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The Summit of Sigiriya

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

Sigiriya

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

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

Sigiriya Fort

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

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

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

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

The Damsels of Sigiriya

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sigiriya Rock – The Eighth Wonder of the Ancient World

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

Sigiriya

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

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.

Swalps-Sigiriya

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

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

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

The Story of Sigiriya

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

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

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

Sigiriya-Rock

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

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

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

Sigiriya was the capital of Sri Lanka for fourteen years.

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

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.

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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.

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March 12, 2012 at 5:14 am Comments (0)

The Four Devales of Kandy

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According to popular belief, Kandy is protected by four gods, each with its own temple in the city center. These devales are special temples dedicated to a specific god, besides Buddha. Vishnu, Kataragama, Pattini and Natha. On one busy afternoon, we visited all of them. Yeah, we got that temple fever.

Vishnu Devale
Vishnu Temple Kandy

Vishnu is one of the supreme gods of Hinduism, surpassed in importance only by Brahma and perhaps Shiva. So what’s he doing in a Buddhist temple? Turns out that Sri Lankan Buddhism borrows frequently from Hinduism, because of the country’s closely-intertwined history with India. According to local lore, Vishnu is the god whom Buddha charged with guardianship of Sri Lanka. Probably not exactly what Hindus believe.

Vishnu’s devale in Kandy is just to the north of the Temple of the Tooth. Its most striking features are a large dancing pavilion (or digge) and a long set of stone steps which lead to the main shrine. Given its proximity to the Temple of the Tooth, this was a surprisingly serene and quiet place. The few worshipers present were sitting in the digge, quietly reading prayer books. We liked it.

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Kataragama Devale
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Kataragama is another god worshiped by both religions, and his temple in Kandy is definitely more Hindu than Buddhist in appearance. He’s one of the more popular deities in Sri Lanka, for the rather shallow reason that he grants wishes.

Hey, I’ve got a wish for you, Kataragama. I wish you’d force your little acolytes to stop hounding me for money! From the moment we stepped inside this devale, we were beset by schemers, offering to lead us on tours (for cash), asking to have their photos taken (for cash), and trying to tie wristbands on us (for cash). While I was checking out the temple’s Bo Tree, it magically spoke to me, asking me where I was from! I shouldn’t have been surprised when a sneaking orange-robed monk popped out from behind the tree with a beatific smile on his face. I lost all enthusiasm, knowing what was coming. “You like make donation?” Sigh.

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Pattini Devale

One of the most popular temples in Kandy is dedicated to the Indian goddess Pattini. A normal girl of humble origins, she was made a goddess after showing unwavering fealty to her no-good, cheating husband. When he was falsely accused of robbery, she protested his execution by tearing off her own breast and burning a city down with her pure, fiery rage. Today, she’s visited by pregnant women and those hoping to ward off disease.

Her devale in Kandy is found in the Temple of the Tooth, and is almost always crowded. We happened to visit during a ceremony and, maneuvering around a rooster, stepped inside. A priest at the front of the shrine was shaking a golden bracelet, while on the side, another guy was chanting like a drunk auctioneer. The place was packed full, and it was a cool experience.

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Natha Devale
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Natha is the only purely Buddhist god of the four protectors of Kandy, and his temple is the oldest structure in the city, dating from sometime in the 14th century. Sri Lanka’s Natha corresponds to Avalokitesvara, who is an enlightened being that encompasses all the compassion in the world. Sounds like a nice fella, this Natha.

The Natha temple is one of the most important in Kandy, only eclipsed by the Temple of the Tooth. Because of the god’s importance, new Kings of Kandy were obligated to appear here to claim a name, before ascending to the throne. The main shrine is evidently ancient, and beautiful from the outside, though its interior is a bit of a let-down.

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February 22, 2012 at 12:42 pm Comments (2)

The Buddha of Gnome Mountain

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The giant white Buddha which sits atop Bahirawakanda hill is visible from all over Kandy, and a visit, whether by tuk-tuk or foot, is worth the effort for an unbeatable view. From atop Bahirawakanda, the city and its lake are laid out beautifully before you, and you’ll feel secure underneath the big Buddha’s benevolent, protecting presence. You might need the protection more than you realize. The spot on which you’re standing has an evil past…..

