Sri Lanka: Pearl of the Indian Ocean

Negombo, Sri Lanka. Tuesday 7th March.

We last spoke when I was about to leave for Sri Lanka. Pack my gear, get a bus to the airport, check in and get on the plane. Simple, yes? No, anything but.
The bus part of it was fine. The ten minute walk, humping my heavy bag from the hotel to the bus, was the only hard part of that. At the airport I drank coffee while I waited for my flight to come up on the departure list to tell me where to check in. It took a long time so I asked a young woman wearing an ID card and she said this is the queue here. Check in was easy and fast. Great, so far.
But there’s several hurdles to jump before you take your seat on the plane. The first of these came while I was queueing for security. I received a phone call to say there was a problem with my checked baggage. Hmm. I’d been through this before. A young guy met me and took me through to the secure area. There was something in the bag they didn’t like. I took out my GPS. They scanned it again, still not happy. This time I discovered a spare battery for my GPS, that I’d completely forgotten about. The next scan was OK.
On to immigration, no problem in getting stamped out of India. Next was the security check of my backpack. Seeing your bag diverted down the route that means there’s a problem gives you that sinking feeling. There was only one guy to deal with the two security scanners so it took a while to be manually checked. It was my camera and GPS they didn’t like, but they let them through. When the bag was rechecked it was diverted again. What now! I had a compass with a metal case and two small padlocks in the bag. After another visual check they let them go too, followed by another run through the scanner. By the time I got to the boarding gate they were waiting to rush me onto the plane. And these are the reasons why I always try to get to airports four hours before my flight.
Once in Colombo, the fun started again. We got on the bus to take us from the plane to the terminal. The driver pulled up outside the building then pulled away again. Obviously stopped at the wrong entrance, was my thought. Wrong! He drove round a bit more then pulled in between two parked buses, switched off the engine, turned off all the lights, got out of the cab and started to walk away. Within a few seconds he’d realised what he’d done, and took us to the terminal entrance.
After that things went well. Got stamped in, got my baggage, got some cash, got a SIM and got a taxi to the hotel. Got checked in, got to my room and made a cup of tea. It was now 1 a.m., time for bed. As I drifted off to sleep I thought how wonderful it would have been if the vehicle ferry that used to run between India and Sri Lanka hadn’t been cancelled in 2011.

Bird control at the hotel.

I was in a beach resort town called Negombo, a little bit north of Colombo. A nice place. I’d booked this resort type hotel for a week of relaxing and sunning myself. All I did during that time was to arrange the hire of a bike. I had a total of four weeks in Sri Lanka, three of them would be spent touring round the island.

Busy market in Negombo. It was at least five hundred metres long.

The day arrived to collect the hire bike and set off. It was a normal road style bike of 250cc, a local copy of a Kawasaki. It was very low geared. 50kph found me in top gear and it was happiest cruising at 60kph. Apart from the need to overtake sometimes, that was fast enough. Sri Lanka doesn’t have dual carriageways to blast along and anyway, you risk missing things at faster speeds. It was costing me 15USD per day, for twenty days. It wasn’t perfect mechanically. I’d had to persuade them to fit two new tyres and the gearbox was a bit graunchy changing down from 3rd to 2nd gear. But it was perfectly fine over the hire period.

A slow mover but that was OK.

There is a rationing system for petrol there, supposedly no more than four litres at a time. But the hire place reckoned I’d probably be OK to fill up the tank in one go as I was a foreigner. They reckoned an Rs100 or 200 note would ease any difficulties. Every vehicle is issued with a QR code, to be scanned when filling up. In the end I only had a problem on one occasion during the whole trip, when persuasion rather than money sealed the deal, although it’s likely that the pump jockey would have preferred the latter.
My general plan was to circulate the island in an anti-clockwise direction, diving into the interior as and when appropriate. How big is the island? At 65.6K square kilometres, it’s about 5K square kilometres smaller than Ireland. Conversely it’s whole lot warmer and drier, I’m pleased to say. The population is 22 million compared to Ireland’s 5 million. The name translates as Resplendent Island. Was it? I intended to find out.

The Portuguese influence in Negombo.

