6th January 2011
Up, showered and forcing our breakfasts down us at 7am, we were duly picked up by our driver at about 7:50. We thought our luck was changing weather-wise as it wasn’t raining for once! Buoyed by this, and climbing into our mini bus we headed off for the first of many interesting sights we hoped to see. We stopped off briefly on the way to take some photos of a Buddha statue that had been erected within the last 10 years, and then continued on our way to Sigiriya wincing as another stray dog plonked itself down in the middle of the road to sleep or just ambled across between the speeding cars, trucks and buses. Many of them weren’t quite quick enough and seemed to be missing legs or nursing broken ones. Some were unluckier still and didn’t manage to get out of the way at all, their broken, lifeless bodies left at the side of the road – one such unfortunate animal still had a little puppy sitting behind it waiting. It was very sad to see, but the strays are everywhere here.
Buddha statue on the way to Sigiriya
We made it to Sigiriya just as the skies were darkening ominously and walked straight to the ticket counter, queued a little while for our tickets and decided to go to the Museum first to gain some information about the rock. It started raining almost immediately, but we made it there without getting too wet. It is only a small museum, but interesting nonetheless. It showed what the palace may have looked like in all its glory utilising models and multimedia exhibits alongside jewellery, pots and tools found around the site.
The history of this place is as fascinating as the feats of engineering involved to build it. Sigiriya is a huge rock 200 meters high on top of which used to stand an amazing Palace, built by King Kassapa in 477 AD. He was the son of King Dhatusena and had a younger half-brother, Moggallana, who was heir to the throne. Knowing he would never be King because he was the son of a royal consort, Kassapa seized the throne, imprisoned his father (and then killed him when he wouldn’t disclose the whereabouts of his treasure!) and forced Moggallana to flee to India. Moggallana vowed to return with an army and overthrow Kassapa. Seven years after seizing the throne, Kassapa had built and moved into the Palace atop the rock at Sigiriya, built for defence in preparation for his brother’s revenge. There were moats that flooded other moats, boulder catapults and an ingenious, if not slightly cruel, way of keeping the sentries awake. They were situated at lookout points designed so that, if they nodded off at any time throughout their watch, they fell to their deaths! Just looking at the remains of the palace at the top (only the low walls, pools and baths remain now) you have to wonder how much effort it must have taken just to get the building materials up there! In case you were wondering, Kassapa’s brother did return with his army and, despite having the best defences in the country, Kassapa felt invincible enough to meet his enemy on the plains. Apparently his terrified elephant turned and retreated during the battle so his own soldiers followed. Not wanting to be defeated, Kassapa drove his sword down his own throat!
To scare off any potential threat of attack, the Palace entrance was built in the shape of a huge lion but only the massive paws remain now. Towards the bottom of the rock is the so-called Mirror Wall, a huge, orange coloured limestone wall that, in its day, was so highly polished that it resembled a mirror and there are over 1500 pieces of prose and poetry written on it by the many ancient visitors that flocked to see it from all over the island. Some modern day idiots have also written their own graffiti on it too! Even today, 1500 years after it was built, some of the wall still reflects like glass! Above the Mirror Wall are frescoes of beautiful women painted in the pocket of an overhang. The colours are still vibrant and it is said they are completely original, although that is hard to believe! Apparently many of the poems and prose found on the Mirror Wall were written in praise of these women, as well as of the palace, the lion and the gardens. As we walked through some of the gardens toward the massive rock, we both thought the same thing – would our poor legs manage the climb up?! Feelings of déjà vu appeared as the rain got heavier as we neared the first steps! Donning our rain jackets, we started up the steps of the Terrace Garden with the Mirror Wall in sight, breaking off our path here and there to go and see meditation caves and small alcoves used by the ancient priests. More steps assaulted our battle weary legs, and after around 10 minutes we reached the bright orange Mirror Wall. The ancient writing is quite faded now, but still amazing after 1500 years. We carried on a little further and came to a spiral staircase heading up to the frescoes in the overhang. It was quite a scary climb actually, with only a small wire mesh fence, open in places, between us and a very long drop! It took a little effort to get to the top, but we made it to see the brightly painted pictures of ...ahem...well endowed women that adorned the wall up there!! No wonder most of the prose and poems found on the Mirror Wall were about these women if that’s how they walked around!! Another trip down on the Helter Skelter staircase, and we were walking alongside the rest of the Mirror Wall to some more steps that lead to the enormous paws of the regal lion that once proudly looked out over the gardens below. The paws are massive,and the lion’s head, now sadly completely disappeared, must have been terrifyingly magnificent!
