Alison’s adventures in Kandy
My sincere thanks to the author Alison for allowing me to publish her most wonderful articles on THE LANKAN
My Dad and stepmother, Sophie, came to visit during my second to last week in Sri Lanka. They spent a few days in Kandy before we went up to see the ancient cities in the dry zone. Our first day of traveling we managed to see three sites, the Hindu temple in Matale, the Dambulla Cave Temple, and Sigiriya Rock.
The Hindu temple in Matale is the largest in Sri Lanka. Most of the temple is fairly new, built in the last decade or so, but it is very very big. Our guide seemed to know everything about the temple and all the Hindu gods, though my dad and Sophie had some difficulty understanding what he was saying because they weren’t yet accustomed to Sri Lanka English. It was cool to hear that both Hindus and Buddhists in Sri Lanka visit the temple.
Next stop was Dambulla to see the famous cave temples. I figured that a cave would be under the ground, but instead it was on top of a steep hill up a long set of steps. The paintings are under a ledge on a rock face that has been walled in to create the tamples. The five caves are filled with thousands of paintings and hundreds of statues of the Buddha of all sizes.
Buddha's feet in Dambulla cave temple
On our walk down we stopped to watch a snake charmer with a king cobra. Sophie was scared and hid behind me while the snake was out of its basket. The charmer told us that the snake had no venom, but it was still a little frightening to see a real live cobra.
Next we visited Sigiriya Rock, where I’d been once before with my sister. On a second viewing, the ancient rock fortress was still amazing. The design of the gardens seems so modern, and the site is so picturesque that it is easy to imagine what life was like there 1,500 years ago.
Top of Sigiriya Rock
After all those stairs we headed to our hotel in Giritale, near Polonnaruwa. Around dusk the staff at the hotel showed us a herd of elephants on the other side of a man-made lake. The dry zone is dotted with these lakes, called tanks, or in Sinhala “wewa,” that were built during the first flowering of Sinhalese culture. They are part of a complex irrigation system that is still used today.
The next morning we woke up early to visit Anuradhapura, the first and longest capital of Sri Lanka. Anuradhapura was the capital from the 4th century BCE to the 11th century CE, which, according to our guide, makes it the longest continuous capital in history. At its height the city supported a large population, and several Buddhist colleges for scholars from all over the ancient world. After the collapse of the ancient Sinhalese culture, the city was taken over by jungle and forgotten by most people. During the British colonial period the city was uncovered, and today it is once again a center for Buddhists pilgrims, and for tourists throughout the world.
We started our day at Anuradhapura with a visit to the Ruwanwelisaya, a gigantic stupa, 300 feet tall, and 950 ft around.
Most of the other tourists at Anuradhapura were Sri Lankan, some pilgrims, but mostly students. A group of young Muslim boys was walking in line up to the stupa, and when I said “hello” to them, half the students stopped in their tracks, jumbling together in line.
Next we went to see the Jetavanaramaya, the largest brick structures in the world, made with 93 million bricks. It is even bigger than the Ruwanwelisaya at 400 ft high, and after the pyramids in Egypt, it is the biggest structure in the ancient world.
From far away the dagoba looked almost perfectly shaped, but up close it was possible to see how the bricks had shifted and the shape had become uneven over the last 1,000 years.
We poked around a few more ruins at Anuradhapura before taking a break for lunch. After the heat of the dry zone at mid-day, the air-conditioned restaurant was a real treat. Our guide, Charith, was very knowledgeable about the history of Anuradhapura and Buddhism in Sri Lanka, which was wonderful for my dad and Sophie who are both Mahayana Buddhists. At lunch he told us about Buddhism, Theravada and Mahayana, in Sri Lanka throughout the ages up until now. He also told me he was sure that someday I would become a Buddhist, though I said this was unlikely.
After lunch we decided to visit an forest monastery nearby to escape the heat of the Anuradhapura ruins. The forest monastery was set in an ancient park and was peaceful and quiet. We explored the ruins and then climbed to a viewpoint on top of a hill where we could see the Ruwanwelisaya and Jetavana dagobas in the distance.
Sri Lanka is full of beautiful Buddhist temples, some of them hundreds of years old. This weekend I was lucky enough to have the chance to visit three very old and very beautiful temples in the countryside outside of Kandy. The last few weeks I’ve been working with a translator doing interviews with women in rural clinics. Upeksha, my translator, invited me to tag along with her and her boyfriend, Darminda (I think I spelled this right), to visit Gadaladeniya Temple, Lankathilake Temple, and the Embekke Devale.
I met Upeksha and Darminda around ten on a Sunday morning and we rode off in Darminda’s car to see the first temple. Riding in an air-conditioned car felt luxurious after months of riding in three-wheelers, or worse, riding a crowded bus where my head almost touched the ceiling. Our first stop was the Gadaladeniya Temple, which sits on top of a rock, and had some excellent paintings.
The second temple, Lankathilake, is on a hilltop with amazing views of the Hantana range and was built in the 14th century. Darminda told me that Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka are located in the highest point in the area, which certainly makes for a beautiful setting. When we arrived local men and women were washing the dagoba in preparation for the Vesak Poya Day, May 9. We were able to see inside the temple, but only for a moment because the morning puja was beginning.
My favorite was the third temple, Embekke, built 400-500 years ago, and covered in detailed carvings. Similar to Lankathilake, the temple was being spiffed up for the coming holiday. The puja was ending while we were there, and the drumming was loud and beautiful.
The best part of the temple is the wood carvings. A local man showed us around the temple, explaining some of the different carvings and telling us about the significance of the temple. It was built for the deity Kataragama, who is important for Hindus and Buddhists. Kataragama’s animal is the peacock, so part of the roof was designed to mimic the peacock’s tail. Twenty-six beams meet and are joined by a single wooden nail.
One of the carvings represented a Portuguese man on a horse, and was amazing for its detail and beautiful design.
Portuguese man on a horse
After the visit to the three temples we went to Upeksha’s house for a delicious lunch of rice and curry. My favorite was the garlic curry, made with whole cloves of cooked garlic. Next best was the mango curry, which manages to be sweet, a little hot, and sour all at once. The lunch was especially tasty after our temple visits.