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Bahirawa Kanda is Sinhalese for Gnome Mountain. Centuries ago, this hill was believed to be in possession of a wicked gnome with an insatiable thirst for human flesh. According to legend, the Kings of Kandy would reluctantly provide a human sacrifice to the cruel creature once a year. The chosen was always a beautiful young virgin of noble blood, who would be taken to the top of the mountain, tied to a tree and left for the gnome to ravage at his whim.

Though the legends of Bahirawa Kanda are more fiction than fact, sacrifices do appear to have been made. Most likely, the abandoned girls would die of fright or exposure, or be torn apart by wild jackals. The last such sacrifice came during the troubled reign of Kandy’s final king, Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe. According to the story, after the girl was chained and left for dead, her boyfriend stole up the mountain and freed her. They escaped to Colombo, and wouldn’t return to Kandy until after the British took over.

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February 20, 2012 at 2:00 pm Comments (2)

The Kandyan Kingdom and Robert Knox

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For hundreds of years, the stubborn Kandyan Kingdom proved a thorn in the side of conquest-happy European powers. Isolated, unassailable and mysterious, the kingdom remained the only independent region of Sri Lanka until finally falling to the British in 1817.

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When the Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka, in 1505, the island was ruled by a number of independent kingdoms. None of them had any hope of matching the Europeans’ naval power, and almost all fell quickly. Jaffna, Colombo, Trincomalee, Galle… the coastal regions were soon under Portuguese control. Suddenly, the treacherous jungle and impossible mountains of Kandy, which had always encumbered commerce and life, proved to be an invaluable asset, guaranteeing independence.

Only a couple paths led through the jungle to Kandy and the natives were able to keep these routes secret. Revealing one of the paths to a foreigner was an offense punishable by death. And given the mountainous landscape, the roads were easily defensible; even if a invading patrol were to find the right trail, they would be routed long before arriving.

Portuguese, Dutch, English, all flailed against the airtight defense of the mountain kingdom. Throughout the colonial period, the Kandyans proved to be feisty negotiating partners, frequently siding with one power against another, then gleefully breaking treaties as the whim took them. The first Dutch diplomatic mission to Kandy ended in a bloody farce, when the king, offended by the foreigners’ drunken and unruly behavior, ordered them killed.

Due to its isolation, relatively little is known about life inside the Kandyan Kingdom. The most important source for information comes from an Englishman named Robert Knox, who was captured by the Kandyans. Knox lived for nineteen years as a prisoner in the kingdom. As time wore on, he gained a fair degree of autonomy, and was able to wander about at will — the few routes which led to escape were heavily guarded.

Eventually, the resourceful Knox (thought to be the real-life model for Robinson Crusoe) did escape, and wrote a long account of his time on Ceylon. An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon dedicates most of its pages to a description of life in the Kingdom of Kandy. In the bawdiest bits, Knox, a straight-laced puritan, describes his shock at the overt sexual practices of the islanders, such as polygamy and incest. If you’re interested, the book is available for free Kindle Download at Amazon.

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February 20, 2012 at 5:18 am Comments (4)

The Temple of the Tooth

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Sri Lanka’s most important temple is home to its most sacred relic: a tooth of the Buddha himself. But when you visit, don’t expect the chance to inspect the holy man’s dental work. The tooth is kept sealed tightly behind multiple bejeweled doors and under the lid of a dagoba-shaped golden shrine. Luckily, there’s plenty more to see in the temple’s enormous complex, and a visit can easily eat up hours.

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It was a poya day when we decided to check out the Temple of the Tooth (known to Sri Lankans as Sri Dalada Maligawa). Poyas are the full-moon days, public holidays in Sri Lanka, so we suspected that there might be a lot of activity at the temple. These suspicions were borne out. Thousands of faithful worshipers were packed into the place, bearing flowers and gifts of food for the insatiable tooth of Buddha. In the temple’s lower hall, drumming had begun and a heavy layer incense successfully offset the musty odors which usually accompany a mass gathering of humanity.

Getting into the temple complex isn’t a cakewalk. In 1998, the LTTE exploded a truck bomb which destroyed much of the main shrine and security has been tight ever since. Entry costs foreigners a pretty penny (about $10 a head) and you can’t wear knee-length shorts. So, before we could even get inside, we had to run to the ATM and rent a couple sarongs. Tip: don’t rent sarongs! You can buy them at nearby fabric stores for nearly the same price, and you might need them another day.

