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…..

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Colombo to Anuradhapura and Mihintale: Part 1 of Sri Lanka, Isle of Serendip

Our bodies said it was 11.30 pm, not a good time to arrive in a new country. The local clocks said it was 4.30 am, which might be worse.

We completed the formalities and located Ravi, who was to be our driver and guide for the next eighteen days.

Dawn was still some way off as we set off on the 150km drive north to Anuradhapura, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka. I asked Ravi how long the journey would take. 'Five hours normally,' he said, 'but we are early and will miss the traffic, so four hours.' It was also Sunday, still a day of rest sixty-seven years after British rule ended in this largely Buddhist country, so we were even quicker, despite a tea stop at Puttalam.

Sri Lanka
Up the west coast from Colombo to Puttalam, then north east to Anuradhapura
The airport is twenty kilometres north of Colombo but the journey started in an urban sprawl which extended beyond Negombo. There was little traffic, and not a great deal of street lighting, so we were unable to see much of our surroundings.

There was enough light to see flocks of black birds flying across the road. 'Crows,' Ravi said 'and sometimes you see bats - they roost in the same trees.' We saw no bats.

Dawn broke, though it was some time before a big enough gap in the houses allowed us to see the new day's currant bun.

We had arrived three days after Pope Francis had left and there were still posters advertising his visit. I asked Ravi if there were many Christians in Sri Lanka. 'Many people by the seaside are Christians,' he said, 'but in the interior it is all Buddhism.' [7% of Sri Lanka’s 20m people are Christians, 70% are Buddhists] Ravi, from the Buddhist heartland of Kandy, was understandably vague on the denomination of Sri Lankan Christians but the pope's visit had been a great success and drew large crowds. In the next hour we passed many churches, some full to bursting for Sunday services. We also passed several Buddhist temples, a few Hindu temples [13%] and two mosques [10%], Sri Lanka may be predominantly Buddhist, but there is plenty of diversity.

My road map showed five towns in the thirty kilometres of the A1 between Negombo and Chilaw, but to the casual observer we were in continuous village. Further north the houses became more sporadic, separated by paddy fields, coconut palms and temporary lakes (the monsoon was late and particularly heavy this year). The wet, marshy ground was home to countless egrets.

Lake formed by the late monsoon rains

South of Puttalam the road runs beside a lagoon so big we could not see across it. It is home to vast stocks of prawns and lobsters.

We by-passed Puttalam, stopping for a cup of tea at the Rest House on the city’s eastern edge. Much English tea comes from Sri Lanka, so we should not have been surprised to be served the most English cuppa we have encountered on foreign soil – even down to the jug of milk, though hot UHT milk is not my favourite.

Road signs at home warn of deer, but here, as we turned inland past the Wilpattu national park, they warn of elephants. The beasts are unaware of the park boundaries and, Ravi said, are a common sight on this road at night.

The remaining 70 kilometres of our journey was through countryside, dominated by rice fields and coconut trees, with a sprinkling of cashew plantations.

The Lake View Hotel at Anuradhapura is, as the name suggest beside a lake, Nuwara Wewa, one of the many reservoirs built when Anuradhapura was the most important city on the island. We arrived just after nine, less interested in ancient lakes than in having somewhere to sleep, an occupation that took up the rest of the morning.

We ate a light lunch on the hotel terrace. The sun was warm rather than hot and with the cooling breeze off the lake it could not have been pleasanter. We ordered omelettes, with onion, mushrooms and chilli. 'It's spicy,' the waiter said with a concerned expression. 'Bring it on,' we said. Both omelettes were perfectly satisfactory as omelettes go, and contained a few circles of fresh green chilli, but spicy? No, not by any realistic standard. Will Sri Lanka, we wondered, be a replay of the battles we have fought in China and India (with varying degrees of success) to be allowed to eat the food the locals eat.
Lion Lager

We drank Lion Lager, overwhelmingly Sri Lanka's top selling brand, as it has been since the brewery was founded in1881.  It is a well-made light lager and, served cold, is perfect for the climate.

After a stroll beside the lake, where we observed egrets, huge herons, cormorants swimming with only their heads and necks above water, a man standing in the lake fishing and a picnicking family, Ravi arrived to show us Mihintale.

Man fishing in Nuwara Wewa, Anuradhapura
Anuradhapura was the island’s capital from its founding in the 4th century BC until 933AD. It now consists of the ruined 'Sacred City' and a small modern town distinguished only by its reservoirs and a large number of tourist hotels.

Saving ‘old Anuradhapura’ for the next day we set off for Mihintale, 12km to the east, and, according to legend the place where Buddhism arrived in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka’s northern plain is studded with rocky outcrops and grassy hillocks and Mihintale sits on such a hill. To minimise the number of steps Ravi drove us as high as he could, parking beside Sinha Pokuna. The name means 'Lion Pool' and comes from the statue of a lion which once gushed water from its mouth. We walked across the now dry pool to see it, shoo-ing our way through a crowd of monkeys and pausing to watch the infants playing in a tree.

