbidden to sell alcohol and, to a lesser extent, meat.

Poya in Sri Lanka

Today’s a Poya Day. April 6th, 2012 is the Bak Poya, commemorating the Buddha’s second visit to Sri Lanka at Nagadeepa (on the Jaffna Peninsula’s Nainativu Island). Each of the year’s full moon days has its own name and significance — here’s a full list. This is the third Poya during our stay in Sri Lanka and, for the third time, we only remembered it after trying to order a beer.

Buddhists in Sri Lanka live by five holy precepts. (1) Don’t kill. (2) Don’t steal. (3) Don’t be a pervert. (4) Don’t lie. (5) Don’t be a drunk. (Exactly two of these holy tenets preclude me from being a Buddhist). And on Poya Days, the pious abide by an extra three rules: (6) No food after midday. (7) No music or perfume. (8) No fancy beds or chairs.

So even on the holiest of days, Buddhists only have eight commandments to obey as opposed to Christianity’s ten. And I don’t see anything on the Buddhist list about “honoring thy parents” or blaspheming against God, which are the two I most routinely break. Goddamn parents should have raised me a Buddhist!

We always enjoy Poya Days, when all Sri Lanka shifts into vacation mode. Temples fill up with white-clad worshipers, and hotels are packed with families on mini-vacations. And the country’s best festivals fall almost exclusively on full moon days. I especially like the fact that Buddhism places so much value on a natural lunar cycle, which lends a beautiful bit of mysticism to the ceremonies.

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April 6, 2012 at 10:14 am Comments (2)

The Enigmatic Stupas of Kadurugoda

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A collection of small stupas found a mile east of Chunnakam, Kadurugoda is a rare island of Buddhism in the Hindu-dominated peninsula of Jaffna. We hired a tuk-tuk to the site, shortly after visiting the Keerimalai water temple.

Stupas-of-Kadurugoda

Around twenty mini-stupas made of coral are scattered about Kadurugoda. They’re thought to have been built around 2000 years ago, and were rediscovered and excavated by an English judge in 1917. Valuables buried around the site, and protected inside the stupas, included coins from pre-Christian Rome and early Indian kingdoms, indicating Jaffna’s status as an international maritime port way back in the day.

Unsurprisingly for a Buddhist site in the heart of Hindu-land, there’s a lot of contention surrounding the purpose and meaning of the stupas, and everyone seems to have a different theory. The most likely explanation we heard is that the stupas, which originally numbered 61, are the burial sites of 61 holy men who had died in a plague. And the presence of Buddhist architecture in the north of Sri Lanka is no real shocker — back then, the religions intermingled more liberally, borrowing ideas and even gods from each other. It’s likely that Hindus even used this site to worship.

Regardless of their meaning, the stupas of Kadurugoda are an amazing relic of the past, and well worth the short trip to Chunnakam, just ten kilometers north of Jaffna.

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March 31, 2012 at 12:02 pm Comments (2)

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)

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