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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
Poisonous Snakes

Temple Near Arugam Bay
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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.

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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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More from the Tivanka Image House
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Image House Smoke
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Stone Statue Buddha
More Polonnaruwa Photos
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Elephant Moon Store
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April 8, 2012 at 11:19 am Comments (7)

Get Those Sexy Calves of Steel at Mihintale

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A few kilometers east of Anuradhapura is the small town of Mihintale, famous as the place that Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka. While on a hunt in the woods, the reigning Sinhalese King Tissa encountered a monk named Mahinda, who had been sent to the island by the Indian King Ashoka to spread the faith. Mahinda found a willing convert in King Tissa, and Sri Lankans quickly embraced their ruler’s new religion. Ever since, the country’s Sinhalese majority has been staunchly, proudly Buddhist.

View Point Rock

Today, the mountainous site of Mihintale is filled with stupas, ruins, statues and temples dedicated to the glory of the historic encounter between Tissa and Mahinda. It’s a wonderful place to visit on a day trip from Anuradhapura but, before leaving, make sure to lace your sneakers up tightly and do some stretching. To see everything Mihintale has to offer, you’ll have to climb 1840 stairs. Stop laughing, that’s not a joke.

From the bottom of the mountain, the path up looks ominous. Luckily, it’s split up rather frequently by cool things to see. After the first fifteen minutes, we found ourselves at the remains of a large stupa called the Kantanka Chetiya. Around the back is a set of caves which can be explored. We spotted giant squirrels here, and watched a family of langurs play in the trees before heading back up the hill.

After climbing hundreds of more stairs, we arrived at the main terrace, which is an active place of worship requiring the removal of our shoes. A large white stupa is the centerpiece, flanked by statues of Tissa and Mahinda. Around the stupa, a number of paths lead to various sites: up to a seated Buddha, then down to the cave where Mahinda slept, then up to a lookout point, then over to a pond where monkeys were swimming. And then we seriously wanted to collapse.

But the path continued on. After recovering our shoes, we climbed yet more stairs to arrive at another stupa, where a monk invited us into an adjacent temple and smilingly urged us to make a contribution. We were exhausted, easy prey. Past this, another awful, endless flight of steps led to Et Vehera, where we found another small, completely ruined stupa and a view which stretched to Anuradhapura. Gleefully, I looked about — yes, we were as high as possible! Not another step remained! My calves were burning, and I laid down for a bit, daydreaming about all the people who’d be fainting at the sight of my newly muscular legs, or shyly approaching to ask if they could but touch my bulging, heroic calves. But I would not let them! They may take pictures, or present offerings, or compose poems to my strength…

Later that night, as I was laying exhausted on the bed, stuffing chips into my mouth and lazily drinking a beer which had mostly slobbered down my chin to form in a fetid pool at the bottom of my neck, I allowed the daydreams of my calf-worshipping acolytes to continue. So what? I think 1840 steps earns a man a little self-delusion.

Location of Mihintale on our Sri Lanka Map
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Mihintale
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March 25, 2012 at 12:53 pm Comments (4)

Colombo’s Gangaramaya Temple

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Different Kind of Buddha Statues

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.

Location on our Sri Lanka Map
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Gangaramaya Temple
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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)
Lahugala Forest and the Magul Maha Vihara 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.
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