Monkeys, Sinha Pokuna, Mihintale

The lion is badly eroded, but the carvings above it are in much better conditions and very Indian in style.
Badly eroded lion fountain, Sinha Pokuna, Mihintale

Further up there are the remains of the chapter and image houses of a long vanished monastery. Two tenth century stone slabs are inscribed with the monastery rules. The English translation proved rather disappointing; the list of medieval dos and don’ts read pretty much like any set of school rules.

The Image House, Mihintale

Brick built hemispheres are all that remain of many old dagobas. Taking a closer look at one I startled a large monitor lizard which scuttled away and then stood looking at me. I crept up to take this picture [we would discover they are two-a-penny throughout the country].

Monitor lizard, Mihintale
The ticket office stands beside the steps to the upper terrace. Here we paid, deposited our shoes and removed our hats. Bare heads are the rule (for men and women) in Sri Lankan temples. I would always remove my hat indoors, but as few of the temples we visited had an 'indoors' I reluctantly exposed my head, and the large areas of scalp between my increasingly meagre hair, to the full glare of the sun. Bare feet are fine on stone flags but here the surface, sometimes sandy, sometimes rocky but always gritty, was uncomfortable at best and extremely painful when standing on a sharp stone.

On this terrace King Devanampiya Tissa (reigned 250-210 BC) met Mahinda the brother, or maybe son, of Ashoka the Great (see Mughal Serai and Sarnath), the Buddhist ruler of most of India. The king was hunting deer, Mahinda was hunting converts. The dagoba marks where the king stood, Mahinda’s position is represented by a statue so badly damaged I took no notice of it and have no photograph. Given their positions the ensuing conversation must have been shouted.

The Upper Terrace, Mihintale. Mahinda stood just to the right of the camera, the king where the white dagoba is.
A modern Buddha image looks out over the scene

'What is this tree?' Mahinda asked the King.
'A mango tree.'
'And are there other mango trees in the forest?'
There are.' The king replied.
'Are there trees in the forest that are not mango trees?'
The king nodded.
'And are there trees in the forest that are not those other trees nor other mango trees?'
At this point any normal medieval king would have said 'stop being a smartarse,' and chopped his head off. Devanampiya Tissa though, thought for a moment and replied, 'There is this mango tree.'

Having solved the 'riddle of the mango' the king was, Mahinda decided, a fit person to receive the ideas of the Buddha.
Aradhana Gala (Meditation Rock)
from the Mahaseya Dagoba

Mahinda gave his first sermon from the top of a rocky outcrop known as Aradhana Gala (Meditation Rock). The steps cut in the rock have become worn by time and polished to slipperiness by the sweat of a million feet. Those in direct sunlight were hot, too, but we struggled to the top aided by a robust handrail – a relatively new addition according to Ravi.

Steep, hot, slippery rocks, Aradhana Gala, Mihintale

We were rewarded with wonderful views over the misty plain sprinkled with the reservoirs built by the many kings of Anuradhapura to provide irrigation for the crops and drinking water for the city.

The Northern Plain from the top of Aradhana Gala

Mahaseya Dagoba is on a second outcrop, but the climb is much easier, though still hard on the soles of the feet. Painted white and frequently restored it is said to enshrine a hair of the Buddha. Unusually it is not solid and inside there is a rather camp reclining Buddha and several other smaller statues.

Mahindu Saya (front) and Mahaseya Dogoba (behind), Mihintale

Behind it, the much older Mahindu Saya is now a hemisphere of bare bricks but, like many others around the site, reputed to hold relics of Mahinda.

Reclining Buddha, Mahaseya Dagoba

We picked our way gingerly back to the ticket office and then, reshod, strode with more confidence back to the car. 500m down the road we parked and walked to Kaludiya Pokuna, a tranquil man-made lake.
Kaludiya Pokuna, Mihintale

The remains of a tenth century monastery stand beside the water, but whether the unusual cave-building was a bath house or a monk's dwelling is a moot point.
'Cave Building' Kaludiya Pokuna, Mihintale

The light was fading when we arrived back at the hotel. We decided to go out to eat and asked Ravi's advice. He offered to drive us and took us a short distance to another hotel where we sat on a balcony with only one other couple overlooking a vigorous children's party. It was not ideal but Ravi said the food was good and it may have been unfair of us to suspect he was on a retainer.

Rice and Curry, Anuradhapura
‘Rice and curry’ - always on that order - is the archetypal Sri Lankan meal, so that was what we ordered, one vegetarian and one with beef. The piles of rice would have made Sir Edmund Hillary reach for a rope and breathing apparatus. There was mango chutney, chilli flakes and four dishes each of curry, four veg for Lynne, three veg and one beef for me, all eight of them different. Dhal was involved, as were aubergines, a floury root vegetable that might have been taro, beetroot, caramelised shallots and several more that will have go unnamed, though the young waiter was keen to help us understand what we were eating. The spicing varied from subtle to fiery, and the variety made for an excellent meal, even if the beef was distinctly tough and the ambience not quite what we were expecting.

Sri Lanka, The Isle of Serendip

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