The Boulder Garden at Sigiriya
The so-called Mirror Wall at Sigiriya
The huge lion's paws at Sigiriya rock
The colourful frescoes at Sigiriya
We took a water break before starting the climb up the steps between the paws, which was the original entrance to the palace itself, and found ourselves staring straight up at a flight of metal stairs zigzagging their way across the side of the rock. As the rain came down heavier, we joined the many other people in the climb, turning sideways in places to squeeze past the ones coming down. It was quite hard work, and a lot higher than we’d expected!! But it was no Adam’s Peak thank goodness! Reaching the top our first view was of the King’s private bath. It must have been quite an amazing experience having a bath atop a huge rock looking out over the rest of the lands below. The view was incredible. Unfortunately not very much of the palace itself remains – just the foundations and low walls basically, but it doesn’t take much imagination to picture how fabulous the place must have been in its day! No wonder people flocked from all over the island (and further afield) just to take a glimpse of it. We walked around the entire Palace site before starting the climb back down.
The snaking staircase up to the palace remains on Sigiriya rock
The King's bath in the palace ruins atop Sigiriya rock. What a view he had!!
The view from atop Sigiriya rock
The rain had eased quite a bit and was now just an annoyance as we sweated our way to the bottom of the steps, through the gardens and back to our waiting driver.
Our next stop was the Dambulla Cave Temple cut into a 160 metre rock by King Valagambahu I in the first century BC who sought refuge here when overthrown by marauding Tamils. The caves have been developed further over the centuries and under the reigns of different Kings.
The rain started once again as we made the half hour or so journey from Sigariya to Dambulla, and pulled into the car park of the Golden Temple with a huge golden Stupa in the front. Behind that was the massive building of the Buddha Museum with a facade of what appeared to be some sort of dragon face, mouth agape, showing rows of short white teeth, that held up a gigantic gold coloured sitting Buddha. To the right of the Buddha was a long line of mannequins dressed as monks making their way along the top of a huge rock to the Buddha with offerings. It started raining again....
The Golden Buddha Museum in Dambulla
The monk mannequins at the Golden Temple in Dambulla
We spied a sign pointing to the Cave Temple and turned a corner to find our worst enemy ..... another million steps!! We started the climb and found them a little tricky here and there as they were very slippery and actually disappeared in places, leaving only bare, slippery rock to get a foothold on! Halfway up were street hawkers selling t-shirts, very ancient looking brass ornaments, postcards and books, and opposite them sat a forlorn and quite uninterested snake charmer! We mentioned we’d been to India and seen plenty of them and he just looked away and sat down again! We reached the top with throbbing legs once again, and then had to perform another of our almost daily rituals – the removing of the shoes and socks! We dutifully did so and handed them to the shoe-keeper and were nearly knocked out by the smell of feet wafting out of his little cubby hole! It was quite overpowering! Now with cold, wet feet we made our way to the entrance and through the gate and out into the courtyard. It really is quite beautiful with the white building seemingly embedded in solid rock.
The entrance to the Cave Temples at Dambulla
There are five caves in the complex – the first cave is the Temple of the Lord of the Gods (Devaraja Viharaya) containing a 46 foot long sleeping Buddha, carved in one piece from the rock! Jen was particularly taken with his colourful feet and made sure she checked the feet on every single reclining Buddha she came across from that point on!!
