Ancient Cities, Sri Lanka

December 10-18, 2009

Gal Vihara Buddhas carved out of solid granite in Polonnaruwa.


In Kandy, we hire a car and driver to see the sights in the ancient cities of central Sri Lanka. We totally luck out in getting hooked up with Nandika, a precision driver. Like most Sri Lankans, Nandi is perfectly calm as he careens around the truck ahead on a blind curve, then weaves back into our lane, narrowly missing the fully loaded bus charging towards us.

Incredibly, he's also an ace wildlife and birding guide! During our four days together, he shows us all the sights, and educates us on the many beautiful birds unique to the island.

Nandi's mobile rings frequently, and we love his ringtone:

Sound file:

Nandi's ringtone (1:41)

Torrential downpour while driving to Dambulla.


One of many obstacles on the highway.

Huge Javan fig tree at the Peradeniya Botanic Gardens, just outside Kandy.

Dangerous looking horns on this one!


Almost every guesthouse we stay at is staffed with young Sri Lankan boys, eager to practice their English.






In Kandy we attend the city's nightly cultural performance of traditional dance and music. Interesting double headed drums, with each hand playing a different tone. Nice costumes too!

Sound Recording:

Kandy drummers (2:33)

Kandy drum and horn (2:03)

We pass many armed Sri Lankan troops and security checkpoints along the highways and in towns we visit. After the signs in Colombo warning of camera confiscation, I am extremely reluctant to snap any pictures. These guys look serious.

In Anuradhapura I see a small group of soldiers guarding some VIPs and approach with deference. "Photo?" I mime snapping a picture. Surprisingly, the guy gives me the head wobble with a half smile. Okay, I guess all I needed to do was ask!




Maharaja Viharaya is an enormous cavern, measuring 52m in length, 23m in width, and 7m at the highest point of the ceiling. Incredible!

We arrive at Dambulla just before sunset to visit astonishing temples built into a long, deep overhang in a sloping granite cliff. We walk with pilgrims up the rocky slope and when we arrive at the top, all that is visible is a white wooden facade tucked into the cliff side. As we enter one small doorway after another, we are awestruck to find five chambers filled with about 150 Buddhas, some carved out of the natural rock.

These caves remind us of similar protected overhangs we've discovered in the redrock desert of the American southwest. They were religious sites for the Anasazi people, and because they offer protection from the elements, still contain ancient pictographs painted on the sandstone walls. The overhang at Dambulla has been a place of worship since at least the 1st century BC, when the King of Anuradhapura created these magnificent temples. Later kings gilded the interiors and by the 19th century, the walls and ceilings had been painted with intricate designs.



Devana Alut Viharaya is my favorite, with its peaceful meditating Buddha and Hindu deities painted in glowing colors.





It's easy to see why Sigiriya (lion) rock has been a sacred place for thousands of years. This magma plug from an extinct volcano rises like a lone sentinel out of Sri Lanka's central plains. As early as the 3rd century BC, it was used as a mountain hermitage by Buddhist monks. By the 10th century it was an important monastery, and today it's a prime destination on the cultural triangle pilgrim and tourist circuit.

The entry way passes under two enormous boulders that have tumbled down from above. We ascend stone stairs up to a series of steep, vertigo-inducing metal steps bolted into the rock face which wind counter-clockwise up to the top. Along the way are some spectacular rock paintings in a cliff-side alcove reached by a rusty spiral metal staircase. Guides tell tour groups these are 2,000 year old portraits of the King's concubines from all over Asia, but we read that they are probably much younger and represent Tara, an important bodisattva from Tantric Buddhism. Either way, the surviving images are bright and colorful and are a window into a different time.





Toque macaques on the prowl for handouts.

Further along, stairs pass between two giant lion paws. In the 5th century, this pathway would have led directly into the lion's mouth before ascending to the top of the rock. Now that must have been an incredible sight! Today, only the paws and some brick foundations from the lion's head remain.

Don't look down!

At the top are temple ruins and a sweeping view out over the surrounding countryside.


A painted stork feeds near two moms and their babies.

Elephants roaming freely in the wilds, what a magnificent sight! I'm practically leaping out of our car as we see our first elephants in Sri Lanka, a group of five next to the road, near our guesthouse in Sigiriya. While maneuvering around a couple of motorbikes and an ox, Nandi spots the massive beasts. We stop and watch this small group as they move quickly through the shrubs, munching as they go. They are enormous, oblivious to our presence, and seem so gentle... but driving home the next night, Nandi takes a long detour to avoid this road. "It's not safe at night" he says, then tells us that just a few months ago, a big male knocked down one of the adobe houses along the road, and stomped the terrified owner to death.