The twenty kilometre distance from Negombo to Colombo was on a road that was single carriageway and passed through urban area all the way. I couldn’t really see whether there were fields behind the buildings, but I didn’t think so. The traffic was generally light and the drivers well behaved. Apart, of course, from the bus drivers, who did everything in their power to overtake. But this is Asia and all bus drivers on this continent are mad. I don’t recall that Charles Darwin covered this branch of evolution. I suppose his excuse was that there were no buses yet. I’d been warned about them though, so I just kept out of their way.

From the outside.

Colombo was reached quite quickly and I headed for the Independence Memorial Museum as my starter for ten. The building’s design was of an open style, with lots of columns supporting the roof. All had carvings on them, with a Lotus Blossom theme at the top. The roof had an under hang where there were bas relief carvings mounted. I didn’t know what story they were telling apart from that it must relate to the island’s past struggles. More in keeping with the current struggles though, were the police who were hanging around. They had gas masks to go with their truncheons and pistols. My airport taxi driver had told me that calm had been restored to the island with a change of government, although inflation was a major problem.

My reception committee.

Inside the museum was an excellent display detailing the time line of Sri Lankan history. Briefly: Buddhism came there first, with Hinduism and Islam arriving with traders and various conquerors, albeit not all over the island. Christianity came with the Portuguese, mostly on the coast, who were kicked out by the Dutch, who were kicked out by the British. It was a British Dominion Territory after WW2 and then quickly gained its independence, in 1948. The Memorial is located in a very large park, which includes the Sri Lankan National Cricket Ground.

Very impressive artwork on the columns.

My next visit was to the Gangaramaya Buddhist temple, which is a fabulous place. There’s lots of different sections to it and they’re all crammed full of paraphernalia such as statuettes, models, pictures and metal vessels. There seemed to be no attempt at any kind of order among all these objects and I very much liked it for that reason. I had to wander from one part to another, up one set of stairs and eventually down another, just to simply get around. In a central courtyard was a massive fig tree, with some temples containing Buddha shrines around it. On the outside walls are large wooden panels which are intricately carved in bas relief. A splendid place. Then I quickly found a hotel nearby and booked in for a couple of nights, with plans for more visits next day.

One of the wall panels.

I’m sure it’s all meaningful but it mostly looks like bric-a-brac to me.

A sapling from a sapling of the original Bhodi Tree – possibly!

The first of these was to the National Museum. It had fifteen different galleries, many of them filled with clothing, coins, material and other arty things. I skimmed those and focussed on the pre-history of the island; how prehistoric man arrived here; the ancient civilisations that grew up; the early civilisations that developed; the early rulers and how they managed the country. There was a display on the irrigation system they installed, based on reservoirs and canals, which ensured that all parts of the island could be farmed successfully. The religious changes were covered too. But I was disappointed to find nothing on the colonial occupations; political systems; way of life or architecture. A missed opportunity in that regard, I thought.

At the museum but not one of the exhibits.

After a very spicy lunch I went into the older part of the city to visit the Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque, a rather unique building in red and white brick. The surrounding streets were very crowded and bike parking was at a premium. There seemed to be hundreds of them crammed into the side streets. Once the prayer session had finished I was shown around, with three others, by a very pleasant young man. He told us it had been built by Arab traders in 1908 and could then accommodate 2,000 worshippers. It was extended in 2007 and now spread across five floors and the roof. It could hold up to 10,000 worshippers. My immediate thought was, “Where the hell do they park all those motorbikes?” Well, wherever it is, the parking attendants must make a fortune. I had to pay Rs40 before I could leave on mine. Do the sums.

Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque. Rather different to the usual style.

I was aiming to get to a place called Galle, on the coast at the bottom of the island. On the way I stopped off to look at a couple of places. First was a Buddhist temple called Kalutara Bodhiya, a stupa shaped building with a smaller stupa inside. It had a Bodhi tree in the courtyard which, the sign informed me, was a sapling off one of the thirty two saplings that came from the original Bodhi tree. That was the Bodhi tree under which the first Buddha found enlightenment around 2,500 years ago. It all seemed a bit desperate to me but the temple was nice enough.

Richmond Castle, looking like it very much needs the refurbishment.

