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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 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)

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)

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.

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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)

Colombo’s Gangaramaya Temple

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Immediately after visiting the quiet water temple of Seema Malaka, we decided to check out Gangaramaya. Built in the 1800s, this is the most important place of Buddhist learning and worship in Colombo. The sprawling complex is a bewildering assault on the senses. Packed with worshipers, tourists, clouds of incense, chanting, elephants (alive and stuffed), and a collection of everything even the slightest bit related to Buddhism, there is enough here to occupy a huge chunk of time.

Gangramaya Buddhas

When visiting temples, we usually maintain a quiet composure and respectful behavior. There’s nothing more hideous than a sunburned tourist in a place of worship, with safari hat and fanny pack, laughing and yakking as though he were at Disney World, and snapping pictures of the funny little monks who are clearly there for his amusement. But when we entered Gangaramaya, the first thing I did was run over to the resident elephant like a blathering idiot. “Can I touch it, huh? Huh? Can I?” I guffawed and posed while Jürgen took photos of me with the gentle giant, whose name is Ganga. The usual dignity? Out the window. Shucks, I’m touchin’ a real-life elephunt! Gyuk-gyuk.

Having to pay Ganga’s caretaker 500 Rupees brought us back down to earth, and we composed ourselves before exploring the rest of the temple. First, we ventured into the image room — fantastic. With a massive, golden Buddha decorated with elephant tusks and surrounded by various other gods, this room was breathtaking. Nearby, there’s an ancient Bo Tree, which worshipers were circling. I love this aspect of Sri Lankan Buddhism. Every temple on the island has a Bo Tree, which is subject to almost as much veneration as images of Buddha himself. According to the faith, it’s the tree which Buddha sat underneath while obtaining enlightenment.

We spent a lot of time inside Gangaramaya’s strange and delightful museum. A guide led us on a tour of the wide-ranging collection of bric-a-brac and Buddhist memorabilia. There were gifts from other Buddhist nations, including a Japanese sandalwood cabinet which our guide claimed was worth at least a million bucks. And we saw the world’s tiniest Buddha, smaller than a thimble, which revealed extraordinary detail underneath a microscope.

Gangaramaya is one of the top sights in Colombo. Don’t pass up a visit to this amazing, living center of Buddhism.

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February 12, 2012 at 12:33 pm Comments (6)

The Modern Temple of Seema Malaka

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In the middle of Beira Lake, the sleek Buddhist Temple of Seema Malaka rises elegantly from the tepid water. In comparison to the garishly colorful Sri Subravanian Kovil, which we had just finished visiting, Seema Malaka is a marvel of restraint.

Geoffrey Bawa

After the original Seema Malaka temple had sunk into the lake, the government commissioned Geoffrey Bawa to design a replacement in the 1970s. Bawa, known as the founder of Tropical Modernism, is Sri Lanka’s most famous architect and was one of the most influential in Asia. His stylish creations can be found throughout Colombo, and Seema Malaka is one of the highlights.

The temple is spread across three raised platforms in the lake, connected to each other and to the mainland by bridges. Bawa intended his design to echo the jungle temples of Anuradhapura, also bound together by walkways. Seema Malaka is small and, with the cool breeze coming off the lake, a sense of serenity and simplicity dominates the scene — quite the accomplishment, in the middle of steamy, chaotic Colombo.

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February 10, 2012 at 2:07 pm Comments (3)

Sri Subramaniya Kovil

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Found on Slave Island, Sri Subramaniya Kovil is one of Colombo’s most impressive Hindu temples. We were welcomed inside on a balmy February morning, and had a great time watching the ceremonies. When we left, it was with colorful dots on our foreheads and a beginner’s appreciation of Hindu.

Hindu Blessing

Slave Island takes its name from the days when Colombo was ruled by the Netherlands. It’s actually an inland peninsula, enclosed by Beira Lake, which provided the colonialists a handy place in which to confine their African slaves. Only one side needed to be protected against escape attempts, because the dastardly Dutch had filled the waters with alligators. It’s as though they delighted in pure evil! (1) Subjugate an island nation. (2) Ship in foreign slaves. (3) Guard slaves with man-eating monsters. They probably wore handlebar mustaches, too.

When our tuk-tuk pulled up in front of the Sri Subramaniya Kovil on Slave Island, my jaw dropped. An 82-foot tower reaches up to the sky, covered with what must be hundreds of Hindu deities. The sculpture work is intricate, colorful and not a little gaudy.

After removing our shoes, we stepped inside. Nobody seemed to mind us our presence and, to the contrary, we were made to feel welcome. A number of brahmans were wandering around, and gave us some flower petals to place before the shrine of our choosing, then put dots of color onto our foreheads: a tilak, which represents the “third eye” common to many of the Hindu gods.

This was my first time inside any sort of Hindu temple, and it was fascinating. There were a number of shrines inside, which people were circling in a clockwise manner. Priests were carrying offering plates to the various shrines and blessing the faithful. There was fire involved. Elephant gods. Face painting. Incense. Requisite shirt-removal. Bells, flowers and chanting. My overall impression? Hinduism is kind of a blast.

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February 9, 2012 at 3:38 am Comments (4)

The Multi-Cultural Chaos of Colombo

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Although the official capital of Sri Lanka is the nearby satellite city of Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte, Colombo is definitely the island’s top dog. Boasting by far the largest concentration of people, industry and commerce, Colombo is a noisy, dirty, and vibrantly alive city; an ethnic melting pot both invigorating and exhausting.

Colombo 2011

Thanks to its natural harbor, Colombo has been an area of trade ever since ships first sailed the Indian Ocean, but didn’t become a city of any importance until the arrival of the Portuguese. But it’s made up for lost time. With a current metro population of over five million, Colombo is a vast urban sprawl which stretches for miles up and down the coast. The words “Sri Lanka” usually conjure serene images of tea plantations, rain forests and pristine nature, so landing in Colombo is a startling wake-up call to the busy modern life of the island.

We immediately fell into the rhythm of the city. Not difficult, since Colombo is fun. There’s the insane bazaar of the Pettah, the strangely militarized Fort District, the gorgeous temples around Beira Lake and Slave Island, tuk-tuks clamoring for business every two meters, historic hotels, excellent restaurants and a buoyant urban vibe which owes a lot to the city’s fantastic mixing of cultures.

On our first full day in Colombo, we visited a Hindu Temple, a Mosque, a Christian church, and a Buddhist temple. We got into conversations with practitioners of all these various faiths. Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim… it didn’t matter: everyone was eager to talk with us, to find out where we’re from and what we’re doing. And they were especially interested to learn our impressions their country. A fail-proof way to elicit a huge Sri Lankan grin, is to gush about how wonderful Sri Lanka is. They’re very proud of their country… and their hectic capital city.

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February 7, 2012 at 11:16 am Comment (1)
The Kitsch Madness of Wewurukannala Temple 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.
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