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…..



Monday, 19 January 2015

Anuradhapura Ancient and Modern: Part 2 of Sri Lanka, Isle of Serendip

After a breakfast of dhal, milk rice, chicken curry and coconut sambol (Lynne had an omelette) we set off to see Anuradhapura. The 'Sacred City' - a UNESCO World Heritage Site - has a hefty 3200 rupee (£16) entrance fee for foreigners, but the most holy site is outside the restricted zone. Sri Maha Bodhi, The Bodhi Tree, sits in its own enclosure and with its own (more modest) entrance fee.

In May 1985 a group of Tamil Tigers hijacked a bus, shot up Anuradhapura bus station and then drove to Sri Maha Bodhi where more bullets were sprayed around. 146 men, women and children died in the Anuradhapura Massacre. The civil war is  now over, and in these happier times the security huts were unmanned, though we still passed through them before walking up the drive, removing our shoes and being admitted into the presence of the Tree. Around 450 BC the Buddha achieved enlightenment after meditating under a Bodhi Tree in what is now Bodhgaya in northern India. The tree we were looking at had allegedly been grown from a cutting of that original tree.
 
Entrance to Sri Maya Bodhi, Anuradhpaura
The 'his 'n' hers' security huts either side of the entrance were unmanned


It is undoubtedly a large and ancient specimen of its kind, supported by metal props, some painted gold, and surrounded by a gold-painted fence. Anuradhapura was sacked several times during its millennium of prominence, and then spent several centuries forgotten and being reclaimed by the jungle. Exactly what, if any, is the connection between the current tree and the original (and whether the original had any real connection with Bodhgaya) is anybody's guess, but such thoughts do not disturb those who come to venerate the tree, some in family groups others as individuals.
 
The Bodhi Tree, Anuradhapura

Several were lost in meditation. One thin young man in monk's robes knelt motionless. At first glance he seemed to be begging but his sign said, in several languages, 'Do not give money. Money is no companion.'

Meditating monk, Sri Maya Bodhi, Anuradhapura
We headed next for the museum of the Jetvana Monastery - one of old Anuradhapura's three main monasteries - to buy our gold plated tickets. The museum, housed in a colonial mansion built by the British as the town hall - though not quite in the right place for the modern town - contains a collection of often finely crafted personal items from the excavations. Perhaps the most interesting was a large stone slab with indentations like an egg box, intended to hold relics. Several have been found buried beneath Buddha statues, and there must be many more of them out there, where long vanished statues once stood.

Leaving the monastery itself for later, we drove round the Mahavira Monastery just north of the Bodhi Tree to Basawakkulma, one of the many artificial lakes built by the city’s rulers to make life possible in this dry region.

Basawakkulma, Anuradhapura
Ravi was happy to drive us around the huge site, but had advised us to hire an official local guide and he had arranged for us to pick up Jagadth outside the folk museum by the lake. Jagadth was a slim young man with a piratical air, an impressive command of English and a confident way with a myriad facts and figures. 'Not just decorative,' Lynne observed.

He took us first to Ruvanvalisaya in the Mahavira complex, the oldest of Anuradhapura's monasteries. Ruvanvalisaya, known as the ‘Great Dagoba’ although it is only the third largest in the city, was built, according to tradition, by the semi-legendary King Dutugemunu, a great Buddhist leader and liberator, who reigned at the end of the second century BC. Before it was complete Dutugemenu became seriously ill, so his younger brother 'completed' it with bamboo poles and white cloth allowing the dying king to see his finished handiwork.

Ruvanvalisaya, The 'Great Dagoba', Anuradhapura
Despite many restorations, a recent coat of white paint, and the replacement of most of the elephants lining the outer wall with modern copies, it is believed to look much as Dutugemenu intended - though slightly flattened by time. The dagoba sees a steady stream of pilgrims, many believing that sacred relics are buried beneath it, though nobody quite seems to know what.


New elephants, Ruvanvalisaya, Anuradhapura
300m further north, the much smaller Thuperama is the oldest dagoba in Sri Lanka and was built by Devanampiya Tissa shortly after his conversion by Mahinda (see Mihintale, previous post). Mahinda asked his sponsor (and relative) Ashoka the Great, the Emperor of India, for a focus of worship for his new converts. Ashoka kindly sent the Buddha's begging bowl and his right collarbone. The begging bowl has been lost, but the collarbone is under Thuperama – or so many believe. The surrounding pillars, some of which lean at alarming angles, once supported a roof.

Thuparama Dagoba, Anuradhapura
Nearby Jagadth pointed out an unusual corkscrew shaped coconut tree. He admitted not knowing the reason for the deformation; it was the only thing he did not know all day.
 
Corkscrew coconut palm, Anuradhapura

From here we made our way into the Citadel. Once surrounded by a moat and a thick wall the secular heart of the city is now little more than humps and bumps in the ground. Excavation has, as yet, only been partial and little can be seen of the royal palace apart from the terrace on which it stood.
Citadel complex, Anuradhapura
Of the nearby temple, the first (of many) in Sri Lanka to house the country's most sacred relic, the Tooth of the Buddha, there is a little more. The floor plan of the refectory can be clearly seen and beside it a huge stone trough which is believed to have been for the monk's rice. It is not easy to imagine what 5,000 portions of rice look like. The smaller trough (over Lynne’s right shoulder in the picture) was, Jagadth assured us, for the curry sauce. ‘Rice and curry’ was as important two thousand years ago as it is now.

