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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A Day at the Ancient City of Polonnaruwa


A day removed from my jaunt to the ancient city of Sigiriya, I am still bursting with excitement in pursuing the second leg of the famed Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka. The ancient city of Polonnaruwa is believed to be home to the second oldest of the country's many kingdoms. Today, the city boasts of scattered remnants and ruins of historic palaces, temples, statues and chambers just to name a few and is regarded as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Standing at the side of the road, I read the brochure on my hand to brush up my knowledge about the place but also to ask a local what bus to take going to Polonnaruwa. 

I'm not sure if it was just a coincidence but that morning all the buses seem to have signs written in either Tamil or Sinhala language so I have to ask random passersby which bus I have to take. Three - four and five buses filled like sardine cans wheezed by me, unsure if any of those are heading to Polonnaruwa. I trusted the local who was standing behind me who keep motioning to me to "stay put" because the bus "will come any minute". 


I was starting to wonder about the rarity of the buses since it is a major transit city when an old bus almost rugged and beaten down to a fault rolled over the hot asphalt road in front of me. The local guy eyed me and shook his head before I saw him shouting and signalling something to the conductor - I saw a nodding of the head coming from a guy inside the bus, after which the local man told me to "Hurry, hurry, that is your bus". The bus now almost 20 meters away from me and starting to gather speed, I quickened my pace of running, unmindful of the faces from the window staring at me. Thankful for a quick set of legs I managed to climb aboard while half a dozen Sri Lankan males smiled at me for making it into the bus. 


The bus trip almost took a couple of hours and if you are fortunate you will also witness the elephant migration happening at the vast lands of Minneriya National Park along the way. Half asleep, I started noticing the bus passengers shifting their attention towards the right part of the bus when an older man tapped me in the shoulder and pointed outside. There it was; half a dozen elephants in the vast mossy greens frolicking from afar adjacent to a big body of water. The great migration called "The Gathering" happens every year and close to the month of my visit, so I was hopeful I'd witness it. During this period, thousands of elephants come out of their nest in the deep forest and converges along the ancient water reservoir built by man more than 1,700 years ago, to socialize, bathe and look for food. But unfortunately, on that hot September day, the world's largest elephant pool party didn't happened. 


I arrived at the Polonnaruwa under the hottest of days, a tuk-tuk driver as if on cue greeted me at the foot of the bus the moment I stepped on the hot asphalt road. I originally planned to bike around and explore but he had a ready map in hand telling me the place is xx number of square miles. 


I bid my cycling plans goodbye as I negotiated the fee to hire his tuk-tuk for the day. From the original 2,000 Sri Lankan Rupees we agreed on 1,500 (500.00 pesos) for a four hour ride around the city. Just like at Sigiriya, the entrance fee is $30.00 or around 3,600 Sri Lankan Rupees (1,200 pesos) and entitles you an access to all archaeological sites in the city. 


Just like in Siem Reap, Polonnaruwa reminds me of the engineering and agricultural ingenuity of the civilization that flourished here many hundreds of years ago. The lakes are connected to the ancient ruins through effective irrigation systems which is still in use today. Left and right are scattered remnants of a historic past teeming with both the influences of the Buddhist and Hindu faiths. 


One by one I hopped in and out of the Tuk-tuk and into the many surviving structures dating back to the reign of Parakramabahu I where the circular temple ruins housing four symmetrical Buddha statues can be found. I later learned that the place called Polonnaruwa Vatadage, was the original place where the tooth relic of Buddha was kept. 


The stone book of Gal Pota is another impressive relic of the past as it contains hand carved texts narrating a detailed information about Nissanka Malla, the Sri Lankan king who ruled between 1187 to 1196. The Lankatilaka Temple is probably one of the most popular in all of Polonnaruwa because it is a favorite postcard subject. The temple is now highlighted by its emblematic 40 feet high statue of a now headless Buddha.


Two massive pillars made of bricks greets you at the entrance flanked by walls filled with carvings and ancient artworks. This 12th century temple figures prominently in the Duran Duran music video "Save a Prayer" which was shot entirely in Colombo, Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa in 1982. My tuktuk driver also took me to the Citadel and the Quadrangle which is located in the farther north. At Gal Vihara, I saw the twin statues of Buddha starred by the reclining one. The two stupas of Rankoth Vehera and Kiri Vahara are also imposing with its sheer size particularly the Rankoth which is the largest in Polonnaruwa and the 4th biggest in all of Sri Lanka. 


It was a tiring day when my tuktuk driver took me to a local restaurant to grab my late lunch. It was around 3pm when I finished my meal and realized the sun isn't that hot anymore. Wanting to give the ancient city of Polonnaruwa another go-see, I rented a bike for a half day rate (200 rupees) and just wheeled myself until I satisfied my craving for visual delight and a relic overdose of olden times.







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