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The Mysterious Forest Monastery of Ritigala

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The enigmatic remains of the Ritigala Monastery are tucked away on a mountain in the middle of a strict nature reserve. Difficult to reach and largely skipped by tourists, the archaeological site is the kind of place in which it’s easy to imagine Indiana Jones hunting for a fabled, lost treasure.

Indiana Jones Temple

The long and easy path through the monastery starts at the ancient steps of an enormous bath, which was probably used by the monks to cleanse themselves before entering. At least, that’s the best guess: nothing concrete is known about the ruins of Ritigala. This was a secluded mountain sanctuary for monks who wanted to escape the everyday world, and their lives remain cloaked in mystery. There are no ruins that could have been used as shelters, for example, so did they sleep in caves? None of the usual Buddhist icons are found, no temples, Buddha images or Bodhi trees. What were these monks doing?

The ruins that we saw were fascinating, made even more intriguing by their secretness of their purpose. Our path led through three large “double-platform” pavilions. These structures were aligned exactly east-west, with one empty platform, and the other filled with columns. What might these have been used for? Meditation? Sermons? “Sacrifices“, Jürgen whispered into my ear.

Toward the top of the official route, we spotted another, smaller path cutting through the jungle. I checked my whip, adjusted my fedora, gave Jürgen the nickname “Short Round”, and we set off together on another adventure. Pushing through the woods, we passed innumerable ruins: baths, rock faces with indecipherable notches cut into them, chairs, and other remains we couldn’t identify. I sat down to rest in one of the stone chairs and, suddenly, it swiveled to the left, revealing a cache of gems hidden underneath. Fortune and glory, kid.

Dotted Stone

“Watch out, Indy!” cried Short Round. I ducked, and a lichen-covered scythe brushed over my head, perilously close. “Thanks, little buddy”. The forest darkened around us and, from it, we began to hear the low, ominous tones of a unholy chant. After stashing as many jewels as we could, me in my satchel, Shorty in his ball cap, we hurried down the path. Behind us, the mummified corpses of Buddhist monks had risen from the ground, and were in slow pursuit…

Okay, okay, sorry about that. But these were my thoughts as we explored the forest path. We continued along it for a long time, almost convinced that we should turn around, but we kept discovering more and more ruins, and it was too exciting. Soon enough, we emerged at a giant stone structure atop the hill that might have been a fort. From the top of it, we had an amazing view of the valley, and on the other side we found a flight of steps leading back to the main path.

We had an amazing time at Ritigala. If you’re in the mood for an exciting, atmospheric experience, you almost couldn’t do better. Don’t forget your whip.

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March 18, 2012 at 6:41 am Comments (2)

The Tanks of Anuradhapura

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Without the presence of its three artificial lakes near the city center, Anuradhapura would never have flourished. Tissa Wewa, Nuwara Wewa and Basawakkulama ensured that the people would always have rice and fresh water, even during the long months between monsoons. At the time of their construction, over two millennia ago, they were among the world’s greatest feats of engineering, and continue to amaze today.

Bathing-Anuradhapura

The Kingdom of Anuradhapura was one of the most technologically advanced civilizations of its day, and the creation of three enormous tanks was a singular accomplishment. The reservoirs were designed to capture the rains of the monsoon and then slowly distribute the water among the kingdom’s farms, using a complicated and highly advanced irrigation system.

Today, the city draws its water from larger tanks further afield. But the three city lakes remain an integral part of Anuradhapura’s landscape. Locals swim here and wash their clothes. They provide a perfect place for amorous couples to take evening strolls and smooch under trees. When we were walking along the Tissa Wewa, Sri Lankan kids prodded us to swim with them. Along the raised banks of Nuwara Wewa, we had an incredible view of the city’s stupas, sticking out above the forest. At Basawakkulama, we walked out west, where the lake slowly turns into rice fields, and watched the city change color with the sunset.

Other tanks, smaller and larger, are found throughout the lowlands of Sri Lanka. They’re some of the oldest existing examples of man’s ability to mold the earth to suit his needs.

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March 15, 2012 at 1:25 pm Comment (1)

A Day at the Abhayagiri Monastery

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Of the three monasteries which define the Sacred City of Anuradhapura, our favorite was the Abhayagiri, towards the north. We spent hours roaming the sacred grounds, talking to the people who worship there, and getting lost among remnants of the distant past.

Abhayagiri-Dagoba

In the first century BC, a Sinhalese King by the name of Vattagamini Abhaya had been forced to flee and abandon his capital during a Tamil invasion. During his retreat, he overheard the gleeful mocking of a Hindu priest named Giri. “The great black lion is fleeing!” Fourteen years later, the king returned with a mighty army and crushed the occupation. In celebration, he established a monastery, and named it after himself (Abhaya) and the priest who had stoked his ire (Giri).

