After spending much of the day at Anuradhapura, went over to Mihintale for a short visit. As it was Poya Day, this area was also very crowded. Exhausted and hot, we elected not to climb the 1,843 steps up to Mihintale. Instead we drove up to near the top and climbed a shorter distance.
We would recommend others to do the day in reverse–Mihintale first when you have energy for the climb. Or spend two days seeing the sites.
This site dates to 247 BC. It is believed to be where a Buddhist monk from India named Mahinda brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka by converting King Devanamplayatissa. As a result, this site is revered by the Singhalese.
At the top there are three places to climb further. One is Kantaka Chetiya, a dagoba built around 250BC. We tried to climb but the wait was too long so we only went halfway.
Pulling into the parking lot, the first thing we see is a giant golden Buddha. It’s quite cheesy. This can’t really be Dambulla. We were expecting more majestic and serious. This was indeed the entrance to the famous Dambulla Cave Temples. To the side began the staircases that take you 160 meters up to the 2,000 year old caves. We hoped the climb was worth it.
Then Champika, our driver, said come back to the car– there is an easier way up. A few short minutes later we arrived at another spot. We got out of the car and looked up. And groaned. Another set of steep stairs. The day before we had been to Sigirya and climbed 1,200 steps.
We began to climb with great expectations. We entered the first Cave. If we weren’t already out of breathe, it would have taken our breath away.
The Dambulla caves date back to the 1st century BC, though there are caves and buddhas that have been added recently. There are 5 caves with more than 150 Buddhas and paintings. It is thought to have been established during the 1st century BC by King Valagamba.
As we walking into the dimly lit first cave, the first thing we saw was a 45 foot long reclining Buddha. It was indeed impressive.
The second cave is the largest–the Temple of the Great King. It is 150 feet wide and 20 feet high. There are 2 statues of King Valagamba. On the ceiling we saw water running upwards before dropping into a huge urn. This water is used for sacred rituals because the upward flow is so unusual. The main Buddha statue sits under a cobra hood and was once covered in gold leaf. There are dozens of Buddhas in the cave and the ceiling is covered in painting.
The third cave was converted from a store room in the 18th century and has a beautiful reclining buddha. There isn’t too much to say about the 4th cave. The fifth cave has both Buddhist and Hindu imagery.
It was definitely worth the climb. As we began to exit, we looked up and saw a beautiful rainbow above the caves. We took this as a good omen and began the climb down.
We set off to see Anuradhapura on our first morning in Sri Lanka. We were excited to see this UNESCO world heritage site. We knew it was large and we would be able to see only a small portion. As we got closer, the traffic started to get heavy. And there were hundreds of families in all manner of transport. Some walking. Some in three-wheelers. Some on motorcycles and bikes. Every age was represented from very elderly to infants in their parent’s arms. Many were dressed in all white and often barefoot.
We asked Champika what was happening. He told us that it was Poya Day. Once a month, the morning after a full moon is Poya Day and everyone goes to pray. And we mean EVERYONE. Sri Lanka is 70% Buddhist and many businesses are closed on Poya Day.
Families arrive early in the morning and most don’t leave until dusk. Along the path to the Temple were tents featuring free food for the devotees. Many families hung out eating, sleeping and generally resting in between their pilgrimages to the dagobas.
Visitors to these sacred grounds must remove hats and footwear. Mind you in the 90 degree weather we hoped our soles would withstand the hot sand and stones. There were booths for leaving your foot ware to keep safe though many people arrived barefoot and other left their shoes on the floor outside the temples.
Devotees carry a bunch of fragrant flowers as offerings to their gods. They walk around the stupas several times praying.
Especially crowded was the site of the Sri Maha Bodhi tree. This sacred tree was grown from a cutting brought from Bodhgaya in India. High security surrounds the sacred oldest tree in the Sri Lankan Buddhist world. People were offering up robes & bowls for the monks in exchange for blessings.
Several days are needed to see the full site. We saw just a small portion and had the chance to experience Poya Day.
After walking in bare feet on sand, gravel and very hot stones, we had one more stop–Mihintale.
Driving in Sri Lanka is an endless adventure not for the faint of heart.
Let’s start with the roads. Many roads are single lane and well paved. Outside the cities most of the side roads are dirt.
But size does matter.
Apparently any road large enough for 1 car is big enough for cars going in both directions. This presents some interesting logistical and geometric challenges when a car comes face to face with a truck traveling in the opposite direction.
Then there are your companions on the road. At any given moment, you might find cows, lizards, dogs, water buffalo and elephants sharing the road.
There are also bicycles, buses, trucks, tuk-tuks (or three wheelers as they are called here), motorcycles, people. And there are fruit and vegetable stands everywhere with lots of people stopping to buy.
Three-wheelers are like mosquitos. They buzz around and move into any empty space on the road. Zip. Zip. Zip.
Now, three-wheelers and trucks drive slower than cars. That means that it takes forever to get to your destination…unless you pass them. How to do that? On a real two lane road (one lane in each direction), beep twice and then pass. This can be tricky on curvy mountain roads. And sometimes, there are three or four slow moving vehicles in a row. Some drivers will pass them all in one shot. Others pass 1 at a time.
With all of this we saw very few accidents. Sri Lankans are very good drivers. Though we did almost have a heart attack a couple of times.
And one last thing, schools let out at 1:30 causing massive traffic jams. Try to stay off the road during that time.
Polonnaruwa dates to 1270 AD and was the second most ancient kingdom of Sri Lanka. It is a world heritage site with hundreds of Temples and other structures.
There is almost 1000 years of history here. This was the capital of the South Indian Chola dynasty in the late 10th century. It sits at the head of a man-made lake that was created in the early 1200s.
One of our favorite sites was Gal Vihara. This is a grouping of 4 Buddha images carved from one large slab of granite.
The reclining Buddha is 14 meters long (about 42 feet) is said to be a depiction of the Buddha entering nirvana (after death). The site is very impressive and haunting. The first Buddha is 7 meters and is thought to be an image of Ananda, one of the Buddha’s disciples, mourning the Buddha’s ascendancy to Nirvana.
Buddhists believe that a Tooth from the Buddha is being kept safe at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. It is one of the holiest places in Sri Lanka and every Singhalese Buddhist is expected to make at least one pilgrimage in their life to the Temple in Kandy. Last night we joined many people and pilgrims for the opening of the Stupa to catch a glimpse of the place the Tooth is kept. Below is the performance done right before the opening of the Stupa.
We spent the last two days visiting ancient temples and ruins in the northwestern part of Sri Lanka. Today we were in Anuradhapura at Jetavaranama–the first capital of Sri Lanka from 380 BC to 1200 AD–and then Minhitale Temple–one of the most sacred places for Buddhists in the country. The sites were very interesting and fun to see.
We’ve been to temples all over the world and today brought some unique experiences. First, it was prayer day. Once a month, usually after the full moon, the government announce Prayer Day and everyone goes to the temples to pray. Second, it was 31 degrees centrigrade. Third, the Sri Lankan temples have a million stairs. Even the hotels have a ton of stairs. Today we walked the equivalent of 40 flights of stairs. And finally, you cannot wear shoes in the temples. That means most of the 40 flights we walked barefoot on stones that were very, very hot. While we hobbled along with our hot feet feeling every hot stone, pebble and grain of sand, Sri Lankan’s of all ages easily walked and climbed and prayed.
The morale of the story–train your feet and quads before going to Sri Lanka.