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Sri Lanka Reading List

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Every time we head to a new location, we’ll hunt down novels which are set there. Books help satisfy our curiosity about the place, and deepen our understanding of its culture. Here’s what we’ve been reading during our three months in Sri Lanka.

Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje
Running In The Family

Michael Ondaatje, also the author of The English Patient, is Sri Lanka’s most famous novelist. A Burgher, Ondaatje left Sri Lanka when he was just 11, and recounts the experience of returning in this wonderful, lyrical book. Stories of his ancestry mix fact and fiction, poetry and prose, as we follow Ondaatje both into his past and around the island. It’s a book I’ve returned to again and again, as we made our own way through Sri Lanka.

Book Link: Running in the Family

The Fountains of Paradise by Arther C. Clarke
Fountains of Paradise

The celebrated science fiction author spent his final years in Sri Lanka, both because he loved the island and because he felt the need to escape the anti-gay prejudice of his native England. His regard for the country shines through brightly in The Fountains of Paradise which is set in a slightly fictionalized version of Sri Lanka called “Trapobane”. Sigiriya and Adam’s Peak also receive aliases, and play a major part in this beloved sci-fi tale about building an elevator into space.

Book Link: Fountains of Paradise

The Village in the Jungle by Leonard Woolf
Village in the Jungle

Want a laugh? Then stay far away from this depressing tale of life in the jungles of Sri Lanka! Leonard Woolf spent years in the Ceylon Civil Service and wrote this harrowing novel about a village called Beddigama after returning to England (where he would later marry a young woman named Virginia). His fictional village doesn’t have it easy, and neither do readers. A fascinating and brutally honest depiction of life in the jungle, Woolf’s novel has earned a status in Sri Lanka (if not in the rest of the world) as a treasured classic.

Book Link: Village in the Jungle

Stories from the History of Ceylon for Children by Marie Musæus-Higgens
History-of-Ceylon

Yes, yes: “for children”. I was also holding a heavy, 600-page tome of Sri Lankan history for adults, but opted for the kiddie stories. And I’m glad I did! This book, originally written in 1910 to help elucidate the history of their country to young girls in school, recounts the most famous Sri Lankan legends. If you’re going to visit a lot of temples and historical places, I could almost call this book required reading. You’re unlikely to find a more comprehensive or easy-to-digest collection of stories.

Book Link: Stories from the History of Ceylon for Children

Madol Doova by Martin Wickramasinghe
Madol-Doova

We found the Martin Wickramasinghe’s house and folk museum surprisingly entertaining, so I decided to see if the same would hold true for one of his novels. This small book took me about a couple hours to read. It’s about two trouble-making kids from a rural village and their mischievous escapades. Eventually, they leave town and set up residence on an island named Madol Doova, thought to be infested by cobras and ghosts. It’s a fun coming-of-age story, ripe with Sinhalese customs and terms — there’s even a useful glossary at the back for words like “Mala yaka” (deadly devil) and “Mahttaya” (Sinhala equivalent of mister).

Book Link: Madol Doova

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April 27, 2012 at 12:29 pm Comments (2)

The Martin Wickramasinghe Museum

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One of our first mornings in Galle, we took a bus to Alanthgama with the intention of seeing stilt fisherman — one of Sri Lanka’s most iconic images. But whether it was due to the stormy seas, the time of day, or the recently completed New Year’s festivities, the stilts were unoccupied. Foiled! Now what would we do?

“It says here that the Martin Wickramasinghe Museum is nearby.”
“Martin Wickra-what?!”
“No clue. Some author.”

Martin-Wickramasinghe-House

We were only going because there was nothing else to do, and were in solid agreement that house-museum of an author we’d never heard of couldn’t possibly be the slightest bit interesting. But how wrong we were!

The museum is split into a couple sections. The cabin where Mr. Wickramasinghe grew up has been preserved and contains original furniture, pictures of the author receiving awards and a thorough chronicle of his life. Wickramasinghe (May 1890 – July 1976) was one of the cultural lights of colonial Ceylon, and one of the few writers of any prominence who chose Sinhalese as his primary language. He was fascinated by the culture of his island and worked tirelessly to both nurture and promote it.

One of his projects was a Sri Lankan Folk Museum, which we visited after touring the cabin. The museum is deceptively large, with a fascinating collection of the tools, masks, fashions and utensils of Sri Lanka’s past. Nearly every item was described in both English and Sinhalese. My favorites were a set of antiquated board games, and the recreation of an amazing 7th century Monsoon Furnace uncovered near Ratnapura.