A much more interesting place was Richmond Castle, a house built by a rich local in 1908. He died childless in 1940 and had given the house to the government beforehand. It had become rather dilapidated over the years but was slowly being restored, with leaking roofs being repaired etc. Those leaks had affected the upstairs rooms too.

This roof structure is a work of art.

I was latched onto by a woman who promptly became my guide. I don’t always like this habit but this time I was glad of it as there were some features of the house that I otherwise wouldn’t have known about. A lovely cast iron spiral staircase for example, that went up to the viewing gallery above the dance hall. It was cast in one piece in England. There were some glass window and door panels that were opaque from the outside but clear from the inside. Some green ones had thistles in the pattern, having been made in Scotland.

English stairs.

Scottish glass.

The teak columns supporting the roof of the dance hall were all carved from one tree trunk and had beautiful patterns on them. In fact the roof supports of the hall were a work of art in themselves. The gardens were very pretty too. My guide had an amusing way of speaking English, all verbs and nouns but little else. But she was very good and worth the fee.
I continued down to Galle, but some heavy showers moved in so I stopped for the night at a strange little place on the roadside. The owner wanted me to be gone ridiculously early, by 8am. I told him not to be so daft and suggested 10am. We settled on 9am. I think I left by 9.30, having enjoyed the omelette and toast he cooked me.

Galle Lighthouse.

I arrived at Galle by 10am on a lovely sunny morning. I checked out the old lighthouse and some nearby features of the fort. It was lovely to be walking around in the sunshine. After a while I found a homely guest house in which to stay, inside the fort. The fort is fully occupied although many of the buildings house shops and B&Bs. It was originally built by the Portuguese in the very early 16th Century as part of their takeover of India’s western coast. They built the sea defences but the fort was quite small at that time.

Internal defences.

Then the Dutch came along in the mid 17th C and kicked them out. They massively extended the whole fort, including building bastions that faced inland. They have a unique pattern for these kinds of buildings, essentially star shaped. They were great builders and included such things as underground sewerage systems, properly planned streets and plenty of warehouses. Finally, at the end of the 18th C, the British marched in and the Dutch sailed out, concentrating their efforts further south in Indonesia. The Brits moved the main gate to its current position but made few other changes.

Dutch hospital building. Now, mostly restaurants.

I spent the rest of the day walking around the walls, stopping off to look at various key buildings and the churches. The fort houses a Buddhist temple and a mosque, as well as a Dutch Reformed church. The style of many of the domestic buildings reminded me of other Dutch occupied areas of Asia I’d visited, especially Malacca, down in Malaysia. At one point on my wall walk there was a good view of the cricket ground. There was a match taking place and plenty of people were getting a free view of the game from the walls. Good for them.

Anyone for cricket?

Continuing with my circular route I rode along the coast, sometimes close enough to see the waves breaking on the beach and feeling the summer vibe thus created. I stopped off at the Dondra Lighthouse just for a look. A nice building, still operational, and surrounded by wave splashed rocks. There’s a marker plinth there to depict mean sea level – a clever trick considering it was at least three metres above the beach. But what do I know. It is the island’s most southerly point as well.

The sea level marker, just not quite at sea level.

As I headed inland now, towards Kataragama, I stopped at a big white stupa, surrounded by a moat with a little bridge across. It was a big one too. I walked around it, looking at some nice statues and the remains of meeting halls. The outer wall of the site was adorned with elephant heads, a common temple feature. Next to the stupa was an archaeological museum containing some of the items they found, such as statues, sections of building with carved decorations intact etc. It was hidden by jungle until 1987, so is really quite a find.

A random find while passing by.

Once I reached Kataramagama I had to hunt around to find the road out to the temple sites I wanted to visit. The route passed a Buddhist statue made to look like an enormous shield, with the Buddha carved onto it. It then went over a narrow bridge, for bikes and tuk tuks only. Eventually I came to the Elephant park, wherein lay the temple I wanted to visit. The only problem was that I was at the wrong end.
I was by the Ruhunu Maha Kataramagarma Dewalaye. This is a temple complex with several buildings inside. The best feature were the gates, which had elephants and peacocks carved around them, and running along the walls either side. They looked fabulous.



Kiri Vehara Stupa.

