Before I proceed to tell you about our visit to Anuradhapura; I will give you a little history lesson about the city and Sri Lanka in general. The earliest people to settle on the island were thought to have arrived around 16,000 BC. They were primarily hunter-gathers, there is thought to be about 2,000 of these people, known as the Veddahs, still living in the forests. Each new wave of immigration left them less and less land to live on.
The forebears of the majority Sinhalese arrived from northern India in the 4th century BC. A troublesome prince, Vijaya, was banished on a ship and landed on Sri Lanka on the exact day that Buddha reached enlightenment, or so the story goes. The prince and his band of 700 settled around Anuradhapura and formed the beginnings of the future Sinhalese kingdom. The new arrivals built water channels and reservoirs and overcame significant climatic challenges in order to survive.
The earliest Buddhist arrived in the 3rd century and brought with them a cutting from the bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya India, the place near Anil’s home in Patna, under which the Buddha meditated to reach nirvana. The tree still survives and is a major pilgrimage site in Sri Lanka. When King Devanampiya Tissa converted to Buddhism shortly thereafter, the religion got a major boost and today it is the predominant faith in the country.
Throughout history, there has been a strong relationship between the royals and the monks, the king provided shelter, water and food for the monks and the monks in turn defended the king against south Indian invaders. I read that this give and take relationship has survived to the present day and is an important fact in Sri Lanka’s political landscape. In the 4th century AD, a tooth relic of the Buddha was brought from India to Anuradhapura. It developed that the political power of the island rested with those who held the relic.
Over the course of the next 700 years, Anuradhapura was defeated by south Indian armies, but was rebuilt again and again. Eventually, it was abandoned in the 11th century and a new capital was constructed in Polonnaruwa. However, many of the great structures remain, though they are scattered over a large area, and some are still in use as holy places or are places of pilgrimage.
Having a car and a driver made visiting Anuradhapura easier, but getting to the city proved difficult after leaving Nalanda and driving towards Dambulla, about half way to Anuradhapura. Sri Lankans are facing a national election on January 26th and the politicians are busy campaigning around the country. As luck would have it, the President was coming to give a speech and hundreds of buses were clogging the road bringing in supporters. There is obviously support for the current President, but our driver informed us that many of the people travelling to hear the speech were given a free meal and drinks in return for showing their frenzied support.
Whenever the buses stopped, the young men would jump off the buses and start dancing, cheering and waving their blue flags in support of the President. We have noticed evidence of the President’s campaign wherever we have travelled in Sri Lanka, and it is clear there is a huge amount of money being spent to plaster every available surface with posters of his face and to hang blue streamers from across highways all over the region. It took some time before I saw even one poster of General Fonseca, the opponent who has the best chance of unseating the President.
Dambulla is the site of the famous Royal Rock Temple, an important holy place between Kandy and Anuradhapura. We had spoken with a Canadian tourist who gave it a hardy thumbs down so we had already decided to give the cave temples a miss, but when we finally crawled into Dambulla, we found the gates were closed anyway due to the crush of people arriving to attend the President’s address. The buses parked near the edge of town and disgorged their passengers.
We were surprised to find thousands of people streaming into the center of town, they must have walked four or five kilometers in the mid-day heat before they reached the park where the event was to take place. We inched along through the town and them faced the buses arriving from the other direction. I would guess that we were stuck in the crush for almost two hours before we were free at last to proceed towards Anuradhapura.
We had asked Pali, our host at the Villa Aralyia and the Serendip Stone Bungalow, if he could suggest a place for us to stay in ‘Anu’. We were surprised to learn that it was him hometown. He mentioned that his sister Aruni has a small guesthouse next to her home and would be happy to accommodate us if we wished. He showed us some photos and it looked pleasant enough, though it clearly didn’t have the design touches that he has added to his own properties. We asked him to reserve a room for us for two nights.
We had a hard time finding the guesthouse as there is no sign, it seems it is a very informal arrangement that Aruni has established. However, she was very warm and welcoming and it felt like we were staying as a guest in her home. She has built a separate building with four rooms, an open area for the dining tables and a small kitchen. We were very comfortable there, Manjula was accommodated in a ‘driver’s room’ and Aruni prepared a delicious Sri Lankan meal for us. It had had been a long day, but we slept well and were prepared to see all the famous sites we had read about in the guidebook.
