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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.


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)

Kandyan Dance at the YMBA

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Kandyan Dance, an exuberant combination of drumming, costumes and athletic dancing, is the most famous cultural product of Sri Lanka. A few places in Kandy put on a daily show, and we decided to check out the performance at the YMBA. Yep, that stands for “Young Men’s Buddhist Association” — and good luck trying to spell it out with your arms.

Crazy Dancer

We were lucky to get decent seats, because the first fifteen rows had been cordoned off for giant groups of tourists on package holidays. Okay, fine: it wasn’t exactly luck. For a small consideration, the guy selling tickets agreed to get us up front. Bribery is swell. Every chair in the small, sticky, mosquito-infested hall was filled with a white-faced European fresh off the bus. An authentic cultural experience, this wasn’t. Once the incredible show started, though, any annoyance I’d been feeling disappeared.

The style of dance particular to Kandy was actually brought to the region by Indian shamans, who used it to appease the god Kohomba and help cure a mysterious illness under which the Kandyan King had been suffering. After the king’s miraculous recovery, the style caught on, and is today considered the national dance of Sri Lanka.

We were entranced by the performance from the moment the drumming began until the climactic finale. The costumes were beautiful, the drumming skillful, and the dancing far more exciting than I’d expected. The show, which lasted about an hour, included ten different styles. Not all of them were strictly Kandyan Dance — one of my favorites, the thelme dance, came from the low countries of Sri Lanka. This involved dervish-like whirling, only much faster and more intense.

There was plate-spinning and acrobatics and ladies dressed like peacocks, but the highlight was the Ves Dance, which came towards the end of the show. The drumming built slowly in intensity and the dancers wore headgear with long tassels, which they swung about wildly.

I’m happy we decided to ignore our inner cynics and check out a show, especially since the tickets were only about $5 apiece. Well worth your time if you happen to be in Kandy.

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February 28, 2012 at 11:46 am Comments (2)

Kandy’s International Museum of World Buddhism

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Nearby the Temple of the Tooth is the International Museum of World Buddhism. Hosted in the former High Court building, this comprehensive study of Buddhism throughout Asia only opened in May, 2011, and has rooms dedicated to sixteen nations, from China to the Maldives.

International Buddhism Museum

As soon as we entered the museum, a helpful guide attached himself to us. Our intention had been to quickly skip through the rooms and be on our way — cameras were forbidden, and Jürgen has no interest in sights he can’t photograph. Besides, we had just finished a couple hours walking around the Temple of the Tooth, and were fairly exhausted. But our guide was having none of it, and led us on a long tour through the subtle variances in Buddhism throughout the world.

What were were supposed to say? “Sorry, bud, but we’re not interested in your enthusiastic, free tour of the fascinating new museum celebrating your religion. We’d rather go sit down and drink a cold beer.” No, we affixed smiles onto our faces, put phrases like “Ah” and “Interesting” on an endless playback loop, and followed him for nearly an hour.

Regardless of our poor attitudes, the museum is really fantastic. Recreations of famous temples, from Angkor Wat to Java’s amazing Borobudur, joined gifts of relics, paintings and Buddha statues from nations like Laos and Japan. It was funny how Buddha’s facial features change to match the various ethnicities of the countries who worship him. The objects on display where almost uniformly interesting, from ancient scrolls to strange musical instruments, and despite ourselves, we really enjoyed the tour.

If you have any interest at all in Buddhism, this museum provides one highlight after another. And the guys working there are great; helpful and eager to answer any questions. Just make sure you’re fully rested and ready to learn, before stepping inside!

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February 15, 2012 at 2:59 pm Comment (1)

Take a Tuk-Tuk

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The practical, puttering tuk-tuk is one of the classic mainstays of Sri Lankan life. Clogging the streets of every city on the island, and found bumping along even the most remote mountain roads, the motorized rickshaw is an unavoidable, and incredibly fun, method of transportation.

