A Train Ride Across the Highlands of Sri Lanka

Previous Post: Sri Lanka’s Horton Plains & the Hike To World’s End

Sri Lanka’s ultimate train trip runs 290 kilometers from the capital all the way east to Badulla.  In his excellent blog The man in Seat 61,  train aficionado Mark Smith says that it is “a classic journey that’s easily the best train ride in Sri Lanka”.   As you make your way from one end to the other,  it is possible to interrupt your journey with connections to the old capital of Kandy and the hill station of  Nuwara Eliya. These towns are  two of Sri Lanka’s most attractive.

The best part of the ten-hour trip takes you from Nanu Oya, ten kilometers by road from Nuwara Eliya, to Ella across the hill country and past tea plantations that sometimes come up right to the rail tracks. Cloud forest and the highest altitude rail stations in the country – 1800 meters higher than Colombo –  await!  On the Google map below the green line indicates the route –

We had spent the previous evening in Nuwara Eliya and in the morning drove by bus to Horton Plains National Park  and the World’s End Trail.  Then, our easy-to-walk World’s End circuit done,  we returned to Ambewela and waited for our train.  The memorable ride would take us to Ella over a two-hour time span.

Ambewela Train Staion window

Ambewela Train Station window

Ambewela at 1828 meters a.s.l. and nearby Pattipola at 1892 meters, are the two highest train stations in Sri Lanka and among the top 20 in the world. The line was built by the British during colonial times to haul tea from the highlands down to Colombo; now it carries tourists!

Ambewela - Train Timetable

Ambewela – Train Timetable

Ambewela Train Station - passenger wait for the train east

Ambewela Train Station – passengers wait for the train east

As we waited a number of trains passed by; they were all heading north and west to Colombo. A train aficionado would be able to identify the engines and the carriages and their respective vintages; I had to content myself with noting their various colours!

train pulling into Ambewela Station

train pulling into Ambewela Station

While the Sri Lankan government owns the rail lines and runs most of the services, there are a couple that are privately run – the Exporail Car and The Rajadhani Express.  The cars below date back to 1970 and as the image below shows, they are looking a bit tired.  And, if getting photos of the views is your mission, it sounds like you’d be better off on a regular train like the blue one we were waiting for.  Here is what the man in seat 61 says about the Rajadhani –

The Rajadhani car dates from 1970, so externally it’s older and grubbier than their website suggests.  But it’s easy to book online, it’s very comfy, well air-conditioned, has effective WiFi  – if you correctly enter the world’s longest WiFi password, that is – and is very popular with tourists.  On the downside you are sealed in behind small and very grubby windows, making it a poor way to experience the journey.  Taking photographs of the scenery is almost impossible, so you are better off in regular 2nd class.  source: here

The Rajadhani Express pulls in to Ambewela

The Rajadhani Express pulls in to Ambewela

a train heading to Colombo

a train heading to Colombo

In the image below a tourist watches me as I include her in my photo of the observation car.

ambewela-train-stop

Ambewela train stop – a Chines tourist in the first-class observation car

More cars heading west, more colours …until finally our blue train, known as the Udurata Menike – a Sinhala translation of the original English “Highland Lass” – arrived.

The blue Chinese-built trains were the newest ones I saw; they were introduced in 2012. We had reserved second-class seats and, best of all, it was very easy to take pics.  I am almost certain that the windows open so dirty windows were not an issue.  I am not sure why I did not use my Sony DSLR for any of the pix in this post; all but the last were all taken with my with my point and shoot – a Canon Elph 330 (aka Ixus 255).

our train finally arrives at Ambewela

our train finally arrives at Ambewela

The car below looks like it might go back to pre-independence times!

old rail car sitting near Ambewela Station

old rail car sitting near Ambewela Station

And then we were on our way – taking in the fifty shades of green often covered in a shroud of mist. Every once in a while we would enter a rock face through one of the 44 tunnels of the route and views would be replaced by the sound of screeching wheels on the rails.

the blue train on its way to Ella -

the blue train on its way to Ella –

Going through Tunnel #26 at Km 233

Going through Tunnel #26 at Km 233

passing through the cloud forest of the Sri Lankan highlands.jpg

passing through the cloud forest of the Sri Lankan highlands.

cultivated fields in the Horton Plains cloud forest

cultivated fields in the Horton Plains cloud forest

Tamil women picking tea leaves - Sri Lankan highlands

Indian Tamil women picking tea leaves – Sri Lankan highlands

Historically there are two Tamil communities in Sri Lanka. There are the Tamils who were brought over to the island by the British in the 1840’s to work on the tea plantations; they are referred to as the Indian Tamils.  There is a much older group- the Sri Lankan Tamils – who have been a part of the history of the island going back 2000 years.  For some of those years they actually ruled parts of it. Tamils make up about 20% of the population of the country – and while they are more numerous to the north and along the east coast, they are also very much a part of the hill country that this post describes. (See here for a map indicating ethnic group distribution.)

One of these years I hope to return to Sri Lanka with my bicycle, take the train up to Jaffna, and then travel down the east coast of the island to Trincomalee and beyond to experience another aspect of a beautiful  island with a fascinating, if somewhat painful recent history. As I high school teacher in Toronto I came to know a number of students from Sri Lanka, some Sinhalese but mostly Tamil. Beginning in the early 1990’s many had arrived as refugees from the civil war going on.  Outside of Sri Lanka, Canada is the home of  the single-largest number of Tamils.

Sri Lanka tea country - flower bed on the side of the rail tracks

Sri Lanka tea country – flower bed on the side of the rail track

Common in Sri Lanka are trilingual signs like the one below at Haputale. The top row has Sinhala letters and the middle has Tamil.

Haputale - trilingual sign

Haputale – trilingual sign

passengers disembarking at Haputale

passengers disembarking at Haputale

more tea plantations east of Haputale.jpg

more tea plantations east of Haputale

flower bed - Diyathalawa station

flower bed – Diyathalawa station

a view of Diyathalawa from the train

a view of Diyathalawa from the train

Heel-oya Station platform

Heel-oya Station platform

As the photos of the various train stations and the countryside show, buildings and surroundings are mostly well-kept and tidy.  Garbage and litter are rarely seen and the smell of sewage – one of my overriding impressions of travelling the top half of  India – is thankfully absent.

Kithalella Station -

Kithalella Station

Ella Station - packpackers on the platform

Ella Station – backpackers on the platform

We got to Ella at about 5:30.  We had set off from Nuwara Eliya at 6:30 a.m. for Horton Park and had been rewarded by a nice ramble in Horton Plains Park and then this train ride.  After we checked into our Ella hotel, my roommate and I walked down to The Grand Hotel for supper. Behind the hotel is a garden with a fabulous view of Ella Rock and the Gap.  The next morning we would hike up to the Rock and look back at the hotel! Here is the Rough Guide reivew of Ella –

Sri Lanka’s most beautiful village, offering verdant walks amongst the surrounding tea plantations and a marvellous view through Ella Gap to the plains below.

Next Post: Hiking The Hills Above The Hill Station of Ella

the view of the Gap from the gardens of the Ella Grand Spa and Resprt

the view of the Gap from the gardens of the Ella Grand Spa and Resort

Related Links:

The Man In Seat 61‘s write-up on the Sri Lanka rail system is an essential source of information if you are planning to use the train to get round the island.  This site – not a commercial venture but the personal site of Mark Smith –  has everything you need in terms of timetables and reviews of the different trains. As well, it provides historical background on the various trains you would see pass by.  Click on the title  –

I did this tour – The Highlands of Sri Lanka – with Exodus Travels, a small-group travel country based in the U.K. there were 12 of us in the group, a mix of older Brits and a couple of Canadians. I’ve used Exodus at least a dozen times when the organized trip option makes the most sense.  I always come away impressed with the guides and the way that everything on the logistics side just falls into place.

A Fascinating Journey, a review of a book written by Hemasiri Fernando titled The Uva Railway: Railway To The Moon appeared in The Sunday Times Sri Lanka (May 1, 2016).  It gives a brief  summary of the author’s detailed treatment of the history of the line and may well lead train buffs to getting the book itself. A search for the book at Amazon.com unfortunately did not come up with it; a Colombo book shop may be the place to look.

Lou Wilson uploaded to Youtube some video of his 2012 train ride from Kandy to Ella.  He captures the spirit of the journey beautifully.

Sri Lanka’s Horton Plains & The View From World’s End

Previous Post: Hiking Sri Lanka’s Knuckles – To Meemure and Corbett Gap

a view of our hotel in Nuwara Eliya

an evening  view of our hotel in Nuwara Eliya

We were out of our hotel in Nuwara Eliya and on the road by 7:00 a.m. the next morning.  Our destination for the day: the hill station of Ella about 60 kilometers to the south-east with one major diversion – a short hike in Horton Plains National Park.

from-nuwara-eliya-to-ella-via-horton-plains

The early start would hopefully allow us to get to the viewpoint at World’s End in the park before the clouds started rolling in from the south and hid the spectacular views. We gained a bit of altitude as the switchback took us up to the plateau.  Down below the mist hung in the valley and created an enchanting scene.

on the road to Horton Plains National Park from Nuwara Eliya

on the road to Horton Plains National Park from Nuwara Eliya

Down in the valley I spotted the dozen windmills of the Ambewela Aitken Spence Wind Farm. It gave the scene an unexpected futuristic look.

a dozen windmills in the valley mist south of Nuwara Eliya

a dozen windmills in the valley mist south of Nuwara Eliya

Following regional highway B582 to Pattipola, we then continued on toward  Horton Plains National Park entrance. There was another surprise – looking west over the valley  I spotted Sri Pada‘s distinctive profile on the horizon.  Total distance – about 35 kilometers!  Sri Pada’s 2,243 m (7,359 ft) height and the lack of any other peaks of similar size nearby means it really stands out!

sri-pada-to-great-worlds-end-drop

Two evenings before we had climbed up the pilgrimage mountain with thousands of Sri Lankan Buddhists keen to get close to what believers say is a sacred footprint left by the Buddha on one of his three legendary visits to the island.  Sri Pada would also be given the name Adam’s Peak by visiting Arab traders to fit with their Muslim stories.

Well, there it was and here we were – looking at it from the Horton Plains!

a shot of Sri Padas from the moving bus on the way to Horton Plains

a shot of Sri Padas from the moving bus on the way to Horton Plains

On to the park, still named after a British governor of Ceylon from the 1830’s. (The Sinhala name for the area is Maha Eliya.) We would spend the next three hours on an easy circular hike that would take us past the three main attractions.  The sign below lists them.

trail sign at Horton Plains National Park.jpg

trail sign at Horton Plains National Park

There are other hiking trails in the park but this one is by far the most popular. The yellow line indicates the trail.  Beginning at the park entrance at the top right-hand side, we walked down to the World’s End at the bottom and then came back via Baker’s Falls. Total distance: about 9 kilometers with perhaps 90 meters (300′) in altitude gained or lost on the way.  The terrain is a mix of cloud forest and grassland and the trail is well-worn thanks to the many visitors.

Horton Plains Park's most popular walk

Horton Plains Park’s most popular walk

google-earth-image-of-hiking-trail-at-horton-plains

I found the above GPS track uploaded by  Miriup at wikiloc;  check it out here Using the slider on the elevation chart, you can walk the trail and get a feel for its ups and downs!  It really is an easy half-day walk.  We were definitely the exceptions with our hiking boots, trekking poles and, for some, even full gaiters!  Shorts and running shoes seem to be more typical!

hikers getting read at the Horton Trail Y

hikers getting read at the Horton Trail Y – pointing my camera into the sun was not a good idea!

