Thursday, March 22, 2012

Strolling in Sri Lanka: Part – 2

The Lion's Rock at Sigiriya from the water gardens side.

It is a wrench to leave the cool and scenic highlands of Nuwara Eliya behind and vend our way down to the holy city of Kandy.

Paddy Fields and Rubber Tapping.
Entry Portico and Building The Mansion Kandy.
Beautiful Spiral Staircase.

The vegetation changes from Alpine to Tropical and the wooded mountains give way to lush paddy fields and rubber plantations. Tired of Formula Hotels, we book ourselves into a hundred year old mansion about 8 km from the city, set amidst beautiful gardens and fields. This gracious family home is aptly named, ‘The Mansion’ and is run by a friendly Sister and Brother  duo of Uthpala and Pulasthi, the owners of the property, and the manager Senanath. 
Worshippers at the Temple of the Tooth, Kandy. 

Music for the Gods!.
With The Mansion as our base we set out to explore Kandy, a city that is on every devout Buddhist’s itinerary, as it houses the Temple of the Tooth, which holds the relic of The Buddha’s Tooth. This Temple is a part of the Kandy Palace complex alongside the lake and is well laid out. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is thronged with visitors on most days. The arrival hall features traditional musicians playing large Hewisi drums, trumpets and other musical instruments truly music for the Gods. Mere mortals may find it a little loud and difficult to understand, but there you are.

The Tooth Relic casket
The Prayer Hall Pillars, Temple of The Tooth.

The Spectacular Temple Ceiling.
Pilgrims viewing the Tooth  Casket.
The Architecture of the Temple is quite impressive, even though the Temple is not of great antiquity, the relic being shifted to this shrine only in the late 17th century. The relic rests in a richly bejeweled casket which in turn is placed on a solid gold Stupa shaped receptacle. Devout pilgrims and VIPs wearing pure white clothes are allowed inside the sanctum sanctorum, while the rest of the pilgrims and tourists pass along the viewing gallery which has a window opening out to allow a view of the relic. Some of the halls and areas of the Temple have excellent examples of carvings and wood and ivory inlay work. In fact there is a lot of ivory around, including many, many large tusks. It’s obvious that many elephants have laid down their lives for a holy cause.
Relaxing at The Mansion.
The Bride wore Red.
Drummers Greeting the Wedding Party.

Lazing in the Mansion gardens has its own charm, we were lucky to  observe a traditional Sri Lankan Wedding, we also made a day trip to the famous elephant orphanage at Pinnawela, this place, however, was one of the only disappointments in the overall excellent experience in Sri Lanka. The author found the place commercialized and the management brazenly attempting to pressurize visitors into donating money. It is much better to take up a vantage point on the other side of the river to observe groups of elephants bathing and at play.
Tourists at Dambula Caves.

Responding to the call of self imposed duty, we move on towards Dambula, Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa, all famous UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Cave Temple complex at Dambula is signposted by a huge Golden Buddha Statue. One climbs a hill to find that the
The  Golden Buddha, Dambula.
entry to the Cave Temple is quite elegant and restrained. The Dambula Complex being fairly easy to access, is visited by a large number of foreign tourists, now that Sri Lanka is at peace.

The Reclining Buddha, Dambula Cave Temples.
The Caves themselves are quite spectacular with superb carvings of the Buddha and frescos painted at various times during the last few hundred years. Some of these frescos and paintings have sustained water damage but overall the preservation is quite remarkable and no visitor to Sri Lanka should miss Dambula.
The Buddha's Feet.

The area around the rock is verdant and home to roving bands of monkeys, enjoying grooming themselves and also ready to snatch the odd food packet or fruit from the unwary
Monkey Business.
Spectacular Frescos Dambula  Cave Temples.

Buddha Images Dambula
Cabanas Jay's Resort, Habarana. 
We set up base in Jay's Resort, Habarana, set deep in the forest and the labour of love of the genial owner Jayantha.

Elephant's Rock, Entry to Sigiriya Fortress
This again is not a traditional hotel but the whimsical adaptation of one man who has modified 2 acres of wooded area to build self contained Cabanas, quite comfortable, if a little eccentric. The end result is nice with lots of greenery, birds and small animals around. Habarana is a good base to explore the Fortress at Lion Rock at Sigiriya and the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. It is also well located for jungle safaris but heavy rains made the jungle tracks impassable and prevented us from venturing there, even on elephants.