Lynne and the rice trough, Mahapali Refectory, Anuradhapura
 Continuing via a bathing pool which, Jagadth pointed out was three times the length of an Olympic pool (and may have been used by elephants) we reached Abhayagiri, the northernmost of the main monasteries.

Bathing Pool, Anuradhapura
The museum contains the usual selection of statues, but perhaps most interesting were the toilets. Stone urinals with a very small hole in the base ('to concentrate the mind' as Jagadth said) were placed above a series of urns containing lime and charcoal to filter the urine and so keep the environment clean. There were also stone squat toilets. We did not learn how they dealt with solid waste, but we did observe that at the end of every latrine was an image of Kubera, the god of wealth. Every straining monk could look Kubera in the eye and know that wealth and greed had been put in their rightful place.

Buddhism does not have gods, even the Buddha himself never claimed divinity, but in most Buddhist countries a few deities seem to survive, either left over from the old religion, like the Nats in Myanmar, or seeping through from Hinduism as here.

Behind the museum is the palace of Mahasen, a king who ruled from 277 to 304 AD. Little remains except the platform on which it was built.

Palace of Mahasen,
The rather later image house next-door has a particularly spectacular moonstone. Semi-circular ‘moonstones’ are set in the doorways of most religious buildings, the carvings describing the route to nirvana. They vary from the simple to the elaborately carved; this one is said to be the finest in Sri Lanka.

Moonstone
Image house by Mahasen's Palace, Anuradhapura
Abhayagiri’s dagoba, built in the second century AD was the second tallest in Anuradhapura, but no longer has its full 45m pinnacle. It is popularly believed to enshrine a footprint of the Buddha who stood with one foot here and the other on the top of Adam's Peak, a 2000m high mountain over 200km to the south, not a particularly likely claim.

At its peak, in the fifth century AD, Abhayagiri had five thousand monks and an international reputation that gave it contacts in India, China, Burma and Java.
 
Abhayagiri Dagoba, Anuradhapura

Near the dagoba is a Buddha image in the Samadhi (Meditation) posture. Carved from limestone in the fourth century AD, it is greatly revered and we were required to remove our shoes a significant distance before it, leaving a painful approach along a gravel path. The authorities are happy for the image to be photographed but here, as with other Buddha images, there are big signs telling people not to pose for photographs with their back to the image.

Samadhi Buddha, Anuradhapura

A little to the north of the Samadhi Buddha are the 'twin pools' (though they are by no means identical twins).
Twin Pools, Anuradhapura
(The second, smaller, pool is behind the main one)
 Designed for bathing they have an elaborate system for allowing the sediment to settle out of the incoming water before it trickles into the pool. The steps down the sides are regarded as being particularly elegant, but the pools were full, so we could not see them.
Sediment settling system
Twin Pools, Anuradhapura
Our final move was back to the Jetvana Monastery. We had started our visit with the museum here and would finish it with the dagoba. It has been recently restored - only a couple of years ago it was covered with grass and studded with trees – and the pinnacle partly replaced. When it was built in the 3rd century BC (by King Mahasen, whose palace we had just visited) it stood 120m tall; at the time the third highest building in the world after two of the three major pyramids on the Giza Plateau. The brickwork has settled over the millennia and flattened out a little, but it remains Sri Lanka's largest dagoba and is claimed to be the largest building in the world made entirely from bricks. According to James Emerson Tennent, politician, traveller and, for a couple of months in 1847, Governor of British Ceylon, there are enough bricks in the dagoba to build a 10 foot high wall from London to Edinburgh. He made no suggestion as to why anyone should want to do this.

The Jetvana Dagoba, Anuradhapura

We returned to our hotel in time for a very late lunch. After a rest I ventured into the pool to give a demonstration of 'how to swim the front crawl' to a family of monkeys stationed in a tree overlooking the deep end. They watched with little apparent interest, but I suspect that was a front, secretly they were very impressed indeed.
 
About to impress our arboreal cousins

Afterwards we took a stroll through modern Anuradhapura. The town now has some 8000 inhabitants and it did not take long to walk past the bus station where the Anuradhapura Massacre started and then down the full length of the main street. We found an ATM at the far end of town – we had almost run out of money despite yesterday’s visit to the ATM at the airport. We also purchased some of what we call 'Bombay Mix', though I have no idea what it is called in Sri Lanka (or in India where we have made similar purchases). 200g cost us 80 rupees (40p), the first thing we had found in this country that was unequivocally cheap. It was sold in a bag made of two squares of newspaper glued together.
 
Main street, Anuradhapura

Later I ate rice and curry at the hotel. It was different from last night’s rice and curry, but not very different. Lynne’s sea food fried rice was probably a better choice.
Sri Lanka, The Isle of Serendip

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