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The Back of Beyond Eco Lodge in Sigiriya

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For our three-day road trip that would bring us to Ritigala, Sigiriya and Dambulla, we needed a lot of energy. Luckily, we couldn’t have chosen a more restful place to spend our down hours: The Back of Beyond Eco Lodge in Sigiriya.

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Located just past the temple which sits in front of Pidurangala Rock, Back of Beyond certainly lives up to its name. After arriving at the correct approximate location, we searched for the entrance but eventually had to call for help. Minutes later a kid appeared on a bike, and led us into the woods down a tiny dirt path marked only by a tall stone slab. We’d have never found it ourselves.

We checked in at around 3pm. Having spent the day at Ritigala, we were tired and the sight of the bungalows and quiet forest setting was extremely welcome. Guests get their own cabins, which are nicely decorated, comfortable and very eco-friendly. All of the buildings at the lodge were built without harming a single tree — wherever one might have stood in the way, holes were cut out of roofs, or walls erected at strange angles, to accommodate it.

The first thing I did was hop in the shower, located just outside the cabin behind a set of high walls. It’s not often I get to shower outside, but with central Sri Lanka’s consistently pleasant temperatures, it makes a lot of sense. We had a full board during our stay, and the meals were fantastic — Back of Beyond offers a wide selection of Sri Lankan food to choose from, like rice and curry, string hoppers, barbecue chicken and paratha.

But best of all was the peace and solitude, especially after tiring days of sight-seeing and hiking. Just sitting on the balcony’s porch, with a good book open on my lap (there’s a small library at the lodge), pretending to read while listening to the sounds of the forest… I couldn’t have asked for more.

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March 24, 2012 at 1:09 pm Comment (1)

The Summit of Sigiriya

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We had reached the large terrace which marks the half-way point on the ascent to the summit of Sigiriya Rock. Before continuing, we took a break and surveyed the remaining path in dread and awe. The next flight of stairs was framed by an enormous pair of stone paws. Because of its profile, Sigiriya had long been referred to as the “Lion Rock”, but King Kassapa decided to make the nickname somewhat more literal.

Sigiriya

During Kassapa’s reign in the 5th century AD, a massive, 60-foot lion was chiseled out of the rock. The steps which continued up to the royal palace started at the lion’s feet, wrapped around his body and eventually entered his mouth. Today, all that remain are the paws, but they give a good idea of the statue’s scale. It’s hard to appreciate how impressive it must have been 1500 years ago. It would be impressive now.

The final flight of stairs, hugging tightly to the stone wall, is not for those who suffer from vertigo. My mind kept flitting back into the past. If I, on these stable steps of modern steel, was so close to vomiting, how terrifying must they have been during the time of Kassapa? Notches in the wall indicated where the ancient brick steps would have been placed, and the thought of climbing them, with the wind whipping about me, and likely burdened under another load of bricks for the usurper king’s palace, three words kept repeating in my mind: “Oh, hell no!”

Sigiriya Fort

My mantra changed, though, once we gained the summit. Suddenly, the ascent made perfect sense, as I imagined myself in Kassapa’s shoes, surveying the grounds for my new home. “Oh, hell yes!” The view is unobstructed for miles around. From the top of Sigiriya, you truly feel at the top of the world. Unassailable. It is the perfect place for a paranoid pretender.

Over the course of the centuries, the palace has been reduced to mere rubble, but it must have been an amazing building. We wandered about the foundations for awhile and eventually found a set of caves facing the south, originally used as protective cells for soldiers on the look-out, where we hid from the wind and enjoyed the view.

You’ll want to spend a long time at the summit of Sigiriya. The sense of history is palpable, and the panoramas over the jungle and gardens below couldn’t be better. Besides, you just spent an hour getting there, and the descent promises to be no less dizzying.

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March 22, 2012 at 10:57 am Comments (3)

The Damsels of Sigiriya

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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.

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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)

Sigiriya Rock – The Eighth Wonder of the Ancient World

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Nature’s awesome beauty and the ingenuity of mankind come together majestically at Sigiriya Rock. A massive 320-meter granite stone set incomprehensibly in the jungle, the “Lion Rock” was attracting admiration long before King Kassapa built his castle on top of it, and continues dropping jaws today.

Sigiriya

Sigiriya is probably the top touristic sight in all Sri Lanka, and for good reason. There is an incredible amount to see here, the history is fascinating, the ascent to the summit is an attraction in itself, and from the top, among the ruins of an ancient palace, the view over the surrounding jungle is unimpeded and breathtaking. A visit to Sigiriya is truly unforgettable.

Entrance-Sigiriya

And Sri Lanka knows it. The government charges $30 a head to enter the site. Unless, of course you’re Sri Lankan, in which case you’ll pay $0.40. We almost balked at the price. I understand charging locals less than tourists, but the scale of the difference is outrageous. Yes, foreigners might have more disposable income than Sri Lankans, but 75 times the price? The biggest slap in the face comes when you learn that Sigiriya is mostly funded by UNESCO and other foreign entities. So guess what? Foreigners are already paying for the maintenance and running of the site, and then they’re charged 75 times the normal entry fee. It’s insulting.

