A rainy, cool afternoon revealed the Sigiriya ‘rock’ fortress, an architectural wonder with its water garden, rock garden, mirror wall and of course, the famous Lion Gate – known for the two huge paws of a lion carved out of rock that evidently ‘guarded the entrance to the fortress’ many hundreds of years ago. But, nowhere did they mention that the fortress was built ‘on’ and around the Sigiriya Rock, which “is a hardened magma plug, from an extinct and long eroded volcano” (source, Wikipedia) and that the Lion Gate, the Mirror Wall and the Sigiriya Maidens were all situated at various levels in the rock several hundred steps above the ground. The summit – a climb of 1200 steps – promised a view of the remnants of the Royal Palace and a bird’e eye view of the plain that spread out upto the horizon. Such a climb, for a person who hates heights, better still is scared of heights ( and that would be me), can be very trying, trust me. But, I did manage to reach the Lion Gate, two giant lion paws sculpted out of rock, on a plateau beyond the first 800 steps of sheer torture, happy, light headed and numb with the fear that I had just fought all the way up there. My two brave soldiers continued to climb the next four hundred steps, to roam the ruins of the Royal Palace, long after I had retired and sat back to feel the light drizzle on my face.
A few hours away was Polonnaruwa, one of the earliest seats of Buddhism in Srilanka as well as one of the earliest capital cities. Polonnaruwa gives the curious traveller the feeling of a huge open air museum, with remains of a rich past scattered amongst the excavated rocks and remains.
The mellow afternoon sun revealed the awe inspiring “Gal Vihara” – near perfect sculptures of the Buddha that have stood the test of time since the 12th century. A little ahead of us was the first excavation site of the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, a structured and well-planned city from an earlier civilisation that now stood pregnant in its silence. We decided to take a walk amongst the ruins of stupas and the Royal Palace and stood in stunned silence before the broken walls of the Lanka Tilaka temple, with its headless deity still standing tall. In the dying light of the December twilight we walked on towards the silohouettes of the Sacred Quadrangle, with the crumbling pillars reaching skywards and the stupas fast becoming a blur.
The next day, our final stop in the cultural triangle was Anuradhapura, a marvellous location that houses the earliest Dagoba in the country ,wherein evidently lies buried the collar bone of the Buddha, and of course, the Mahabodhi Tree, a fifteen hundred year old Pipul tree, a tree that grew from a branch of the Pipul tree under which Buddha is said to have attained his Bodhisattva. Anuradhapura felt very rooted in its Buddhist past, with the calm, silent air only broken by solemn chants of the Buddhist monks drifting in from distant monasteries.
While the trip had been peppered with niggling worries, neither the Bee nor me had felt the urge to switch on our respective mobile phones, reply unanswered email, update Facebook or for that matter “live tweet” the trip. All we had done was eat, sleep, take hundreds of pictures and look all around us to see what more could be, and more importantly, should be captured in our mind’s eye.
Two days later, it was time to go.
We all climbed into Nandana’s van, with my Red Palm saplings sitting cosily in a laundry basket, happy to be heading homewards. There was just one stop between us and the airport – Negombo, a sea beach of ourstanding beauty that we would cross on the long drive down the coastal road on our way back to Colombo. As we lunched at the sea side restaurant, on a sumptuous spread of international and Srilankan delicacies, we watched the boats with large, picture-perfect sails lazily go by in the late afternoon sun, a number of wind-surfers skilfully negotiate the breeze and a bevy of tourists, shades delicately perched on their noses, waiting for the perfect tan while local ladies, in long, flowing skirts sold colourful batik sarongs and scarves.
The last night at Colombo would have been uneventful had it not been for a ‘chance encounter’ with the 400 pilgrims of the ‘six days – seven nights’ Ramayana Tour, who seemed to have virtually overtaken our hotel. We left them behind in the crowded, chaotic lobby, preparing to go into their banquet hall before they were told of the following day’s agenda. They would no doubt have a wonderful time in Srilanka as well, much like we did, amid the warm beaming smiles, the piquant cuisine, the red palms, the colourful masks, the golden beaches and the loquacious history of the Emerald Isle.
Holidays were meant to refresh and rejuvenate. Srilanka definitely did the same for us!
Picture courtesy: Sukanti Ghosh