Buddha-Tooth-Kandy

A number of buildings and shrines are found past the security gates, most of which don’t require a paid entrance. The main shrine of the Temple of the Tooth was constructed in 1600, shortly after the arrival of the Buddha’s Tooth in Kandy, but it’s been torn down and rebuilt a number of times throughout its history. The golden roof and a gold-plated ceiling in the drummer’s hall, for example, date from just 1987.

Buddha’s tooth is an item of supreme holiness. Can you imagine the pilgrimages if some Catholic church had one of Jesus’ chompers? Of course, the authenticity of the tooth remains questionable. Though it’s now kept strictly out-of-sight, it was described in 1914 as “at least three inches long” by writer Bella Sydney Woolf, and Portuguese invaders claimed to have destroyed it in the 16th century.

But facts and reason are always of questionable value when dealing with matters of faith, and the important thing is that millions of people believe in the tooth’s legitimacy. Wars have been fought over its possession; in India, it was believed that whoever owned it would rule the land (one tooth to rule them all?) The tooth came to Sri Lanka sometime in the 4th century, when, to protect it against an imminent invasion, King Guhaseeva of Kalinga (Eastern India) sent his daughter to the island with it hidden in her hairpiece.

If you go, try and time your visit with one of the pujas, which are the hours of worship. Currently, those are at 5:30, 9:30 and 18:30. The atmosphere is far more romantic when drums are being pounded, and prayers are being chanted.

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February 15, 2012 at 9:56 am Comments (9)

A Concise History of Sri Lanka

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Originally settled about 36,000 years ago, Sri Lanka has one of the world’s oldest histories. So attempting to condense its long and turbulent story into a “concise” version is a fool’s errand. But then, we are the foolish children of a modern age, without the time for outdated concepts like thoroughness or nuance! Give the history of Sri Lanka to us in 140 characters or less, please.

Oldtimer in Sri Lanka
34000 BC Appearance of the Balangoda Man, the earliest evidence of humanity yet discovered on the island.
18000 BC Arrival of the Veddas, an indigenous people still extant in present-day Sri Lanka.
543 BC Prince Vijaya of India lands on the island, and becomes the country’s first recorded monarch. Sri Lanka would be ruled by native kings until 1815.
380 BC The capital is moved to Anuradhapura, where it remains for 1400 years.
250 BC Buddhism arrives to the island, and is thoroughly embraced. Sri Lanka remains one of the religion’s most important centers to this day.
47 BC Queen Anula of Sri Lanka becomes Asia’s first female ruler.
993 AD The fall of Anduradhapura marks the end of the island’s ancient history. The Cholas of India almost succeed in erasing Buddhism from Sri Lanka, and are only driven out in 1070.
1153 Parākramabāhu the Great rules over the greatest period in Sri Lankan history, initiating numerous construction projects and successful wars against India and Myanmar.
1505 Portuguese explorer Lorenzo de Almeida arrives on the shores of Sri Lanka, and establishes the port city of Colombo, initiating European colonialism on the island. The capital is soon moved inland, to Kandy.
1656 Sinhalese rulers sign an ill-advised treaty with the Dutch who, after booting out the Portuguese, immediately claim power themselves.
1796 The British arrive, and after two long campaigns, conquer the Kingdom of Kandy, bringing the entire island under foreign rule for the first time in history.
1824 Tea is brought to the island to replace a failing coffee trade, and quickly becomes one of the main export crops. Ceylon, as the British call Sri Lanka, becomes almost synonymous with tea.
1948 Independence returns to Sri Lanka. Almost immediately, Sinhalese majorities institute policies which marginalize other ethnicities.
1983 The Sri Lankan Civil War kicks off in earnest, pitting the Sinhalese government against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who eventually control most of the north.
2004 The Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami ravage Eastern Sri Lanka, with over 35,000 dead and over 500,000 displaced.
2009 After 26 years of fighting, the government finally defeats the Tamil Tigers, bringing an end to the devastating Civil War.
And on… Anxious for peace, the Sri Lankan people turn attentions to recovery and eco-tourism. Sri Lanka currently enjoys a high rate of growth, with one of the world’s fastest growing economies. As long as its different cultures get along, the future looks bright.

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February 6, 2012 at 2:09 pm Comment (1)

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