Before my trip to Sri Lanka, I had some trepidation about traveling solo to this teardrop-shaped island nation reeling from a brutal civil war. But the excitement of ascertaining the unfamiliar triumphed over my lingering doubts, and a few days before I head out to Kuala Lumpur for my connecting flight to Colombo, I learned about the “Cultural Triangle.”
The Cultural Triangle is situated in the central part of Sri Lanka and covers an area thriving with UNESCO World Heritage cultural sites showcasing the splendor of the beautiful ruins of the ancient cities of Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura, Kandy, and Dambulla.
Arriving at Colombo I felt the bus load of apprehension deserting me, instantly replaced by euphoria, as the friendly locals made me feel right at home. When I missed my bus stop on the way to the hostel, a group of young men pointed me to the right direction, complete with a map hastily drawn on a crumpled piece of paper. Later that night, eschewing my spiciness restriction, I took one bite too many of a chicken biryani, thereby scorching my tongue. A hand appeared from nowhere to offer me a glass of water. “Too spicy for you?” the man eating at the next table said to me. “Here, drink it quick!” Imagine my relief downing that glass of water. Those little things further amplified my excitement of exploring Sri Lanka.
My two-week journey across Sri Lanka became chock-full of encounters with gregarious people, and weaving in and out the many historic UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
After a couple of days in Colombo, I hopped on an 8:45 train to Galle, where a massive sea-side walled structure gifted me with my first UNESCO World Heritage Site. Almost an aesthetic brother to our own Intramuros in Manila, Galle Fort keeps within its thick fortifications a rich past that witnessed the country shift allegiance from the Portuguese to the Dutch before finally being colonized by the British, up until its birth as an independent country in 1948. The imposing walls of Galle Fort occupied my whole afternoon. There were families on a Sunday picnic, fellow travelers, vendors, cricket junkies, and all sorts of people from different backgrounds. The locals in their colorful weekend garb would always smile at me each time my eyes greeted theirs.
TEMPLE OF THE SACRED TOOTH RELIC
While I didn’t exactly lay eyes on the sacred tooth relic of the Buddha, I stood under the same roof where it was kept ever since the temple’s erection in 1595. Situated in the scenic city of Kandy, the last capital of Sri Lankan Kings, the Temple of the Tooth houses the Buddha’s left canine tooth that was retrieved at his funeral in 543 BC by his disciple Khema. Today, the relic is considered as a symbol of the living Buddha and attracts Buddhist pilgrims from all over the world. The rest of my stay at Kandy was spent circling the oval lake downtown by foot and trying out various local dishes and endless observation of the local way of life.
GOLDEN TEMPLE OF DAMBULLA
After a few days enjoying the foggy weather at Kandy, I headed to the dry lowlands of Dambulla where I set up base for the remainder of my cultural triangle incursion. I was the lone guest at Dambulla City Hostel, managed by Zhenya Katashynska, a traveler from Russia and one of those round-the-world explorers who find jobs on the road. It is here that I learned the ancient art and history of another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Golden Temple of Dambulla. Consisting of a five-cave monastery perched atop a hill 160 meters high, the impressive ancient structures and paintings found inside gives you a major reason to make the slow uphill hike and see them for yourself. Under the torrid gleam of the sun, I hike my way, as dozens of monkeys goofed at each other around me. Arriving at the top a smiling guard signaled me to take off my shoes as I prepare to enter the first cave.
I see the main hallway leading to the first cave positioned underneath a large body of granite rock. What impresses me is when I discover the cave’s interior directly hewn into the massive boulder. Inside, a looming Buddha statue greets the visitors; behind it are equally impressive Buddhas in different poses standing in a semicircular row. Instantly, my attention was drawn by the stunning murals inscribed on the walls and ceilings. The artworks, as I eavesdropped from a nearby tour guide speaking, depicts the life and times of Buddha, the temptation by Mara the demon and Buddha’s first ever sermon. Most of these magnificent works of art dates back to the 15th and 18th centuries, with some going all the way back to 2,000 years ago.
