Sri Lankan Sojourns: The Cultural Triangle.
Popularly known as the ‘cultural triangle’ and situated in the northern plains of Sri Lanka, this area of the country with the green hills of the central highlands, dry zones covered in thorny scrub and jungle punctuated by isolated mountainous outcrops, was traditionally referred to as Rajarata, or ‘The King’s Land’. This was the crucible of early Sinhalese civilization and was centered on the then great cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, but also includes the rock citadel of Sigiriya and the cave temples of Dambulla.
Despite the heart of this unique world heritage site being Anuradhapura, which was the capital of the island from the third century BC to 993 AD and one of medieval Asia’s great metropolises, dotted with vast monasteries, elaborate palaces, enormous tanks, we didn’t get there!
Our journey started from Negombo, and enroute to Sigiriya, we stopped at Dambulla.
Centrally situated at the heart of the Cultural Triangle, the dusty little town of Dambulla’s claim to fame is for its fabulous cave temples: five dimly lit grottoes crammed with statues and decorated with some beautifully executed murals on the rock faces. The place is naturally busy, it’s a huge tourist attraction, and various advice sites had warned of the steep hike to reach the top.Undaunted, we figured this was good ‘training’ to tackle the rock citadel on the following day. An easy climb up steps worn away by centuries of devoted feet the most disturbing elements were the numerous exhausted looking dogs and the damn monkeys – to which Brunyfire has a heightened fear and loathing! Nevertheless, and despite having to surrender our shoes to enter the cave temple, it was worth it! A fabulously moody interior with numerous carved Sinhalese Buddhas, reclining and sitting, made from the Mother rock herself.15km northeast of Dambulla, we traveled onto the spectacular citadel of Sigiriya. An almost stand alone edifice, the Sigiriya or Lion Rock stands some 200m above the surrounding countryside.Studying it over a cocktail from the lounge of the Hotel Sigiriya seemed like a very civilized introduction. But we had committed ourselves to meeting up with Jaga at 6.30 the following morning to embark on climbing to the top – a feat we were expecting to take quite some time. The rock mass comprises of the hardened magma plug of an extinct volcano – long since eroded but leaving plenty of natural cave shelters and rock overhangs.So early the next day found us situated at the first of many steps – looking down was just as intriguing.Popular myth has it that the formation served royal and military functions during the reign of King Kassapa (AD 477–495), who allegedly built a kind of pleasure garden and palace on the summit. However, a new theory supported by archaeological and other cultural evidence, suggests that Sigiriya was never a fortress or palace, but rather a long-standing Mahayana and Theravada Buddhist monastery built several centuries before the time of King Kassapa. Denying the feelings of vertigo, and mastering the tight treads of an ascending spiral staircase to view the site’s much treasured cave frescoes of buxom women, we read that these ladies were not from Kassapa’s court, as was popularly believed but were intended to represent Tara Devi, an important Mahayana Buddhist goddess.Onwards and upwards through the remains of the lion’s paws and onto the scariest set of steps clinging to the overhanging sides of the rock face. Looking down, it’s not hard to imagine the sophistication that the ruins suggest today in its architectural, engineering, urban planning, hydraulic technology, gardening and artistic achievements. Unesco declared Sigiriya a World Heritage Site in 1982.The once great city of Polonnaruwa was the island’s second capital during its heyday in the 12th century and for several centuries was the centre of imperial pomp that transformed itself briefly into one of the great urban centres of South Asia. However, the excesses of the city soon became its downfall and successive invasions from outside saw it abandoned to the jungle where it remained for a further seven centuries until the middle of the 20th century.Now, amongst the tumbled ruins, we are still required to show the respect that the temple sites demand. We remove our shoes when entering the temple remains – getting a textural grip through the soles of our feet on the steps with some of the symbols that reflected the city’s great past. In Sri Lanka, the elephant’s close association with the local people has an ancient past through traditional and religious activities. This association dates back to the pre-Christian era, more than 5,000 years ago when ancient Sinhalese kings captured and tamed elephants.
The central feature of the park is the ancient Minneriya Tank (built in the 3rd century AD by King Mahasena) which, during the dry season (June to September) attracts thousands of elephants who come to bathe and graze on the grasses. Minneriya forms part of an elephant corridor between the national parks of Kaudulla and Wasgomuwa. Large numbers of the beasts can be found at Minneriya at certain times of the year during their migrations between the parks. They are most numerous during August and September when water elsewhere dries up and hundreds gather at the tank’s ever-receding shores to drink, bathe, feed, socialize and search for mates. This annual event is known as ‘The Gathering’ and is the largest meeting of Asian elephants anywhere in the world.
At the time of our visit, there were dozens of safari jeeps. Hardly surprising that at least one frisky teenage elephant became a little pissed off at so much attention, especially as the herd attempted to cross the road that most of the jeeps occupied, that he chased several jeeps, ours included, waving and trumpeting his outrage.
Despite the bruises, it was an exhilarating ride.