We are fascinated by these creatures, and debate hiring a 'safari jeep' to visit Kaudulla National Park, wondering what the chances are to see elephants in this unusually rainy 'dry season'. When we are guaranteed our money back if we don't see elephants, we're on our way!

At 3pm we join a line of jeeps slipping and sliding on the muddy tracks. Nandi is in the passenger seat, watching incredulously as the jeep driver guns the engine, the wheels start spinning, and mud is flying everywhere. We are hopelessly stuck in the muck. All the other jeeps turn around and come to our rescue, winching us out as their passengers cheer. And as the sun dips down over the forested hills, a herd of thirty two elephants appears, casually grazing in the lush vegetation on the shore of an ancient water tank.



Kaudulla National Park provides sanctuary to about 250 elephants, and many more pass through during their migration from one park to the next. Quietly watching this herd, we are mesmerized by the power of the huge males who stand aloof, away from the herd. Mothers and aunties encircle and protect their babies, while playful adolescents bump and charge each other with their big flat heads.

All along our journey through Asia we've seen Ganesh, the Hindu god with the body of a boy and the head of an elephant, who protects travelers (thank you!), cures ailments, and guarantees prosperity. A chubby little Ganesh statue lit by flashing LEDs hangs in the windshield of a the three-wheeler, temples are ringed by images of elephants with silver bells around their ankles, and at shrines, he is adorned with fresh marigold garlands. I've just purchased three more tiny bronze Ganesh's for my growing collection. It's no wonder these giants are worshiped for their strength, beauty, and intelligence. Ganesh, our protector.

The ruins of the 1000-year-old ancient capitol of Polonnaruwa attract Buddhist pilgrim tours ...and monkeys! The Gal Vihara group of four Buddha sculptures, carved from a single solid-granite outcrop, are the most beautiful we have seen in Sri Lanka.








A quiet afternoon of birdwatching at the edge of Nuwara Wewa, the largest of Annuradhapura's ancient water tanks (built in 20 BC). Residents told us the technology used to create the artificial lakes is a lost art that cannot be duplicated today. Sixteen of these tanks are spread around the city and were most likely used to supply the city with water.



Anuradhapura became a great city in the 2nd century BC, at the time that Buddhism reached Sri Lanka. Today there stands a vast collection of ruined temples, palaces, dagobas, and a series ancient of water tanks and canals. This was the capitol city of the Sinhalese dynasties for over 500 years.

Not surprisingly, connection to this ancient civilization is very important to the national psyche. And the most sacred site in this region is the Sri Maha Bodhi (a.k.a. sacred bodhi tree). Started with a cutting from Bodhgaya in India, it has been tended continuously for over 2000 years.

When we arrive, the shrine that surrounds the tree is mobbed with groups of Sri Lankans, busy making offerings. Several groups give us a warm welcome, anxiously asking how we are enjoying their country (and, as usual, very appreciative of our new President). They are delighted to see foreign tourists visiting their country once again.


Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba, originally built in 140 BC.The tower and dagoba were destroyed by Indian invaders, and have since been rebuilt.

We enter a simple stone chapel and join a group of pilgrims seated on the floor, listening to a solitary nun chanting. Her hauntingly beautiful voice moved me to tears.

Sound Recording:

Anuradhapura Nun (3:28).






Finally, at Anuradhapura, we run into a large troop of gray langurs with their styling hairdos and spooky faces.

Good luck amulets hanging from the bus windshield on our ride from Anuradhapura to Negombo. Thankfully, they worked.


Classic conversations in Sri Lanka:

I call room service in Colombo: "Just wanted to let you know, we finished our meal, the plates are in the hallway." Fellow on phone: "So, you want fried rice with vegetable?" I say: "No, no, finished meal, plates are in the hallway." Fellow: "You want to see the menu?" "Ahh, no, dinner finished, plates in hallway." Fellow: "I come up with the menu right now." "Okay, see you soon." A few minutes later the guy knocks on the door with the menu. I point down at the plates. He says: "No problem sir, I take."

Another room service call: "I'd like a fruit salad." "You want a salad, right?." "No, just fruit plate." "Ok, so what kind of food do you want?"

On the train from Colombo to Haputale, I have a long conversation with a friendly engineer from the Sri Lankan Air Force. Finally, he asks: "What is your native language?" Not sure I heard correctly, I say: "Umm, English?" "Yes ...but what is your mother tongue?" "Uh, that would be ...English." "Oh have such a strong accent I assumed English was a second language for you."

For some reason, American English (unless I've forgotten how to speak it!) is difficult for people to understand. The Sri Lankans are also speaking English, but we too have a really hard time understanding what anyone is saying...