At the main entrance to Dambulla, I had to pay my tourist fee; Weerisinghe, as a Sinhalese was free to enter. Of course we had to leave our shoes at the entrance. Once inside, we ambled around the forecourt. Little brown monkeys squawked everywhere, chattered in trees, played on the hot rocks, took water from the rainfed ponds. You had to have your wits about you not to lose a camera or wallet. Several were bold enough to come up to people and look expectantly for food, and , if you were not looking, put a paw in your pocket. The rock itself had been cut away, and the forecourt was lined with sets. A bo tree grew in one part of the courtyard, and there was a small wall to lean out to view the expansive panorama to the south. On the rock side, a colonnade guarded the entrance to the five caves. It was not original, at one time the caves were exposed to the elements, but they were deep enough not to be affected by the rain, and the clever Sinhalese had cut a groove in the rock above the entrance to all the caves which allowed water from the rock to form drips, like the metal ends of an umbrella’s spokes, to make sure the water did not run back into the painted walls of the caves. The colonnades were recent Victorian additions.
The reason such protection was necessary was because in this one temple, there were 150 images of Buddha, some enormous, some tiny, and all in one of the three positions of Buddha; Sitting (cross legged in lotus position), Standing or lying, and depending on the hands, feet or eyes, he could Sleeping, Teaching, Praying, Meditating or Dead. When I had seen the temples in Kandy and on the road from Colombo, no-one had really explained to me what it all meant, but now one of the monks guided me around the temple and he made sure that he repeated the teaching as often as possible so it would go home. After seeing a couple of hundred other Buddhas in the next few days, it did stick, although I must say much of it has disappeared from the grey matter again now.
Apart from the huge number of Buddhas, what caught my eye was the full colour of these. Most of the statues I had seen had peeling paint work or none at all. All of the Dambulla Buddhas were vivid, and the simplistic painting of his face and clothes were made stark by these bright colours. As I was led from Cave 1 to Cave 2 to Cave 3 the number of Buddhas multiplied before my eyes. Cave 3 was the largest, with nearly half of all the Buddhas lining the sides. Some rainwater had affected a few of these, but they were still in pretty good condition. I have a lot of respect for other religious wishes and understood that I should not take photographs inside the temple, but apparently the easy going Buddhists had allowed it up until a few years before. Then a German woman visited the temple, and decided that to get to the right place, the right angle, to take a shot of the cave, she would have to stand on one of the statues and look down, and as she did so a large lump of plaster came off. The irresponsibility of one woman meant no-one was now allowed to photograph inside the caves. Perhaps it is a good thing, the thought of thirty flashes a minute would have spoilt the calm atmosphere in the temple.
The monk, kitted out in his orange swathes and bald head, talked long about the teachings of Buddha, but he also asked much about my family and my purpose for visiting Dambulla. The fourth and fifth caves, like with the Perahera, were more of the same. I rejoined Weerisinghe, who had been sitting on the wall having one of his customary smokes, and we headed back to the car, a small donation to the monk having been duly passed. When we reached the bottom, our thirst took us over, but rather than reach for my usual lime soda, Weerisinghe organised a man to give us coconut juice. Taking a massive orange coconut, the man sliced the top off with a machete and shaped it nicely. I’ve heard some people say how difficult it is to drink from a coconut until practiced. This is baloney, the man simply put a plastic straw in the top and I drank. I love coconut juice and it was very refreshing in the mid afternoon heat. I am less taken with coconut meat, but duly allowed the man to slice open the coconut, form a spoon with some of the hard outer casing and scoop out this stuff with the consistency of white egg custard. I’ve never been a big fan of egg custard either.
Once full, we paid our rupees and got back on the road. It was still too early to go to the hotel , so I asked Weerisinghe to take me to Avukane. We headed north through the true village of Dambulla, what we had passed through was only the outer limits next to the cave. Dambulla itself sits at the major crossroads in the north of the country. The A9 from Kandy meets the A6 from Colombo. The A6 splits off a mile further on and heads northeast to Trincomalee. The A9 goes north towards Anuradhapura and finally to Jaffna – the road signs give the distance to Jaffna even though it was impossible to drive there. The centre of the town seems to be one large taxi rank and bus station, with a few stores around. It was still not as substantial as I had expected. No-one stays in Dambulla, merely passes through.
