Hippies, Hikers, Hookahs and Harems #2: The Ancient Cities: Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa – Sri Lanka

The Ancient Cities: Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa

The ‘pearl of the Indian ocean’ or a pale imitation cast into the ocean’s depths. I try to unravel what makes the Sinhalese tick.
December 2002

Exchange rate: (�1 = Rs150)

You would be forgiven for thinking that Sri Lanka, a teardrop shaped island off the coast of Southern India is just another coconut palm-fringed tropical paradise. There’s more to Sri Lanka than sun loungers and tall drinks though – exploration into the interior reveals ancient ruins set in lush vegetation, rock fortresses, temples, caves, a carpet of tea plantations, spice gardens and colonial hill stations. So does it have enough to occupy even the most hardened traveller? I stepped back into Sinhalese history to answer that very question.

In the Northern hill country lies the ‘cultural triangle’ formed by the old Sinhalese capitals of Kandy, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. These cities were built during the golden age of Sinhalese civilisation and abandoned over 1000 years ago to be reclaimed by the encroaching jungle. Only recently have archaeologists excavated the sites and partially restored them to their former glory.

If you intend visiting more than two of the sites, then it is worth purchasing a round ticket for US $32.50. We decided against this, concentrating our efforts on Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa. The latter is generally in better repair than Anuradhapura and as I’m no great lover of ruins, we figured a tour of one of the ancient cities was more than enough.

It had rained for twelve consecutive days in Sri Lanka, dampening our spirits for the trip to Sigiriya, also known as the lion rock and rock fortress. The rain doesn’t seem so bad at first, but after spending days sweating under my waterproof the downpours were becoming a psychological drain. It was rather like hearing a tap dripping in the silence of the night – however much you toss and turn, the drip, drip, drip never goes away. The other problem is that the Sinhalese are a petite race which makes their umbrellas potential death traps. The brollies are always out in force just at the right level to poke your eyes out unless you duck and dive among the crowds of people.

Bus travel probably brings out the worst behaviour traits of the Sinhalese. There was only one direct bus per day from Kandy to Sigiriya, so it was our best transport option. The advantages of bus travel are that it is cheap (Rs40 for a three hour journey to Sigiriya) and the conductors never charged us an extra fare for our backpacks. The downside is that there is never anywhere to stow your pack and if you’re lucky enough to get a seat you’ll spend most of the journey with your nose squashed against a middle-aged, pot-bellied woman in a sari, the rolls of midriff fat brimming over the glitzy fabric. If you’re unlucky, you’ll spend the majority of the trip packed against a musty smelling old man with half his dinner down his shirt, a young child relentlessly poking you just for fun and enduring the pain of swinging like a monkey from the luggage rails as the bus lurches round corners.

The drivers don’t seem to have much faith in their driving ability. They are either too busy chewing on beetle nut or honking their horn for the longest period possible. Each driver seems to have a personal insurance plan lodged with Buddha; this is denoted by the colourful Buddha images decorating the windscreen sun blind. Other lucky charms to ward off accidents include naga raksha (a cobra mask for protection) dangling from the rear view mirror and gaudy garlands of plastic flowers.

Our driver for the leg to Sigiriya was definitely far more concerned about feeding his beetle nut habit than driving the bus. Chewing beetle nut would probably be viewed as a disgusting habit back in the West. Sets of green leaves, beetle nut and white paste are available at local stores. We watched uneasily as our driver stuffed a large green leaf into his mouth and added paste and nut. He then chewed for an eternity before spitting a copious amount of orange liquid out of the window.

Having experienced the frenzy of the Sinhalese trying to secure seats, we turned up early to grab ours and watched as the bus filled up until it was overflowing. The first two seats are by general rule of thumb reserved for clergy so we have learnt never to take them. If the bus is packed and a woman weighed down by bulging shopping bags and a baby in her arms squeezes on, no one will offer her a seat. However, if an orange robed Buddhist monk wielding his brolly hops on, everyone jumps to their feet.

The last annoying feature of bus travel is that if the bus stops for everyone to stock up on their favourite snacks, passengers do not forfeit their seats. When everyone disembarked to buy breakfast, we thought we could comfortably slide into their vacated seats. After all, this is the norm in Africa and no one bats an eyelid. Not in Sri Lanka it isn’t. When everyone piled back on, we were jabbed viciously on our shoulders by a woman who insisted we gave up our seats.

The village of Sigiriya is a tiny place overshadowed by the orange-black rock in the distance. Touts mill around hoping to sell tickets or be your guide up the rock. We took a room in the conveniently located Nilmini Loday, a family run guesthouse with grubby rooms for Rs 400. After a bland lunch of vegetable noodles, we decided to climb the rock and just as we stepped outside, the deluge began. There was no point in turning back though, this was a one rock village – what else was there to do?

Sigiriya is one of the most famous tourist attractions in Sri Lanka, the rock fortress is featured in many brochures and publicity photos. It was built by Kasyapa in the 5th century, a son of King Dhatusena of Anuradhapura. Later, the impregnable fortress became a monastic refuge but fell into disrepair. Only the foundations of the original building exist today on the summit.