I already knew that the early Sinhalese were considered ancient masters of engineering for their irrigation projects, but this really blew my mind. They had set up west-facing iron-smelting furnaces to capture the winds of the yearly monsoons. Modern engineers scoffed at the idea, until recreating it themselves. The monsoon winds are steady and strong enough to produce high-quality iron, and the furnaces generated up to ten tons annually.

The Martin Wickramasinghe Museum was an unexpected highlight. It was crowded with Sri Lankan families, but we were the only foreigners present. That’s a shame — tickets are only 200 rupees per person, and the exhibits provide an unforgettable glimpse into the island’s culture.

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April 26, 2012 at 3:19 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
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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)

Fort Frederick and Swami Rock

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A mighty promontory jutting out into the Indian Ocean, Swami Rock divides Trincomalee’s Back Bay from the Dutch Bay. It’s an impressive natural landmark and has always played an important role in the city’s affairs. Before the arrival of the Europeans, Swami Rock was home to the world-famous Temple of the Thousand Pillars. Currently, it’s occupied by the massive Fort Frederick.

Fort-Frederick-Trincomalee-Sri-Lanka

The Portuguese were the first colonial power to exert control over Sri Lanka, and the island couldn’t have found a more callous master. They razed temples and kovils wherever they could, erecting Catholic churches in their stead. Tragically, the Temple of the Thousand Pillars (Koneswaram Temple) was among the destroyed. This amazing building, which had led early explorers to pronounce Trinco the “Rome of the Orient”, was literally pushed off the rock and into the ocean below. Thanks, Portugal.

In 1628, the fort was erected. Control soon passed into Dutch, who expanded the construction and provided it with its current name. The French won it from the Dutch, and the British from them. Fort Frederick remained a British garrison until 1948, when Sri Lanka gained independence. It’s still militarily active today, although open to tourists (and deer).

A visit to the fort was the first thing we did in Trinco, and we really enjoyed it. The Koneswaram Temple has been rebuilt, though the new construction is nowhere near as grand as the original. Luckily, the outstanding views over Trinco from the top of Swami Rock were something that not even the Portuguese could destroy. One tree, clinging to the cliff face, is burdened underneath flags and a huge number of light baskets tied onto the branches by couples hoping to get pregnant.

Even if you’re just in Trinco for the beaches, a visit to the Fort should definitely make its way onto your itinerary. We walked, but you can also hire a tuk-tuk to take you to the top.

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April 2, 2012 at 6:17 am Comments (0)

The Besieged Fort of Jaffna

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In 1618, the Portuguese built an enormous fort in Jaffna, to help protect their hard-won property. Colonial-era forts are fairly common across the world, but Jaffna’s must be one of the very few which continued to see action until the late 20th century. Recently re-opened to visitors, it was one of the first things we checked out in Jaffna.

Jaffna Fort

The Portuguese ruled Jaffna until 1658, when the Dutch sailed into town and took over. De Nederlanders expanded the fort and, after a century and half of dominance in northern Sri Lanka, ceded control to the British in 1795. Years after the tumultuous colonial years, the fort was the scene of major battles during the Sri Lankan Civil War. The LTTE controlled it until 1995, when a 50-day siege by the army finally uprooted them. Walking around the fort today, it’s immediately obvious how incredible the fight must have been. Almost everything is in ruins.

We were far from alone during our visit to the fort, which has apparently become a popular spot for a Saturday stroll. I’m unsure, though, whether the people visiting were from Jaffna or further afield. Now that the war is over, the peninsula has become a hot tourist zone for Sri Lankans, who hadn’t been able to visit the northern section of their country for decades. Perhaps even more than the fort itself, Jürgen and I were big attractions among the visiting families, asked to pose for picture after picture. It was a surreal, humorous touch to what had been a rather sobering day out.

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March 27, 2012 at 1:34 pm Comments (2)

The Modern Ruins of Jaffna Town

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We’ve never visited a city with a vibe like Jaffna’s. The only town of any appreciable size in the whole of northern Sri Lanka, Jaffna is the vibrant de facto capital of the country’s Tamil population. But it’s also a tragic showpiece for the horrors of modern war. A walk through the streets of modern Jaffna offers both a heartbreaking look at the darkness of humanity, and an inspiring example of our stubborn perseverance.

