Kandy – Premadasa and Polonnaruwa

Premadasa took me on his little motorbike.  Up to that stage I think I had ridden pillion on a bike twice in my life with two people I trusted enormously, on the relatively smooth streets of Medway, but this old machine was bouncing along the bumpy dust tracks in the village surrounding the rock.  I clung on to Premadasa for dear life, so tight at one stage that he turned his head and asked me whether he could start to breath again.  We were not wearing any helmets, and if one of the cows which crossed our path had decided to stop in front of us, I could not have vouched for either of our lives.

We stopped at the foot of the hill and Premadasa led me up a path which wound gently clockwise around the north side of the hill.  At a couple of places as we rose, the rock jutted out in a similar way to Sigiriya and underneath was a sleeping Buddha.  Unpainted, the silvery shine on his clothes was quite mystical.  Unfortunately , several parts of these Buddhas were weathered away, but one enclosed cave had brightly painted statues with all the adornments one would expect.  This was the first Buddhist temple I had been to that did not have tourists swarming around, but it was still kept to the same standards.  We continued to wrap around the hillside till we came to the hill top, another rocky platform.  The view was as good as from Sigiriya itself, with one notable exception – you could look back at Sigiriya from here.  The full magnificence of this rock could be seen, the sloping sides of the hill reaching up to the Lions Paws and then the sheer block of rock on which sits the palace.  Now I could get some sense of the scale of the original lion which would have looked straight over at us.  It would have covered a good proportion of the north face of the rock.

Premadasa and I dropped down a little and he showed me a shady corner of this hillside, the rocks overhanging slightly and surrounded with trees.  But, like the perfect look out, the view to the Sigiriya Rock was still unblocked.  We sat for a while to catch our breath and Premadasa and I talked about our different backgrounds.  Of a very similar age to me, he was a proud young man, full of learning and understanding about his life, and appreciative of the lives of others; I suppose he has seen so many tourists from all over the world pass through that it gave a more open perspective than one would normally achieve living in a small village.  A bond began to grow between us that, by the time we had descended the hill, each giving a helping hand to get across some of the larger gaps between rocks, Premadasa made his mind up to invite me to his house for dinner.  Slightly uncertain of the protocol, but delighted to be asked, I accepted.  I told him I would be back from Polonnaruwa by sundown and he would come and pick me up – on the motorbike again.

I told Weernsinghe about my appointment when we returned.  He just shrugged his shoulders as if to suggest it was all he would have expected in Sri Lanka.  It was now late morning and we headed for Polonnaruwa, but rather than use the main road we went through the jungle track to the east of the village.  Weernsinghe was hoping we might see a wild elephant.  We kept our eyes peeled but apart from a few birds there was very little life at that time of day in the thorny scrub.  We rejoined the main road a few miles out of town.  I was getting hungry by now as we had had a very early start.  As we approached the town, we ran round the north side of the Parakrama Samudra tank, and drove past the ancient city  – I got glimpses of it through the trees, before approaching the small centre of the modern town.  The road bends sharply to the left just before reaching Main Street, but Main Street was little more than a few shop fronts in a very dusty street.  We managed to get some short eats at a little café and drove back towards the ancient city to eat them.

The contrast between the modern and ancient times was stark.  Noisy and tranquil, chaotic and ordered, slummy and grandiose.  The first area we looked at was the Royal Palace compound, a maze of low stone walls in amongst finely cut grass and scrub.  In the centre of this complex, high walls still exist of the ancient palace itself, and the open space in the centre must have been spectacular.  To one side of the palace was the ancient Audience Hall, where visitors were received.  It looks like a wide stone wedding cake, with three layers, intricately carved elephants in friezes around the side.  The remains of pillars line the edge of the top layer and it would be imagined there would be a wooden roof like the one I had seen in Kandy.  Up close the level of decoration could be appreciated, almost every inch of flat stone had been carved out with figures, animals, spirits and plants.  Beyond the Audience Hall the well preserved remains of the Bathing Pool lies in a small depression.  Although there was no water in it, again the imagination could take you back a thousand years to see various princes sitting in the water on stone benches, attended by whoever, water continuously spurting from a series of spouts around the pool and drained from the base.

The ruins of Polonnaruwa are so large that in the scolding heat in the middle of the day, it would be suicide to attempt to walk around. So Weernsinghe drove me around. From the Royal Palace it was only a short distance to the Quadrangle, an area of incongruous ancient buildings, mostly intact despite 1000 years of weathering.   The first of these we saw was the Thuparama, a long almost rectangular building with a low tower, it might pass for a village church in Britain if it were not for the multitude of sculptures on the walls.  Inside it is a temple with the usual array of Buddhas.  Nearby stands a large round structure – the Vatadage.  Its entrance was guarded by two statues set in stone archways, actually called Guardstones, depicting two cobra kings, and your feet pass over the most intact moonstone I found in Polonnaruwa.  This is not the semi precious stones I had seen in Galle Road in Colombo, but a semi-circular flat stone with rings of designs depicting the many facets of Buddha’s teachings.  In the steps, tiny dwarves were sculpted in various poses, some of them rather cheeky, and at the top of the stairs a Buddha in lotus position looked down with more sombre air.  Inside this huge circular vatadage was a small dagoba.  I had seen these in other places, but never placed them as an important component of a Buddhist temple.  Generally I had seen the buildings with their statues of Buddha in various poses as the focus of prayer, but dagobas are just as important.  Generally round (although I have seen some rectangular bases), the rise to a point topped with a spike.  Although there is often a chamber deep inside which may have some important relic of Buddha, the prayer occurs around the outside of this structure, and people pass clockwise around them as they pray.  While most dagobas are modest affairs, perhaps reaching twenty feet in the air, the Royal cities built bigger and bigger dagobas.  I saw a couple in Polonnaruwa that were at least fifty feet high.  In Anuradhapura the following year I saw even larger ones, a few of which had been repainted in the traditional white style.  When I looked back at Anuradhapura from the nearby temple high on a hill above Mihintale, the city of Anuradhapura looked like the front cover of a 50p sci-fi book; in amidst the green jungle and occasional lakes grew these weird white domes.  One in Anuradhapura was rather decrepid and was being restored, but when complete it is estimated it would be 300 feet high.  The number of bricks it must have taken makes it similar in stature as the Pyramids of Giza.