In the above image we have come to the initial Y in the road and everyone is getting ready – sunscreen lotion, water bottle, camera, sun hat!  To the right the trail takes you to Baker’s Falls; to the left it goes to Mini World’s End and World’s End.  Given that views tend to be better earlier in the morning before clouds have moved in from the coast, a clockwise direction is advisable.  Unfortunately, there are no guarantees!  We found the view clouded over as we passed by Mini World’s End.

a view from Mini World's End

a view from Mini World’s End

What the trail does is take you along the edge of a cliff that plummets 1000 meters from your 1800-or-so- meter vantage point to lowlands just below.  Supposedly on a clear day you can see all the way to the south coast of the island.  We would not be so lucky!

the-worlds-end-elevation

 

a bit of mist obscures the view at Mini World's End!

a bit of mist obscures the view at Mini World’s End!

Mini World's End - the-photographer-gets-photographed

Mini World’s End – the photographer gets photographed!

Mini World's End - mist, forest, and grass

Mini World’s End – mist, forest, and grass

A bit further on from Mini World’s End is World’s End itself. We arrived there to find the view even more clouded over than the one we had left.  W e walked into a group of walkers already sitting there on the platforms and gazed into the thick fog.  While it wasn’t what we were hoping for, it had a beauty of its own.

World's End view - Horton Plains

World’s End view – Horton Plains

panorama of World's End with mist down below

panorama of World’s End with mist down below

I thought of Mount Fuji and a Bonzi tree as I framed the shot below!

World's End view - mist below Horton Plains

World’s End view – mist below Horton Plains

And then it was back to the World’s End platform for one last look before taking the trail down to see the twenty-meter drop of Baker’s Falls.

the loookout at World's End in Horton Plains Park

the lookout at World’s End in Horton Plains Park

As the image below shows, we would lose some altitude as we went down to the river that flows by.

down to the foot of Baker's Falls in Horton Plains Park

down to the foot of Baker’s Falls in Horton Plains Park

It is the  Belihul Oya,  a tributary of the Walawe.  (The Walawe Oya is one of three rivers (along with the Mahaweli and Kelani) that have their headwaters on the Horton Plains plateau. See here for a map.)

walking to Baker's Falls from Wrold's End in Horton plains Park

walking to Baker’s Falls from World’s End in Horton Plains Park

We spent some time at the Falls, framing a few shots and inhaling the oxygen-enriched air.

viewers' platform at Baker's Falls

viewers’ platform at Baker’s Falls

Baker's Falls in Horton Palins Park

Baker’s Falls in Horton Plains Park

fellow traveller getting the shot just right

fellow traveller getting the shot just right

a view on the walk back from Baker's Falls

a view on the walk back from Baker’s Falls

We knew that our morning walk was done when we saw the trail marker down below. Its well-worn look gives the impression of something left behind from colonial times seventy years ago!

the trail sign at Horton Plains

the trail sign at Horton Plains with distances to the various attractions

On our menu for the rest of the day – lunch at a local rice and curry restaurant and then a train ride from Ambewela to Ella, where we would spend the next couple of days hiking in the hills above the town. The train ride is perhaps the most dramatic in Sri Lanka, taking you through cloud forest, tea plantations, and the highest-altitude trains station on the island. The next post will take a look at the scenery!

Ambewela Train Station/Horton Plains National Park

Ambewela Train Station/Horton Plains National Park

Next Post:  A Train Ride Across The Highlands of Sri Lanka (Ambewela To Ella)

Hiking Sri Lanka’s Knuckles – To Meemure and Corbett’s Gap

Previous Post: The Manigala Hike In Sri Lanka’s Dumbara Hills (The Knuckles Range) 

The next morning our campsite on the banks of the Thelgamu Oya near Illukumbura provided those keen on photography with some beautiful river views.  My roommate and I got up just after dawn – we were sure we were the first up –  and we carried our duffel bags up to the parking area. The kitchen staff was already at work and the breakfast table was set!

breakfast setting in the Knuckles Range

breakfast setting in the Knuckles Range

Knuckles Range sleeping tents and toiet:shower area

Knuckles Range sleeping tents and toilet/shower area

We headed back down past the toilet tent and the sleeping tents to the river and framed different views of the water and the shoreline and especially the small waterfall.  A slight mist hung over the river and made things even more atmospheric.

Knuckles Range - The Thelgamu Oya at dawn

Knuckles Range – The Thelgamu Oya at dawn

Knuckles Range - The Thelgamu Oya at dawn - take two

Knuckles Range – The Thelgamu Oya at dawn – take two

a dawn view looking upstream in the Knuckles Range

By the time we got back up to the breakfast underneath the covered porch some of our fellow travellers were already seated and looking at plates very much like the one in the photo below.  They were also being treated to a display of the morning’s photo shoot from down by the river.

breakfast fruit and juice at ourThelgamu Oya camp

breakfast fruit and juice at our Thelgamu Oya camp

sharing dawn pics of the Thelgamu Oya

sharing dawn pics of the Thelgamu Oya

We set off shortly after 8.  Up on the road was the  Mahoora Safari truck that had brought all the tenting and other gear as well as the staff to the camping site.  The Mahoora crew had done a fine job of creating a very livable temporary space for us on the banks of the Thelgamu Oya.

Day Two morning - ready for a walk in the Knuckles Range

Day Two morning – ready for a walk in the Knuckles Range

Now it was time to bus over to the day’s trailhead at Ranamuregama. (The village is the site of a temple called Narangamuwa.)  From there we would spend the morning and early afternoon walking to Meemure.

As we stood there the conversation turned to leeches.  A number of the walkers had pulled leeches from their legs during the previous day’s walk up to the Manigala ridge.  Now they were staring at the first of a new day’s batch.  I went the entire hike without seeing a bloodsucker on me until the last hour as we approached Meemure.  I had treated my long pants with permethrin and also sprayed a 30% Deet insect repellent on my boots and lower pant legs before we set off.  It seems to have done the job.

leech alert before our Knuckles Range hike continues

leech alert before our Knuckles Range hike continues

Knuckles Range Hiking Map

Knuckles Range Hiking Map

After a short drive from Illukumbura to the Narangamuwa Temple at Ranamuregama it was time to pull out the trekking poles and start our walk.  The trip notes describe the walk this way:

We pass rice paddies and coconut groves and enter a heavily forested area. The trail climbs gently for an hour and then levels out and undulates though this wonderful forest. The only sounds we can hear is the birdsong all around us. We emerge from the forest at Meemure village and looking back we get great views of the pointed peak of Lakegala.

(See here for the Exodus itinerary – this was Day Four.)

And here is a Google Earth view of the 12-kilomter walk – or, at least, my best guess as to the path we took to get to Meemure.

The hills north of Meemure-2

 

Knuckles education and Training Center Illukkumbura sign

Knuckles education and Training Center Illukkumbura sign

Knuckles Range hikers - setting off on Day Two

Knuckles Range hikers – the group  setting off on Day Two

rice field in the Knuckles Range

rice field in the Knuckles Range

After a very flat beginning, the path, parts of which had concrete or stone steps,  would take a decided uphill slant.  The series of photos below captures some of the beautiful lush cloud forest terrain we scrambled through.

stone path leading up in the Knuckles Range

stone path leading up in the Knuckles Range

stone path in Knuckles Range lush cloud forest

concrete steps on the way to Meemure

Knuckles Range cloud forest tree bark

Knuckles Range cloud forest tree bark

Knuckles Range stream trickling down

We had started our walk about 9 a.m.  By 12:30 we were scampering up the trail in the photo below.  We stopped more than once for a water break and munched on the day’s snacks.

scrambling up a rough path in the Knuckles Range

scrambling up a rough path in the Knuckles Range

Lunch would have to wait until we got to Meemure, where our guide had arranged for a box lunch for us. By 1:45 pm we were approaching Meemure, the end point of a little hike.  It is a fairly isolated village set in the Knuckles Range with the eye-catching mountain called Lakegala as a backdrop.  The Google Earth satellite view does not really capture the pointy nature of the peak. (i am assuming that it is the one on the left.)  Compare it to the photo immediately below to see what I mean.

mountain-scape-north-of-meemure-village-in-the-knuckles-range-2

a Google Earth view of the hills to the NW of Meemure and the road to Corbett’s Gap

a view of the pyramid-like Lakegala Mtn.

a view of the pyramid-like Lakegala Mtn.

the terraced fields of Meemure village

the terraced fields of Meemure village

Our great little hike for the day was almost done.  Just beyond the fields was the village of Meemure (also written Mimure),  a small fairly isolated community of 400 or so. Only a rough dirt track connects it to the road some ten kilometers to the south.

local farmers and hikers near Lakegala Mountain in the Knuckles Range

local farmers and hikers near Lakegala Mountain in the Knuckles Range

a farmer tends his fields under Lakegala

a farmer tends his fields under Lakegala

farm dog poses with Lakegala Mountain in the background

farm dog poses with Lakegala Mountain in the background

After our lunch in front of the tea shop in Meemure,  a couple of local jeeps took us to Corbett’s Gap (also spelled Corbet’s and Corbert’s) for some great views of the main peaks of the Knuckles Range.

Given the nature of the road up to Corbett’s Gap, our bus driver had not driven the bus up to the meeting point. While our jeeps returned to Meemure, there was another vehicle waiting to take us down the series of severe switchbacks where we met up with him. This was just one of the many instances on our two-week tour when the excellence of our guide’s and his team’s work shone through. He was often on his cell phone making arrangements and ensuring that people were where they were supposed to be.  Everything worked seamlessly and little time was wasted standing around waiting.  Very impressive.  Perhaps I could have done all of this on my own but it would have taken an extra week and involved much more stress!   In the end, you do get what you pay for!

Corbett’s Gap at 1127 meters (3698 feet) provides a fantastic vantage point from which to take in some of the peaks of Knuckles Range.  In the two photos below I am looking south at some peaks framed by a bit of cloud.

a view of the peaks from Corbet's Gap

a view of the peaks from Corbet’s Gap

Corbet Gap View - with road

Corbet Gap View – with road

The jeeps gone, now our red truck sat there while we turned in various directions and gobbled up the scene. Up there with us was a tuk-tuk who had brought up a visitor to check out the views.

Corbet Gap- photo time

Corbett’s Gap – photo time

I looked back to the north and spotted a bump on the horizon known as The Sphinx.  Also visible on the hillside was the ruins of what once may have been a lodge and just a bit down below was a small farm.

delapidated sign and building at Corbet Gap

dilapidated sign and building at Corbett’s Gap – the Sphinx in the background

local farm dog watches the proceedings at Corbet Gap

local farm dog watches the proceedings at Corbet Gap

tuk tuk driver waits for his client at Corbet's Gap

tuk-tuk driver waits for his client at Corbett’s Gap

looking back towards Meemure from Corbet's Gap

looking back towards Meemure from Corbett’s Gap

Eventually everyone had the photos they wanted and we hopped into the truck for our brief ride down to the waiting tour bus.  By 5:30 or so – the end of a busy day – we were approaching Orutota and our hotel for the night on a very scenic spot overlooking the Victoria Reservoir.

Corbett's Gap To Oruthota Chalets

Oruthota Chalets-2

We got to our rooms for the night just as the sun was disappearing for another day.  After unpacking and showering and all of that, we spent the evening at the outdoor covered restaurant, sampling some Sri Lankan beer and – for me as a vegetarian at least – more great rice and veg curry dishes.  My fellow travelers did ask if I didn’t get tired of rice and veg curry every day. My response – most of the dishes were excellent and, given the different cooks, were often quite different from each other.  So no – not boring at all.  Certainly no more boring than meat and potatoes!

Oruthota Chalet room near the Victoria Resevoir

our room at the Oruthota Chalets at the north end of the Victoria reservoir

I did get up early the next morning and, after checking the restaurant area to see if there was any coffee available,  wandered down to the banks of the reservoir.

