There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Sigiriya Rock and Ayurvedic Massage: Part 4 of Sri Lanka, Isle of Serendip

We awoke in our suite in the Heritance Hotel, considered for a moment how pleasant it was to have been upgraded and then looked out the window and saw monkeys - more precisely, Tufted Grey Langurs - swinging in the trees.

Tufted Grey Langur seen from our balcony, Heritance Hotel, Kandalama
The breakfast buffet was comprehensive as befits such a hotel. In the balcony alongside the usual omeletteer was a man making egg hoppers, rice flour pancakes cooked in a small bowl-shaped pan with an egg fried on the flat bottom. You can fill hoppers with whatever takes your fancy, on this occasion coconut sambol and Maldive fish, a highly spiced condiment made from dried and ground tuna.

After breakfast we set off for Sigiriya. We had first caught sight of it yesterday as we drove to Polonnaruwa; we could even see it from the hotel - if we stood in the right place - and as the hotel is a kilometre long there were several right places.

Sigiriya Rock in the misty distance across Kandalama Lake
Sigiriya is a huge rock some 200m high and we were going to climb it. We drove round Kandalama Lake and the closer we got the more daunting the prospect became. My rock climbing days are over (if one fear-filled afternoon in 1972 can be described as 'days') but even with steps all the way up it looked a stiff climb.

First used as a refuge by monks during the early days of Sri Lankan Buddhism, the top of the rock became the island’s capital for 18 years in the fifth century AD. What sort of a king builds his palace on a rock? A frightened one, obviously, but also one blessed with organisational skills. To erect an entire palace compound in seven years was good going for the time, but to do that after first hauling all the material to the top of a huge rock was a remarkable feat.

Sri Lanka - Sigiriya is near Polonnaruwa

Although much closer to Polonnaruwa than to Anuradhapura, Sigiriya is part of the Anuradhapura story. King Dhatusena (ruled 455-473) intended his oldest son Mogallana to succeed him. Kapassa, an ambitious younger son of a concubine, rebelled, forcing Mogallana into exile and imprisoning and then killing their father. Even today respect for one's parents runs deep in Sri Lankan society, and fifteen hundred years ago parricide was particularly severely frowned upon. Fearing the wrath of god, his people and, most importantly, Mogallana who had vowed to return and claim his throne, Kapassa opted for safety over convenience and built his palace on top of the biggest rock he could find. In 491, 18 years later, Mogallana eventually got round to honouring his vow and in a fit of bravado Kapassa came down from his rock to meet Mogallana’s army on the flat. Unfortunately his war elephant bolted and his troops, thinking he was fleeing, fell back. Facing certain defeat and capture Kapassa killed himself. There are other versions of the end of this story but the moral is clear: be nice to your dear old dad; he's the only one you will ever have.

The museum and ticket office is a couple of hundred metres from the base of the rock. We paid the usual exorbitant ticket price - £17 each for the third day running - and had a look round the museum which gave an idea of what life here might have been like fifteen hundred years ago. Despite his faults, Kapassa was a capable ruler who not only built palaces on rocks, but also looked after the irrigation system and organised the planting of mango trees, which kept his people fed and regular.

Sigiriya rock across the water garden
We approached the base of the rock through the surrounding wall and across a water-garden where dozens of young men were hanging around offering their assistance as guides and trying to make out they were in some way 'official'. They pick their victims and stick to them like mud. They require determined brushing off which we tried to do as gently as possible but when one of them put his hand in the small of my back and pushed me up a flight of stairs, I was distinctly short with him. That one disappeared quickly enough.
Boulder garden at the base of Sigiriya Rock

We climbed a series of well-made stone staircases through the ‘boulder-garden’ to the base of the rock itself and eventually joined a gently graded path across the rock face. Then we encountered a metal spiral staircase. We could have continued on the graded path, but we took the stairs, it apparently offered a quick way of screwing ourselves into the sky.

Spiral staircase, Sigiriya Rock
Twenty metres higher we emerged onto a ledge tucked under a section of overhanging rock. Once Sigiriya’s western face was covered in paintings.  Time has taken its toll, but in this sheltered spot a number of frescoes have survived in remarkably good condition.  Given the artist’s subject matter, it was ironic that we were there the day after the Sun published its last Page 3 Girl. While welcoming the Sun's long overdue decision, I cannot help observing that a pretty girl flashing an ample bosom never has been (and never will be) short of admirers.

Page Three frescoes, Sigiriya Rock
At the end of the gallery another spiral staircase took us back down to the main path. We had gained no height, as Lynne bitterly observed, but it had been an interesting detour.

We were now passing the 'mirror wall', the rock so highly polished that the king could see his face in it. It is now rather disappointing and in places covered in graffiti. Modern graffiti would, no doubt, occasion much tut-tutting and maybe criminal charges, but this is the graffiti of ancient tourists so it is carefully protected. Vandalism and titty-ogling have been human activities since we first walked upright; tourism, it would seem, also has a long and not always glorious history.

The Water Garden from the Mirror Wall 
As we gradually climbed across the rock face we encountered what appeared to be a choice of routes. Although most would-be guides ply their trade at the bottom of the hill, there was still one watching us. We paused. He swooped, told us which way to go and suddenly, without wanting to, we had employed a guide.

The Lion Steps, Sigiriya Rock

His indicated route took us up to a large ledge at the northern end of the rock. From here the 'Lion Steps' once led to the top, but apart from the lion’s feet little survives.