At breakfast I asked Aruni to set a place for Manjula with us. She obliged and brought his breakfast of string hoppers, dal and coconut sambol, and placed it next to our western breakfast of toast, butter and jam. I hadn’t thought to let her know we prefer string hoppers to omelettes, so we just satisfied ourselves with our meal and several cups of tea. For some reason, perhaps convenience in the morning, she served us at the dining table in her own home. While we were eating we chatted with her young son who was home from boarding school for the weekend.
We set off to find the ticket office in order to purchase the Cultural Triangle passes. That turned out to be a major ordeal. As luck would have it, the main road as per our guidebook’s instructions was closed off due to the eminent arrival of, you guessed it, the President himself. It took us the better part of an hour to find another route to the Archaeological Museum but we didn’t give up and at last we had them in our hot little hands.
We took a few moments to tour the exhibits at the museum and were glad that we did. There were some beautiful sculptures inside but the models of the vatadage as it would have looked with the wooden roof in place, were definitely worth seeing. We set off to see the large dagoba that contains the cremated remains of King Dutugemunu. He did not live to see the completion of the structure and it has been damaged over the centuries by invading Indian armies, but though it is far smaller than the original, it is strikingly beautiful at 55m high. It is given a fresh coat of whitewash every year.
We were required to remove our shoes to enter the grounds of the dagoba and when we came out we saw other visitors turning to head down a long, tree-lined path towards the Sri Maha Bodhi (the sacred bodhi tree). They appeared to be barefoot, so much to Anil’s dismay. We followed them stepping gingerly over the fine sand littered with hidden pebbles. It wasn’t until we reached the end of the path that we realized that several other foreigners weren’t barefoot. We could have deposited our shoes at the entrance to the Sri Maha Bodhi and saved ourselves the trouble of walking all the way back shoeless with sore feet.
We spent the balance of the day exploring the ruins of each and every one of the sites in and around the area. At no time were we ever asked to show our passes. Most of the other visitors were Sri Lankan and they are admitted without charge, but there were foreigners around . As the afternoon light began to fade, we stopped at one last rock temple, dating from 247-207 BC and were surprised to learn that we had to pay a separate admission to enter.
I mentioned that we had the passes and that we had never been asked to show them. The gentleman explained that our vehicle number is logged into a website and that all entrance gates have laptops so the guards can check to see if we are in the system when we arrive. It’s a great system and it means that for the most part, we were not treated any differently that other people visiting the ancient sites. Many of them are active temples and the visitors come to worship and give offerings to the Buddha statues.
We decided to pay the separate admission because there were some especially fine carvings inside, including one of a couple of elephants cavorting in the water. Mention elephants, and it becomes a must-see for me. There is also a sculpture known as ‘The Lovers’, one of the best-known sculptures in Sri Lanka. Once again we had to remove our shoes, as this is an active temple. Once we were on the rocks it wasn’t so bad, and we climbed to the top of the rocks for the great view of the surrounding area and the magnificient structures that we had seen earlier in the day.
Once again, we were treated to a fabulous home-cooked meal, but this time Aruni’s father joined us, along with his best friend of long-standing. They had already taken their meal, but invited Anil to join them for a glass of arrak before we ate. We were surprised to learn that the two men had worked together in the prison system and had been dedicated to rehabilitating the prisoners before their release. The friend of the family is 85 years old, speaks perfect English and regaled us for some time with stories of his life and his exploits. Pali’s father sat back from the table, listening and smiling, obviously happy to be a ‘fly-on-the-wall’.
The next morning we set off for breakfast in the dining room just as Pali’s father entered the gate carrying a large King coconut. He had just returned from his daily 30km cycle ride through the countryside and his routine was to have the coconut water as a reward for his efforts. While we were eating our breakfast, Aruni received a telephone call that the tuk tuk that normally meets her son when he arrives back in Kandy for school, had not been there to meet him. I am not sure who called, but suddenly everyone was alarmed for the missing boy.
Phone calls were made, but there was no sign of the 13-year old. Aruni was clearly getting more and more distressed and it was clear to me that the last thing she needed was for us to be lingering over breakfast. We quickly settled our bill and set off for our next destination. We were confident that everything would work out fine; the boy was probably walking to school on his own and didn’t want to alarm his mother by calling her. I promised to ring her later in the morning to be sure that all was well. She thanked us for our assurances, but I could see that she was holding back tears.