Sri Lanka for us has proven to be a strange place for culture. This country has a history stretching back thousands of years, yet it can seem a little soulless. Don’t get me wrong – the people are lovely and the living can certainly be sophisticated but we have not seen any artisan work that seems to relate to Sri Lanka at all. In other places we have visited like SE Asia, Egypt, even America you are bombarded by national culture everywhere you turn, be it items to buy, temples to visit or ruins to see. Yet here we have seen nothing even remotely cultural.
Then we hit the “cultural triangle” in the island centre. Three towns surround an area of ancient cities that were once the capitals of Sri Lanka. Dambulla was our base, Polonnaruwa is the second ancient capital and Anuradhapura was the main capital for many years, with all 3 towns now forming a triangle that contains most of Sri Lankas ancient sites.
In Dambulla there is a cave monastery on the top of a massive hill that houses ancient paintings and some important stupas (like a shrine to the Buddah). Unfortunately there are no signs anywhere at the bottom of this hot and unforgiving climb to indicate that tickets must be bought at the bottom so when we got to the top only to be told to go back down and buy a ticket that put paid to seeing the Dambulla caves. Climbing mountains in 35deg heat is not something I do twice in a day.
Next we tried Sigiriya which is a 200m tall massive rock rising out of the ruins of a great palace city, on top of which sits the ruins of the kings palace. It is a vertical face with gazillions of stairs either carved out of the rock face or hanging as metal staircases attached to the wall. I am not good at heights so was more than a little worried about tackling this great big monster. The great thing was that there were so many people that the going was super slow and the visibility for me could be kept to the shirt of the guy in front (which makes the vertigo less a problem).
The climb to the half way point was so worth it. Under a ledge of the rock are a series of absolutely amazing fresco paintings of maidens with Buddah offerings. I had read that they were beautiful but they blew my mind. The detail was as good as any cave paintings I have seen anywhere in the world and they were so well preserved. They were painted in the 7thC and are truly spectacular. From the halfway point the stairs got too much for me (staring into open space was just too much for my head) so Dave went up and he said that the ruins up the top were interesting, being literally all over the top of the rock, but nothing too spectacular. I didn’t feel too bad about missing out 😉
The actual palace ruins over the plain below were surprising in that there was almost nothing left. It was as if someone had come along and simply removed everything that stood over 5 bricks high. I am not sure what I expected but certainly not that. When we moved on to Polonnaruwa it was largely the same. A city that once was the capital was now just a series of brick foundations with some crumbling temples scattered over a huge site. It is quite amazing to think that a whole city can be reduced to practically nothing, but strife and war have played a big part in Sri Lankas history so perhaps that is part of the answer, as well as people wanting the bricks to build their own houses and the ancient sites would have had a ready supply.
Notwithstanding the flatness of the ruins we still enjoyed Polonnaruwa and the size and organisation of the city planning was breathtaking but I have to say that I was again a little underwhelmed (too spoilt by Angkor Wat in Cambodia I think).
We decided to go poking around the countryside on the bike and came across a temple that was not mentioned in any guidebook and indeed a lot of the locals had not heard much about it. Ras Vehera is a tiny little spot on the map where the monk will lead you up the hill clutching a massive gold key to get to a plain wooden door. Behind this door was something quite magical. A 13m reclining Buddah from the 3rd century lies in a small cave with a ceiling painted with stories of the Buddah. It was impressive to say the least but having seen that he then locked up the door and took us to another cave. This one blew me away. There were 7 Buddah statues that had sat in this little nook for centuries with walls and ceiling painted in the most beautiful and detailed stories. It was truly breathtaking. The photos I have put in below really don’t do it justice. The details in the paintings were truly amazing and the colours were as fresh as the day they were painted. I guess hiding a temple in a cave is a great way to preserve it from raiders and the elements. Simply put – we felt that we had finally found a true piece of Sri Lankan ancient culture.
So enough rambling on. We have left the heartland of Sri Lanka and have headed to Colombo (what a hectic, mishmash city this is) and are now on a mission to get our Indian visas sorted out. It seems it will take a week or more so we will put in the paperwork then get back to our travels to the northern parts of the country.