One of the things I was determined to do after Adia left, was to make a swing to the ancient cities of the region just north of the inland mountains. This area is often referred to as the ‘Cultural Triangle’ of Sri Lanka and indeed it is possible to buy a single entrance pass that will allow visitors to tour several of the most famous sites at a preferred price. Our guidebook told us that Nalanda was part of the package, so even though it is a very small site, we decided to stop there on our way from Kandy to the ancient capital of Anuradhapura.
The other reason that I wanted to stop was that we have visited ancient ruins in India at a place called Nalanda, and though I knew the two weren’t connected, I was curious just the same. When we arrived, we were the only visitors there but were disappointed to learn that they didn’t have the Cultural Triangle passes on hand and that we would have to pay the admission if we wanted to enter the site.
The fee was rather small, so we went ahead anyway and I was pleased to see that our driver, Manjula, did not have to pay at all. Sri Lankan’s can visit many of the historical sites for free. I was really impressed at how clean and neat the parking lot and path to the ruins were.
We walked down a long causeway with water on both sides of the path. This region is very dry during the summer months, but we are just at the end of the rainy season and the lakes are full and the vegetation is lush. Of course, along with this comes high humidity, and that makes for an uncomfortable time whenever you are outside and there is no breeze to stir the heavy air.
There are only two small ruins at Nalanda, one is a dagoba (stupa, a chamber for holding religious relics, made of bricks, then plastered and lime washed). When the ruins were threatened by rising water from the nearby reservoir, they were moved, piece-by-piece to this high ground. The bricks of the dagoba were reassembled, but the top portion and plaster were long gone before the relocation.
The larger structure is a gedige (a hollow temple with thick walls topped by a trussed roof, the walls are so thick that often stairways can be built into them). The Nalanda Gedige is thought to be one of the oldest stone buildings in Sri Lanka. It was built during the 8th to 11th centuries, in the style of a South Indian Hindu temple, but is filled with Buddha statues instead of Hindu deities. There is a small courtyard for devotees to perform circumambulations.
Apparently, the exterior has some Tantric carvings with sexual poses, the only ones in Sri Lanka, most are worn away but I did photograph one that looked rather racy. As I mentioned earlier, the site is located beside a tank (artificial lake), many were constructed by the early Sinhalese kings to ensure an adequate supply of water in the dry season. As we walked back along the causeway, Manjula commented that this was the first time he had visited Nalanda, and he was so happy to be seeing more of his own country. It certainly was worth stopping there. Just a we were about to leave, a large busload of Japanese tourists arrived; we got away just in time. There would be no more peace and quiet for the time being.