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…..



Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Polonnaruwa and Kandalama, an Ancient City and a Modern Hotel: Part 3 of Sri Lanka, Isle of Serendip

After a leisurely breakfast of string hoppers (nests of boiled rice noodles), dhal, coconut sambol and chicken curry we set off on the 80km journey to Polonnaruwa.

Ravi drove us across the northern plain, mostly agricultural land displaying a rich variety of greens, from the luminous light green of the paddy fields to the darker hues of the coconut palms. This year's monsoon had been particularly wet and a little late, so there were large areas of wetlands where we stopped to watch egrets and ibis.

Water Lilies - the egrets and ibis are there somewhere, too
Northern Plain, Sri Lanka
 Beyond the straggling village of Habarana we paused for a coconut.  We had become devotees of the ‘coconut break’ in Southern India a few years ago; cheaper, healthier and more hygienic than morning coffee, coconut water is a superbly refreshing drink on a blisteringly hot day. Indian drinking coconuts are large and green, in Sri Lanka they are yellow and outwardly much smaller, though there is at least as much liquid within.


Coconut break near Habarana
Indian coconut sellers have the alarming habit of holding the coconut in one hand and hitting it with a machete held in the other. The more circumspect Sri Lankans usually place the coconut on a tree stump.

The less alarming Sri Lankan way to machete a coconut
Looking across part of the Minneriya National Park we thought we could see one of their many elephants, though using binoculars to tentatively identify something the size of an elephant suggests it was not close. Wild elephants are not confined to the national park and local farmers build tree houses from where they guard their crops at night from bands of marauding elephants.
 
We did not need binoculars to see this domesticated elephant

The artificial lake at Minneriya was created in the third century AD, and the availability of so much water for irrigation was the start of Polonnaruwa's rise to prominence. For six hundred years it was an occasional royal residence of the kings of Anuradhapura. As the expansionist Indian Chola Empire regularly sacked Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa's greater distance from India, rich agriculture and trading links through the port of Trincomalee made it increasingly important.

The Cholas ruled southern India for a thousand years from around 300BC to 1279. Emperor Raja Raja I invaded Sri Lanka in 993 and sacked Anuradhapura so comprehensively the city was abandoned.  With Polonnaruwa as their capital, the Cholas ruled northern Sri Lanka for 80 years. Vijayabahu I inherited the southern kingdom in 1050 and after a long and ultimately successful campaign to remove the Cholas he ruled a united island from 1070 to his death in 1110.
 
Sri Lanka


Polonnaruwa was the Sri Lankan capital for the next 200 years. During this time there were over a hundred kings, only Vijayabhau, Parakramabahu I (ruled 1153-86) and Nissankamalla (ruled 1187-96) survived long enough to provide any stability and they were responsible for much of the building.

In the late thirteenth century marauding Tamils made it time for the capital to move on again and Polonnaruwa was swallowed up by the jungle until it was dug out again in the mid-twentieth century.

There is little of modern Polonnaruwa, but there is a museum beside an artificial lake, and there we hired an official guide and paid another £16 entrance fee.

The museum has the usual collection of stonework and statues, mainly Buddha images but also a few Hindu gods, including the ever-popular elephant-headed Ganesh. Models of the main buildings were, perhaps, the star exhibits. The palaces once had six or seven storeys, but only the stone-built lower storeys survive. In the models the wooden floors above and the roofs that covered the dagobas have been reconstructed.
 
The huge site is surrounded by an ancient wall and, directed by our amiable new guide, who spoke excellent English, Ravi drove us through this outer wall to the heavily restored inner wall around the 'Royal Palace Group'.

This is a blog, not a guide book; what follows is not a comprehensive description of this vast site, it is merely a record of what caught our interest.

Parakramabahu I, known as The Great, built the Royal Palace which, according to a 13th century chronicle, had seven storeys and a thousand rooms. The latter figure is undoubtedly an exaggeration, but the number of storeys… who knows? Three storeys survive; there are holes for the beams which supported the upper stories and plenty of evidence of the fire that destroyed them.

The Royal Palace, Polonnaruwa
The nearby Council Chamber also lacks its roof, but the columns on which it stood remain.