Oruthota Chalets swimming pool with Victoria Resevoir in the distance

Oruthota Chalets swimming pool with Victoria reservoir in the distance

a view from the Oruthota Chalet dining area just after dawn

a view from the Oruthota Chalet dining area just after dawn

dawn view from the corner of the Oruthota Chalets dining area

dawn view from the corner of the Oruthota Chalets dining area

boatman at dawn on the Victoria Resevoir

boatman at dawn on the Victoria reservoir

dawn on Victoria Resevoir

dawn on Victoria reservoir

The Victoria Reservoir is the result of the Dam which was completed in 1984.  From our spot at Orutota to the dam itself at the other end of the reservoir is a straight line distance of ten kilometers.

Its dual purpose was to enhance irrigation and provided hydro-electric power but as a result of the project some 30,000 villagers and farmers had to be relocated. (See here for a Wikipedia article which provides the basic history.  You will also see where I found the image below – a photo by Rehman Abubakr shot in 2011.

Rehman Abubakr 2011 April ...from Wikipedia article on Victoria Dam

Later that morning we made the short ride into Kandy for a quick visit to the Temple of the Tooth and walk around the surrounding area.

Soon to come – Kandy and the Temple of the Tooth

The Manigala Hike In Sri Lanka’s Knuckles Range (Dumbara Hills)

Previous Post: Sri Lanka’s Dambulla Cave Temple – A Treasure Trove of Buddhist Art

To the south of Dambulla – and to the north-east of Kandy – is one of Sri Lanka’s least-visited areas, the highlands area called the Dumbara Hills or, more exactly in Sinhala, Dumbara Kanduvetiya which translates as  “The Misty Mountains”.   The name is appropriate given the cloud cover often found at the 1000 meter plus sections of the range. The British would give it yet another name, referring to it as the Knuckles Range because from the Kandy area the appearance of the dominant peaks brought to mind the knuckles of a clenched fist!

Knuckles Forest Reserve

Our visit to the  Knuckles Range had  three main objectives:

  • a hike up to the Manigala ridge above Pitawala and Etanwala
  •  a walk from Ranamuregama to Meemure
  • a jeep ride from Meemure to Corbett’s Gap

Day One: The Manigala Hike

We left Dambulla before 8:00 a.m. stopping on the way to pick up fresh fruit and some nibbles and juices for the morning ride.  There were ten of us and our guide, as well as the bus driver and his helper on the journey.  We were on the first leg of  a tour put together by the U.K. adventure travel company Exodus (see here for the brochure.)   It would be about 11:30 by the time we got out of our tour bus. Lunch was waiting for us at a Pitawala home and we would spend an hour there before setting out.

approaching the start of our Knuckles Range hike

approaching the start of our Knuckles Range hike

sign for nearby Wasgamuwa National Park

sign for nearby Wasgamuwa National Park

Here is a satellite overview of the  area with the lush fields of the Pitawala valley framed by low hills on either side.  The ten-kilometer hike would take us from the valley (about 600 meters a.s.l.)  up the slopes of Manigala Hill (1100 m) and back down to  Illikumbura on the right hand side.  The sketch is a very rough approximation of our walk!

manigala-hike-satellite-overview

Note: The above image was generated by a free satellite service available from Google. You do need to install the Google Earth app to access it.  You will find it worth the effort!

In the photo below – taken from Manigala later on that afternoon – our starting point would almost in the dead center of the image.  We would walk to the left side of the photo following a rough village trail before gaining some 500 meters in altitude.

the starting point of our walk - a house at the very center of the image

the starting point of our walk – a house at the very center of the image

Guiding us for the day was a villager who, in contrast to the visiting hikers with their hiking boots and trekking poles, did the walk in flip-flops! Luckily for all of us the ground was dry and that the forest cover meant we were rarely without shade in the afternoon sun.  There our guide sits in the photo below!

hiking group ready to set off

hiking group ready to set off

lush fields near Illukkumbura hike start

lush rice fields near Pitawala  hike start

village road alongisde the valley

village road in the valley

As we made our way up the valley there was lots of evidence of irrigation works to harness the water of the Thelgamu Oya (River).

simple irrigation works on the edge of the valley as we walk up

In the photo below the Thelgamu Oya tumbles down through rocks while a local woman does some washing.

small waterfalls in the valley

small waterfalls in the valley

Eventually we came to point where we crossed the river and started our gradual ascent on age-old village paths. Some stretches of the path were made with concrete or stone blocks as in the image below.  On a couple of occasions the path would come to a fork and we would take one and wonder where the other led. The most likely answer – to another village! These are clearly paths with a purpose and not wilderness trails.

our villager guide in motion up a stone path

our villager guide in motion up a stone path

Here is a Google Earth view of the bump that is Manigala Hill or Mountain.  We came up to it from the right hand side and would spend an hour walking the length of the ridge to the left.

another view of Manigala hill and the valley below

another view of Manigala hill and the valley below

Thanks to the five hundred meter height gain we had views  like the one you see in the photo below.  At the start of the plateau  I put the camera into panorama mode so that I could capture more of the scene before us.  Down below is the valley which we had walked; on the far side is another mountain spine. Visible on the ridge is the Riverstone SLT telecommunications tower!

panorama - looking back from the other side of the valley

panorama – looking back down the valley from a ridge on the other side

Not a lot of shade up on top of the ridge so the breeze was appreciated!  We walked along the ridge, took lots of breaks to sip on water and enjoy the views – it was about 3:30 and we had spent about two and a half not too strenuous hours getting up there.

looking further up the Knuckles Range

looking further up the Knuckles Range

50 shades of green - looking at the Knuckles Range forest cover

50 shades of green – looking at the Knuckles Range forest cover

rock face overlooking Knuckles Range valley

rock face overlooking Knuckles Range valley

Trip reports on the Manigala hike sometimes have images of tents inserted right about here.  It seems that some groups spend the night up there before heading back down on the other side the next morning.  I did see some evidence of tent spots not far from where our villager/guide is standing in the photo below.

our guide watches as his guests look for a private spot

our guide watches as his guests look for a private spot

We would stay well hydrated and make our way down to the Illikumbura side later that afternoon. On our way back down we would pass through areas that had been cultivated and/or turned into grazing grounds.

break time on a ridge in the Knuckles Range

break time on a ridge in the Knuckles Range

one of the Knuckles Range's many valleys

one of the Knuckles Range’s many valleys

a view of the valley floor we had walked up two hours previously

a view of the valley floor we had walked up two hours before from right to left

terraced rice fields down below in a Knuckles Range valley

terraced rice fields down below in a Knuckles Range valley

water buffalo chillin' in a plateau top stream

water buffalo chillin’ in a Knuckles Range plateau top stream

water buffalo chillin' in a plateau top stream

For some reason I did not take any photos of our descent to the Illikumbura Forest Office.  I do recall that the trail back down was much rougher than the path up to the ridge from the other side. Parts were quite steep with occasionally challenging footing.  I made major use of my trekking poles – now a dozen centimetres longer – for the descent. Some without poles had trouble negotiating the path and every once in a while those in front would wait until the rest caught up.  Making things easier was a dry as opposed to wet and muddy path.

After an hour of down the other side of the hill we finished the day with a  short walk to  our home for the night – a safari-style camp set up on the banks of the Thelgamu Oya  with a bungalow above serving as the kitchen and accommodation for the staff.  In front of the bungalow was  a covered porch which would become the dining area the next morning.

In the photo below you can see a couple of the tents as well as a shower and a toilet tent that have been set up. The river is to the left; the bungalow is on a flat area above.

our campsite on the banks of the Thelgamu Oya

When we got to the camp it was already getting late – about 6 p.m. Some of us went down to the river to wash away the day’s sweat.  It looked quite idyllic in the setting sun and I told myself that I’d have to get up early the next morning to get some dawn shots of the Thelgamu.

river running past our Knuckles Range camp spot

river running past our Knuckles Range camp spot

The tent itself – with room for two on separate camp beds  – was a few notches above the kind of camping I am used to – it was definitely quite plush! It would definitely qualify as a level of camping referred to as glamping!

I will admit to not being a big fan of bugs and insects, especially ones I have never seen before.  Black flies and mosquitos I know and can deal with.  I picked up the insect below from my roommate’s bed cover and put him outside the tent.  I also made sure that the bug net hanging over the bed was all tucked in before I fell asleep.

crawler in our Knuckles Range Tent!

crawler in our Knuckles Range Tent!

Without a doubt the Knuckles Range provides those who take the time to visit with many unforgettable walks through verdant forests with scenic hilltop views.  Unlike other places (like Nepal, let’s say) where a generation or two of hikers has helped the locals develop a trekking infrastructure, things in Sri Lanka are in their very infancy. A visit to the Range is best done through a hiking/trekking agency which knows the terrain and has the know-how and the contacts to make it all happen – from transportation to routes to accommodation to food to guides.

See the next post for some pix of the Thelgamu Oya at dawn, as well as other highlights like the pyramid-shaped Lakegala peak above the fields of Meemure and the view from Corbett’s Gap.

Next Post: Hiking Sri Lanka’s Knuckles – To Meemure and Corbett’s Gap


A  2012 trip report from a local group from Colombo describes a hike which started with a walk to the top of the hill on one side of the valley – the one with the communications tower.  Then they walked back down and followed the village trail  up to the Manigala ridge  where they camped for the night before walking back down on the Illukkumbura side –  see here for the write-up and pix.  _________________________________________________________________

The Aukana Buddha: Sri Lanka’s Colossal Standing Rock Statue

Previous Post: A Visit To The Ruins Of Polonnaruwa – Part Two

The previous day I had visited the ruins of Polonnaruwa, the capital of a short-lived Sinhalese kingdom which flourished for less than two hundred years until an invading army from India led to its abandonment as its inhabitants fled to the still-Sinhalese south.  While there I had marvelled at a number of the structures and monuments but one site stood out. The artistry, the technical skill,  and the sheer scale of the Buddha figures carved out of the granite rock at Gal Vihara were all impressive, as was the remarkable shape that they were still in 800 years later.

Gal Vihara's standing and reclining Buddha sculptures

Gal Vihara’s standing and reclining Buddha sculptures

While the reclining Buddha’s body stretches  14 meters (46′), the standing Buddha figure with its unusual crossed-arms mudra is almost 7 meters (23′) high. Impressive indeed!

That afternoon I returned from Polonnaruwa to my base camp in Dambulla, itself the location of an incredible collection of more recent (250 years ago) Buddhist devotional painting and sculpture inside a large cave in which five separate “rooms” had been created. And now, the next morning, my hired driver and I were off for a half-day visit with the famed Aukana Buddha.

Sri Lanka's central plains area - the cultural triangle

Sri Lanka’s central plains area – a part of the famed Cultural Triangle

The road to Aukana is a well-travelled one over which the taxi driver had taken many visitors staying in Dambulla.  We were there in less than an hour.  I bought an entry/photo permit and made the short walk up to the site, taking my shoes off at the entrance.

Aukana entrance ticket:photo permit

note the spelling of Aukana on the ticket – a common alternative spelling is Avukana…Google maps prefers Avukana!

At over 14 meters (40′) high, this Aukana Buddha figure, also  carved from a granite rock face,  is Sri Lanka’s tallest. Its Pali name translates as “eating the sun” , a suitable one given that it faces east towards the great Kala Wewa reservoir. The artificial lake was constructed during the time of Dhatusena in the 470’s C.E. (that is, about 1550 years ago).

Missing from the photo below is a human figure to give some sort of scale to the colossal statue. The two-level pedestal on which the figure is standing is about 1.5 meters (5′) high!

the Aukana Buddha - full view

the Aukana Buddha – full view

Still a mystery is exactly when this work was commissioned and done.  Scanning the literature, two dates seemed to be mentioned most often. The reign of Dhatusena (455-473 C.E.), the builder of the nearby reservoir in the 470’s C.E., is the earliest time period to which the work is credited. Douglas Bullis, in his commentary on the Mahavamsa, has a brief passage where he comments on the date issue.  He writes:

The statue seems to have been carved at the same time the great Kalawewa Reservoir was being built by King Dhatusena, perhaps as a permanent protective image for his great reservoir.  (Mahavamsa, 280)

Wikipedia entries and a number of guide books place the statue’s creation at this time. The writer of this buddhanet.net article on the statue provides some circumstantial evidence which may support such a date. We read –

Avukana’s ancient name is unknown and so is the king who made its fine statue. In the 18th century the place was called Kalagal which in Pali would be Kalasela. A place called Kalasela is mentioned in the Culavamsa as containing an image for which King Dhatusena (455-73) had a diadem made. As Aukuana’s statue dates from around the 5th century BCE it may well be the place mentioned in the chronicle.

Note the alternative spelling of Aukana in the quote above. Also note the writer’s error in using B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) instead of C.E.(Common Era) , acronyms used these days instead of B.C. and A.D. While the intent was to move away from the overtly Christian focus of the old way of organizing the past, the birth of Jesus is still the dividing line!

Aukana Buddha - side view

Aukana Buddha – side view

The Aukana Buddah receiving worshippers

The Aukana Buddha receiving worshippers

Shwegugale seated Buddha in the Have No Fear mudra

Shwegugale Buddha Have No Fear mudra

Only a narrow section of rock face connects the Buddha statue to the rest of the rock. The pedestal on which the statue stands is carved of a separate piece of rock which was later slid under the feet of the statue! In Buddhist iconography hand positions are used to convey different meanings and moments in the Buddha’s life story.  The one exhibited here is a version of one called the Abhaya mudra, the “Have No Fear” everything-is-cool position. However, it does not have the usual palm facing forward as in the image of the seated Buddha to the left.  The Rough Guide to Sri Lanka has this observation –

The statue is in the unusual (for Sri Lanka) asisa mudra, the blessing position, with the right hand turned sideways to the viewer, as though on the point of delivering a swift karate chop. (See here for source)

There are two other standing Buddha statues in Sri Lanka roughly contemporary with the Aukana one which also depict the Buddha in a similar mudra.  See the end of this post for more.

the Aukana Buddha minus his ushnisha!

the Aukana Buddha minus his ushnisha!

Visible on the sides of the rock face are the foundation walls of what would have been an image house.  Twenty-three meters long and nineteen meters wide  and high enough  to contain the entire figure, it would have been the focal point of the monastic community which had already existed around the rock before the carving had begun.

the head and ushisha of the Aukana Buddha

the head and flame-like ushnisha of the Aukana Buddha

The second date given by some scholars is one some three or four hundred years after Dhatasena – i.e. after Dhatasena but before the collapse of Anuradhapura to the invading Chola army in 992.   In Shifting Stones, Shaping the Past: Sculpture from the Buddhist Stupas of Andhra Pradesh (Oxford University Press.2014), the author Catherine Becker states that –

Dated roughly from the sixth through the ninth centuries, this rock-cut Buddha stands fourteen meters in height. The rendering of its robe, the slim. columnar representation of the body, and the general position of the hands all recall the Buddhas of ancient Andhra and attest to centuries of cross-cultural exchange between Andhra and Sri Lanka. (Becker 161-162)

The rock statue is located in forested area but is not the only Buddhist monument in the immediate area.  Facing it perhaps thirty meters away is a round rock face upon which I sat for some time and took in the tranquil scene.  Other than a few Sinhalese visitors there was only one other tourist – a hardcore German traveller – perhaps sixty years old – who had gotten there by local bus and foot over the past day from Anuradhapura.  At the end of my visit he would accept my offer of a ride to Dambulla.

aukana-google-earth-satellite-view

To the north-east of the statue on a plateau I found a couple of other essential ingredients of a Sinhalese Buddhist religious site – a Maha Bodhi Tree shrine and a small hollow shell of a  dagoba (i.e. stupa).  Draped all around the tree – often connected in some way with the original Bodhi Tree under which Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha – were strings of a Buddhist flag different from the one seen in the Himalayas. This one has six vertical bands of different colours symbolizing the aura which Siddhartha Gautama’s body is said to have emitted at the moment he became the Buddha, the Awakened One. Its creation goes back to the late nineteenth century at a time of Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka.

Bodhi Tree Shrine and stupa with inner shrine

Bodhi Tree Shrine and stupa with inner shrine

the base of Aukana's Bodhi Tree shrine

the base of Aukana’s Bodhi Tree

The hollow bell-shaped stupa is located at the northern edge of the site, looking like its annual paint job was late in coming.

stupa-shaped shrine at Aukana

stupa-shaped shrine at Aukana

A peek inside the stupa revealed a mishmash of cultic objects around a large seated Buddha figure.  It was in the Touching The Earth pose taken by Siddhartha Gautama at the moment of his Enlightenment.  Coins lay strewn on the mat in front of the statue.

somewhat tacky interior of the stupa

the somewhat tacky interior of the stupa

As I walked away from the stupa and back to the Aukana Buddha statue, I remember thinking that while the level of contemporary devotion and sincerity may not have changed from the past, artistic sensibilities certainly had.  On the plus side, at least  this Buddha was spared the indignity of a flashing multi-coloured neon halo surrounding his head like the one that I would see in Pagan, Myanmar a few months later.

Aukana Buddha head

Aukana Buddha head – a last look

offerings left at the feet of the Aukana Buddha

offerings left at the feet of the Aukana Buddha

Other Standing Buddha Figures In Sri Lanka: 

In preparing this post I ended up scouring the internet for information and  images of other colossal standing Buddha figures found in Sri Lanka.  Here is some of what I found:

1. The Sasseruwa Buddha at Raswehera

Aukana to Raswehera (Sassevera)

Aukana to Raswehera (Sassevera)

Sasseruwa - standing Buddha statueNot far from Aukana – about 11 kilometers as the crow flies but somewhat farther by road! – is the Raswehera Buddha.  It is a real challenge to get to given the secondary or worse roads that you need to take. To complicate matters even the taxi drivers are often not sure about the exact route given the infrequency of requests to go there!  The reward is a statue of almost identical height that looks much the Aukana but is in an unfinished state. It has a somewhat different mudra than the Aukana statue and is lacking the flame ushnisha (the bump on top of the head).

One story goes like this – a master carver and one of his students engaged in a competition to see  who could finish the task of carving a colossal Buddha the fastest – and most artistically.  It would seem the master won – and the student just put down his tools.  Given the positive karma involved in carving a Buddha figure and the disrespect in not finishing the job, you’d think the student would have kept on chiseling and sanding away!  The site of the Raswehera Buddha was also the location of a monastic community and given the caves and Kandyan-influenced wall paintings à la Dambulla as well as other monuments, it sounds like it would make a great day trip – led by someone who knew how to get there!

2.The Maligawila Free-Standing Buddha

Buddha colossus

Believed to have been sculpted in the 600’s C.E., the above Maligawila Buddha figure stands 11.5 meters (38′)  tall.  Unlike the Aukana Buddha it is free-standing and not attached to a rear rock face.  Apparently when it was found in 1951 it was broken in pieces and subsequently glued back together again.  It is difficult to see any evidence of the breaks from the image above.

While it exhibits the same unusual hand mudra as the Aukana Buddha , it does not have the Aukana Buddha’s flame ushnisha.  Instead, it has the more classic round bump on top of the head. It would be interesting to further research the development of the ushnisha in Buddhist art – it might help to date the various statues.

3. The Buduruwagala Buddha

overview of the Buduruwagala Site

overview of the Buduruwagala Site

buduruwagala buddha - head and handsThe Buduruwagala Buddha is one of seven Buddhist figures carved in the rock face – the others are bodhisattvas important in the Mahayana strain of Buddhism like Avalokiteshvara and his female consort Tara.

Of all the Buddhas mentioned here, this one is the tallest at 16 meters (51′); it is also the most crudely realized and is still a part of the rock face to such an extent that the word “statue” is not the right word to describe it. The hand position is clearly in the Abhaya mudra, unlike those shown in the other Buddhas mentioned.  The pronounced ushnisha on top of the head does not seem to be of the flame sort.

rough-guide-sri-lanka-cover-222x341I would highly recommend  The Rough Guide To Sri Lanka both as a general guide for your visit to Sri Lanka as well as for its coverage of the Cultural Triangle.  It provides maps and insightful commentary on all the major sites and includes information about many of the minor ones like Aukana and Raswehera.

Given that I knew pretty much zero about the ancient history of Sri Lanka before I arrived in Dambulla on Day One of my Sri Lanka visit, the hard copy book was often open – both during the day as I wandered through the various sites and at night while I prepared for another day’s site-seeing.

 

My Other Sri Lanka Cultural Triangle Posts:  just click on the title to open

A Visit To The Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Ancient Polonnaruwa – Part Two

Previous Post: A Visit To The Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Ancient Polonnaruwa – Part 1

I had spent the first two hours visiting The Citadel area and the Quadrangle. It was a bit past 11 and, given the relative lack of shade, I was noticing the heat as I wandered the sites and bicycled the roads between them.  Yet to come were  some impressive  dagobas, image houses, and 3-D Buddhas carved out of the granite rock face.   I left the main road and headed down the path to Shiva Devale no. 2 – Here is a Youtube clip which nicely illustrates the ride!

Chola Empire around 1100 C.E.

Chola Empire around 1100 C.E.

It is not the only Hindu temple in the ancient city – Shiva Devale No. 1 is just in between the Citadel and the Quadrangle but I hadn’t visited.  And later I would cycle by small temple ruins dedicated to the Hindu gods Vishnu and Ganesha.  They had been constructed during the three-quarters of a century that the Cholas (a south Indian Hindu Tamil dynasty) had ruled much of the northern and central part of Sri Lanka.

Shiva Devale no. 2 is said to be ancient Polonnaruwa’s oldest surviving building, and dates to the early 1000’s C.E. It was apparently meant as a memorial to one of the queens of the Chola king Rajaraja,who led the Indian invasion which destroyed Anuradhapura in 993 and established a power base in Polonnaruwa. Unlike the bricks and mortar construction of a Sinhala temple, this one features Indian-style solid stone work.

Visible behind the temple are two of the Nandis associated with the temple.

Polonnaruwa's oldest building - Siva Devale #2

Polonnaruwa’s oldest building – Siva Devale #2

Looking at the Joseph Lawton photo from 1870, it is clear that some restoration work has been done over the past 150 years, especially on the dome. My photo is of the front of the temple; Lawton’s shows the back and one side of the structure.

Shiva Devale No. 2 ©Victoria and Albert Collection. London.

Shiva Devale No. 2 ©Victoria and Albert Collection. London.

Lawton mislabeled the temple as a Vishnu temple. The Nandi figures and the lingam are associated with Shiva, the aspect of the Hindu Godhead (the Trimurti) associated with death and destruction.

The Pabalu Vihara Area:

Not far from the Shiva temple are the remains of a monastic community with an impressive – the third largest in Polonnaruwa – brick dagoba. Modern renovations have turned it into a two-levelled structure with a rather flat top. It would be interesting to see a photo of the dagoba from 1870 in order to see what it looked like before it was reconstructed.

Pabalu Vihara = a dagoba to the north of the Quadrangle at Polonnaruwa

Pabalu Vihara = a dagoba to the north of the Quadrangle at Polonnaruwa

Pabalu Vihara Buddha with headless attendants

Pabalu Vihara –  Buddha with headless attendants

Pabalu Vihara - a side view of the stupa

Pabalu Vihara – a side view of the stupa

the back side of the Pabulu Vihara

the back side of the Pabalu Vihara

Going further north we now leave the confines of the walled ancient city and come to one of the many monastic communities which were established around image houses and dagobas.  I passed by the ruins of the Menik Vihara and headed for Rankot Vihara.

north of the Gates of Ancient Polonnaruwa

The glory days of Polonnaruwa revolve around three rulers.

