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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)

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.

Entrance-Sigiriya

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.

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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)

Anuradhapura – The Ancient Capital of Sri Lanka

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For nearly ten centuries, Anuradhapura was the capital of Sri Lanka and its most important city. Found in the steamy, low-lying North Central Province, Anuradhapura has long lost its political significance, but remains the spiritual capital of the island, and is still one of the world’s major Buddhist pilgrimage sites.

Anuradhapura-Lake

Excavations date the settling of the region to the 10th century BC, though the city wasn’t officially established until 377 BC, after King Pandukabhaya became the island’s first truly Sri Lankan ruler. When Buddhism appeared on the island a couple centuries later, the capital embraced it enthusiastically and quickly became one of Asia’s most important centers of Buddhist learning.

The city flourished for centuries, boasting some of the world’s largest buildings and most advanced infrastructure. The complicated irrigation schemes of the Sinhalese were unmatched anywhere, and the mammoth dagobas built by various kings were surpassed in size and scale only by Egypt’s pyramids. But in the flat lowlands of Sri Lanka, Anuradhapura proved difficult to defend. After a long history of fighting off invasions from India, the city was completely abandoned in 993 AD.

Abandoned and forgotten for six hundred years. The jungle grew up around the monasteries and reclaimed dominion over Anuradhapura. It wasn’t until the arrival of the British that the ancient city was rediscovered. What a sight that must have been! The Brits hacked away at the jungle’s encroachment and re-established the town. Soon, Anuradhapura was resettled by a native population thrilled to have recovered an important part of their heritage.

Today’s Anuradhapura is split into two clearly defined sections. The New Town, to the east, contains all the commerce and hubbub of daily life, while the Sacred City, to the west, is home to the ancient monasteries, extensive ruins, and the famous stupas and temples, which are once again bustling with the activity of the faithful.

We’d given ourselves a long time to explore Anuradhapura, which was important since the Sacred City is unfathomably large. There’s just no way to see everything that the ancient capital offers on a short schedule.

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March 6, 2012 at 12:58 pm Comments (2)

Nuwara Eliya

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Known around Sri Lanka as “Little England”, Nuwara Eliya is the highest city on the island, at around 6128 feet above sea level. Throughout history, this mountainous patch of the country had been almost entirely unpopulated, but the British recognized the potential value of its soil and climate. In 1846, explorer Samuel Barker (who would later “discover” Africa’s Lake Albert) founded Nuwara Eliya, which quickly established itself as a favorite retreat for the ruling class, and eventually gained prominence as a center for tea cultivation.

Nuwara-Eliya-Post-Office

We arrived in Nuwara Eliya expecting to be enchanted by its quaint English charms, but were quickly disillusioned. Today, it’s a very Sri Lankan city, with the usual array of shops and smoggy, noisy traffic. Some vestiges of the privileged colonial life still remain, notably in the horse track, the grand old hotels and government buildings, but to call Nuwara Eliya “charming” would be a real stretch.

After pushing through the muck of downtown, we ascended Single Tree Hill, which cuts a beautiful path up through the fields of the Pedro Tea Estate. We passed a single Buddhist temple, and a ton of Hindu people — Nuwara Eliya is notable for having a majority Tamil population, brought over from India by the British to work at the tea plantations.

Besides the hike up Single Tree Hill, we couldn’t find much entertainment in Nuwara Eliya. There’s a park which we were done with in ten minutes, and a famous golf course. Golf’s not our thing, so we decided to spend the afternoon drinking at one of the beautiful old hotels near the course. The most storied is the Hill Club, which proved its snooty credentials by denying us entrance. No shorts allowed. The Grand Hotel, though, was less exclusive and allowed us to stretch our dirty, bared limbs on their veranda for a couple hours.

We didn’t have a great time in Nuwara Eliya, but the city’s attractions weren’t the main reason we were visiting. Horton Plains National Park is nearby, as well as a large tea plantation. As a base for excursions, Nuwara Eliya served its purpose fine, but the city itself was a disappointment.

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March 4, 2012 at 4:29 am Comments (5)

The Stony Temples of Ridi Vihara and Aluvihara

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Because of shoddy roads and slow buses, distances in Sri Lanka can be deceiving. When we looked at the map and saw that Matale was just twelve miles north of Kandy, and Ridigama another eleven miles from there, we thought: easy day trip. We’d probably be back home in time for lunch. Oh, poor fools! Poor, optimistic fools!!

We left Kandy on the 7:20am train and barely made it back home in time for dinner. Almost the whole day was spent on the road, packed into stinking buses and trains full of sweaty human flesh, rumbling along at an agonizing pace through the hilly countryside. At least the drives were scenic, and the temples we got to visit were spectacular.

Jack Fruit Temple

Ridi Vihara or the “Silver Temple” was originally built in the 2nd century BC by the great Lankan King Dutugamunu, whose kingdom was enriched by a vein of silver found here. We reached the gates after a grueling 15-minute hike uphill from Ridigama, and discovered a sprawling temple complex filled with shrines, lookout points and temples. Ridi Vihara is far off the beaten track, hidden among rocky hills and palm tree forests, and the views from atop the temple’s hill are unbelievable.

We spent an hour exploring the temple’s various buildings. The small “Jackfruit Temple”, closest the entrance, was named for the fruit which a traveler shared with a local monk, before discovering the mountain’s silver deposit. Further on is the main cave temple, in which we found a massive resting Buddha, at least nine meters in length, and wall paintings over 2300 years old. Very atmospheric, especially in this remote corner of Sri Lanka virtually unseen by tourists.

Aluvihara-Hill-Buddha

On our way back into Matale, we got off the bus a couple miles early to visit Aluvihara. This temple is famous around the Buddhist world as the site where scripture was first put down in writing. Before this monumental task, which was completed in the 1st century BC by a force of 500 monks, Buddhist doctrine had been passed down orally.

We didn’t see any plaques or monuments commemorating this important achievement at Aluvihara, but we did see a lot of gore. Within the cave temples were graphic depictions of Buddhist Hell — it was the first time I’ve seen gruesome violence depicted in a Buddhist temple. Just when I thought I’d finally found a religion which celebrates life and embraces non-violence, here comes an image of some poor sinner being disemboweled by demons. Or being eaten by snakes. Or being bent over, and having a demon shove a hot poker up his butt.

The freakshow continued in another cave, which a malicious little man ushered us into. Here the simple drawings of hellacious torture were supplanted by sculptures. I had just been remarking to Jürgen that, though the paintings were lovely, what I really needed to see was a full-sized model of a man being torn apart at the groin. And, joy! Here it was!

Unless you have private transport, it’s hard to recommend Ridi Vihara and Aluvihara as a single day trip from Kandy — it was a very long journey, and we were exhausted by the time we got back home. But if you find yourself near either spot, both temples are definitely worth a detour.

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March 2, 2012 at 5:36 am Comments (4)

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The Enigmatic Stupas of Kadurugoda 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.
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