We met our next trek group in Colombo on February 17 for a 2-week tour of the cultural and natural highlights of Sri Lanka. We were joined by 5 folks from the UK and headed north to the town of Sigiriya. Our first stop was the archeological site of Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka's second capital city after the destruction of Anuradhapura in 993 CE. Twenty-one kings reigned Sri Lanka from Polonnaruwa over the next 200 years. The most famous king was Parakramabahu the Great who ruled from 1153-1186 CE. He created a glorious garden-city with palaces, temples, monasteries, hospitals and dagobas (pagoda or stupa). The massive dagoba Rankoth Vehera is credited to King Nissanka Malla, a son-in-law or nephew of Parakramabahu the Great.
One of the more remarkable structures is the Vatadage, a circular stone shrine said to have been built by King Parakramabahu to enshrine the tooth relic of the Buddha. There are four entrances to the second platform. Stone steps with elaborately carved balustrades and statues lead to a stupa which once housed this most sacred relic.
The most impressive pieces of art from this period are the four gigantic Buddha images in the Gal Vihara. They were carved right into the face of a large granite rock. Here are two of the four images.
That afternoon we visited Sigiriya's most famous site, Lion Rock. The story starts with King Dhatusena who had two sons and a beautiful daughter whom he loved very much. To keep her in the family, he arranged a marriage with his sister's son, his nephew Migara. One day his daughter came home with a blood-stained skirt. She wouldn't admit it but the King knew she was being abused by her husband. In retaliation, he had Migara's mother, his own sister, killed. To get back at the King, Migara plotted to turn the King's younger son against him. He convinced the younger son that if he wanted the throne, he'd have to kill his father and exile his older brother to India, both of which he accomplished. The new King, Kashyapa, wasn't very popular for obvious reasons and needed a very secure place for his palace. He chose Lion Rock for its strategic location and kicked out the monks who were living there.
|The Imposing Lion Rock|
King Kashyapa ruled from this perch for the next 18 years (477- 495 AD). His reign came to a fitting end when his brother returned from India with a massive army. Kashyapa's army abandoned him during the battle and he committed suicide by falling on his sword. Today you can climb stairs to the top of the rock. Along the way are some impressive murals of some very well-endowed ladies.
|Mural, Lion Rock|
Most have been destroyed or covered with painted floral designs by the monks who found them too distracting. Near the top is the impressive Lion Gate. All that remain are the beast's two front paws on either side of the entrance.
Our last stop in the area was the Dambulla Cave Temple also known as the Golden Temple of Dambulla. At the entrance a gold Buddha image towered over the temple.
|Entrance to Dambulla Cave Temple|
We climbed to five caves under a vast overhanging rock in the temple complex. The first cave, the Cave of the Divine King, dates back to the 1st century. The cave is dominated by a 14-meter reclining Buddha hewn out of the rock.
|Buddha in the Cave of the Divine Kings|
In the second and largest cave (which also dates back to the 1st century) are more than 50 Buddha images. This is the Cave of the Great Kings.
|Buddha Images in the Cave of the Great Kings|
We left Dambulla and drove 72 km south to the city of Kandy. In the evening we visited one of the most sacred Buddhist temples in the world, the Temple of the Tooth. It is here that one of the Lord Buddha's canine teeth is enshrined.
|Monks outside the Temple of the Tooth|
Monks conduct rituals three times a day: at dawn, at noon and in the evenings. We had come to witness the evening ceremony. It started with the beating of drums and the blowing of a horn. We gathered around an inner shrine where I thought the ceremony would take place but most of the arriving pilgrims and tourists were headed up a set of stairs.
|The Evening Ceremony Begins with the Beating of Drums|
It turns out that the relic of the tooth of the Buddha was in a shrine on the upper level. A long queue had formed to see the golden casket containing the tooth. The door is opened and closed according to an astrologer. We bypassed the queue and joined a mass of people trying to photograph the inner sanctum from a distance. We were able to get a decent photo of the golden casket housing this most sacred relic. We didn't get to see the actual tooth. It is displayed to the public once every 5 to 10 years. It was last shown in 2012 and 8 million devotees from around the world showed up to see it. Some waited in the queue for weeks for their chance to see the tooth of the Buddha.
|Golden casket Containing the Tooth Relic|
I still wanted to get a closer look so we worked our way into the queue and were able to pass briefly by the shrine. I was caught up in the spiritual fever of being so close to relic that it brought me to tears. I can't claim to be a Buddhist but the legend surrounding the relic is fascinating and the excitement of the devotees infectious. When the Lord Buddha died in 543 BC, his body was cremated and four of his teeth removed. One remained in India for 800 years but was smuggled to Sri Lanka for safe keeping as there were kings in India bent on destroying it. It was hidden in the hair ornament of a princess and along with her husband they secretly brought it to Sri Lanka disguised as commoners.
What a fantastic start to our visit to Sri Lanka! All the sites that we have visited are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Tomorrow we head to the mountains for a bit of trekking to explore some of Sri Lanka's natural treasures.
We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc