What is most striking about Sri Lanka, the teardrop shaped island lying south of India, is that it offers such amazing diversity within a small space. In a matter of hours you can go from an ancient city rich in history hidden in the jungle to perfectly planted (and perfectly picked) tea plantations in the hill country to wildlife sanctuaries just about everywhere. There are beaches all along its southern coast and several of them are perfect hideaways.
So the first challenge for those contemplating a visit to the country is where to start. My vote is that after you arrive at the international airport outside Colombo to head north to an area known as the Cultural Triangle. It will provide you with the context to understand and appreciate the country and its people.
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Buddhism arrived in Sri Lanka from India in the 3rd century BC and the kings that ruled for several centuries developed some of the most advanced societies of the pre-modern world. There are monuments in these ancient capitals that compare in size to the pyramids of Egypt; the highly technical irrigation systems they built are still wonders today.
There are two historic cities to visit here. Anuradhapura, the first ancient capital, was abandoned in the 11th century AD because of ongoing conflicts with kings from southern India; a new capital called Polonnaruwa was established further southeast.
Eventually both cities were abandoned and reclaimed by the jungle but rediscovered in the 19th century and with funding from UNESCO have been significantly restored. As you travel throughout the country, just about every tuk-tuk driver will ask you if you’ve been to the Cultural Triangle for this history is a great source of pride to so many.
Aside from the ruins, it is worth your while to go there simply to see the landscape for it is absolutely striking. I’ve never seen such trees! The villages are enchanting and the people rather shy and endearing. The roads were actually quite good, several having been widened and paved just before I arrived. Even travelling along those currently under construction was not a problem for traffic was handled in a very orderly manner.
If you can “swallow” the rather steep admission fees, I recommend seeing both ancient cities along with three other memorable sites that are nearby. Habarana or Dambulla are both convenient bases; however accommodation is limited so I suggest booking well in advance. I got a taxi from the airport to Dambulla and from there made arrangements through my hotel for a car and driver, which cost US$64 a day.
You will need a car or bicycle (and there were a number of foreigners on bicycles) to get around the ancient cities. I have provided a list of the must-sees. Leave time to travel the back roads for they are equally fascinating. If you’re there between June and November go see the elephants at Minneriya National Park.
– Ruvanwalisaya dagoba
– Abhayagiri stupa
– Jetavanarama stupa
– Sri Maha Bodhi
– Samadhi Buddha
– Kuttam Pokuna
– Temple of Siva
– Rankoth Viharaya
– Lankathilaka Image House
– Gal Viharaya
1. Dambulla Rock Temple
2. Drive to Kandy, arriving around noon
Anuradhapura is located about 200 km from Colombo. Monks arrived here from India more than 2000 years ago and converted the king to Buddhism. It is an important Buddhist pilgrimage site for a cutting from the Bodhi tree that Buddha sat under when he attained enlightenment grows here today.
The site has extensive ruins, particularly the grand stupas or dagobas, which are Buddhist shrines that look like giant domes built to encase relics. Their size and “perfection of scale” are considered to be some of the greatest architectural feats of the time. This is also where the massive Polonnaruwa Samudra reservoir is located, which looks like an large lake but is actually an irrigation system.
Ruvanwalisaya stupa: The Great Stupa is a beautiful white dome built by the revered King Dutugemunu and has been fully restored.
Abhayagiri stupa: This was the first enclosure for Buddha’s tooth; it is also famous because of the moonstone at its entrance, which is considered to be a work of art.
Sri Maha Bodhi: The Bodhi tree found here is from a sapling of the tree in India under which Buddha attained enlightment; the site is revered by Buddhists around the world.
Samadhi Buddha: This statue of Buddha sitting in a meditation pose associated with Nirvana is considered to be a sculptural masterpiece.
Kuttam Pokuna: These twin ponds, perfectly aligned, are another example of the mathematical precision of the period.
Temple of Siva: In the temple’s inner shrine there is the phallic symbol of Shiva, the Destroyer in the Hindu Triumvirate.
Vatadage: This circular building on a granite terrace once housed Buddha’s tooth (the Sacred Tooth Relic); four seated Buddha statues are at the entrances and the moonstone there is considered to be outstanding.
Rankoth Viharaya: This stupa with a gold pinnacle is the biggest stupa in Polonnaruwa and the fourth largest on the island.
Lankathilaka Image House: This imposing structure must have been magnificent when fully intact and the soaring statue of Buddha made of clay bricks is still impressive.
Gal Viharaya: The rock temple is why you simply have to go to Polonnaruwa. The four Buddha statues have been carved out of a solid rock of streaked granite 51m (168 ft.) long and 5m (15 ft.) deep. Two are seated, one is standing with his arms folded, and the fourth—an unimaginable 14m (46 ft.) in length—is in a reclining position.
Aside from the two ancient capital cities, there are three sites that are certainly worth visiting.
Sigiriya: Sitting on top of a huge rock that looks a bit like a lion there was an impenetrable fortress built by King Kasyapa in the 5th century AD. Although little remains of the fort, the views from the top are majestic. It’s a long climb up narrow stairs to this World Heritage site but the experience is unforgettable.
Dambulla Rock Temple: These five temples, cut out of an enormous granite ridge, are dimly lit and crammed with remarkable Buddhist statutes and murals. It is a bit of a climb to reach them but the steps are wide and there is a gravel road half way up that makes it easier. Once you’re at the top the five temples are right there. Some of the art is over 2000 years old yet the colours are exceptional. The views of the countryside are simply staggering, the lushest, darkest greens that I have ever seen.
Mihintale: This is where the king received his first Buddhist teaching and is considered as the birthplace of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. It’s not the relics here that are particularly impressive but the atmosphere for it is an important pilgrimage site. To get to the top of the mountain you must climb 1840 steps, some shaded by frangipani trees, the final ones cut into the rock and offering splendid views on either side.
When the Portuguese arrived in 1505, Sri Lanka had three main kingdoms. The Dutch arrived in 1602 because of the spice trade. When the island came under British colonial rule in 1815, the monarchy ended.
More about that when you visit the kingdom of Kandy.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2013