  • The first was Vijayabahu I (circa 1070-1110), who defeated the Chola (i.e. Indian Tamil) invaders who had built up the city as their capital and had ruled for a half-century.
  • After a period of civil war he was followed by Parakramabahu I (1153-1186), the most successful and ambitious of the three.  During his reign, sometimes labelled as the city’s Golden Age,  much of what is visible in the ruins of the ancient city was built.
  • He was followed by Nissanka Malla I (1187-1196). His nickname The Vainglorious sums up his reign.

After these three rulers a series of weak and ineffective rulers eventually ended with the invasion of yet another Indian kingdom (the Kalinga) which put an end to Polonnaruwa as the Sinhalese fled the city for points further south.

a first view of the Rankot Vihara - the largest of Polonnaruwa's dagobas

a first view of the Rankot Vihara – the largest of Polonnaruwa’s dagobas

The construction of the dagoba at the Rankot Vihara is attributed to Nissanka Malla I. It follows the classic design of the Anuradhapura dagobas of a thousand years before and, next to that ancient city’s massive stupas, is the fourth largest in Sri Lanka. Its base diameter is 170 meters (550 feet) and as it stands now it is 33 meters (108 feet) high. On top of the anda, the dome-shaped bottom, sits the square harmika and on top of that the spire.

The image below shows the extent to which the structure was overgrown in 1870’s when the British photographer Joseph Lawton visited the area and made his remarkable images.

The Rankot Dágoba

The Rankot Dagoba – a photograph by Lawton 1870-71.©Victoria and Albert Collection. London.

Surrounding the base of the stupa  are small shrines, some still the object of worship by visiting Buddhists. The photo below is of the main shrine on the north side of the dagoba. To its left one of the secondary shrines is visible.

The Rankot Vihara - Sri Lanka's 4th largest

The Rankot Vihara – Sri Lanka’s 4th largest

The dagoba is essentially a mound of earth and dirt covered with a skin of brick and mortar. Somewhat squat in appearance, it lacks the more semi-spherical look of Anuradhapura’s stupas.

the top of the Rankot Vihara dagoba

the top of the Rankot Vihara dagoba

The name Rajkot is apparently derived from two Sinhala words – ran meaning “gold” and kotha meaning “pinnacle”.  These days there is no gold leaf covering the brick and mortar spire.

offerings and incense at the base of the dagoba

offerings and incense at the base of the dagoba

internal shrine on the side of Polonnaruwa's Rankot dagoba

internal shrine on the side of Polonnaruwa’s Rankot dagoba

From the Rajkot Dagoba it was a short ride to the monastery area named Alahana Pirivena.  The image below shows some of the mini-stupas on terraces not far from the Lankatilaka. The monastery was associated with cremation rituals and the stupas may be those of those of the city’s upper class. Also visible on the middle left of th image are standing columns of one of the monastic residences that would have existed.

mini-dagobas on a terrace near the Lankatilaka

mini-dagobas on a terrace near the Lankatilaka

As I approached the Lankatilaka, Sri Lanka’s most impressive gedige or image house, I thought of similar temples built to house statues of Zeus and Athena in ancient Greece.  There too the statues were so tall that their heads just fit under the roofs of the structures built to house them.

Much of Athena’s temple – the Parthenon in Athens – still stands but the  statue is no longer there. And nothing remains of Zeus’ temple in Olympia or of the statue of Zeus, considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient Greek world. Here we have the brick walls and back of the temple still standing.  The wooden roof is no more and most of the standing Buddha figure – built of brick and then more finely sculpted with stucco – has not survived.

approaching the Lankatilaka

approaching the Lankatilaka

Lankatilaka - Joseph Lawton photo from 1870-71

Lankatilaka – Joseph Lawton photo from 1870-71. ©Victoria and Albert Collection. London.

The Lankatilaka, one of the main structures built during the reign of Parakramabahu I, had as its focal point the 15 meter high standing Buddha, standing on a lotus pedestal.  He was probably  shown in the common  “Have No fear” mudra (pose)  with his right hand raised and open.

The Lankatilaka's standing Buddha - bottom part

The Lankatilaka’s standing Buddha –

the Lankatilaka's standing Buddha - top

the Lankatilaka's standing Buddha - bottom

the Lankatilaka’s standing Buddha – bottom

Just to the north of the Lankatilaka is the next of Polonnaruwa’s sites, the Kiri Vihara. These days it is a gleaming white stupa, thanks to a recent paint job.  It was somewhat  overgrown when photographed by Joseph Lawton in 1870, but the shrubs and trees that had somehow rooted themselves in the cracks between the bricks have been cleared.

Kiri Vihara - Polonnaruwa dagoba next to Lankatilaka

Kiri Vihara – Polonnaruwa dagoba next to Lankatilaka

Do note that visitors are required to remove their footwear when entering any grounds considered sacred.  It was now about 1 in the afternoon and I still remember the heat of the bricks on the terrace burning the bottoms of my feet as I walked around the stupa. To deal with the heat, those not accustomed to walking barefoot – i.e. most westerners – sometimes bring socks to wear.  It would be interesting to know if this “solution” is acceptable – or if it still considered disrespectful in the eyes of the locals. On another note, I did walk around the stupa clockwise  as seems to be the custom in Sri Lanka (but not, I might add, at Buddhist sites  in Myanmar, where other taboos seem to be more important).

Rankot dagoba -_

Kiri Vihara Dagoba. Joseph Lawton photo. ©Victoria and Albert Collection. London.

Back on the bike again, I headed over to what would be my last site visit of the day.  Somewhat dehydrated, needing some lunch, and feeling the heat of the day, i had hit my limit.  I am glad, however, that I did not turn back right then and there but headed over to the Gal Vihara Buddhas. What I would see is the most impressive of Polonnaruwa’s various sites – superbly executed rock carvings on a large-scale which are still in remarkable shape given their age.

Gal Vihara's seated Buddha

Gal Vihara’s seated Buddha

Carved into a south-facing granite rock face are a series of Buddha figures in various poses. The images above and below show the first of the four – a seated Buddha shown in  the mediation pose (Dhyana mudra)  and in the state known as samadhi. The 4.6 meter high (15′) figure was originally contained within an image house built around it. Parts of the brick wall foundation and a few sockets where wooden beams would have been inserted into the rock face are still evident.

Gal Vihara seated Buddha figure - circa 1870 photo by Joseph Lawton - Victoria and Albert Collection

Gal Vihara seated Buddha figure  –  ©Victoria and Albert Collection. London.

Next to the seated Buddha – and inside an artificial cave cut into the rock – is another seated Buddha in the same pose. It is apparently 1.4 meters high (4’7”).  The area was not open to the public when I was there. The image below shows the entire Gal Vihara site with  the seated outdoor Buddha on the extreme left and then the scaffolding in front of the Samadhi Buddha in the cave. Also visible are a standing Buddha figure and a reclining Buddha.

Gal Vihara site - the standing and reclining Buddhas

Gal Vihara site – the standing and reclining Buddhas

The standing Buddha, once thought to be a representation of Ananda, the faithful disciple of the Buddha, is now held by most to be a standing Buddha figure.  Evidence of a separate image house enclosing the figure and separating it from the reclining Buddha break the apparent connection between the two.  Somewhat puzzling is the unusual crossed-arms mudra that the figure is depicted in – it is not one I have ever seen.

standing Buddha or Ananda at Gal Vihara - Joseph Lawton.©Victoria and Albert Collection. London.

standing Buddha or Ananda at Gal Vihara – ©Victoria and Albert Collection. London.

An interesting point mentioned in a Wikipedia article on the site (click here to read) is that the carvings may originally have been covered with gold leaf. This would definitely have given them a glow within the confines of the candle-lit image houses that would have been the worship focal point of the monks whose residences surrounded the carvings.

close up of the standing and reclining Buddhas

close up of the standing and reclining Buddhas

reclining Buddha figure at Gal Vihara in Polonnaruwa - photo by Joseph Lawton circa 1870

reclining Buddha figure at Gal Vihara in Polonnaruwa – ©Victoria and Albert Collection. London.

close up of the reclining Buddha - Gal Vihara at Polonnaruwa

close up of the reclining Buddha – Gal Vihara at Polonnaruwa

I had been on the move for over five hours by this point.  I looked at the map and checked my Rough Guide to Sri Lanka guidebook to see what else I should get to – the Lotus Pond and the Tivanka Image House.

Given how I was feeling – and given the heat of the afternoon – I decided to turn back to the entrance and my waiting taxi driver. As I mentioned at the start of the first Polonnaruwa post, I regretted not just using my taxi driver for the day – or even better, having come to Polonnaruwa the night before to allow for an earlier morning start with a tuk-tuk driver as my guide and transportation.

My day with the ruins of ancient Polonnaruwa had been absolutely worth it.  Along with another day spent in Anuradhapura and most of a day at Sigiriya, my visit provided me with a better idea of the impressive accomplishments of the Sinhalese people of a thousand and two thousand years ago. The builders of stupas which rivalled the pyramids of Egypt in size and the guardians and transmitters of the Buddha’s teachings to other parts of Asia from their vibrant viharas – certainly a legacy to be proud of.

My Other Sri Lanka Cultural Triangle Posts: click on the title to open

A Visit To The Ruins Of Sri Lanka’s Ancient Polonnaruwa – Part 1

Previous Post: Sri Lanka’s Dambulla Cave Temple – A Buddhist Treasure Trove

Sri Lanka's Cultural Triangle

The Cultural Triangle – enlarge with a click

Along with Anuradhapura and Kandy, Polonnaruwa is one of the key points in Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle, an area which contains much of the impressive ruins of pre-modern Sinhalese kingdoms – mostly religious structures and monuments but also some secular buildings. A visit to Sri Lanka which focusses on more than sun and surf and wildlife preserves will take you to this area and introduce you to  Sinhalese accomplishments of a millennium or two ago.

Logistics: The Best Way To Visit The Site

What I Did – Using Dambulla as my base, I set off at 7 a.m. from my hotel on the outskirts of town and was at the entrance of  “The World Heritage City of Polonnaruwa” by 9:00.  Nearby was a bike rental stand where I picked out my ride for the day.  My taxi driver would wait at the entrance while I cycled up and down the roads passing through the site.

I spent about five hours on and off the bicycle and made it as far as Gal Vihara (#22 on the map below) before I decided to end the day.  By eleven the heat and the burning sun had ended whatever allure bicycling around the site might hold. I never did get to the Lotus Pond and the sites to the north.  Also,  after leaving the archaeological zone I did not get to the  attractions some 3 kilometers south of the entrance (See #1 and #2 on the map below) since I did not know about them. Bad preparation on my part…

Polonnaruwa --ancient city - site map

Polonnaruwa –ancient city – site map

What I Should Have Done:  Arriving in Polonnaruwa the afternoon before would have been the thing to do. The location of  The Lake House makes it sound like a great place to stay for the night.  The Rest House would be another option. It is close to Pothgul Vihara (#1) and the Statue (#2) which do not require an entry ticket.  I would have paid them a 30 minute or so visit and then walked the path along the shore of the artificial lakes.  It would mean that the next morning I could begin my tour in the cool of the early morning – the site opens at 7:30 a.m.  and the ticket costs US$25.

(The Cultural Triangle ticket has not been available since 2012 though some guidebooks still mention them!  Each of the major sites in the Triangle now charge their own entrance fee.  The site ticket is only valid for one day so if you’d like to return the next day to finish off your visit, you’d need to buy yet another ticket.)

I would also scrap the bicycle idea and, as I would later do in Anuradhapura,  hire a tuk-tuk driver instead.  This way my energy could be spent visiting the sites and not simply getting to them as the day  gets increasingly hot.  Having a tuk-tuk driver who has done the tour a hundred times also means you will approach the various sites from the right entrances and make the most efficient use of your time.