I walked down the other end of the park to see the Kiri Vehara Stupa. It’s very big and very white, with four Buddha shrines around it. I walked around it in my socks, having had to remove my footwear outside. I always feel a bit odd, and I suspect other people think it of me too, when they slip off their sandals and I struggle to remove my clunky riding boots. But it’s a standard demand at all temples of all religions, so there it is. Lots of photos were taken at both sites.
On the walk back towards my bike I became increasingly annoyed at the antics of families playing around two ‘tame’ elephants. Under the control of their handlers they were forced to allow people to run underneath their trunks and bellies, and to be stroked and petted. The training they undergo to allow this to happen is very cruel and they’re always chained and hobbled. A very cruel practice, in my opinion.

This kind of elephant interaction I do not like! Why is that guy holding a boat hook?

By using my phone for navigating I was finding that the battery barely lasted the day before fading away, just when I needed it most to find a hotel. I’d managed to buy a USB charger so spent an hour finding a way of wiring it in and mounting it on the bike. Then I headed off to Kandy, riding up into a National Park and now firmly inland. I was just enjoying the ride. Nothing to see or do. Some jungle, then onto the coastal plain.
A calm riding day until Jumbo decided to get in on the act. I came across an elephant standing sideways across the road. A couple of scooters came along and we all waited. After a while he turned sideways and some of the traffic went past. But I waited and watched for a bit longer and he turned sideways again. Eventually a van came past us and the passenger handed jumbo some bananas out of his window. Satisfied with his haul, he wandered back into the trees and I rode on. It was clear this was a trick he’d learned, to win himself some fruit. A much more gratifying interaction than what I’d seen at the temple!

But this kind of elephant ineraction I very much do like.

As most of you know, Sri Lanka has had some troubled times recently. The terrorist problems got sorted out back in about 2012 but more recently there had been anti government riots due to lack of basic essentials. This accounted for the gas mask toting police I’d seen in Colombo. The owner of the hotel I stayed at was telling me how he wished the British were still there to run the country properly. He said they’d developed the country but nothing good had happened since they left (independence happened in 1948), and there was corruption everywhere. I thought it rather a strange sentiment to hold but I’d heard it elsewhere.

A handy place for drying crops.

I departed under a rain washed sky, wondering what the day might bring. The rain flexed its muscles a couple of times but then, in the afternoon, it put on a good performance while I sheltered in a café, along with others. I hadn’t put the rain cover on my backpack quickly enough so I spent that evening hanging up various bits of paperwork to let it dry out. In the morning I had omelette with bread. But the only bread they had was a flat loaf about two inches thick and eight inches square. They brought me plenty of butter to go with it. Bread like this is one of the hangovers from the days of Empire that my friend failed to mention. Sri Lanka bakes bread and cake British style and it was always lovely. “So what?”, you might ask as you munch your cheese and pickle sandwich. But these small things are like oases in the desert to the traveller far from home.
The town of Kandy is all about the Temple of the Sacred Tooth. This is one of the Buddha’s teeth taken from his cremation ashes. It came to the island in the 4th century CE and became a symbol of power for the local kings. It got taken to India and brought back a couple of times as power in the island changed hands. The last time was by the British. They’d taken over Sri Lanka and arrested the king. Returning the tooth was a way of appeasing the local people.

One of the highly decorated temple buildings.

The temple is a very elaborately decorated place, majoring on elephant tusks. The room that contains the tooth is more of a hall, with the tooth in a shrine at one end. Around the walls are 21 painted panels, artisticly telling the story of the tooth and its journeys. It’s a light and airy place with lots of decorative features.

The shrine for the sacred tooth.

Next to that is a temple, with Buddha statues to worship. The upper balcony, which overlooks the main shrine, was filled with the smell of the flowers the worshippers bring, such as Lotus, Chrysanthemum and Frangipani. It was rather nice to be there, just for the ambiance if nothing else. The whole of the temple complex was a very pleasant place to be.

Unconcerned about idols. It’s got work to do.