We started our exploration of the zone at an immense, scaffold-covered stupa. Major refurbishment was going on here and, around back, we found a long line of women balanced on dangerous-looking slats of wood, passing buckets of cement to the top of the stupa. They asked me to join in, and the woman I had replaced clapped and laughed at her luck. I felt bad eventually leaving, since I was twice her size and half her age… the buckets were heavy enough for me, and must have been awful for her. These people working for free, restoring the stupa out of a sense of good, Buddhist civic duty.

For nearly a kilometer in every direction from the stupa, the ruins of Abhayagiri are scattered about. You can’t walk six feet without kicking an ancient stone or stumbling upon another half-decayed statue. We wandered aimlessly, finding a litany of treasures. A large Buddha statue, sitting serenely under a Bo Tree. A huge pond cut out of stone, known as the Elephant Pool. Not far away was an odd cave temple and, further to the east, the Twin Baths, where monks would cleanse themselves for rituals.

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Following signs, we made our way to a couple of amazingly intact moonstones. These semi-circular pieces of carved rock are found at the entrances to temples, and depict five levels of existence. The outermost layer is a ring of fire, representing the pain and agony of life everlasting. Next is a parade of animals: elephant, horse, lion and bull, representing birth, old age, illness and death (in that order). Next, a circle of creeper vine, which symbolizes craving. The following circle shows swans, who represent purity and wisdom. Underneath them, another smaller layer of creeper vines, which demonstrate the lessening of human craving. The final layer is of lotus petals turned towards a seed cup in the center, symbolizing the attainment of nirvana.

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March 14, 2012 at 1:34 pm Comments (5)

The New Town and Weekend Market of Anuradhapura

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It can’t match the Sacred City for ancient splendor, and by itself wouldn’t warrant a visit on even the most comprehensive itinerary, but the New Town of Anuradhapura is unavoidable on any visit to the city. We spent a lot of time here, shopping, drinking and eating, and visiting the wonderful weekend market.

Sunday Market Anuradhapura

Like the Sacred City, the New Town is long and narrow. Between the train station down and bus stand, roughly three kilometers, Main Street is packed with shops, restaurants, traffic and commotion. It’s all rather ugly — every block looks the same, and if there’s a reason to eat at this grimy restaurant as opposed to that one, or the sixteen exactly identical ones down the street, I couldn’t see it.

On weekends, the New Town hosts an incredible market, just south of the New Bus Stand. This was one of the first things we discovered during our time in the city, and we spent a long time walking up and down the aisles, checking out the food, and having tortured mime-conversations with the market sellers, all of whom wanted to sell us strange zucchinis, or have their picture taken.

While the New Town isn’t the most memorable place we’ve been in Sri Lanka, it offers an interesting peek into the day-to-day life of the country.

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March 13, 2012 at 1:52 pm Comments (3)

The Stupas of Anuradhapura

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Found at temples, on hills, in caves, or just along the side of the road, the dome-shaped structures called stupas are one of the hallmarks of Sri Lankan Buddhism. They range in size from modest to monumental, and pop up all over the island, but nowhere are they more impressive than in the sacred city of Anuradhapura.

Stupas

Since our arrival in Sri Lanka, stupas (or dagobas as they’re also known) have confused us. The simple, round domes aren’t particularly lovely, and you can’t even go inside them. Most of the stupas we’ve seen are smallish, painted white and occasionally decorated with orange ribbons. Nice enough, but they seem kind of pointless. “What do you do, stupa?” I be round! “What may I do with you?” You may look!

But they’re ubiquitous and play a big part in the island’s religious life. Stupas are built as reliquaries to hold sacred objects, in commemoration of historic events, or just because a ruler decided to buff his Buddhist credentials a bit. During the centuries that Anuradhapura was the capital of Sri Lanka, the country was at its political zenith, and the world’s most important center of Buddhism. A dizzying number of stupas were constructed, reflecting the kingdom’s power.

Thuparama

Constructed by King Tissa in the 3rd century BC, Thuparama was the first stupa built in Sri Lanka, shortly after the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. The monument might be moderately sized, but is believed to hold the right collarbone of the Buddha. Surrounding the stupa are the ruined pillars of a vatadage: a circular fence used to protect small stupas, unique to Sri Lankan architecture.

Stupa Pool

A hundred meters down a monkey-infested, ruin-strewn path is the Ruwanwelisaya Stupa, or the “Great Stupa”. Built sometime around 150 BC by King Dutugemunu, who had freed Anuradhapura from Tamil rule, this stupa is of a tremendous size and still actively in use. Hundreds of elephants are carved into the stone fence which surrounds it.

