A Journey Back In Time In Sri Lanka
I did exactly what you aren’t supposed to do: I looked down. For average non-acrophobes, it probably wouldn’t have meant much, but for those of us with a healthy fear of impending death (including a related fear of snakes, spiders and Abba), the idea the narrow metal staircase leading me to the apex of Sigiriya, the 6-story-high chunk of rock sitting in the central plains of Sri Lanka, was being held in place by a series of small foundations cemented into the sheer granite rock face wasn’t the most comforting. I then looked behind me to assess how far I’d come, and a long line of Sri Lankan children, here on a class field trip, happily waved to me from lower down the staircase.
“If this climb was safe enough to be part of the itinerary of a second grade class trip,” I thought to myself, “I was probably going to make it out of here alive.”
Sigiriya was the last stop of my travels in the portion of central Sri Lanka known as the “Cultural Triangle,” a group of ancient city and temple ruins that form the nucleus of the beginning of civilization on this small island located off the tip of southern India. The triangle itself encompasses Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka’s capital from roughly 300 BC to 1000 AD and one of medieval Asia’s largest cities; Polonnaruwa, the next major city in the island’s history whose history dates back to 1000 AD; Sigiriya, the rocky outcrop I found myself scaling at that moment where various kings, military rulers and religious leaders called home throughout the last 2,000 years; and Dambulla, home to the famous Royal Rock Temple and various caves that house Buddha statues and paintings dating back to 0 AD.
As I finished the last remaining steps to the top, an intense and unrelenting gust of wind swept over me, almost sending my hat over the edge towards the several dozen miles of plains that lay below. Spread out on top of Sigiriya are the ruins of what was once a large royal complex that included several temples, houses and even a swimming pool. Though the mostly wooden-made structures are long gone, the masonry that made up their foundations (and of course the swimming pool) remain, and you are free to spend as long as you want exploring the site by foot and taking in the spectacular views that surround you.
The summit itself is actually made up of several different levels, and I descended down to the lower levels from the entrance to explore its entirety. On the lowest level is the meditation cave, accessible via a narrow path near the southwestern edge, where I climbed to for a chance to get away from the selfies and blinding wind found throughout the summit, and to take some time to myself to reflect on what this land must have been like hundreds or thousands of years ago.
In more recent times, Sri Lanka has been better known as home to one of longest running civil wars in recent years, in which the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (better known as the Tamil Tigers or the LTTE) fought the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) for over 25 years, only culminating in a cease-fire and holding peace in 2009 — a fact that amazed me as I traveled for two weeks throughout this seemingly peaceful country where I encountered friendly faces and the absence of a military presence everywhere I went (albeit I did not visit the north of the island where the fighting mostly occurred).
Today, Sri Lanka firmly has its sights set on the future and a peaceful path forward into joining the fast-growing economies in Southeast Asia that surround it. A fact that is evidenced as soon as you enter the capital of Colombo where dozens of high-rise projects, including big-name hotels and condominiums bearing names such as Grand Hyatt and Shangri-la, are being constructed, along with the Chinese-financed Colombo Lotus Tower, a 1,150-foot landmark tower scheduled to open in late 2017 that will be South Asia’s tallest structure (when it is complete it will be almost as tall as the Empire State Building).
All of this seemed worlds away on my first day as I and the small group I was traveling with begin our visit by scaling the long stone staircase that leads to the famed caves of Dambulla. Greeted by the world’s largest Buddha statue as you approach (and a large family of very extroverted monkeys), the 520-foot walk up leads to a series of five large caves housing roughly 150 museum-worthy Buddha statues and paintings.
The location has been a pilgrimage site for over 2,000 years, and most visitors there wore traditional white clothing as is customary when visiting sacred locations in the Buddhist world. You are free to roam throughout the caves and take in the splendor of the works that rival any museum for thousands of miles in any direction. Some of the statues, such as the sleeping Buddha that is easily 50 feet long, will leave your mouth gaping in wonder. Outside of the caves, the views extend southward — a spectacular view as the sun began to set and launch a thousand pastel colors over the distant plains.
The next morning the temperatures began to swell early, easily topping 90 degrees with the humidity set to high, a steamy way to spend the day as we headed north across the plains to visit Anuradhapura. As the capital of the Sinhalese people for 1,300 years beginning in 400 B.C., the ancient city is one of the most important sites in Sri Lanka. Spread out over 15 square miles, and much like Angkor Wat, you could easily spend days visiting all of the various ruins, temples and stupas located there, but since we were limited to just one day, we focused on the major highlights.
One of Anuradhapura’s most impressive sites is Abhayagiri Dagoba, once one of the largest structures in the world. Though somewhat reduced from its original size, today the round, towering mound that was a focal religious monument for the city stands at around 230 feet high, and is a wondrous site to take in as you wander around its base and imagine what it was like back when thousands of monks and religious leaders were living and worshiping on the grounds surrounding it.