Sri Lanka Tuk Tuk

“Taxi? Taxi, sir? Taxi?!” Ah, the joyous chorus that follows us wherever we go! As we walk down the street, a clamorous line of tuk-tuks follows us, demanding our attention. “Taxi? Taxi, sir? Taxi?!” Regardless of how often we say “no”, or how insistently we wave them off, they’ll not be deterred. The idea that we might prefer walking is positively baffling! And it’s not a reality the tuk-tuk driver is prepared to accept.

Half the time, we let them win. The truth is, there’s no better way to get around in Sri Lanka. We’ve been here a week, and I’ve already lost count of how many tuk-tuk rides we’ve taken. And each one provides an exciting little memory we’ll treasure for years to come. “Remember that time we almost died on Galle Road?” “Oh gosh, right! That bus almost smashed us to pieces, haha”. Once, as we were speeding down a curvy hill in Kandy, our driver confidently remaining in the passing lane while turning around to chat with us, Jürgen observed that the ride was just like a rickety old roller coaster, but, you know, without any rails, seat-belts or safety considerations. This made the driver laugh.

I’m exaggerating a little. Though the adrenaline rush of the average tuk-tuk ride is profound, I’ve never felt really in danger. The drivers are experienced and familiar with the idiosyncratic laws of the Sri Lankan road. And each trip we take makes us more comfortable. We’re getting good at haggling prices down, and are learning the tricks of the trade. You should never get in a rickshaw without first agreeing on the price, and definitely refuse those who offer free trips. And if you’re in Colombo, try and find metered tuk-tuks, which almost always result in a cheaper fare.

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February 9, 2012 at 8:49 am Comments (5)

The Fort District of Colombo

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We had only walked about 100 meters into the seaside district of Colombo known as Fort, as far as the colonial clock tower, before having to turn around and walk back out. This neighborhood, the oldest and most historic in the city, has been a militarized zone since 1996, when a bomb-laden truck exploded in front of the Central Bank, killing 91 people and wounding over 1400. Although the Civil War has ended, half of Fort remains inaccessible.

Sri Lanka Colombo Habor

Fort was the first neighborhood we visited in Colombo. After a marathon 36 hours of travel, we still had few hours to kill before we could check into the hotel. The lack of sleep was affecting our powers of reasoning, and we decided to go out exploring, instead of finding a cafe in which to rest. “This is going to be great!” We were running on fumes; the excitement of being in a new country. “Hahaha! We can rest when we’re dead! Let’s go!” The nearly manic level of energy would last for about fifteen minutes.

Fort is the financial center of Sri Lanka, where many of the island’s banks are headquartered. It’s also home to Colombo’s modern architectural landmark: a pair of twin towers which shoot into the sky, dwarfing the neighboring buildings and dominating the skyline. Hmm… conspicuous twin towers in the nation’s financial capital. On seeing a big sign boasting their name, I thought the sleep-deprivation must be causing hallucinations. The World Trade Center.

Gripped by the urge to quickly distance ourselves from these towers, we soon arrived at the doors of Cargills, a red, block-long brick building which had been the island’s grandest department store back in colonial days. We stepped inside, encountered a paltry assortment of desks selling things like notebooks and knockoff handbags, and stepped right back out. The building is impressive from the outside, anyway.

By the time we arrived at the city’s harbor, on the northern end of Fort, we were full-fledged zombies. The harbor was another area barricaded behind militarized security, and totally inaccessible. “Gargh”, I remarked to Jürgen. “Care?” Jürgen considered and, after a moment’s contemplation replied, “No care. Gargh! Jürgen want rest!” Well said, and I was in total agreement. Luckily, we were right next to the Grand Oriental, an historic hotel established in 1837. The fourth-floor bar offered an incredible view over the harbor, and cold, life-restoring beer. It was a great place to end our tour through Fort, which must be among the strangest neighborhoods of Sri Lanka.

Location of the Fort’s Clocktower on our Sri Lanka Map

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February 8, 2012 at 2:20 am Comment (1)
The Damsels of 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.
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