Sri Lanka Day 4 – Polonnaruwa – Dambulla – Sigiriya

6:00 wake up….very unlike me.  A simple 6:30am breakfast followed.  Checked out and went with a Sri Lankan couple to the bus station by van.  There, I caught a bus to Dambulla, where I could get another bus to Sigiriya to see the famous rock.

The bus was packed, and took 2 hours to get to Dambulla.  The journey was slowed down due to very tight and frequent military checks.  Soldiers came up and down the bus, asking all the men for ID, giving them a hard time if they were Tamil, and checking every bag.  We arrived eventually, and I walked up and down the hot, busy, dusty street until I found a cheap little guesthouse called Healey Guesthouse.  I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay in Dambulla or not, so I dropped my backpack there and got changed into some different shorts.  I then walked to the bus station to catch a bus from stand 10 to Sigiriya.  This bus was rammed too.  For only 25Rs, I made it Sigiriya.

Sigiriya is home to one of the islands most impressive rock formations, on the summit of which, according to locals, is King Kassapa’s (AD 477 – 495) palace.  Archeologists, on the other hand, believe it was a Buddhist Monastery, used as a hermitage as early as 300BC.  It’s a Unesco World Heritage site.

At the entrance, I got chatting to a couple of English girls, Penny and Louise, who invited me to join them for a stroll to the top.  I accepted, glad of the company (and it would have been frightfully rude to turn them down), and we headed off.  It proved handy and enjoyable travelling with them to the top.  They are both teachers in London, though Penny had sacked it all in for a bit to go and teach in Tanzania later in the year.  Louise worked in London.  They were charmingly British – a self-deprecating couple.  I enjoyed their company.

The walk to the top was quite strenuous.  We walked up past the Cobra Hood cave, Frescoes which depict colourful scenes on the rock of celestial nymphs (perhaps), then past Mirror Wall, inscribed with ancient graffiti in Sinhalese script, relating to the paintings we had seen earlier.  From here we climbed up more steps to the Lion’s Paws, all that remain of a gigantic brick lion built in the 5th century.  After a few photos here, we began the climb up the steep, narrow, iron steps fixed into the side of the rock to the summit.

We were pretty tired when we reached the top, but the views were well worth it.  To one side there was rainforest, to the other, plains, a lake, and mountains that looked for all the world like East Africa.  Another side featured water gardens, boulder gardens, and water features, with a huge white Buddha in the distance.  Amazing views.

We stayed taking pictures for half an hour or so, then headed back down.  Parched, we bought a couple of bottles of water at the bottom for an inflated 200Rs each.  Penny and Louise kindly offered to give me a lift back to Dambulla in the tuk-tuk they’d hired. I gladly accepted.

Back in Dambulla, we stopped at The Bakery to buy some snacks.  Here, I bid them farewell.  It started raining heavily, so I was trapped in The Bakery, eating fish samosas and drinking Milo.  When the rain thinned out, I tramped up the road, past my guesthouse, and to the Golden Temple, which is a new creation, being built in 2000.  On top of the temple sits a placid looking 30m tall Buddha in the dhammachakka mudra (dhamma-turning pose).  Behind this, some 150m above, are the Cave Temples, and in particular the Royal Rock Temple.

I walked up the steep rock face, made more hazardous with the sleeting rain, and tried to avoid the gangs of monkeys roaming around looking for things to steal.  When I got near the top, I noticed a sign saying: ‘You must buy a ticket to enter the temple’, and an arrow pointing back to the bottom.  Wearily, I trudged back down, bought a ticket at the booth I had somehow missed to the right of the Golden Temple, then hauled myself up again.  The earlier walk up to the top of the rock in Sigiriya had done me no favours, nor had the incessant midday sun beating down on my unprotected bonce, and I found myself suffering from the early effects of sunstroke.  With every step up towards the temple my head throbbed, and I felt weaker, and increasingly dizzy.  I made it to the caves and had to show my ticket at the entrance and take off my shoes.

There are 5 caves, each with a collection of Buddhas in different poses, and each with fascinating and brilliantly-coloured frescoes of Buddhism’s progress in Sri Lanka, meritorious deeds performed by kings, and great battles.

Cave I (Devaraja Viharaya) – the Temple of the Kings of the Gods, has a 15m long reclining Buddha.  Cave II (Maharaja Viharaya) – The Temple of the Great King, is 52m from East to West, and 23m from the entrance to the back wall, and 7m high.  It features a painted wooden statue of Valagamba and one of Nissanka Malla, both kings.  The Buddha here has its right hand raised in abhaya mudra ( a pose conveying protection).  Cave III (Mahu Alut Viharaya) – the New Great Temple, also has a reclining Buddha.  Cave IV (Pachima Viharaya) – Western Cave, has a Buddha seated with its hands in ahyara mudra (a meditative pose in which the hands are cupped).  Cave V (Devana Alut Viharaya) – the Second New Temple – features a reclining Buddha, and Hindu deities like Vishnu.

The rain came down after I left, so I waited around a bit and found my sunstroke subsiding.  I went down and back to Healey Tourist Inn, exhausted.  I couldn’t bear the thought of going to Kandy now, so decided to stay the night.  I was shown a room – a better one than that mornings – and showered and changed.

For dinner I went to ‘Garden Chinese Restaurant’, a simple place with 3 plastic tables and chairs, and no menu.  Erring on the side of caution, having had serious food poisoning on nearly every trip, I opted for vegetable fried rice, which was served in a huge bowl with accompaniments of chili and something that resembled an attempt at a watery sweet and sour sauce.  Full and satisfied, I returned to the Inn. 

In this sleepy town, a curfew of 10pm is set.  I was back way before.  At 10pm there was a knock on my door.  “Yes?” I enquired.  “Are you here, sir?”  came the bizarre question.  “Erm……yes”  I replied.  Obviously.  I spent an hour reading, I slapped on some Nivea Moisturizing lotion on my scalded neck and face, and went to bed after drawing the mosquito net around me.  A truly incredible day.

Author: Neil

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