One thing we didn’t appreciate was that we had chosen to climb the rock on poya (full moon) day. Poya days occur every month and are declared national holidays. This meant that we had to compete with the locals for space on the stairs and it was extremely slow going.

We each paid a ridiculous US $15 (Rs 1440) admission while the Sinhalese paid a paltry Rs 20. Tom worked out that for every foreigner that scales the rock, the equivalent of 72 Sinhalese can gain entry. While the rock is all imposing from ground level, it quickly loses its appeal during the climb. The 5th century frescose of beautiful damsels are few and far between, hardly the erotic rock art we had been expecting. The mirror wall yet again disappointed, having lost its smooth glaze that could reflect your image. The lion’s paws would have been phenomenal if the original stairway into the lion’s mouth still existed and the summit merely afforded views of the countryside. I wanted more for my entry fee – I wanted spectacular, jaw dropping and breath taking architecture. Instead, I was jostled, poked and pushed up the staircases at a snail’s pace.

The Sinhalese are an impatient bunch and if they think for one moment that they can creep a centimetre ahead of you, they’ll sneak through, brushing you aside as if you were a troublesome insect. I kept thinking, what’s the hurry, the ruins of the rock fortress are hardly going to disappear in the next hour. In the end, we gave up being polite and queue jumped along with the rest of them. Two can play at that game.

Mosquitoes whined in my ears all night, so I was relieved that we were heading onto Polonnaruwa after our totally forgettable Sigiriya experience. You might think that I would have given up on the idea of exploring any more ‘ancient cities’, but I’m a glutton for punishment. I insisted that we continue with our original plan. Tom rolled his eyes up to the ceiling and implored me to reconsider. He should know by now that I’m as stubborn as a mule and I had to give the ancient cities one last shot. I could see Tom was thinking another US $15 each down the tube and a load of hassle getting there. Sometimes I’m so cruel.

To reach Polonnaruwa from Sigiriya is not entirely straightforward. We had to backtrack on a CTB (Ceylon Transport Board) bus to Dambulla and then catch a bus to Polonnaruwa that was already heaving with people. The bus journey took two hours.

At Polonnaruwa, we ended up at Samudra Guesthouse in a mozzie infested, grotty room for Rs400. After realising that the delights of the old town extended to a few manky dogs and touts chasing us for business, we hired two clapped out old bikes to cycle round the ruins.

Polonnaruwa rose to majestic heights during King Parakramabahu’s reign (1153-1186). Enormous ornate stone buildings were erected, set in beautiful parks. His work was continued by King Nissanka (1187-1196) who nearly bankrupted the kingdom trying to outdo his predessor.

There are five groups of ruins to visit: the Royal Palace, Rest House, Quadrangle, Northern and Southern. We started off at the Archaeology Museum designed to give an overview of the ruins, explain their history, offer artist impressions of how certain buildings may have looked in their hey day and present before and after photos of the excavations.

Then it was off on our ropey hire bikes to the Royal Palace Group, already swarming with Sinhalese day trippers. They took great glee in watching us sweat on our bikes while they swanned past on air-con minibuses. We were an endless source of amusement to them and were even asked to appear in their photographs.

The real joy of the afternoon wasn’t really the ruins but our cycling jaunt which meant we could stop whenever and wherever we wanted, coasting along the orange sand roads in the dappled shade, snacking on biscuits.

The most impressive ruins were the Vatadage, Rankot Vihara and Gal Vihara. The former, part of the quadrangle, is a circular relic house with four entrances flanked by intricately carved guardstones. One of the moonstones, also found at all four entrances, is particularly well preserved and was used in ancient times to clean your feet on. Bear in mind that many of the ruins require shoes to be removed; the hot stone and sharp gravel are a nightmare for soft soled Western feet. The entrances lead up to a central dagoba adorned with four seated Buddhas. A dagoba is a Buddhist monument composed of a solid hemisphere housing relics of Buddha or a Buddhist saint.

Rankot Vihara, part of the Northern Group, is the largest dagoba in Polonnaruwa, reaching a height of 55 metres. The way the clouds float across the blue sky behind this dome structure is mesmerising. It’s rather like a set from a Hollywood movie.

The latter, Gal Vihara, is also in the Northern Group and features a set of four separate Buddha images cut from one long slab of granite. To be frank, I was more impressed by the Buddha images in Sukothai, Thailand so it wasn’t surprising that I was more interested in the large troops of monkeys fighting.

The ruins are populated by Toque Macaque, tawny coloured monkeys whom sparred with each other at regular intervals, and Common Langurs distinguished by a peaked tuft of fur on their crowns. The langurs exhibited a strange feeding practice; the whole troop would sit on ledges on the side of a ruin wall painstakingly licking the masonry. They were so engrossed they hardly noticed our approach to take some photos.

Back at the dismal guesthouse, I was disturbed during the night by a plastic bag rustling. Thinking nothing of it, I let it slide and went back to sleep. In the pale light of morning, we found a hole in the side of a bag of bananas and a gnawed banana. Not only that, but when Tom checked out my backpack, he discovered mouse poo inside – a nice present to wake up to. We informed the owners but didn’t receive a discount. I consoled myself that at least it wasn’t rats! Maybe I shouldn’t speak too soon.