It was near Dambulla that I saw the army passing through. Twenty personnel carriers full of young soldiers heading towards the front. How many would head back was anyone’s guess. The official government figures were not to be trusted; the Tamils overstated their successes. But many families in Sri Lanka had been losing their late teenage sons for many years now. They roared along the road in front of us and headed north up the A6 towards Trincomalee while we went north up the A9. Only a few miles further on, at Kekirawa, we turned off and travelled down a more minor but still straight road.
It ended at the small village of Avukana. Cut into a rock face on a small hill at the rear of the village is a 36 foot standing Buddha. Every inch of him, from the flame above his head to his bare feet, and all the folds in his attire are carved from the same piece of rock, reputedly the largest ancient one piece Buddha in Sri Lanka. He had been shrouded in an enormous brick arch, which keeps the worst of the weather off, but even so he is magnificent. However, like a tourist of Europe tired of too many churches, I was beginning to have my fill of Buddhas, and instead rested a while near the Bo tree in the temple grounds. A family came bustling up the path from the village and while the adults took some time for prayers, the children noisily ran amongst the rocky outcrops.
The shadows were lengthening as I reached Weersinghe and we agreed to make our way to Sigirya. We drove along a bund, on a well made causeway above some irrigated fields. This was one of the many causeways that sped between the irrigated systems fed by the Mahaweli Authority. But interspersed between these modern features was a historical irrigation system, built by the ancient Sinhalese kings more than 2000 years before us. They had built long, low dams across the flat land, capturing the minimal water flows of the northern plain, which formed large shallow lakes they now call tanks. The control of water has always been seen as the sign of a great civilisation and the creation of tanks by the Anuradhapuran kings was a superlative example. They diverted the rivers into new valleys, and the tanks worked in unison to feed a series of agricultural centres throughout the kingdom. When one area was short, sluices would be open and the water from a tank near the hill country would fill up a tank further north. Although many fell into disrepair in the intervening years, there are still hundreds of these large and small scattered across the countryside. Many are still used by the Mahaweli Authority to water the irrigation systems. Others which had become havens for bird life are preserved as sanctuaries. Still more are available for recreational purposes. Perhaps the most curious feature of the ancient irrigation system was found when the Mahaweli Authority was building some canals of their own. They had surveyors, used aerial photographs and satellite imagery, and had all the experience of hydrological and engineering science behind them to place these canals in the landscape. When they started digging, they came across the stone edges of an ancient canal, perfectly aligned with the projected course of the new. Dug 2000 years beforehand without all the technical tools available, the ancient engineers had chosen the very same route.
We passed round the foot of two of these tanks, the Balalu Wewa and Kala Wewa. We took some back roads to reach Sigiriya, and on one road I was amazed to see a bunch of scarecrows on some loose wooden scaffolding. Weerisinghe explained it was like a scarecrow but aimed at wild elephants. It was very rare to see a wild elephant, they were normally very shy, but they were attracted to the farmers’ crops both at night and day. The loss of crops, as I had seen in Africa, was devastating for these poor people, and they took as many precautions as they could afford to stop the elephants wiping out their livelihoods. These scare-elephants, as I suppose they could be called, were all over the countryside here, seven of eight wooden people dressed in fine coloured clothes and with garish faces. The principle of warding off elephants by giving the impression there was someone around all the time seemed sound, but I couldn’t help thinking the elephants had more intelligence.
We arrived at Sigiriya in the setting sun, and once I had settled into my hotel and had a quick dip in the pool, I walked along the road back to the entrance to the ancient palace. In the middle of the bush, a huge cuboid stone rose above the trees, and on its summit, the great winter palace of the kings of Anuradhapura. In the setting sun, the sandstone flanks glowed brightly, first orange, and then a glorious red. The shadows lengthened and merged, the surrounding land became one and eventually, only a faint glimmer of sunlight reflected off the peak of the stone. I watched this natural performance avidly and then started for home and some dinner (I was to eat rather “Internationally” at the hotel that night). I stopped outside a little roadside bar across from the rock, no-one took any notice of me. They were all watching the TV with as much concentration as I had paid to the rock. The funeral cortege was just beginning the long slow drive up the M1 to Althorp.