Some years ago now, when I wasn’t a regular traveler, my friend Lisa and I decided to take a rather budget trip around Sri Lanka for ten days. Lisa had traveled on a shoestring around India, Asia and Australia, and was used to the hostel lifestyle. However, I’d spent most of my teenager years enjoying all inclusive resort holidays with my family (I know, very lucky) – so I knew it might come as a bit of a shock for me. We finally agreed on mixing up our trip with some budget stays, some mid-range, and then treating ourselves at the end with a fairly pricey hotel. With a rough plan in mind, we decided to head north initially to see some of the ancient ruins of the country.
After landing in Colombo we were keen to get out of the big city and so we made our way to Kandalama lake, our first night-stop before a day of sightseeing. With a chilled beer in hand, we watched the sun set over the lake, where children played and ladies washed clothes in the murky waters. The rest of the evening was spent lying in a hammock, immersed in our Lonely Planet guide, listening to grasshoppers. It was the perfect start to an adventurous week.
An action packed day took us to the ancient Sigriya Rock Fortress an enormous 200 metre high rock believed to have been the capital and home of King Kasyapa’s Empire, during the 5th century. Climbing up the rock was a bit more than my average days exercise (which is usually between little to none), so by the time I reached halfway I was pretty exhausted by the climb! It’s here that we marveled at the huge lion gateway that had, many years ago, been carved into the side of the rock. The stairs run through the two enormous lion paws and then up the side of the rock, all the way to the top, where the royal palace once stood. Out of breath, and looking for shade, we found a nice spot sitting among the ancient palace ruins, where some walls, stairs and baths are still present today.
After the Kings death it was used as a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century. Remains of a few old paintings of half naked females are still present today, however it’s believed that there were once hundreds of these paintings, unfortunately most of them were wiped away when the fortress was used by monks. It’s thought that the paintings were a distraction for the monks, therefore they were destroyed.
The view at the top of the rock is nothing short of breath-taking, with dense jungle plains stretching for as far as the eye can see. It was here that I met my first wild monkey! He seemed far more interested in my packet of crisps than being friendly, and the many signs around warned me that these monkeys were professional pickpockets, and not to be reckoned with!
We made a slow descent down the rock before we continued our historic tour, next stop was the Dambulla Cave temple, where over 150 statutes of Buddhas, Kings, Gods and Goddesses sit in the shadows of the dark caves. It is believed that even before the arrival of Buddhasiam in Sri Lanka, prehistoric Sri Lankans once lived in the caves, as 2,700 year-old skeletons have been found in the area. The statues however are thought to have been built in 1st century BC, and were once a refuge point for the exiled King Valagambahu for over 15 years; after he reclaimed his capital he converted the caves into a temple. Within the caves is a fully functioning monastery, built in around the 2nd or 3rd century BC, and is the best-preserved ancient place in all of Sri Lanka.
Both the Sigriya Rock Fortress and the Dambulla Cave temple are of course UNESCO World Heritage sites, and contenders for the Wonders of the World.
We wandered around the other temples in the region before making the 70 km journey south to Kandy. After finding no available taxis, we decided to go by tuk tuk – a journey that took three hours, and one that neither of us would forget.
After reaching Kandy with a sore neck, back and bum, a good nights sleep was much needed. We stayed at the old colonial Queens Hotel, which was an improvement on the last place as this one boasted running hot water! However, with little renovation since the 1950s, it was a little run down, and had corridors that took me back to scenes from The Shining. The location, on the other hand, was perfect for sightseeing in Kandy, and at approximately $80 a night, we couldn’t complain. We were serenaded by a local band in the restaurant, which added to the authentic experience.
To finish off our sightseeing of ancient Sri Lanka, we started our day at the Temple of the Tooth Relic. It is believed that when the Lord Buddha died in 543 BC in India his body was cremated. In his ashes a single canine tooth was found and given to King Brahmadatte, and so it became a Royal possession. It was believed in those days that whomever owned the tooth had the right to rule the land, which resulted in many wars occurring, and attempts at destroying the tooth. During this time many people turned away from their beliefs of God, and became Buddhists, worshiping the tooth relic. The tooth eventually ended up in the hands of Princess Hemamala, who traveled from India to Sri Lanka, and this is where the tooth remained, eventually ending up in the old Royal Palace of Kandy.
The palace temple is made up of several different buildings and temples, and its worthwhile getting a tour guide so you can understand the importance and history behind the story of the tooth. Don’t be fooled into thinking you will see the tooth, as it is wrapped up in a golden casket and no one is allowed to see it. Whether the tooth really does exist is a mystery!
So Lisa and I had had enough of learning about the ancient Sri Lankan world, interesting as it was, it was time to get back to present day, so we headed south to meet the elephants.
Look out for my next blog, where I will introduce you to the wonderful elephants of Sri Lanka, and take you down the white water rapids of Kitugala.