But Sri Lanka has a monopoly on the world’s supply of “Sigiriya Rocks”, so we swallowed our pride and bought tickets. I’m glad we did. Once we got done grumbling about the unfairness of it all, we had an incredible day.

Garden of Sigiriya

After crossing the moat to enter the grounds, you’re greeted by the marvelously restored 5th century pleasure gardens of King Kassapa. First, a Water Garden with an expansive and complicated set of pools and ponds, and further ahead the King’s Boulder Garden. Here, we saw the Cobra-Hooded Cave and talked with an archaeologist at work on a dig. His team was unearthing a cave temple, and he was more than happy to take a break to chat. Long before Kassapa’s arrival, Buddhist monks had considered Sigiriya a sacred place, and built temples around the base of the rock. Kassapa relocated the monks to nearby Pidurungala Rock, where they remain to this day.

We started our ascent up the Lion Rock at 7am in the morning, well before the sun was at full strength. This was a wise decision; we avoided both heat stroke and the eventual onslaught of tourists. We were able to climb unhurried and took our time admiring the scenery. By noon, bus after bus had pulled up to the gate. Already on our way back down, we watched a never-ending single-file line of sweaty, sun-beaten tourists with amazement and despondency. To be caught in the middle of that would have been a nightmare! I estimated about 200 people ascending the stairs at one time. I have no idea how many people visit Sigiriya daily but the government must be raking it in. So a word to the wise: go as early as you can. The gates open at 7, and you’ll have the rock largely to yourself.

Swalps-Sigiriya

Midway up, we encountered the Mirror Wall and the Hall of Maidens. The rock at the Mirror Wall had been polished smooth and flat and coated with a shiny plaster, so that the King could admire his reflection during his ascent. Facing the west, the wall must have shone brilliantly during sunset, and was perhaps meant as a sort of beacon, announcing the palace and the eminence of its king. Today, though, the luster is gone and it looks basically like a stone wall. Maybe a little flatter than normal. Much more impressive is the fresco gallery, found just above the Mirror Wall. The Damsels of Sigiriya are some of the most famous ancient paintings in the world, in a miraculous state of conservation.

After the Mirror Wall and damsel gallery, we emerged at a large terrace. We were exhausted and stunned to see that we had only completed about half our journey. Before us, two immense lion paws carved out of the rock indicated the beginning of the ascent’s second half. Under the pretense of admiring the lion, we took take a break before climbing up to the summit.

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March 21, 2012 at 5:06 am Comments (7)

The Story of Sigiriya

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Prince Kassapa had always harbored a secret jealousy towards his half-brother Moggallana. Upon the demise of their father, King Dhatusena, the throne would surely pass to Moggallana, whose mother was the Royal Consort. Kassapa, on the other hand, had been born of a common concubine. But he was not the sort of youth to resign himself to his fate. “No”, he told himself in the palace at Anuradhapura one dark evening in 473 AD. “No, the throne must be mine“!

And so it came to pass. Kassapa secretly gathered the support of the King’s General, and then murdered his father by burying him alive. The next move was simple: dispose of the rightful heir. But Prince Moggallana, aware of the danger to his life, had fled with his men to Southern India, leaving the Kingdom of Anuradhapura in the hands of Kassapa.

Like most conspiratorial usurpers, Kassapa was a paranoid ruler who lived in constant fear of his brother’s inevitable return. He worried about low-lying Anuradhapura’s lack of natural defenses and resolved to move his royal city to a more secure place. A place which would be safe, even were Moggallana to return with thousands of men and hundreds of elephants. Kassapa found such a place 50 kilometers to the south, on the top of Sigiriya Rock.

Sigiriya-Rock

Construction on the King’s new home lasted seven years. Stairs were cut into the rock, whose face raises straight up for over a thousand feet, and the materials required for his royal palace were brought up piece by piece. From the top of Sigiriya, King Kassapa enjoyed a commanding view. In front of the rock, a breathtaking pleasure garden was installed, while his loyal subjects settled the land immediately behind. Here, from the top of his impregnable fortress, he waited for his brother’s return. “The Rightful King”, he sneered. He must return!

Moggallana didn’t keep Kassapa waiting for long. In 491, the legitimate heir to the throne returned from India, and strode into sight of Sigiriya Rock. Despite the effort it had taken to construct a palace safe from attack, Kassapa mustered his courage and, atop his war elephant, led his men into battle.

Unfortunately for him, Moggallana was a clever tactician. His men had softened the ground which the defending army would be crossing and, when Kassapa’s elephant reached the unsteady, muddy earth, it hesitated and began to back up. The King’s men saw him backpedaling and assumed that he had lost his nerve. They retreated for the safety of the rock, and left Kassapa alone. Seeing that his fate was sealed, the King dismounted his elephant, raised his sword, and brought it down into his own belly.

Sigiriya was the capital of Sri Lanka for fourteen years.

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March 18, 2012 at 1:11 pm Comments (7)

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 Back of Beyond Eco Lodge in Sigiriya For our three-day road trip that would bring us to Ritigala, Sigiriya and Dambulla, we needed a lot of energy. Luckily, we couldn't have chosen a more restful place to spend our down hours: The Back of Beyond Eco Lodge in Sigiriya.
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