Council Chamber, Polonnaruwa
You can cross the moonstones, climb the steps.....

The steps up to the Council Chamber with two moonstones (the carved semi-circular stones on the threshold)
Polonnaruwa
..... and imagine you are waiting to give the king the benefit of your boundless wisdom.

Ready to advise the king, Council Chamber, Polonnaruwa
Another set of steps descends to the Royal bath, which must have been impressive in its time, though now it looks like the bathwater needs changing.

The Royal Baths, Polonnaruwa
A little north of the Palace Group, ‘The Quadrangle’ is the religious heart of Polonnaruwa.

The Vatage, or Circular Image House, is the most notable building with intricately carved moonstones and seated Buddhas marking the cardinal points. It was also built by Parakramabahu, with embellishments by Nissankamalla, who tinkered with a number of buildings and always left an inscription to claim the credit for his work - and everyone else’s.
 
Seated Buddha in the Vatage, the Circular Image House, The Quadrangle, Polonnaruwa

A long-vanished upper storey probably enshrined the Tooth of the Buddha. The sacred relic had been brought from Anuradhapura; its presence (until modern times) defined the island’s capital.

Several other image houses adorn the Quadrangle, including the Atage , built by Vijayabuha and one of Polonnaruwa’s oldest buildings, and the Hatage. Both were probably intended to house the Buddha’s Tooth, any king worth his salt would want their own Temple of the Tooth.
 
The Hatage, The Quadrangle, Polonnaruwa

The Gal Pota, near the Hatage, is a 9m long granite slab densely covered with inscriptions praising Nissankamilla, including a dramatic bigging up of his very modest military expeditions in India. Known as Nissankamilla the Vainglorious, he worked hard to live up to the title. The 25t stone was brought 90km from Mihintale, though there seems nothing special about it that would justify so much effort.
 
Gal Pota, The Quandrangle, Polonnaruwa

In the corner by the Gal Pota is the Satmahal Prasada. It is unlike any temple anywhere else in Sri Lanka and is conjectured to be the work of Cambodian craftsmen, but nobody really knows.
 
Satmahal Prasada

The Lotus Mandapa, also the work of Nissankamilla, faces the Hatage….
 
The Lotus Mandapa, The Quadrangle, Polonnawura


…while in front of it is a statue traditionally believed to be a likeness of Vijayabahu, though it may actually be a Bodhisattva.

Possibly a statue of Vijayabahu I - and possibly not
The Quandrangle, Polonnawura
Ravi drove us a little way north from the Quadrangle and a little off the main drag, to see first the Pabula Vihara - a dagoba reputedly built by one of the wives of Parakramabahu and turned into a strange two-tier hump by restoration work - ….

Pabula Vihara, Polonnaruwa
,,,and then, a little further from the road, the Shiva Devale no 2. A Hindu temple and the oldest surviving structure in Polonnaruwa, it dates from the Chola occupation and is entirely Indian in style.

Shiva Devale No. 2, Polonnaruwa
Back on the main drag we paused by the Rankot Vihara. Built by Nissankamalla, it is, at 55m, the largest dagoba in Sri Lanka outside Anuradhapura.


The Rankot Vihara, Polonnaruwa

Gal Vihara, the Stone Shrine is a little further north and consists of four Buddha statues carved from a single granite outcrop, two seated, one standing and a 14m long reclining Buddha.

Gal Vihara, Polonnawura

The carving, some of the finest in Sri Lanka, is from the time of Parakramabahu. One of the seated Buddha’s is in an iron cage and the whole ensemble is covered by a corrugated iron awning. I appreciate that ancient and delicate carvings need to be protected from the elements, but there must be a less ugly way to do it.

Gal Vihara, Polonnawura


We were flagging, but decided to make one more visit, to the Lotus Pool at the northern end of the city. Apart from its unusual shape there is not a lot to say about it. It was probably used as a ritual bath by those entering the city.

The Loptus Pool, Polonnaruwa

It was now two o'clock, well past the time when this man’s thoughts turn to lunch. We had been in Polonnaruwa for almost three hours and although we had seen most of the major sights, we had by no means seen everything - and I have not described everything we saw. To examine every rock and ruin we would require weeks, not hours, but we had had our fill; it was time to move on.