One last thing I should have done is have a better idea of the historical context of the site before I visited; this would have helped me make more sense of what I was seeing while I was actually there!  This post is my attempt to understand more clearly what the images are showing.  I guess it is better late than never!

This brief UNESCO-sponsored video on Youtube gives a good overview of what Polonnaruwa is all about –

Pothgul Vehera:

Some three kilometers south of the entrance to the rest of the site is the Pothgul Vehera.  The evening before or the end of the day tour would be a good time to include this site in your trajectory.  I did not get there on my visit – but here is what you’ll see if you get there.  The area was the site of a monastic community (the Sanskrit term is vihara)  which included an image house.  The ruins of some of the monastery residences can be seen, as can the inner room (the sanctum) of the image house. The floor plan looks like this –

Potgul Vihara image house floor plan

Some imagination is required to reconstruct what a thousand years have taken away!  Who had the structure built and what its purpose was are still unclear. Given the many projects undertaken  during the rule of Parakramabahu I (1153-1186), some attribute it to his builders.

There is also some doubt about what the exact purpose of the structure was,  with a library or an image house being the two most popular explanations. Given that there is only one entrance to the inner room and it faces east, this would seem to indicate a gedige-style image hall, a late architectural development in Sinhalese architecture characteristic of Polonnaruwa. A Youtube video – see here – may help you visualize what you’ll see if you pay a visit.

Statue_of_Parakramabahu_in_Polonnaruwa

 

The other nearby attraction is the 3.4 meter (11’2″)  statue of a male figure carved out of the rock face. Again, the exact age of the work and the identity of the figure are open to debate.  If it is indeed a depiction of Parakramabahu then it would date to the 12th C during his reign.  It may be, however,  a depiction of the legendary founding sage of the city, Pulasti  Whoever it is, he seems to be holding a scroll, probably indicating a religious text.

Given all the other work done during Parakramabahu’s time, he may well have commissioned his artists to pay homage to Pulasti – or to himself.

 

The Citadel Area:

For a couple of centuries (1060 to 1300 C.E.) Polonnaruwa was the capital of a Sinhalese kingdom that tried to recapture the glory of the previous one based in Anuradhapura. Ironically, it was the invading Cholas from south India who first chose Polonnaruwa as their capital in Sri Lanka after their sacking of Anuradhapura around 1000 C.E. It would be another 75 years before the Sinhalese would take back control of the island; Polonnaruwa continued in its role as the kingdom’s capital.

The city was located in a fertile corner of the plains to the north of the hill country at a major crossing on the Mahaweli Ganga River.  It was also more easily defended than the very exposed city of Anuradhapura to the north.  With the creation of artifical lakes – i.e. resevoirs or tanks – and further irrigation, the area would become even more productive.  In a time when agricultural productivity was the very foundation of a successful kingdom, Polonnaruwa fit the bill as the capital of a thriving state.

My tour began at the south end of the site near the entrance with the Citadel area. It is here  that the rulers of the city – beginning with Vijayabahu I and then continuing with Parakramabahu I and his successors – built their palaces and other government buildings. The first ruins I walked through were what is left of Parakramabahu’s Palace. The heavy brick walls of what was the multi-storey Royal Chamber  still stand.

The Remains of Parakramabahu’s Palace

Parakramabahu's Palace - a school group visits

Parakramabahu’s Palace – a school group enters from the east

the ruins of the Parakramabahu's Palace

the ruins of the Parakramabahu’s Palace

ruins of the Parakramabahu's Palace - another view

the ruins of the Parakramabahu’s Palace – a view from the west

a close up view of the bricks and mortar wall

a close up view of the bricks and mortar wall

Evident at the top of the brick walls are the holes that would have held the wooden beams on which additional floors of the palace were built.  One story has it that the palace had a thousand rooms, a fanciful number meant to convey the immense power and wealth of the king.

Parakramabahu's Palace - yet another view

Parakramabahu’s Palace – yet another view from the east

Not far away from the remains of the Palace is  another structure built during the time of Parakramabahu, The Council Chamber or Audience Building. Still intact is the multi-layered base of the building and some of the columns on the floor of the chamber that would have held thew wooden roof.

The three levels of the base are covered with reliefs of elephants, lions, and dwarfs –

The Council Chamber in Polonnaruwa's Citadel area

The Council Chamber in Polonnaruwa’s Citadel area

elephant friezes at the base of the Council Chamber

elephant friezes at the base of the Council Chamber in the Citadel at Polonnaruwa

the lion and dwarf friezes above the elephants on the base of Polonnaruwa's Council Chamber

the lion and dwarf friezes above the elephants on the base of Polonnaruwa’s Council Chamber

another view of the Council Chamber - base and platform pillars

another view of the Council Chamber – base and platform pillars

stray dog near the Council Chamber

stray dog near the Council Chamber

visitors among the pillars of the Council Chamber

visitors among the pillars of the Council Chamber

Polonnaruwa’s period of greatness lasted about two hundred years but after 1300 C.E. it was abandoned. The dams which created the artificial lake fell into disrepair and people moved further south as new Indian invaders arrived. It would be the British in the mid-1800’s who would come upon the ruins of the city and begin extracting the ruins of a once major Sinhalese capital and important Buddhist centre.Here is what the Council Chamber looked like in 1870 before archaeological work began!

Polonnaruwa. The Audience Hall. Lawton. 1870-71.  © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Polonnaruwa. The Audience Hall. Lawton. 1870-71.  © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

On the platform of the Council Chamber there were four rows of pillars or columns which supported the wooden roof.

pillars on the Council Chamber platform

pillars on the Council Chamber platform

Not far from the Council Chamber  – and just outside the walls of the Citadel –  is yet another construction attributed to the reign of Parakramabahu I – The Royal Baths   (Kumara Pokuna).

looking down at the Kumara Pokuna (The Royal Baths)

looking down at the Kumara Pokuna (The Royal Baths) from the west

In the middle of the cruciform-shaped pool is a circular stone which along with the raised platform all around the edge of the pool may have served as a resting spot for bathers.

a view of the steps and spout of Polonnaruwa's Kumara Pokuna (Royal Baths)

a view of the steps and spout of Polonnaruwa’s Kumara Pokuna (Royal Baths)

North of the Citadel area, I would bicycle to the religious heart of the ancient city – the  Dalada Maluwa, renamed The Quadrangle by British archaeologists in the late 1800’s. I would find there what the current edition of The Rough Guide describes as  “home to the finest and most varied collection of ancient buildings in Sri Lanka”.

Polonnaruwa Sacred Quadrangle

The Sinhala word dalada means “tooth”; it refers to a supposed tooth of Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha,  which ended up in Sri Lanka.  To the Sinhalese it is the powerful talisman. It reminds me of the Palladium from Graeco-Roman myth, the wooden statue of Athena created by the goddess herself which Aeneas took with him when he fled his city to found a New Troy called Rome. His very possession of the Palladium gave him his legitimacy.  Christian equivalents would be a splinter from the Cross or the grail from the Last Supper.

The Dalada – The Tooth – symbolized the political legitimacy of whoever held it. During Anuradhapura’s time as the capital it had been kept there. Now, for a brief time, the Dalada Maluwa area would be its home. These days The Tooth is found in Kandy,  the last Sinhalese capital before the British take-over of the island the 1800’s.

First up was The Vatadage (Circular Relic House). This Youtube video is a great introduction to the building and its layout.

Polonnaruwa's Vatadage - (Circular Relic House)

Polonnaruwa’s Vatadage – (Circular Relic House)

Polonnaruwa Vatadage Layout

Polonnaruwa Vatadage Layout

Missing is the wooden roof which covered the original structure; supporting wooden beams would have rested on the pillars as they sloped down from the top.

steps leading to a seated Buddha at the cetner of the Vatadage

steps leading to a seated Buddha at the center of the Vatadage

The steps lead to the main platform of the Vatadage with its small stupa at the very centre. The guardstones on the sides of the steps – considered among the finest of their type in all of Sri Lanka – are the usual nagaraja (snake king) figures holding items which connote abundance and wealth. At the foot of the steps is another Sinhalese architectural feature – the moonstone. this one has exquisite carvings of (starting from the center)  lotus flowers, horses, elephants, and geese.

a portrait view of the moonstone carvings at the Vatadage in Polonnaruwa

a portrait view of the moonstone carvings at Polonnaruwa’s  Vatadage

Vatadage Moonstone with horses, elephants, and swans

Vatadage limestone “Moonstone” with horses, elephants, and swans

Again, to put things into historical context, here is what the Vatadage looked like in 1870 when the British photographer Joseph Lawson took the image shown below. As incomplete as the buildings are today, they have come a long way from the state they were in less than 150 years ago!  Along with cricket, the Sinhalese can thank the British for beginning the process of uncovering the physical remains of their glorious Sinhalese past!

Victoria &Albert Museum - Joseph Lawton photo of the Vatadage 1870-71

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London- Joseph Lawton photo of the Vatadage 1870-71

a missing Buddha at one of the Vatadage's four cardinal points

a missing Buddha at one of the Vatadage’s four cardinal points

one of the four buddhas in the Vatadage

one of the four buddhas in the Vatadage

the head of one of the Vatadage's seated Buddhas

the head of one of the Vatadage’s seated Buddhas

seated Buddha in front of the Batadage dagoba

seated Buddha in front of the Vatadage’s central dagoba (stupa)

To finish our tour of the Vatadage, here is a wonderful 3D reconstruction of what the building may have looked like one thousand years ago. It is the work of Bethany Pereira and I found it on Youtube –

The Vatadage is only one of the structures in the Dalada Maluwa or Quadrangle.  Over the next hour I would visit the Hatadage, the Satmahal Prasada, the Nissankalata Mandapa, and Thuparama, which was unfortunately closed due to extensive renovations.

The image below is of the Hatadage, the last  of the three Dalada shrines built to house the relic in Polonnaruwa. To the left is the antechamber or mandapa which leads to the main room where the Tooth would have been kept.

a view of the Hatadage in Polonnaruwa Sacred Quadrangle

a view of the Hatadage in Polonnaruwa Sacred Quadrangle

A curious building – a seven-storey ziggurat! – stands to the side of the Hatadage in the corner of the Quadrangle.  Still attached to the front of the second storey of the Satmahal Prasada is the stucco relief of a standing deity or Buddha figure.

Polonnaruwa - Satmahal Prasada (Seven Storey Temple

Polonnaruwa – Satmahal Prasada (Seven Storey Temple) – the seventh has crumbled!

Polonnaruwa – Satmahal Prasada © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

According to The Rough Guide To Sri Lanka, “the ziggurat-like form of this temple is without parallel in Sri Lanka, its unique design perhaps the work of Khmer (Cambodian) craftsmen, although no one really knows”.

Also in the Quadrangle are standing columns of other buildings.

pillars and standing Buddha in Polonnaruwa's Sacred Quadrangle

pillars and standing Buddha in Polonnaruwa’s Sacred Quadrangle

another view of the standing Buddha in the Sacred Quadrangle

another view of the standing Buddha in the Sacred Quadrangle – follow the path down to the end!

Ancient Polonnuruwa - Bana-sáláwa (The Preaching Place)

Polonnuruwa – Bana Salawa (The Preaching Place) – © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Lotus Mandapa in the Sacred Quadrangle at Polonnaruwa

The Lotus Mandapa in the Sacred Quadrangle at Polonnaruwa

rough-guide-sri-lanka-2015

If you are going to visit Polonnoaruwa – and spend the US$25. to enter the site – it would make sense to get as much out of it as possible!  The two following books provide the historical context and site details to enrich your visit.

An excellent hard copy guide book to take along on a Polonnaruwa visit is the Rough Guide To Sri Lanka. There is a detailed section dealing specifically with the individual structures in the archaeolgoical zone as well as a useful overview map and a detailed map of the Quadrangle.