In the same grounds was the Buddhist Museum, containing displays of statues and other artefacts. But its major display related to the bomb attack carried out by the Tamil Tigers in a suicide attack in 1998. Their aim was to turn the majority Sinhalese population against the Tamil people, who mostly lived in the north of the island, thereby driving them into the arms of the Tamil rebels. The government had the good sense to plead with the Sinhalese not to turn against the Tamils and they didn’t, so denying them their objective. Up until that point the government had been trying to bring the Tamil Separatists into the political fold but now they became outcasts. The situation, as mentioned, was resolved in about 2012. The museum buildings were refurbished back to their former condition.
I walked around the rest of the Old City, poking my nose into the various buildings. That included a large church, just outside it, looking very imposing in its red sandstone brickwork, a hangover from the British rule.

A nice old church.

There’s a large man made lake there, the city’s water supply, and I walked back alongside it. I’d noticed on my travels that a lot of the older school boys were quite tall so I stopped a group of smartly dressed lads and asked them if they went to a military school, possibly accounting for their height. No, was the answer, just a normal government school. So much for that theory.
At the end of the lake, by the main entrance to the complex, was an archaeological museum, showing a film about how the discoveries were made, along with some displays. And that pretty much finished my day out at Kandy, home of the Sacred Tooth.

One of the local lakeside residents.

More lovely bread with my breakfast before I set off to visit Pinawala Elephant Orphanage. Look it up. The first thing I saw when I went inside was a bull elephant being led back to the main compound. Judging by the large, but slowly shrinking, appendage between his back legs he’d just been carrying out his breeding duties. It was a nice place to visit. The eighty or so elephants are semi wild but get fed regularly and are trained to respond to the mahouts. The area they can wander around in is quite large and has no visitors in it, although sometimes the bull elephants are chained up to protect the public. I got the impression some of them have to perform tricks sometimes but that all seemed to be very low key.

Looks like he’s been busy.

So has she.

One of the younger ones had the onerous task of being fed fruit by the visitors but didn’t seem to mind too much. Why would they? They clearly have a breeding programme and there were a couple of cute babies running around and having fun. So a good place to visit, all in all. But any such place is controversial, however well run it is.

Getting fed by visitors? It’s a tough life.

I had a pleasant cross country ride up to Dambulla. Sri Lanka gives the impression of being very laid back and I rarely saw anything that was dilapidated or abandoned. Virtually no litter anywhere that I saw. A pleasant change from India in that respect. At one point I saw some women carry pots of water on their heads, making me wonder how extensive the piped water network is. But on the other hand, there seemed to be electricity everywhere.
I found a cheap guest house to stay at then made my way to the entrance of the Royal Cave Temple. Three hundred and ninety six steps later I found myself on the top of a hill, with a magnificent view of the low lying land around it and of the rain clouds scudding across the sky. They pretty soon dropped their load so I sheltered in the first of several temples until they’d finished.

Cave temples.

The main feature there was the long rock overhang which creates a series of caves. They are both high and deep enough to have frontages built against the overhang which house Buddhist temples. There’s about five of them, all with Buddha statues and shrines inside, including an effectively illuminated Reclining Buddha. It reminded me of the temple caves I’d visited in India, when I first came back last September.
At Sigiriya there is the very famous Rock Fortress, sometimes referred to as the Lion Rock or Lion’s Paw. It sits on top of an oval shaped rock tower which is pretty much vertical. I discovered that there is a 1,200 step climb up to the top and that the passage is quite narrow, and therefore difficult to negotiate when busy. While I thought about whether I wanted to do that on a hot and sticky day, I had a look around the museum.

Sigiriya Rock Fortress. (Photo off the internet.)

The fortress was built in the 5th century by a local ruler and was the centrepiece of the pleasure garden that surrounded it. It’s not a religious site so has huge value to archaeologists by providing information about secular life. On the top of the rock is a huge palace, although very little of it remains. But there are rock paintings to be seen, which are remarkably well preserved. The lion reference relates to the fact that the entrance used to pass through the head of a giant statue of a lion. All that’s left of it now are the paws.
By the time I’d been round the museum I’d decided against going up there. It was too hot and last night’s two beers were having their effect. But the clincher was the entry fee – 30USD! The Sri Lankan archaeology department certainly knows how to milk the foreigner and I was having none of it.I moved on to a place called Polonnawura, the Island’s capital following it’s freedom from Hindu invaders. I found the museum and was approached by some guides. I declined their offers, as I usually do and went to look round the museum. When I came back out one of the guides, Premasin, was saying to me that it was a long way between sites and that I could follow him on my bike while he rode his. This sounded very odd but I said “No thanks” and started to walk to the first section. Bad signing got me confused so I came back and engaged Premasin.