Sigiriya a monolithic basaltic rock of volcanic magma, towers sheer, rising over 1200 ft from the surrounding plains. This is one of the oldest inhabited sites in Sri Lanka and has been used through millennia.
Exposed  Rock Paintings
Fresco of a Lady, Sigiriya. 
The rock contains caves with beautifully painted frescos, reminiscent of the Ajanta Caves in India. In ancient times the whole rock was a sort of art gallery, but the older exposed frescos have undergone tremendous weathering and are almost destroyed. Luckily the cave frescos survive and are worth going a long way to see. It is another UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Fresco From The Ramayana, Caves at Lion's Rock.

Ancient Sri Lankan kings recognizing the strategic importance of this sheer sided rock built a strong fortress and shifted the capital here from Anuradhapura. The surrounding plain, too, was developed as parks, gardens and most notably, water gardens some of which can still be viewed in their glory.
The Lion's Paw. Entry to Sigiriya Fortress. 

The 'Final Assault' Stair
The climb to the top of the fortress is steep and tiring, especially for out of shape people like the author, but the vistas and views from the top are well worth the effort. Half way up, through a lovely but steep double helix spiral staircase, are the caves with frescos, the destination for many a tourist, who then may or may not make the final assault to reach the top.

The Steep Spiral Staircase
The area has many interesting rock formations with interesting names like ‘Elephant Rock’ near the starting gate and the ‘Cobra’ at the exit.

The Cobra Rock.
The Water Gardens at Sigiriya, from the Top of the fortress.
King Parakramabahu I
Polonnaruwa, is a short scenic drive away from Habarana. Sri Lanka's medieval capital Polonnaruwa was established in the 11th Century A.D. replacing Anuradhapura, which was plundered by armies from South India.
The Intrepid Author at the Top.
 The city reached its zenith in the 12th century and thereafter was ravaged by many invasions, luckily however, there remain enough examples of the old grandeur and glory.
The ruins of the city stand on the eastern shore of a large artificial lake, the Topa Wewa Lake, or Parakrama Samudra (the Sea of Parakrama), created by King Parakramabahu I (1153-86). 

The Central Buddha Statue. Polonnuruwa.   
Thuprama, Polonnuruwa
This was Polonnaruwa's golden age. Within the city walls stand palace buildings and clusters of dozens of Stupas, Temples and various other religious buildings.
A scattering of other historic buildings can be found away from the main complex, outside the walls, close to the main road to Dambula.

Many of the masterpieces excavated here, such as the stone lion which once guarded the palace of King Nissanka Malla, some fine Hindu bronzes unearthed from the ruins of the Siva Devale Temple, are at the National Museum in Colombo. The city ruins are quite extensive and there are many buildings worth visiting.
Statue among Ruins, Polonnuruwa

Temple Door and Staircase Detail.
Lake side Restaurant, Polonnuruwa.
The carving, architecture as well as stone tablets are simply amazing. An added benefit is the amount of greenery and water bodies around, enabling one to relax and take a deep breath, away from the rigors of monument hopping. In Sri Lanka, tourists are normally not harassed by vendors of sundry merchandise and indigent kids, unlike India and many other Southeast Asian countries.

Rankot Stupa at Polonnuruwa
The traveler is advised to allot two days to Polonnaruwa. To rush through, as many tourists do, does not do justice to this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Standing and Reclining Buddha at Gal Vihara, Polonnuruwa.
We had planned to go to Anuradhapura, but incessant rains and resultant floods had rendered most up country roads and highways impassable. So with a heavy heart we turned back towards Colombo, indulging in retail therapy enroute, in the form of exquisite Dankotuwa China from the factory.
Hand Carving Wooden Flutes.

The Meditating Buddha.

An airport like all airports, surprisingly reasonable Straight Malt Scotch Whiskey, we indulge over the permissible limit allowed in India, hoping that the customs would overlook it. The push back, the taxi out, the takeoff run, the climb out, a flash of green palms and blue seas and we bid goodbye to the emerald isle.

The Emerald Peacock of The Emerald Isle.