The Cultural Triangle- Sri Lanka

Another excellent source of information on Polonnaruwa and on the other sites in the Cultural Triangle is this digital book available at Amazon in mobi format. The authors are David and Jennifer Raezer and you can find it at Amazon here. If you are an iPad user, having the book and its excellent architectural diagrams and floor plans available as you toured the side would definitely enrich your experience.  At $5.99 it is a investment that will repay itself quickly!

All of the Joseph Lawton photos come from the Victoria & Albert Museum Collection. Click here to see the entire portfolio of photographs which lawson took circa 1870-1871. I did process the jpg files in Adobe Lightoom to correct the white balance, as well as overall exposure levels and contrast.

Next Post: Ancient Polonnaruwa – The Ruins North Of The Quadrangle

Colombo’s National Museum – Some of What You’ll See

Previous Post: The Buddhist Baroque of Colombo’s Gangaramaya Vihara

Colombo Map - National Museum and neighbourhood

Sri Lanka's National Museum

Sri Lanka’s National Museum is located at the south end of Viharamahadevi Park not far from Galle Road and the Fort and Pettah districts.  As the repository of many of the moveable artifacts from the area where the country’s pre-modern history was played out ( the so-called “Cultural Triangle”), it houses some impressive examples of Sri Lanka’s cultural legacy.

the entrance to Colombo's National Museum

a seated Buddha figure awaits at the entrance to Colombo’s National Museum

The collection is housed in a Neoclassical-style building which goes back to British times, having been built in the early 1870’s and opening its doors in 1877. From a humble initial collection its holdings now number over 100,000 artifacts.  None is more dramatic than the very first one you see as you approach the entrance lobby.

the seated Buddha in meditation pose at the entrace of Sri Lanka's National Museum in Colombo

the seated Buddha in meditation pose at the entrance of Sri Lanka’s National Museum in Colombo

An unadorned seated Buddha carved out of limestone awaits  – exuding both serenity and strength. Created in the Anuradhapura area around 1300 years ago, it survived the collapse of that great Sinhalese capital. The elongated ears, the curly hair, the bump on the top of the head (the ushnisha), the hands in the classic meditation mudra (position) – but no attempt by the artists at creating the folded monastic robes that other Buddha figures sometimes are provided with.

looking up to the Buddha at the main entrance

looking up to the Buddha at the main entrance

The ground floor is divided into a number of rooms or galleries – each with its own theme.  What follows is a highly selective – that should probably read “subjective” ! – sample of exhibited sculptures that caught my eye. Room 1 deals with the island’s pre-history; rooms 2 and 3 have a number of Hindu and Buddhist statues of various sizes; rooms 4 and 5 concentrate on the more recent Kandy kingdoms before the British established complete control of the island in 1815. The second floor was not open for public viewing when I was there; a verandah on the ground floor has more examples of stonework rescued from various ancient sites on the island, but many are in poor shape.

I spent a very enjoyable hour and a half with the artifacts – mostly in Rooms 2 and 3! –  before I returned to the seated Buddha in the front lobby. The lighting and the glass, which is  often between the lens and the various artifacts,  can pose a real challenge to someone intent on taking better pix; I ended up shooting everything with a 35 mm prime lens on my Sony dslr; the results were – as you will see – not the best!

the Hindu goddess Durga.- from Anuradhapura 10th C jpg

the Hindu goddess Durga – from Anuradhapura 10th C

One thing the collection brought home was the presence of Hindu religious objects among the ruins of the ancient kingdoms.  Clearly the notion of an ancient Sri Lanka staunchly following the conservative Theravada path is the result of modern Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism and not really a true reading of the past.

the Hindu god Surya - a sculpture from 10th C Anuradhapura

the Hindu god Surya – a sculpture from 10th C Anuradhapura

The Vedic deity Surya holds a lotus in each and; behind him is the solar disk (partly broken off) associated with this sun god.  Not far from this piece from Anuradhapura, with its three major Buddhist monasteries, was this depiction of the multi-armed Hindu goddess Durga, a consort of the god Shiva, one of the three gods who make up the Hindu “Trinity”  – the Trimurti – along with Brahma and Vishnu.

another Durga sculpture from 10 th C C.E. Anuradhapura

another Durga sculpture from 10 th C C.E. Anuradhapura

The standing Buddha below, unlike the one in the entrance lobby, has been provided monk’s robes (which may show the influence of the Graeco-Indian  Gandhara style of Buddha depiction). He stands there very solidly and stiffly with his right shoulder uncovered – an apparent trait of Sinhalese Buddhas.

bronze standing Buddha figure from Kurunegala

bronze standing Buddha figure from Kurunegala

Anuradhapura was not only the home of the conservative Theravada school; to the north of the ancient city was the Abhayagiri Monastery which embraced a more liberal kind of Buddhism – the Mahayana school which would become so popular in China and Japan. The statue below depicts one of the three major bodhisattvas, the one associated with “Protection”. Along with Avalokitesvara (“Compassion”) and Manjushri (“Wisdom”) and a number of others, this bodhisattva is recognized for selflessly postponing his own nirvana so that he can help others get closer to the goal first.

Bronze solid cast Vajrapani Bodhisatva figure from Kurunegala - 800's C.E.

Bronze solid cast Vajrapani Bodhisatva figure from Kurunegala – 800’s C.E.

I was surprised to find this silver alloy cast figure of Tara among the gods and buddhas. I had always associated her with Tibetan Buddhism but given that Buddhism had barely arrived in Tibet when she was being created in Sri Lanka, I need to do more research about her story.  She is regarded as a bodhisattva with the quality of compassion, which connects her with Avalokitesvara.  This may help explain why in China the male Avalokitesvara became the female Kuan Yin.

silver cast Tara figure- 700's - 800's C.E.

silver alloy solid cast Tara figure –  800’s – 900’s C.E.

A better photo of a better sculpture of a standing Buddha figure, his right hand in the abaya  (“No Fear”) mudra. Like the one above he wears his form clinging robes with the right shoulder bare.

bronze solid cast - from Medavachiya near Anuradhapura - 9th C C.E.

bronze solid cast – from Medavachiya near Anuradhapura – 9th C C.E.

The  next two pieces were two of the ones I spent some time appreciating. The first depicts Buddha seated on a lotus in the meditation mudra (his hands resting in his lap). The ushnisha as flame of fire on the top of his head is a touch that would find its way to Burma and Thailand  in the centuries to come.

Seated Buddha from Veheragala near Anuradhapura - 9th C C.E.

Seated Buddha from Veheragala near Anuradhapura – 9th C C.E.

The next piece – while not as imposing –  rivals the Buddha in the front lobby for skill of artistic execution. The pose was often copied by  Buddhist sculptors and painters in other lands. (See here for one of my favourite Chinese depictions.)

Avalokitesvara bronze from Veheregala near Anuradhapura - height 49.8 cm.j 800's C.E

Avalokitesvara bronze from Veheregala near Anuradhapura – height 49.8 cm.j 800’s C.E.

Below on the left is a standing Tara figure; on the right is a guard stone taken from Polonnaruwa, the capital of a Sinhalese kingdom for a couple of centuries after the collapse of Anuradhapura. Three cobras provide a hood for the central figure, who is holding a tree branch and a vase (the punkalasa or pot of plenty). At his left foot is a dwarf figure.

female standing Buddha figure - info not recorded

female standing Buddha figure

Guardstone from Polonnaruwa - 12th C CE

Guardstone – Polonnaruwa – 12th C CE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More evidence of Hindu – as in Tamil – presence in  the Cultural Triangle a thousand years ago can be found in the following images, beginning with a skillfully done version of Shiva as Nata Raja, the Lord of the Dance, his dreadlocks flowing as he dances on the dwarf of ignorance.

Shiva - the Lord of the Dance

Shiva – the Lord of the Dance

More Hindu imagery followed with the following  stone sculptures.  One was of Nandi, a bull figure associated with Shiva.

stone sculpture of Nandi

stone sculpture of Nandi

The Hindu god Ganesha, son of Shiva and Parvati, was also represented with a number of sculptures.  Two of them are below, both depicting a seated elephant-headed figure and bearing a number of similarities, including a rather full belly.

Ganesha in stone - 12th C Polonnaruwa

Ganesha in stone – 12th C Polonnaruwa

Ganesha - gneiss - 12th C CE.

Ganesha – gneiss – 12th C CE.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And then it was back to the Buddha. First I contemplated this rather dour seated Buddha exhibiting all the usual characteristics.  And then I found a display that finally made clear to me how Sinhalese and other artists through the years had been able to maintain such uniformity of form in spite of the fact that each Buddha was made on its own.

seated Buddha in meditation posture - Polonnaruwa 12th C C.E.

seated Buddha in meditation posture – Polonnaruwa 12th C C.E.

Navatala Plumb Scale System used to create seated Buddha figure

Navatala Plumb Scale System used to create seated Buddha figure

diagram of Caturmana system applied to a seated Buddha figure

diagram of Caturmana system applied to a seated Buddha figure

Navatala system applied to buddha figure

Navatala system applied to buddha figure

I returned to the entrance lobby and the seated Buddha with a newfound appreciation of the “science” behind drawing the Buddha out from a large chunk of limestone.

one last shot of the seated Buddha at the entrancne of Colombo's National Museum

one last shot of the seated Buddha at the entrance of Colombo’s National Museum

And that was my quick tour of the National Gallery – not a long one and certainly not one that did justice to all the rooms – but it had been worth the visit.  I should mention that the entrance fee was 500 rupees and there was in all likelihood an additional 100 rupee fee for camera privileges.

It was followed by a late afternoon walk through Viharamahadevi Park up to the Town Hall, passing the large modern take of the seated and gilded Buddha on the way.  Odel’s Department Store was still open so I dropped in and did some gift shopping. It had been a very enjoyable day in Colombo and I was glad that I had left three days in my travel plans to explore parts of the city.  See below for some other related Sri Lanka posts:

 Seema Malaka: Colombo’s Serene island Buddhist Vihara

Buddhist Baroque: Colombo’s Gangaramaya Vihara Complex

The Ruins of Ancient Anuradhapura – Part One

The Ruins of Ancient Anuradhapura – Part Two

Seema Malaka: Colombo’s Serene Buddhist Island Vihara

central Colombo - Seema Malaka on the small lake just south of Beira Lake

central Colombo – Seema Malaka on the small lake just south of Beira Lake

It began with a pleasant early morning walk from my guesthouse (The Wayfarers’ Inn) on Rosemead Place in Colombo’s Cinnamon Garden District.  I walked on the path which traces the northern edge of a beautiful green space called Viharamahadevi Park. The previous afternoon I had visited the National Museum on the south side of the park; today I was headed to the Gangaramaya Vihara or Temple.  The map below will make clear my destination –  the east side of the small lake just below Beira Lake.

Seema Malaka and Gangaramaya Vihara Complex

Seema Malaka and Gangaramaya Vihara Complex – click here for the interactive Google map

Colombo’s Fort District is perhaps 1.5 kilometers to the north and Galle Face a little less. Both seem a world away from this serene little corner of the city.  My first destination was the structure you see in the image below – a set of three pods built in the 1980’s on a  design by Geoffrey Bawa, Sri Lanka’s most famous contemporary architect.

Seema Malaka on BeiraLake in Colombo

Seema Malaka on Beira Lake in Colombo

Known as Seema Malaka, this serene “island” is part of the Gangaramaya Vihara complex about two hundred meters away. The vihara’s  monks are ordained here.  It also provides a place for other rituals as well as an everyday meditation retreat.

Seema Malaka - the entranceway

To reach the central pod, you walk across a wooden pontoon bridge past the footprint of the Buddha and the reclining Buddha figure you see in the image above. Note the coins left by merit-seeking visitors in the footprint’s indentation!