A meeting hall with a lion theme.

As usual, guides know everything and I know nothing. I said I wanted to walk around so he agreed to that. I do believe you see more that way. He suggested hiring bicycles but I declined. Of course, the place used to be a city so was very spread out. But I set to with a will, looking at all the ruins of the temples and palaces. By the end of it all I was happy to get a tuk tuk back to the museum as I was worn out.

Once a temple always a temple, so shoes must come off.

The religion here was Buddhist but of a version that was, by now, fused with Hinduism. It dates form the 10th century and most of the buildings are brick built, enabling faster construction than with stone. The rulers revived the irrigation systems that the earlier kings had created, building many more reservoirs and restoring the canal system that had once covered the island. The result was that Sri Lanka had enough rice to export to neighbouring countries. There were a couple of very large stupas as well.

Premasin asked me if I had a place to stay and when I said I didn’t he invited me to lodge at his home. He has a room they rent out and he gave me a price that included evening meal and breakfast. The chance to spend a night with a local family was too good to pass up, and the price was good anyway, so I agreed. When we got back to the museum I discovered that one of the monkeys had unzipped my backpack and made off with my asthma pump and bottle of tablets. It had tried one of the tablets and abandoned them, so I got them back. The asthma pump had gone. One of the staff had chased it away and retrieved the tablets for me. No real harm done but I hadn’t taken precautions against this because there had been plenty of people around earlier, but they’d gone home.

There were plenty of ruins to see.

At Premasin’s home we enjoyed a beer then I was given a very nice meal by his wife. The household consists of him and his wife, a daughter and his son, his wife and three kids. They have twin daughters and a lovely little boy. The girls had been collecting money for the Buddhist New Year celebrations and I was happy to contribute some. Premasin was saying how tough life had been during Covid. He used to be a teacher but had retired from that and became a guide. Now that we can all move around freely once more it’s easy to forget how badly affected such people were, with almost no government support. Fortunately his son and daughter have professional jobs so the family survived.

These little shrines popped up in random places, often on country roads.

On to the town of Jaffna next. Part of the route was alongside the sea, the rest across back country roads, with almost no traffic to be seen. Plenty of agriculture on the go, with a variety of crops. At one point I came to a T junction with a sandy track to the left and another one to the right. I needed to go right and 15 kilometres later I left the dirt and came out onto a main road. The little bike handled it all very well considering it had no dirt pretensions. The road took me past some mangrove swamps as well. By now I was in the north of the island, surrounded by low lying coastal waters. I planned to ride around the small islands there next day.
In the morning I walked out to look at an old Dutch Fort. On the way I came across a protest at a road junction. They seemed to be upset about the actions of some teaching unions. I stood and watched for a while. The main speaker paused a couple of times to shake my hand. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that my sympathies would be likely to lie with the unions.

Street protest, but only at a quiet corner.

The fort wasn’t anything spectacular really. I walked around it for a while. The only building of any note was an old church that had been destroyed in the civil war of 1980, relating to the Tamil separatist movement. Across from the fort was a large lagoon. It wasn’t deep and I couldn’t work out how the fort and the lagoon related to each other as the sea seemed to be a long way off. The lagoon was divided up by netting and fishing equipment was set in the water. Nothing was happening at that time but it was clear that an industrial level of fish catching went on. A walk back into town via an ice cream shop finished off that day’s exploring. Jaffna is famous for its ice cream and I could taste the reason why.

A lagoon used for fishing, judging by the nets etc.

A day spent riding around this island area was entertaining. At the far end of the road was a ferry terminal. I watched them loading up. Most of the passengers arrived in coaches and had to put life jackets on. There were about sixty of them and they had to cram them selves into a downstairs saloon. It must have been stinking hot down there and I didn’t envy them. A couple of scooters were manhandled onto the deck. The wooden ferry boat wasn’t all that big but it chugged away to the next island.
I continued my tour and had to get a ferry myself. This one was a bit more geared up for carrying bikes. I had to get mine onto the deck via some wobbly planks, fortunately with a helpful crew to hand. But when we docked I was amazed to find that the boat moored the same way round meaning the bikes had to dragged off the boat backwards. What on earth was the point of that? The ride around had been interesting. I passed fisheries, salt pans, farmland, a herd of cattle being driven along the road. In the town of Mannar I found a newly built guest house with great facilities and a good price.