Jaffna Blog

Life in Jaffna is centered around the bus station, which is where we arrived with broken bums and twisted spinal columns after the journey from Anuradhapura. The first thing we noticed on stepping out of the bus was… nothing. No touts. Nobody directing us to “their friend’s” guesthouse. No tuk-tuks clamoring for our business. Nobody asking “what is your country?” There were people all over, but they were leaving us alone. Jaffna doesn’t get that many tourists and, apparently, hasn’t yet learned that there’s money to be made by harassing us. Immediate plus points.

During the ten days we’d spend in Jaffna, we were often downtown. There aren’t a lot of specific sights, but the city is fascinating all by itself. We’d walk along the Kasturiya Road, where hundreds of vendors sell gold and jewelry, or Main Street which is home to cavernous Catholic churches and colonial mansions. We’d visit the stately public library, which looks more like a courthouse, and find fishing boats coming to shore down Beach Road. Everyone, everywhere, smiled and waved at us. This was a lively town, with happy people going cheerfully about their lives!

Along those same streets though, in another mood or light, you could reach a very different conclusion. In the city center, half the stores are shuttered up or destroyed. Down Main Street, every other house was in ruins, only the barest foundations having survived whatever bomb or fire had wrought the devastation. The library, once one of the largest in Asia, has only recently re-opened after having been burnt to the ground by malicious policemen in the 80s. Streets are pockmarked with potholes. A lot of people are missing limbs. Eyes. There’s an excessive number of hospitals and funeral parlors. The ravages of war are everywhere; unmistakable, and impossible to avert your eyes from.

Between the dead ruins and the living city, you can easily imagine how beautiful Jaffna must once have been. I would love to hop in a Delorean, and travel back to see it during its prime, before the war. But perhaps I should just remain patient — hostilities just ended, after all, and I have a feeling that it won’t be long before Jaffna recovers.

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March 27, 2012 at 11:47 am Comments (2)

The Sri Lankan Civil War

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Between 1983 and 2009, a brutal civil war threatened to tear Sri Lanka apart at the seams. Waged primarily between the island’s Sinhalese majority government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the conflict claimed over 100,000 lives. The war only came to an end when the army killed the LTTE’s charismatic leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, after a bloody campaign in the north.

As might be imagined, tensions are still high on the island. It will take decades for the wounds of war to heal and, even if peace proves sustainable, there will always be scars. Just look at the USA, where the ghosts of our Civil War remain discernible. For now, though, it’s enough for most Sri Lankans that the guns have been laid to the side.

Civil War in Sri Lanka

Although no one is eager to discuss the war with us, and we’re careful to never bring it up, not a day goes by when it’s not referenced in some oblique way. “You like Sri Lanka?” someone will ask us. “Is very peaceful, yes? Now is peace”. Or, we’ll pass another heavily-guarded checkpoint. Or see some awful relic of the war, such as a sign warning about landmines, or a makeshift museum dedicated to a particularly brutal bomb blast. There’s no escaping the legacy of the war, and on any trip to Sri Lanka, its presence will be (and should be) ever-present.

We’re not going to wade into the murky waters of the war’s origins. Suffice to say that there have always been tensions between the island’s different ethnic groups. The feelings of distrust were mostly held in check when the island was administered by the British, but came to the fore in the years following independence. The war officially began after a 1983 pogrom, known as Black July, during which Sinhalese mobs killed thousands of Tamil civilians. The pogrom itself was in retaliation for a deadly ambush by the Tigers, which was in retaliation for something else — and so on, and so on; the blame game could (and does) go back centuries.

The main goal of the LTTE was an independent state for Sri Lanka’s Tamil population, in the north and east of Sri Lanka. A guerrilla organization, the LTTE’s fighting techniques included suicide bomb attacks, often in heavily populated or religiously significant places, like Colombo’s Fort or Kandy’s Temple of the Tooth. Government responses were brutal and indiscriminate, and the attacks by both sides only encouraged more ruthlessness and anger in the other.

The war was a tragedy for Sri Lankans of all stripes, and during our time here, we’ve found it hard to believe that such a conflict was even possible. The Sri Lankans we’ve met — Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Rich, Poor — have been almost entirely wonderful, happy and friendly people. We can only hope that the peace, though fragile as ever, endures. Sri Lanka is a beautiful country whose diverse population only enriches it, and it deserves better.

We all do.

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March 26, 2012 at 11:02 am Comments (2)

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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Sri Lanka Reading List Every time we head to a new location, we'll hunt down novels which are set there. Books help satisfy our curiosity about the place, and deepen our understanding of its culture. Here's what we've been reading during our three months in Sri Lanka.
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