Glowing Budda

Further south into the Sacred City, we found the Mirisaveti Stupa, also built by King Dutugemunu. According to legend, the king wished to bathe in a nearby lake, and threw his spear into the ground. When he returned, he could not remove the spear, try as he might. Clearly: miracle. So he left the spear in the ground, and had this stupa built on top of it.

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Stupa’d out? Just one more. The Jetavanaramaya Stupa is one of the most impressive ancient constructions we’ve ever seen. When it was built in the 2nd century AD, it was one of the tallest structures in the world, surpassed only by Egypt’s pyramids. Today, it’s still the world’s largest brick-made building. The ancient red dome measures 400 feet in height, and 576 feet across.

I’m still not sure that stupas are my favorite style of building, but I’m starting to warm up to them. There’s something appealing in their simplicity, and the sheer size and age of Anuradhapura’s ancient stupas leaves one breathless.

Locations on our map: Thuparama | Ruwanwelisaya | Mirisaveti | Jetavanaramaya
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March 12, 2012 at 3:17 pm Comments (2)

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.

Location of the Royal Palace
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March 12, 2012 at 5:14 am Comments (0)

Anuradhapura’s Sacred City

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I’ve never been in a city as schizo as Anuradhapura. Its two sides are basically equal in size, but opposite in everything else. East/West. New/Old. Secular/Religious. Chaotic/Serene. Humdrum/Magical. New Town/Sacred City.

Monks-in-Anuradhapura

The Sacred City stretches out for five kilometers along the west of Anuradhapura, and contains approximately [let me do a little napkin math] seventeen million ruins. Seeing everything in the Sacred City would take about [scribbling, scratching head, checking equations] 642 hours. Rough guess. The number of ruins is mind-boggling, but not altogether surprising. After all, Anuradhapura was the capital of Sri Lanka for about a thousand years; the cradle of one of the world’s most enlightened religions and advanced civilizations. And for most of modern history, it was abandoned. Its buildings, temples, monasteries and stupas were left alone to fend for themselves against monkeys and the encroaching jungle, and protected from the interference of humanity.

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It’s impossible to see the entire Sacred City in one day, though that doesn’t stop people from trying. One of the more common sights is a huge bus stopping in front of a stupa and unloading forty harried tourists wearing safari hats, who climb on top of each other to snap identical pictures and then scurry back onto the bus. Off to the next sight, no time to waste! Needless to say, it’s not the best way to see the Sacred City, as you get no sense of its grandeur or mystery. (But if your schedule only allows a few hours to see Anuradhapura, make a beeline for the Abhigiriya zone, which is the most atmospheric and offers a little of everything that makes the city so amazing).

Rent-A-Bike-Anuradhapura

No, the best way to see Anuradhapura is over a couple days, and on bikes. Which is the way we did it [pats back, uncorks tiny bottle of champagne]. Perfectly flat, largely free of traffic and spread out over a great distance, the Sacred City is made for bikes. Most guesthouses rent them for the day, and we found a shop (here) which lets bikes for 350 Rs, and is open to haggling for multiple-day rentals.

Another important tip is that, unless you’re going to a museum, you don’t need tickets to visit the Sacred City. Officially, you’re expected to shell out about $25 per head, per day, as a foreigner. We spent five days exploring the Sacred City, which would have cost us $250. It’s ridiculous and completely discriminatory: anyone who looks like a Sri Lankan is free to come and go as they please. Again, the fee is part of the government’s maneuverings to capitalize on tour groups, who pay the inflated entrance charge as a part of their package deal. Luckily, independent travelers can easily skip it, since tickets are rarely checked. Over the course of five days, we were asked to show our tickets once. We just said, “don’t have them”, turned around and reached our destination from a different route.

During most of our ticket-less days in the Sacred City, we passed by the Sri Maha Bodhi. One of the most venerated objects in all Sri Lanka, this large Bodhi was grown from a slice of the tree under which Buddha gained enlightenment. It stands near the center of the Sacred City and, at any time of day, worshipers surround its pavilion, chanting, praying or just standing there looking at it. After his enlightenment, Buddha spent seven days staring at his Bodhi tree, unblinking, in admiration and thanks. Sri Maha Bodhi is a good orientation point in the Sacred City, and serves as a convenient starting spot from which to see the other sights.

Location of Sri Maha Bodhi on our Map
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March 11, 2012 at 5:43 am Comments (4)

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)
The Mysterious Forest Monastery of Ritigala The enigmatic remains of the Ritigala Monastery are tucked away on a mountain in the middle of a strict nature reserve. Difficult to reach and largely skipped by tourists, the archaeological site is the kind of place in which it's easy to imagine Indiana Jones hunting for a fabled, lost treasure.
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