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The Mulkirigala Rock Temple

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Hotels in Tangalle

Twenty kilometers north of Tangalla lies the large rock of Mulkirigala, reminiscent in shape to Sigiriya. The rock houses an impressive series of cave temples dating from the third century, similar to those of Dambulla. A mix between Sri Lanka’s two most famous sites, Mulkirigala sounded like a winner.

Day Trip Tangalle

It was the sleepy Sunday following the Sri Lankan New Year festivities, and public transport was impossible, so we hired a tuk-tuk to reach the temple. After a flat landscape of fields, forests and ponds, the sudden appearance of Mulkirigala Rock, sticking 200 meters into the air, came as a surprise. We paid our entrance fees, removed our shoes and steeled ourselves for what looked like a long hike to the top. But a lot of Sinhalese families were there, taking advantage of the holiday, and where 70-year-old barefoot grannies can go, so can we!

Mercifully, there were a few interludes during the climb — terraces which held small temples, sleeping Buddhas, pools of water, and sweeping views over the surrounding countryside. On the biggest terrace was a set of caves which included the Raja Mahavihara, notable for its Dutch tiles and antique wooden chest. It was here that a British archaeologist discovered the ancient manuscripts of the Mahavamsa: the great chronicle of ancient Sri Lanka.

At the top of the hill, our otherwise pleasant day trip was ruined by two kids who were determined to pester us. We were the only foreigners on the rock, and they would not leave us alone, tugging at our arms and following us everywhere, despite (perhaps because of) our increasing frustration. I am slow to anger, but eventually lost my cool and yelled at them. It didn’t help. “Money? Rupee? Ten Rupee! Bon-Bon!” They continued to follow, grabbing us and pleading for things. When we gave up and decided to leave, they followed us down the stairs! I scolded them, like you would a stubborn dog following you home. “No! Go away! Bad! Bad children!” Nothing worked, not even appealing to other Sri Lankans who were bemusedly watching the drama.

Even though it was a tough ending, we had a good time at Mulkirigala. The site isn’t nearly as impressive as either Sigiriya or Dambulla, but that’s unfair. We don’t compare every movie against Citizen Kane and say, “Not as good, so not gonna watch it!” Mulkirigala is no Sigiriya, but it’s still worth a visit.

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April 23, 2012 at 9:30 am Comments (0)

The Damsels of Sigiriya

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Hotels in Sigiriya

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.

Clouds-Sri-Lanka-Woman-Cave-Painting

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)

The Stony Temples of Ridi Vihara and Aluvihara

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Travel Insurance For Sri Lanka

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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Location of Aluvihara on our Map
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Lonely Train
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March 2, 2012 at 5:36 am Comments (4)
The Mulkirigala Rock Temple Twenty kilometers north of Tangalla lies the large rock of Mulkirigala, reminiscent in shape to Sigiriya. The rock houses an impressive series of cave temples dating from the third century, similar to those of Dambulla. A mix between Sri Lanka's two most famous sites, Mulkirigala sounded like a winner.
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