Thai Buddhas line a Seema Malaka wall

Thai Buddhas line a Seema Malaka wall

Saving a visit to the central pod for later, I turned to the left and visited the second of the pods – the one with the Bo Tree and a number of Buddha statues large and small. Often in my viewfinder were the bronze Buddha statues donated to the Vihara by the government of Thailand. They illustrate nicely the various mudras (hand gestures) used by Buddhist artists to convey the Buddha’s story.

approaching the Bodhi tree buddhas at Seema malaka

approaching the Bodhi tree buddhas at Seema Malaka

the Bodhi tree Buddha at Seema Malaka

the Bodhi Tree Buddha at Seema Malaka

Seema Malaka's Bodhi Tree Buddha

Seema Malaka’s Bodhi Tree Buddha in the meditation (dhyana) mudra

For a moment I let the various Buddhas slip from my consciousness as I looked northwest to the ring of high-rises, a sign of better economic times for Sri Lanka now that the brutal civil war that scarred a generation has ended.

looking towards Galle Road and Downtown Colombo

looking towards Galle Road and Downtown Colombo]

And then it was back to my meditation on the bronze Thai Buddha and their mudras. This spot is a serene little island that lends itself perfectly to contemplation – and photography!  I was there at about 9:00 a.m.; it would have been nice to return near dusk for the very different light that a setting sun – and the lights of the city beyond –  would have provided.

refocussing on the Buddhas!

refocusing on the Buddhas!

Seema Malaka- three Buddhas, three mudras

Seema Malaka – three Buddhas, three mudras

Thai Buddhas and the dagoba

Thai Buddhas and the dagoba or stupa

Finally I approached the steps that lead into the main shrine room – the large building covered with the blue roof. The image below shows the moonstone and the two guardstones that mark the entrance. Spend any time in Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa and you will become very familiar with these classic Sinhalese architectural touches! The fearsome nagaraja figures, each with a halo of six cobra heads, stand guard.

concrete version  of classic Sinhalese architectural elements - guardstones and moonstone

concrete version of classic Sinhalese architectural elements – guardstones and moonstone

Seema Malaka - interior of main shrine room

Seema Malaka – interior of main shrine room

On the way out of the shrine room I passed by the third and smallest island pod. With its signboard reading “Treasury of Truth”, it serves as a library for the monastic community and was not accessible the morning I was there.

Seema Malaka - wooden bridge to small pod

Seema Malaka – wooden bridge to the smallest pod – “The Treasury of Truth”

Once over the pontoon bridge and past the parinirvana Buddha figure and the gigantic footprint – over a meter long – I looked back and I thought -“That was a great way to spend an hour”.  An hour and a half later I would have to revise that thought to include what was coming up – my visit to the main Gangarmaya Vihara complex just around the corner.  I didn’t know it yet but if the Seema Malaka was Zen, then the main vihara was Buddhist Baroque to the max.

 the Seema Malaka from the entrance

the Seema Malaka from the entrance

Next Post – Buddhist Baroque: Colombo’s Gangaramaya Temple Complex  The image below is of the vihara’s large central Buddha statue…

the main shrine of Gangaramaya's Temple

the main shrine of Gangaramaya’s Temple

Buddhist Baroque: Colombo’s Gangaramaya Temple

Previous Post: Seema Malaka: Colombo’s serene Buddhist Island Vihara

panorama of the Gangaramaya temple front

panorama of the Gangaramaya temple front – click on image to enlarge

To say I was overwhelmed does not even come close to capturing the initial breathless moment of stepping inside the main temple at the Gangaramaya Vihara complex.  I had just walked over after spending a very restful hour contemplating the mostly Thai Buddha sculptures at the stunning Seema Malaka.  As the image below slows, it is built out onto Beira Lake on three connected platforms. As a modern “take” on Sri Lanka’s forest monasteries designed by Sri Lanka’s renowned contemporary architect Geoffrey Bawa, it has an almost Zen-like feel to it.

Seema Malaka on BeiraLake in Colombo

Seema Malaka on BeiraLake in Colombo – used for various monastic ceremonies by the main temple – the Gangaramaya which is perhaps 300 meters away

Passing through the open gate I took off my shoes and sun hat and headed to one of the two side doors of the main temple.  To my right as I approached the door was a Chinese bronze statue of Kuan Yin and an even larger bronze of the Hindu deity Ganesha, the son of Shiva and Parvati. The elephant-headed god is known as the remover of obstacles and the patron of those about to embrace a new beginning.

Kuan Yin and Ganesha bronzes in the Gangaramaya courtyard

While I am not a believer, I am still moved when I visit holy places, whether humble village shrines or massive cathedrals and stupas. What I experienced as  I stepped into the Gangaramaya temple  I can only call Buddhist Baroque.  It is the opulent grandeur of ten thousand Buddhas looking at you thanks to effort of the temple planners to have artists and sculptors fill up every available space with different aspects of the Buddhist narrative. I’d never seen anything like this before  in my limited travels through the Buddhist world.

Gangaramaya Temple - one wall

Gangaramaya Temple – side view of seated Buddha…see two pix down for front view

I spent over an hour in the temple, inhaling the atmosphere and taking in all the details. It was all but empty most of the time I was there and I was able to take my time framing shots of the various tableaux and shrine areas.  I made major use of my ultra-wide angle lens – shooting mostly at the 35mm equivalent of 15mm – and the digital spirit level of my Sony dslr helped prevent the keynoting effect. At other times I just accepted the inevitable distortion as I framed the shot. I upped the iso to 3200 or 6400 and avoided the use of flash.

pointing my camera up in the Gangaramaya Temple

pointing my camera up in the Gangaramaya Temple

looking up at the second massive bodhisattva figure

looking up at the second massive bodhisattva figure

another Bodhisattva figure - perspective correction in Adobe Lightroom!

another shot of the above Bodhisattva figure – this time after using perspective correction in Adobe Lightroom!

Buddhas and bodhisattvas at the Gangaramaya Temple

Buddhas and bodhisattvas at the Gangaramaya Temple

two small Buddhas in Dhyana (

two small Buddhas in Dhyana (“meditation”) Mudra

Buddha and bodhisattvas - a different angle

Buddha and bodhisattvas – a different angle

close-up of Buddha figure in abhaya (%22fear not%22) mudra

close-up of Buddha figure in abhaya (“have no fear”) mudra

Gangaramaya ceiling sculpture

Gangaramaya ceiling sculpture above the side door I entered

close-up of ceiling corner buddha

close-up of ceiling corner buddha

the Buddhist equivalent of angels hovering around central figure

the Buddhist equivalent of angels hovering around central figure

meditating monks and bodhisattvas at Gangaramaya temple

meditating monks and bodhisattvas at Gangaramaya temple

the main shrine of Gangaramaya's Temple

the main shrine of Gangaramaya’s Temple

the temple's central Buddha figure in

the temple’s central Buddha figure in “earth witness” pose

parinirvana Buddha figures in front of the main seated Buddha sculpture

small parinirvana Buddha figures in front of the main seated Buddha sculpture

The Buddha depicted at the moment of his enlightenment, with his right hand touching the earth in what is called the Bhumisparsha (“Earth Witness”) mudra or posture. the Buddhas at his feet are associated with the moment of his death at the age of 80, when he slipped off into what is called parinirvana.

Chinese Buddha and bodhisattvas

Chinese Buddha surrounded by disciples and  bodhisattvas

two of the figures from the above image

two of the figures from the above image

I continued my clockwise tour of the temple complex grounds by stepping out of the shrine room and into a large courtyard with a stupa (called a dagoba in Sri Lanka). More buddha figures lined the stupa and the surroundings. Guardstones – with depictions of the Nagarajas or Snake Kings – and the moonstone in front of the altar emphasized the classic Sinhalese style of Anuradhapura.

dagoba at the Gangaramaya Temple complex

dagoba (i.e. stupa) at the Gangaramaya Temple complex

main shrine at the Gangaramaya dagoba

main shrine at the Gangaramaya dagoba

side view of the Gangaramaya stupa

side view of the Gangaramaya stupa – with copy of the famous bronze statue of Avalokitesvara – see here for a Wikipedia-sourced image

The mini-stupas above and the ones you see below are done in Borobudur style.  The bronze seated Buddhas in various positions.  One is the Vitarka (“discussion”) mudra, with the index finger and the thumb of the right hand forming a circle. the other is the Dhyana mudra which we have seen already; it has the two hands placed together in the lap and is associated with the Buddha in a state of meditation.

mini-dagobas in the Gangaramaya courtyard

mini-dagobas in the Gangaramaya courtyard

Thai bronze Buddhas with Borobudur stupas

Thai Buddhas - row on row

Thai Buddhas – row on row

Chinese bronzes inside the artifacts collection room

Chinese bronzes inside the artifacts collection room

As i wandered around the room of artifacts, I noted Buddha figures that seemed to come from all over. I am guessing that the one above is from China and the one below in from Japan. Who they are exactly i cannot say.  The intellectualized Buddhism that I have been attracted to throughout my life is devoid of the statues and rituals and the Jataka stories that are the bread and butter of Buddhist artists.  My loss!

I am intrigued by the symbolism behind the eight-armed Buddha below, holding an axe (maybe to cut through ignorance?), a dharma wheel, a flag of victory,  perhaps a conch, and symbols of the moon and sun – but what does it all mean? What is the story behind it? Let me know in the comments section below if you are familiar with the details.

eight-armed seated Buddha figure

eight-armed seated Buddha figure

just a few statures of the massive Buddha collection

just a few statures of the massive Buddha collection

The temple is active in community affairs, providing technical training courses to over 7000 students daily at the various schools it has established. Its website details a new project to be launched in the Hambantota district on the south side of the island.  Given that the current President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa,  is from this region, he and the head monk have even more to talk about than the temple’s general contributions to the community.

photo of current Sri Lankan president and head monk of Gangaramaya

photo of current Sri Lankan president and head monk of Gangaramaya

overview of back of artifact collection room

overview of the back of artifact collection room

Along with the massive elephants tusks, the temple complex also has its own elephant, appropriately named Ganga.  She is nine years old and has spent the past seven years at the temple, after being born in the Kattaragama district. For the past three Februarys she has appeared in the annual Nawam Perahera, a procession of monks and elephants carrying sacred relics  which makes its  way through the streets of this area of Colombo.  Google Nawam Perahera and you’ll be treated to dozens of colourful images of the event. The day I was there, Ganga was apparently off for a walk with her mahout in a nearby park. Some visitors are distressed on seeing her chained to a pillar on a very short metal leash. Others don’t seem to see the chains and are delighted by her presence!

display cases and elephant tusks at Gangarama Temple complex

display cases and elephant tusks at Gangarama Temple complex

My visit to Gangaramaya was an unexpected highlight of my visit to Sri Lanka. I entered the gates not knowing anything about the temple. i emerged over an hour later dazzled by the rich – and yes, sometimes a hodge-podge and sometimes kitschy,  collection of Buddhist statues and images. And while I am sure I missed most of the symbolism and identities of the various figures as they looked sympathetically at me, it was still a great experience.

Now I know what Japanese tourists with a solid Buddhist background must feel like as they stand in the middle of the Sistine Chapel and try to make sense of all the awe-inspiring Biblical images from the Old Testament they are surrounded by!

Useful Links:

The Temple has its own website and provides ample evidence of an extensive community outreach program.

Trip advisor has a string of comments from visitors to the temple complex. See here for a variety of views and the overall score.  It currently ranks 8th for things to do in Colombo!

Wikipedia has a short article on the temple, as well as more links which delve deeper into certain related topics.

Obviously the more you know about Buddhism before you wander into the temple, the more you will recognize and appreciate.  Two things that will help you along are these:

  1. the basic life story of the Siddhartha Gautama who became the Buddha; and

  2. the various poses used by sculptors to convey various moments in the Buddha’s story.  See this Wikipedia article on mudras for a quick introduction.