The 'final pitch' above the Lion's Feet

Above, the last part of the ascent is by a set of metal steps anchored in the wall. On the way we paused to look at some of the ancient steps hacked into the rock. The Lion Steps may have been fine for a monarch, but the monks and the workers bringing up the building material would have scrambled up these. Kapassa’s building site was not one in which health and safety had a high priority - it was not even a hard hat area.

Ancient steps, Sigiriya Rock
The top was once entirely covered by buildings, and their remains vie with the spectacular view to be the main attraction.

Looking south from the Palace Platform, Sigiriya
All that remains of the palace is a square brick platform on the highest part of the summit, but it was clearly a remarkable structure in a remarkable place. Below are the low walls and foundations of the servants' quarters.

The Palace Platform, Sigiriya Rock
Our new guide showed us around diligently, though the labelling was adequate and the King’s Bath was easy to spot – it was full of water. Some water was captured from the monsoon rains; more was pumped up from below probably by use of windmills. Hill forts are not uncommon, Uffington Castle in Oxfordshire and 'British Camp' in the Malverns feature elsewhere in this blog, but the ascents were much easier - no shallow steps hacked into solid rock - and the size and complexity of the buildings bears no comparison.

The King's Bath, Sigiriya Rock
We paused beside the king’s throne. It is not for sitting on, though I suppose it must have been once, what else can you do with a throne? To answer my own question, kneel on it – such, we have learned, is the Burmese way.

A throne 'not for sitting', Sigiriya Rock
The ascent had been hot and sweaty, the descent was a little easier though more painful on the knees. The route was slightly different as, like most tourists we had approached form the west across the water garden, but descended to the southern car park where Ravi would be waiting for us.

Starting the descent, Sigiriya Rock

There is evidence that not all of life was conducted on the top of the rock. A polished flat rock at the base once had a wooden roof and walls and is known as the ‘audience chamber’, though its purpose was probably religious.

'Audience Chamber' at the foor of Sigiriya Rock
We dropped from the royal site through a cleft between two rocks resembling a massive pair of buttocks, known without a shred of irony, as Boulder Arch Number 2.

Lynne plops out through Boulder Arch No 2
Here our unwanted guide left us. He was the first (and only) person in Sri Lanka to request payment in US$. 'Up and down ten dollars,' he said, as though it was the officially recognised fee. I could have pointed out that he did not join us until near the top, that we had never actually asked him to be our guide, indeed we had not wanted or needed a guide at all. On the other hand he was a poor man trying to hustle a living and as a rich man it was my duty to pay for unrequested and unrequired services. Having bargained him down to $6, I paid up with good grace, though his acceptance was a touch grudging.

We found Ravi in the car park as arranged and he drove us back, yet again, to Habarana. Lynne, who has an exaggerated respect for time, even by western standards, had been fussing since the top of the rock that I was going to be late for my massage. I took my lead from Ravi who had suggested the time I had booked - he seemed unconcerned. I was eventually over an hour late, but nobody cared.

Lynne had no desire for a massage so she sat in the shade, wrote her diary and drank herbal tea.
Lynne sits in the shade and drinks herbal tea, Habaraba massage centre

I was shown to one of the thatched huts where I removed my clothes, girded myself with a towel and for the next hour a young man rubbed fragrant hot oils into (almost) every inch of my body.

When he finished I had a steam bath. Undergoing the same process in India a few years ago, I had sat in a sealed wooden box with my head protruding and been steamed like a chicken. This time I sat alone in a room like a sauna with leaves draped over the seats. Steam was introduced from above and I was gently stewed with herbs. 'Stay there as long as you can stand it,' was the instruction, but I have a high tolerance for these things and in the end, when the sweat was flowing freely, they came and hoiked me out.

The masseur is coming to rub me all over!
I luxuriated in the feeling of health and well-being, knowing from experience that it does not last long. After the steam bath in India I was shown into a shower cubicle and given some abrasive soap to remove the oils. Here I was thrown a fresh towel and instructed to dry myself and replace my clothes. My feeling of well-being evaporated as I struggled back into a tee shirt still damp with sweat from my earlier exertions.

I re-joined Lynne and was provided with a cup of herbal tea which I found refreshing, though it was now past two and after a long and arduous morning I wanted my lunch.

Ravi drove us to another tourist feeding station. The rice and curry buffet looked tired so we opted for noodles with chicken (Lynne) and pork (me). Such dishes appear in all menus and are usually described as Chinese. There is little of the flavours of China about them, but they are pleasant enough.

Then it was back through Dambulla, down the lane and along the unpaved road back to the Heritance Hotel. The dirt road offered us glimpses of white throated kingfishers, magnificent (and very common) birds notable not for their white throats but for their fluorescent blue backs.
The minor road from Dambulla
A mongoose waddled across the road in front of us. ‘The snake killer,' said Ravi though it is difficult to imagine these portly, self-satisfied creatures becoming involved in life or death struggles with cobras. Further on, a jungle fowl bustled across the road. They are Sri Lanka's national bird despite being little more than wild hens.

Five-star elegance or ludicrously over-designed glasses?
Heritance Hotel, Kandalama
We reached the hotel in late afternoon and spent the rest of the day in decadent five-star luxury. It was pleasant, but not really like being in Sri Lanka and far too dull to write about.

Sri Lanka, The Isle of Serendip

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