THE RUINS OF THE ANCIENT CITY OF POLONNARUWA
Bearing witness to numerous civilizations and a major representation of Singhalese and Buddhist history, the ancient ruins that lay stunningly around Polonnaruwa comprises the fifth UNESCO World Heritage Site. I arrived at Polonnaruwa under the hottest of days, a tuktuk driver as if on cue greeted me at the foot of the bus the moment I stepped on the hot asphalt road, offering to take me around. Ditching my original plan of riding a bicycle, we agree on a reasonable fixed fare.
Just like in Siem Reap, Polonnaruwa reminds me of the engineering and agricultural ingenuity of the civilization that flourished more than a thousand years ago. The lakes connecting to the ancient ruins provided an effective irrigation system 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 tuktuk and into the many surviving structures dating back to the reign of Parakramabahu I which began in 1153. We started at the ancient Royal Palace ruin before proceeding to Polonnaruwa Vatadage, a circular temple ruins housing four symmetrical Buddha statues, is the original place where the tooth relic of Buddha was kept.
One particular artifact piqued my attention; the stone book of Gal Pota because it contains hand carved texts narrating detailed information about Nissanka Malla, the Sri Lankan king who ruled from 1187 to 1196. My temple hop continued to the Lankatilaka temple, a favorite postcard subject is now highlighted by its emblematic 40 feet high statue of a headless Buddha. Two massive pillars made of bricks greet you at the entrance flanked by walls filled with ancient artworks and carvings. My tuktuk driver also took me to the Citadel and the Quadrangle which are located in the far 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 fourth biggest in all of Sri Lanka. Nourished with new information and impressive sightings, I must admit that my body felt drained by the time my tuktuk driver dropped me at a local restaurant to grab my late lunch. It was around three in the afternoon when I finished my meal and realized the sun isn’t that scorching anymore. Wanting to give the ancient city of Polonnaruwa another go-see, I rented a bike for a half day rate and just pedaled around myself until I satisfied my craving for visual delight and a relic overdose of olden times.
Right from the onset of planting my first step, I feel my pulse racing with excitement as the thought of setting foot at the palace ruins of on olden Ceylon civilization atop this 600-feet massive rock column. It seems dreamlike but is finally about to happen. Selected by King Kassapa during his reign from 477 to 495 CE as the site of his kingdom’s capital, the “Lion Rock” represented the peak of his rule both literally and figuratively. Abandoned after his death it became a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century. Reaching the halfway point of my climb, I reached the Mirror Wall, which at the time of King Kassapa appears almost like a looking glass due to its smooth texture made of extremely polished white plaster and masonry brick wall. Fading as centuries passed, the wall now appears bare but upon closer look one could see some of the oldest graffiti known in the world, as scribbled poems dating back to as early as the eighth century can be read.
A renowned Sri Lankan archaeologist Dr. Senerat Paranavitana interpreted a total of 685 verses believed to have been written between the eighth and 10th century CE on the mirror wall.
One of the verses, apparently inscribed by a lovelorn soul, reads (as translated from Sinhala):
“The girl with the golden skin enticed the mind and eyes. Ladies like you make men pour out their hearts. And you also have thrilled the body. Making it stiffen with desire.”
I negotiated the spiral staircase and came inside a small cave housing impressive fresco art works. Known as “The Maidens of the Cloud,” the impressive paintings of 21 women partaking in various religious rituals astonish me with the smooth color tones and the retention of its fine rich details after the passing of many centuries.
Heaving a torrid series of deep breaths I drank the last portion of my bottled water and made my way to the ruins of the lion’s mouth, where two gigantic lion paws sandwich the last stairway leading up to the summit.
A few more dozen paces and I find myself rising slowly at the top summoning the unearthly views of the Sigiriya gardens from below. Spinning my neck I see the rest of a palatial ruin forever lost in the passage of time. As I sat and rested, I felt the sense of grandeur associated with this UNESCO World Heritage Site. I trudge my right foot over a mound of soil of the very same ground where Buddhist worshipers stomped theirs as early as the third century BCE. That moment elation filled my mind; I dare not wish to be somewhere else.
(This article was published in the Lifestyle / Travel section of the September 6, 2015 issue of Manila Bulletin)