My Ukranian friends, safe in Sri Lanka.

Later on I met an Ukrainian couple who were staying there for a few days break. They’d moved to Sri Lanka when Russia invaded and had been granted immigrant status. We chatted over dinner. They are able to work on-line and they have three children who also get schooled on-line. They’re very settled there and have managed to make a good life for themselves. They have yet to decide what they’ll do when hostilities end. They think it won’t happen this year, going by what some army friends have told them.

Baobab Tree in Jaffna. It’s big!

The final visit of my round island tour was to the ancient capital of Anuradhapura, city of a thousand stupas. Not really true but it kind of seemed like that. The city was founded in the 1st century BCE but evidence shows that religious people had lived in the area for some centuries before that. The biggest religious building is the Abhayagiri Monastery, adjacent to which the city buildings were set. Over the next ten centuries the city grew and many more temples and stupas were constructed. The area was invaded in 1017 CE and the people fled the city, abandoning it to the jungle.
When the new capital of Polonnawaru was founded the kings restored the ruined stupas until they, in their turn, were driven out by invaders. Once more the city fell into ruins until the antiquarian interests of the British led to refurbishment work once more. The area covered is even greater than that of Polonnawaru and I was definitely going to use my bike this time. Some research revealed that I could buy a composite ticket that was valid for one day and gave entry into thirteen different sites. Three other sites weren’t included so as I came closer to the town I went to see two of them.
The first was Mihindu eya, a big stupa up on a hill. The second was Siri Mahad a Bodhi, where there was a Bodhi tree which was reckoned to be a sapling from the original. That meant it was 2,300 years old. I was a bit cynical about that, but who am I to argue? The best thing I saw was when I was sitting outside having a cold drink. It was a very large squirrel-type animal going up and down a tree just in front of me. I put a picture on Face Book and was told that it was a Giant Grizzly Squirrel. It looked great!

Giant Grizzly Squirrel. Lovely, isn’t it.

I found a very nice hotel in the town, from where I organised food, beer and a haircut. I made plans for the next day’s grand tour of the temples while enjoying the cold beer. It was very hot weather at that time.
I was at the Abhayagiriya museum bright and early to get my ticket. I went into the museum first and was impressed by the amount of information about the site. Who started it all; how it developed ove the centuries; what happened to it in the 11th century. I was both amused by, and grateful to the woman who thoughtfully provided me with a stool to sit on while I read the info panels that were placed close to the floor.

Abayagiriya Stupa.

I made a numbered list of all the places I was going to, in an effort to be able to organise the photos later on. I’m not going to tell you about them all in detail. We’d all be here for ever if I did. There were thirteen sites to visit and I walked between them when I could. One of the problems was that as the sun got hotter the need to remove shoes and hats to enter the temples became more onerous. At one place it had become so hot that they were hosing down the coconut matting that was there to protect your feet from the super heated stones. So here’s some links you can follow if you want more information. Otherwise be assured that the stupas were very big, mostly very white and impressively beautiful. And here’s some photos for you.

Moonstone, found at a temple entrance. Rathna Prasada Chapter House.

And a guardian dwarf carved into the step.

Ruwaweliseya Stupa.

Painted ceiling at Jethawanaramaya Stupa.

Before and after photo of the refurbishment.

And anotherb one. Seen in the Jethawaranameya Museum

Seen in a Hindu temple.

A couple of links with some info on this place. Here and here.
The only thing remaining to do now was to ride back to Negombo and return the bike. I hadn’t had it for the twenty days I’d paid for but there was no refund for unused time. Instead they agreed to a free ride to the airport. I had a few moe days to loaf around in the sun before I flew back to India.
The key question to answer is whether Sri Lanka is a “Resplendent Isle?”. The answer is very much “Yes”. It made a refreshing change from the hurly burly of India and offers some great history in its own right. If you fancied a winter break you could do far worse. The island is geared up to tourism and you would be, like I was, made to feel very welcome.

The sun sets on my island visit.