Huge reclining Buddha at the Cave Temple, Dambulla
The colourful feet of the reclining Buddha at the Cave Temple in Dambulla
The second cave is the Temple of Great Kings and is enormous – 160 feet long! It houses many Buddha statues and one of the King who created the caves.
The third cave, the Great New Temple (Maha Alut Viharaya) built by one of the last Kandyan Kings, Kirti Sri Rajasinha, contains a meditating Buddha surrounded by fifty other Buddhas!
The fourth cave called Pacchima Viharaya has a number of lovely Buddha statues lining the walls, and a small Stupa in the middle which, legend had it, contained the jewels of Queen Somawathie. Apparently it was just legend as thieves managed to open it and there was nothing inside!
The final cave is the newest of the caves and is called, imaginatively, Second New Temple! This one contains another reclining Buddha who is surrounded by 5 smaller statues but these are different in that they are made of brick and plaster unlike the others that are carved from stone.
The King had to get in on the act!! Cave Temple, Dambulla
The beautifully decorated head of a reclining Buddha in Dambulla
A row of sitting Buddhas in the Cave Temples, Dambulla
A row of standing Buddhas! Wish he'd make his mind up!! The Cave Temple, Dambulla
As time was pushing on, and we were all Buddha’d out, we decided to give the Dambulla Museum a miss (apparently there isn’t much in it anyway!) and opted for a return to our guest house! Once back ‘home’ at around 5pm we ordered our evening meals and headed off to our room to flick through the photos we’d taken during the day, before jumping in the lukewarm shower before our dinner at 7pm. At dinner we were joined by 2 other guests and chatted about what we had all got up to during the day and what we were all planning to do the following morning. We had decided to visit the ancient city of Polonnaruwa which was very close by but were warned that it is spread over a vast area and we would be better off with some form of vehicle to get us around. The hiring of bicycles was mentioned but we weren’t yet that desperate! We opted to sleep on that dilemma until morning!
5th January 2011
After an entire day of relentless, annoying, soul destroying rain yesterday where we were stuck inside until the evening (when we revisited Pizza Hut!), we were packing up and moving out and on to Polonnaruwa today. We had got chatting to a German biologist (mostly a one way conversation it must be said!) in our guest house, who told us he had arrived in Kandy from what is called the “Cultural Triangle” of which Polonnaruwa is a part, and he had experienced 12 days of non-stop rain while he was there! It is known as the dry zone....! Undeterred and glad to be leaving wet, grey Kandy, our pre-booked Tuk-Tuk arrived at 10am to take us to the Good Sheds bus station where we were kindly shown to the correct bus. We stowed our rucksacks in the boot and grabbed a seat. We sat there for the next 20 minutes absolutely dumbfounded as wave after wave of salesmen came on board offering things for sale. The only person missing was a used car salesman! It was amazing – items for sale included pastries, savouries, sweets, Bombay mix, drinks, necklaces, lottery tickets, lighters, the most awful sunglasses you’ve ever seen, batteries, watches, keyrings and penknives .... it was hilarious! They entered the front doors and disappeared out of the back. It was like a catwalk for crap! Each wave was funnier than the last – and then it was the turn of the beggars...
The bus finally pulled away, the last of the street boys and beggars having finished their tours, and we settled into our 4 hour journey just watching the streets, villages and fields whistle past as another of the ex-racing driver busmen overtook all and sundry on the busy roads with hand on horn and pedal to the metal!
Pulling into Polonnaruwa, we got off the bus and grabbed another Tuk-Tuk for the short ride to the Devi Tourist Home, our next place of rest (also recommended by our German biologist friend) for the next three nights. As we walked through and were greeted by the very bubbly and friendly owners it started to rain! We were shown to our cute little room and ordered our curry dinner for later. While sitting and enjoying a cup of tea we were informed of the various tours and things the owners could organise for us. Knowing it had been raining forever, we opted for a driver to take us around the following day to all the usual sights. So we booked an early breakfast for 7am had our nice curries for dinner with a couple of the other guests and flopped into our beds looking forward to our adventures in the morning.