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Lahugala Forest and the Magul Maha Vihara

Sri Lanka Travel Insurance

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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Weird Monster
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Lahugala
Sri Lanka
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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.

Sri Lanka Travel Guide

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.

-Search For Savannah

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April 10, 2012 at 1:39 pm Comments (0)

The Ruins of Polonnaruwa, Part I

Travel Insurance For Sri Lanka

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.

-Buy Curry Here

More from the Tivanka Image House
Image House Sri Lanka
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Sri Lanka Blog
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Lotus Lake Sri Lanka
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Cheap Flights to Sri Lanka
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April 8, 2012 at 11:19 am Comments (3)

The Kanniyai Hot Wells and Velgam Vihara

Hotels in Trincomalee

After a few days spent recharging our batteries on Uppuveli Beach, we were ready for some sight-seeing. Luckily, we didn’t have to go far. A tuk-tuk driver agreed to take us on a 500 rupee round-trip tour of two great spots near Trincomalee: the Kanniyai Hot Wells and the Velgam Vihara, which is an ancient monastery set near a picturesque lake.

Hot Springs Sri Lanka

Tha Kanniyai Hot Wells are likely to disappoint any pleasure-seekers hoping to submerge themselves in a large spring. This isn’t Iceland. Kanniyai is a place of Buddhist worship where the faithful come to buy trinkets, venerate Buddha and douse themselves with buckets of naturally warm spring water.

The wells are exactly that: wells. You grab a bucket, dunk it in the water, and drench yourself. It’s a lot of fun, especially with the presence of locals urging you on. We had a blast, engaging people in conversation and taking impromptu lessons in proper dousing by a couple of concerned ladies. I had made a major faux-pax at first, washing my head over the well, which allowed the water to run off my face back into the pool. Uncool, and it got me reprimanded.

A bit further north is the beautiful Periya Kulam, a large artificial lake set in a forest, with small islands and vestiges of Hindu worship spotted around it. Just to the west of the lake, we found the Velgam Vihara — the remains of a Buddhist monastery from the 2nd century. The ruins here are gorgeous, especially given their off-the-beaten-track location.

Velgam-Vihara

Monks are still active at Velgam Vihara in an adjacent modern temple. One of them ushered us into a makeshift museum dedicated to a brutal 2000 LTTE bomb attack. After having admired such ancient beauty, this was an unexpected and sickening jolt back to reality. Photos of dead children and piles of mutilated corpses lined the walls, and brought me close to vomiting. We pushed a little donation money into the monk’s outstretched hands and left.

Together, Velgam Vihara and the hot springs make for a great day trip away from the beaches of Trinco. Find a tuk-tuk and agree on a price. The 500 rupees ($4) which our guy charged us was way too little, and we gave him a nice tip once we got back. A small price to pay for such a surprisingly fun excursion.

Location of the Kanniyai Hot Wells
Location of Velgam Vihara
-Sri Lanka History Books

More Pics from Kanniyai
Party Time Sri Lanka
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Hot Spring Corner
Bucket Boy
Trincomalee Hot Springs
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Washing Face Sri Lanka
More Pics from Velgam Vihara
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Things To Do Trincomalee
Swing Stairs
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Buddhist Heart
Sinhala Waffle Maker
Trincomalee-Ruins

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April 7, 2012 at 1:19 pm Comments (2)

The Modern Ruins of Jaffna Town

We’ve never visited a city with a vibe like Jaffna’s. The only town of any appreciable size in the whole of northern Sri Lanka, Jaffna is the vibrant de facto capital of the country’s Tamil population. But it’s also a tragic showpiece for the horrors of modern war. A walk through the streets of modern Jaffna offers both a heartbreaking look at the darkness of humanity, and an inspiring example of our stubborn perseverance.

Jaffna Blog

Life in Jaffna is centered around the bus station, which is where we arrived with broken bums and twisted spinal columns after the journey from Anuradhapura. The first thing we noticed on stepping out of the bus was… nothing. No touts. Nobody directing us to “their friend’s” guesthouse. No tuk-tuks clamoring for our business. Nobody asking “what is your country?” There were people all over, but they were leaving us alone. Jaffna doesn’t get that many tourists and, apparently, hasn’t yet learned that there’s money to be made by harassing us. Immediate plus points.

During the ten days we’d spend in Jaffna, we were often downtown. There aren’t a lot of specific sights, but the city is fascinating all by itself. We’d walk along the Kasturiya Road, where hundreds of vendors sell gold and jewelry, or Main Street which is home to cavernous Catholic churches and colonial mansions. We’d visit the stately public library, which looks more like a courthouse, and find fishing boats coming to shore down Beach Road. Everyone, everywhere, smiled and waved at us. This was a lively town, with happy people going cheerfully about their lives!

Along those same streets though, in another mood or light, you could reach a very different conclusion. In the city center, half the stores are shuttered up or destroyed. Down Main Street, every other house was in ruins, only the barest foundations having survived whatever bomb or fire had wrought the devastation. The library, once one of the largest in Asia, has only recently re-opened after having been burnt to the ground by malicious policemen in the 80s. Streets are pockmarked with potholes. A lot of people are missing limbs. Eyes. There’s an excessive number of hospitals and funeral parlors. The ravages of war are everywhere; unmistakable, and impossible to avert your eyes from.

Between the dead ruins and the living city, you can easily imagine how beautiful Jaffna must once have been. I would love to hop in a Delorean, and travel back to see it during its prime, before the war. But perhaps I should just remain patient — hostilities just ended, after all, and I have a feeling that it won’t be long before Jaffna recovers.

Jaffna on our Sri Lanka Blog

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Civil War Sri Lanka
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Temple Ruins Sri Lanka
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March 27, 2012 at 11:47 am 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.

The-Secret-Moonstone-Sri-Lanka

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.

Location of the Abhayagiri Stupa on our Map
-Hotels in Anuradhapura

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March 14, 2012 at 1:34 pm Comments (4)

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.

Guard Stones of Sri Lanka

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
Location of the Temple of the Tooth
-Budget Accommodation in Anuradhapura

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