Next we took a short drive to the Sri Maha Bodhi tree, one of the most sacred spots in the Buddhist world. The tree was grown from a sapling cut from the original Bodhi tree found in Bodhgaya, India (where the Buddha was said to have sat under and found enlightenment). The site is visited by tens of thousands of pilgrims every year, and as I slowly paced around the sacred grounds, I could feel a palatable sense of devotion from the many visitors there praying.
We finished by visiting Isurumuniya Vihara, a rock temple dating back to the 3rd century B.C., with its dramatic carvings of an elephant overlooking the pond at the temple’s base and the amazingly preserved carvings on view at the nearby museum. Donning a white piece of cloth to wrap around my lower section (shorts are a no-no at most sacred locations), I climbed to the top of the rock temple for a great view down to the serene pond at its base and off into the distance at the entirety of Anuradhapura.
While there we stayed at the Habarana Village by Cinnamon, Cinnamon being one of the largest hotel operators in Sri Lanka with 14 properties in Sri Lanka and the nearby Maldives, including three in Colombo, eight around Sri Lanka and three island resorts in the Maldives. Situated just outside the town of Habarana, which itself is smack in the middle of the Cultural Triangle, the hotel is split into two, with a traditional hotel on one side of a small lake, and a village of two-story suites on the other (also home to a roaming extended family of monkeys that greeted me each morning when I stepped outside).
I had a great time staying at the hotel, especially every time I saw the renowned head chef that oversees the locally-sourced meals served there (and who would stop and greet me every time I ran into him). The food was a good mix of local cuisines and dishes from around the world, and he would comes up with special events for guests throughout the week – we had both a “street food” dinner and an outside barbecue during our stay.
As the sun began to set at the end of our day visiting Anuradhapura, we loaded into the property’s fleet of open air jeeps and sped off to nearby Hurulu Eco Park for an elephant safari at dusk. Bumping along narrow, dusty roads among high scrub in the park, the elephants at first were few and far between. After about 45 minutes we finally ran into a mother and child grazing in a small opening off the road. As ten or so jeeps converged around her, the mother dutifully made sure her calf stayed on her far side and they continued to eat while dozens of cameras and phones recorded it all.
Deeper into the park is a large rocky outcrop with a raised lookout on top where we were able to both take in the setting sun and look out below for elephant herds, one of which which we luckily spotted further off down the road. Climbing back into our jeeps and scurrying off in search of the herd, we ran into it a short while later in a grassy opening where easily 20 or so elephants, with a group of small calves and a bull leading the way, were grazing.
We pulled ahead and turned off the engines to wait as the herd made their way towards us. Luckily, the large bull chose a path right between our two caravans of jeeps, and an elephant parade make its way just steps away from us for the next 20 minutes as a golden hue descended around us, an amazing way to end the evening.
The next morning was the excursion I had been waiting for: Sigiriya, Sri Lanka’s most famous attraction and one of those few places around the world where you can indulge your inner explorer instincts. Dating back to 477 A.D., Sigiriya was the newly formed capital by King Kashyapa who moved the capital there from Anuradhapura after seizing power from his father (he thought Sigiriya was a safer place to rule in case his brother, the rightful heir, were to attack).
The center of Sigiriya is a 660-foot rock where the King called home. Surrounding the towering rock is a series of mirror pools, temple foundations and the remains of what were once vast pleasure gardens. All visitors start their trek by walking the long, dirt path that leads to a set of masonry stairs that mark the beginning of the ascent. Along the way you can stop at the new museum that gives a detailed background to the history of the site, and you can also leave the path and explore the grounds that were once home to thousands of inhabitants.
With the intense mid-morning sun beating down, I made my way up the initial ascent to the mid-point of the rock where I stopped at a landing to get a view of the grounds I just walked through, as well as the many stupas and Buddha statues that stick out among the green landscape below. I then ascended the narrow metal spiral staircase that leads to Sri Lanka’s most famous artwork: the Sigiriya frescoes, which feature a number of scantily clad women thought to be concubines (or wives) of the king at the time. Though once covering a much vaster portion of the rock wall, today only a portion remains, but what’s left is impressive both in terms of the artwork itself, as well as the elevation at which they were painted.
Back down the staircase and along an elevated pathway next to Mirror Wall, a polished section of the rock face that is now home to graffiti dating back hundreds of years, I emerged on a dirt landing and at the base of the massive lion feet that mark the entranceway to the final leg of the climb (the rest of the lion’s body is long gone). Looking at the feet towering ahead of me, it suddenly dawned on me how the site got its name (Sigiriya means “Lion Rock”).
Without hesitation, and with purposeful ignorance, I pushed my hat down firmly on my head and made my way forward to the base of the rickety-looking stairs to begin my climb up. In a country where now more than ever its people are moving forward by looking ahead without forgetting the past, I took their advice and did the same, fear be damned.
Colombo: Cinnamon Lakeside
Habarana: Cinnamon Lodge Habarana
Matt Stabile is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Expeditioner. The Expeditioner was founded in 2008 and is headquartered in New York City. You can read his writings, watch his travel videos or contact him at any time at TheExpeditioner.com.