Several other buildings litter the quadrangle, a few with an array of pillars, others just the merest trace of a floorplan.  Several of the buildings are reminiscent of Hindu architecture, generally more elaborate than the Sinhalese, a sort of Victorian style as opposed to Georgian.  It is hardly surprising, the original Polonnaruwa was established by the Chola dynasty from southern India, and it was only taken over by the Sinhalese a hundred years later, and there were other times when Hindi culture influenced the north of Sri Lanka.  So there is a Hindu temple in amongst these buildings.

Weernsinghe and I walked around these areas for an hour or more, often I was happy to move away from the more noted structures and explore the parkland around, still littered with relics of the Royal era.  In amongst the grass as Weernsinghe and I walked abreast, I noted a small blade of very green grass a couple of feet away from me.  On slightly closer inspection it was a wire-thin snake, its tiny red tongue flickering in the air as the stem it was wrapped around waved in the slight breeze.  I turned round to ask Weernsinghe what it was and by some miracle, he had moved twenty feet away in that split second.  He did not know what species it was but he took no chances.

Several dagobas later we had reached the northern extreme of the old parkland.  As tourists do, I was tiring at the repetitiveness of the scenery, but still in awe of the sheer quantity of relics.  But Weernsinghe had several more new sights up his sleeve to show me.  We first visited the Lankatillaka, a massive gedige that reminded me of a larger version of the Yorkshire abbeys at Fountain, Jervaux and Rievaulx.  At one end the legs and torso of a stone Buddha predominated, but almost camouflaged in the mixture of stone, brick and plaster of the walls of the gedige.  Beyond here a small trail left a car park and wound through a series of rocky outcrops.  Carved into each one of these was a stone Buddha, a couple lying, some standing and one in Lotus position.  It is hard to comprehend how these statues were hewn from the solid rock and not pieced together in some workshop.  Only when you trace the lines of the bedrock from the body of Buddha to the wall of rock at the back do you see they are perfectly connected.  A series of modern walls have been put up in the front of these statues and little plinths are available where offerings of lotus flowers and flags have been made.

In amongst this wonderful park, a troop of monkeys played out their lives.  Knowing a good trick when they see one, they have set up their stall near the major tourist trail and try to cadge food wherever they can.  They steal some of the offerings from the tables in front of the statues.  They mate, play, eat, defecate and die in amongst these reverent structures.  I watched a family chatter away under a tree for a while before they became self conscious and moved on.  When I returned to the car park I passed through the stalls set up there and found the perfect present to take home, a coconut monkey.  Simply but beautifully carved, it sits in a squatting position.  I named him Roger and I still keep him.  He has squatted near every toilet I have ever owned, as if instructing the user in case they have forgotten.

As we got back in the pickup and headed west again, I realised that Polonnaruwa was the furthest east I had ever been in my life.  It remains so to this day.  It was a rather sobering thought, Polonnaruwa lies only 81 degrees east of the Greenwich Meridian.   There were still 99 degrees to go before I met the west.  Despite all the travels I had had, I really had only scratched at a very small proportion of the earth’s surface.

There was still some time left to the afternoon so Weernsinghe drove me to Ritigala, the most northerly hill in Sri Lanka.  That is not quite true, there are places such as Mihintale where rocky outcrops and hills rise above the plain, but Ritigala is the last serious mountain in Sri Lanka.  We drove along the main road, through the small resort of Giritale and past the Minnehaya-Giritale reserve, an area of wild woodland.  On a stretch of open road, Weernsinghe suddenly slammed on the breaks, grinned at me and reversed hard.  In a little opening in the scrub to the left, a small elephant cowered at us, flapping its ears nervously.  It did not move away but stared sideways at us.  Weernsinghe took the decision to drive on.  He said he only glanced to the left just as we sped past that point.  The old serendipity at work.  It was the only wild elephant I saw in Sri Lanka.  It was late when we reached Ritigala so we did not trek up the hill – I was feeling tired after a saturation of monuments.  Instead, Weernsinghe meandered around the back lanes to Sigiriya.  It was fascinating to see the lives led out here.  I have already mentioned how the poverty curve moves from general wealth on the Colombo side (although there must be some serious pockets of urban deprivation there too) to the rural north east.  Indeed, the dusty tracks, piecemeal smallholdings and villages out here reminded me much more of Africa.  The main difference was that in between the roads, the great Irrigation Systems existed, and there was a level of organisation that was rare in most African countries.

5 thoughts on “Kandy – Premadasa and Polonnaruwa

    • Isn’t it – it was just incredible how you went from site to site and the monuments and edifices just keep going. Did you get to Anuradhapura as well – just as much over there too!

  1. Kandy – Premadasa and Polonnaruwa – String Knife and Paper

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