By John S. Hamalian
Emanating from the deep mists of time, the legend of Ceylon endures. As the waves of history continue on their watery path, the dreams of generations yet wash up on its glistening shores. This teardrop shaped island of mystery and intrigue, whose magnificence has conjured comparisons to the Garden of Eden, is tiny in relationship to its giant neighbor India, but its small size belies a tremendous amount of history and culture. Finally, having shaken itself free from three successive foreign intrusions, Sri Lanka had awoken from a deep colonial slumber and breathed its first independent air in centuries, only to find that its newest threat came from within. It is difficult to fathom a serene tropical paradise stained by the ravages of rancor, but now that the haze of battle has risen the wonders of Sri Lanka can finally be rediscovered.
Ancient Tree of Enlightenment
After a splendid journey through lush countryside outside of the current capital of Colombo, my first stop was, fittingly, to Sri Lanka’s first capital: the ancient metropolis of Anuradhapura. This legendary city was founded way back in 380 BC and served as the center of the island’s entire civilization for more than 1,400 years, until relentless attacks finally forced the king to relocate. As Sri Lanka is a predominately Buddhist nation, its strong religious roots have emanated from Anuradhapura ever since the king converted to Buddhism in the 3rd century, via the son of the famous Indian Emperor Ashoka. It was only a few years later that Ashoka’s daughter brought to Sri Lanka a prize of incalculable worth – a bodhi tree that grew from the sapling of an ancient tree – but this was not just any ordinary growth, this was the holy bodhi under which the Buddha gained enlightenment. While the original tree in India has long since perished, the Sacred Bo Tree lives on; and many consider it to be the oldest living historical tree in the world. Ironically, while post-Ashoka India had wandered back to a primarily Hindu-based belief system, Sri Lanka has always been passionately Buddhist and may have been the primary influencing agent behind the spread of the religion to much of the Southeast Asian region. It was a truly humbling experience to gaze at this tree, such an old yet living relic of the past.
Aside from the incredibly ancient tree, the most impressive sights in Anuradhapura are its dagobas, or stupas; domed monuments that contain important Buddhist graves or relics. In some cases, the dagobas are so huge they also contain entire monasteries. The massive Jetavana Dagoba once rose 400 feet high, with a diameter of 370 feet, making it the largest such structure in the world, and had accommodated 3,000 monks inside its cavernous walls. To give you an idea of its sheer immensity, the dagoba occupies around eight acres of land, making it just a little smaller than the Great Pyramid of Egypt. The oldest dagoba in Anuradhapura is Thuparamaya, which dates back to the 3rd century and is believed to contain the right collarbone of the Buddha himself.
Fortress in the Sky
My guidebook describes Sigiriya as an ancient, impregnable fortress mounted atop an immense slab of rock, but, as we raced down the dusty, rutted roads of central Sri Lanka, my neck craned to find it. If it is so big, where can it possibly be? And then, finally, there… there beyond forests of dreams and under clouds of mystery appeared the magnificent stone structure, as if frozen in time. Sigiriya was a 5th century king’s palace and also doubled as a fortress due to feared invasions. King Kassapa was a real family man; he killed his own father and drove his brother out of the country – it’s no wonder he was paranoid about an attack. The climb to the halfway point of the immense 650ft high monolith is not without effort, but doing so will endow you with brilliant, remarkably preserved frescoes of voluptuous maidens, over 1,500 years old.
Once atop the terraced midpoint, one realizes that between you and the palace above lay a sheer cliff in which the likeness of a massive lion was once cut. All that is left of this feature, which gave Sigiriya its name ‘Lion Rock’, is a pair of huge clawed paws, through the center of which must be entered to undertake the final harrowing ascent up the steep rock face. After conquering the last fortress wall to reach the highest plateau, any breath that you may still have will be taken away by the spectacular views of the surrounding countryside. All that remains of the palace itself are its foundations, but it is not difficult to imagine the magnitude of the power and opulence that this place must have possessed in the pinnacle of its glory. As I gazed out over ancient walls, water pools and pavilions, I could not help but think that I am standing atop the Asian version of Machu Picchu.
Such was I mesmerized by the rapture of the ruins at Sigiriya, I completely lost track of reality – far exceeding the agreed rendezvous time and patience of my usually cheerful driver. Upon my return, he animatedly pointed out that he hadn’t eaten for eight hours that day, and how could I be so inconsiderate. Eventually he settled down after I showered him with numerous apologies and treated him to a very nice lunch before we made our way to the next stop on the adventure.
Ruined but not Diminished
The last stop in a string of ancient cities was to Polonnaruwa, the center of a once prosperous, highly advanced and culturally rich kingdom in the 11th century. Remnants of a massive Grand Palace, a Royal Bath of exquisite engineering, impressively designed dagobas and a nearly two-foot-thick book made of stone are some of the fascinating attractions in this sprawling window to another world. Monuments and temples abound from every corner, and the mammoth complex takes the better part of a day to explore. One of the more interesting sights is Gal Vihare, or ‘Rock Temple’, where a group of four Buddha statues are carved out of sheer rock. With craftsmanship at such a level, they are an artistic testament to the superb capabilities of this once mighty civilization. The dominating feature is a 43-feet-long reclining Buddha, so finely detailed and realistic one could easily imagine his last peaceful moments before leaving this earth. Another highlight in Polonnaruwa is a unique relic house known as The Vatadage. This circular structure with majestic stone pillars looks as if it could have come from the ancient Greeks if it weren’t for the four Buddha statues silently seated within, whose tranquil features remain serene enough to tame the most insane of men.
The final destination was perhaps appropriately Kandy, for it was here that the last king of Sri Lanka exhaled his final breath of royal air upon being unseated by the British invaders. Known mostly for its Ceylon tea plantations (Ceylon was the name of Sri Lanka during British colonialism), placid lakes and emerald hills surrounding quaint, laidback village homes, the city also has quite an impressive history in its own right. By far the most famous site in Kandy is the Temple of the Tooth, a splendidly ornate temple that houses the most venerated religious relic in Sri Lanka – the sacred tooth of the Buddha. The tooth was brought to Sri Lanka in the 4th century from India, secretly hidden in the flowing hair of a fair princess. There are daily ceremonies to pay homage to the tooth, and every year there is a special parade where a replica of the tooth is carried through the streets in a huge procession of hundreds of decorated elephants and flamboyant dancers. If you ever go to Kandy, don’t miss the traditional Sri Lankan cultural show – in addition to wonderful dancing and drumming, there is an absolutely mind-bending display of walking on red-hot coals, barefoot.
The Shores of Serendipity
During the drive back to Colombo, I searched hard to consolidate my final impressions of Sri Lanka. It was not easy because this seemingly diminutive nation possesses considerable breadth and awesome depth. The shining smiles on spirited peoples, the gently sloping hills of lush countryside, the ancient remnants of amazing civilizations, the shadows of recent acrimony. Yet, in the end, my thoughts were pervaded by my trip itself – largely unplanned, very last-minute and mainly resting on a whim, I silently thanked myself for making the clutch decision to visit this wonderful land. It was then that I remembered the story of how Sri Lanka had inspired the formation of the word ‘serendipity’ – the occurrence of happy events by chance – derived from Serendib, as the island was once known as long ago. With this word perpetually etched into the history of the nation, if one keeps their mind open and their spirit free, a trip to Sri Lanka will truly be a serendipitous experience.
Four-hour flights from Singapore Changi to Colombo Bandaranaike International Airport depart daily.