The Cultural Triangle

After leaving Kandy we headed north into a district within the centre of Sri Lanka called the “Cultural Triangle”. The cultural triangle has within its bounds a high concentration of historical sights, ruins and temples, and five UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Kandy forms part of this boundary with the Temple of the Tooth being one of the UNESCO sights. We spent three days in this region and visited two towns, Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa. Both had amazing sights to see. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The distance between Kandy and Sigiriya, the town we are going to make our home base, is just 98 km. This journey took 4 hours. Bus travel is heavily used and is slow. The roads are often crowded, winding and narrow. The bus does lots of stops along the way to drop off and pick up passengers and every few hours will take a longer stop where there is a toilet available and snacks to buy. It’s hard to believe the length of time it takes to travel the relatively short distances but for the most part we are generally on the move.

We took two buses to get to Sigiriya. The first was a comfortable air-conditioned bus ($1.85) that took 2 ½ hours to travel the first 84 km, but the second bus ($.40) for the final 14 km of our journey was standing room only, three people deep in the aisle, and no air conditioning. As packed as we were all on the bus, at one stop the bus stayed for 20 minutes while even more people crammed in, the heat was oppressive. It was a painful 14km that took 1½ hours to travel.

Sigiriya Rock from a distance.
Sigiriya Rock from a distance.

The reason we chose to stay in Sigiriya is to see Sigiriya Rock which was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1982. Sigiriya Rock, also known as Lion Rock, was said to be built as a palace/fortress by King Kassapa between Ad 477 and 485. This citadel sits atop a giant granite rock 200 metres above the surrounding countryside. Before the rock is a large rectangular area bordered by a moat and multiple embankments. Within the enclosure are landscaped gardens, divided into water, boulder and terrace sections. The entrance fee to this site was $39! The most expensive we have paid to this point to get into anything has been $10 (Temple of the Tooth).

To get to the top, it was an arduous climb of 1200 steps in 34 degree weather. The final ascent to the summit had at one time a colossal granite lion guarding the staircase. The lion’s massive paws are all that remain of the structure but these are impressive. The rock is also known for its well preserved frescoes of celestial nymphs that can be seen in a sheltered gallery on one of the rock faces. Of the estimated original 500 frescoes, only 21 remain today. They date from around the 5th century.

Note lion paws at base of staircase.
Note lion paws at base of staircase.
Top of Sigiriya Rock showing remains of former buildings.
Top of Sigiriya Rock showing remains of former buildings.
Fresco drawing from 5th century.
Fresco drawing from 5th century.

The following day we took a day trip by bus to Polonnaruwa to see another UNESCO World Heritiage Site, the ruins of a Sinhalese kingdom established by King Vijayabahu I in AD 1077 ($32.50 entrance fee). There were numerous

Rankot Vihara
Rankot Vihara

structures that we saw throughout the vast complex but I will only mention three here. First there was the impressive Rankot Vihara, a dagoba (def’n – a dome-shaped shrine containing relics of the Buddha or a Buddhist saint) that is more than 50 metres high which makes it the fourth largest dagoba in Sri Lanka. Secondly, the Vatadage was interesting architecturally, this dagoba once

Vatadage
Vatadage

housed the tooth relic, prior to the tooth being moved to Kandy.  The central dagoba is set on a raised terrace surrounded by a brick wall. Entrances at the four cardinal points lead to the terrace, from which another set of steps climb up to the dagoba. A Buddha statue greets visitors at the top step of each of the four landings. And third, what I found to be the highlight of the ruins was the Gal Vihara, a shrine comprised of a group of four beautiful Buddha statues carved out of a single slab of granite. The reclining Buddha is the main attraction, but there are also two seated Buddhas and one in the standing pose.

Gal Vihara, lying Buddha
Gal Vihara, lying Buddha
Gal Vihara, standing Buddha
Gal Vihara, standing Buddha

The Polonnaruwa ruins were spread over a lot of acreage and to see the ruins we rented bicycles to ride around the complex. It is again 34 degrees and it is very humid. The heat and the pedaling took a lot out of us. Being dehydrated all day from heat, it was a struggle to get enough water into ourselves. We consumed all the water we brought with us and bought 3 extra litres throughout the day. We are both finding the heat intense.

Other than sightseeing, one of the things I enjoy is seeing the wildlife and how people interact with the various creatures. In India you just get used to seeing cows wherever you go and you don’t think anything of passing a cow on the road while you are in a taxi or walking by a cow on the sidewalk in the shop area. In Sri Lanka, I notice the monkeys much more than any other animal, although monkeys were also quite prevalent in India. Sri Lanka also has lots of dogs and they seem to like to lie on the edge of the highway and are quite used to traffic. I don’t think the dogs care if a car or bus is speeding towards them, they feel it is the driver’s responsibility to go around them, and not for them to get out of the way.

Wildlife just seems part of the landscape. One morning in Sigiriya while having breakfast I looked out at the highway and there taking up one of the two lanes was an elephant! A hotel down the way from us owned an elephant and they were walking it down the highway. In the other lane was a bus stopped, picking up passengers. The elephant was almost as big as the bus. An odd scene but somehow not out of the norm while in Sri Lanka.

The last two days of sightseeing were awesome, among the best of the whole trip. We would have liked to take another day trip to another UNESCO site but the Tamil New Year was approaching and the entire nation was about to be shut down. If we didn’t leave Sigiriya now we would be stuck there for several more days and the heat was just too intense. We both were melting and decided to go to cooler climates. We are heading to another hill station…..

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