Ravi drove us back the way we had come. At any moment I expected him to pull into a restaurant forecourt, but he kept on driving. We passed back through Habarana. In October 2006, a hamlet on this next section of road had been the site of the Habarana massacre. A Tamil Tiger suicide bomber blew up an explosive laden truck among a convoy of buses carrying naval personal. Over 100 were killed, including several local civilians, and many more injured.

Eventually Ravi stopped. Concerned that the restaurant should be clean, he was over-fussy about where we ate, though food hygiene standards in Sri Lanka are generally good, certainly much higher than in southern India. Inevitably we ate in a tourist oriented restaurant, but Lion Lager dealt effectively with rehydration and I enjoyed my spicy omelette and Lynne her chicken curry sandwich. Two American girls at a nearby table were eating rice and curry washed down with Coca Cola, a flavour combination my brain refuses to even contemplate.

Ravi had been keen that we should have an Ayurvedic massage and had pointed out the best massage establishment when we passed through Habarana in the morning, and said we would need to book. Lynne was not interested, but I told him  I was happy to revisit the experience - I had an Ayurvedic massage in India in 2010. This conversation had apparently slipped his mind until we were nearing Dambulla, but then he suddenly nipped down a side road that, twenty winding minutes later, brought us back out in Habarana. We called into a complex of thatched huts in a Buddha-strewn garden where I booked a massage for tomorrow and we then set off back towards Dambulla. I suspect he was hoping we would not notice the strange circular route. I did, but I said nothing.
Where to get a massage in Habarana
We reached Dambulla this time, a dusty town we would pass through a few times more. Beyond it we turned along a minor road and, a few kilometres later, down a dirt track. It was hard to believe this was the approach to a five star hotel.

The road to Kandalama
Geoffrey Bawa (1919-2003) was Sri Lanka's pre-eminent architect. Trained in London he was a 'modernist' but modified his approach on returning to Sri Lanka and developed a style which became known as ‘tropical modernism’. He is responsible for, among other buildings, the Sri Lankan parliament, the University of Rahuna and several hotels. His most famous is the Heritance Hotel by Kandalama Lake, and that was where we were headed.

 
The Heritance Hotel, Kandalama
It is difficult to hide a building that is five storeys high and over a kilometre long – it is reputedly the longest hotel in the world, but we were there before we realised it. The Heritance Hotel faces Lake Kandalama with its back to a rocky hillside. The abundant greenery sweeping down the hill also sweeps over the hotel and the building of steel and glass somehow merges into the jungle. Very keen on recycling and energy efficiency the hotel sets out not just to be eco-friendly, but to merge into the eco-system.

 
The Heritance Hotel, Kandalama
A ramp brought us up to the entrance and from reception we were taken through to the pool bar for a welcome drink. Having entered on the lake side I could not quite work out how the pool at the back also overlooked the lake.

 
The Heritance Hotel pool and Kandalama Lake
After our drink we were escorted down to the third floor - the building plays games with your sense of space - and along the corridor to our suite (yes, we had been upgraded!). Sometimes at the back of the building, sometimes at the front, the wide corridor is open at the sides, giving views across the lake or of the vines down the rock face. It was a long walk, reception is in the centre of the building and our room was the last in the wing, and in the evening, we were told, bats occasionally fly down the corridor above you, but we did not see that.

Walking to our room, Heritance Hotel, Kandalama
The suite consisted of sitting room/office, bedroom and a luxurious bathroom, the spa bath with more controls than an airliner’s cockpit. Lynne was disconcerted to find the bathroom had no blinds but as the picture window looked out over only the jungle canopy I could not see that it mattered.

 
The walk to our room
Looking over Kandalama Lake with the faint outline of Sigiriya Rock, our challenge for the next day

We were warned about monkeys on the balcony – always lock up, their little fingers will find a way in otherwise, and when they tap on the glass in the morning do not open the door.

The view from our balcony, Heritance Hotel, Kandalama
The dining room dress code was described as ‘smart casual’. Wearing a sweaty tee-shirt and crumpled trousers – it had been a long hot day – I asked for clarification. The very elegantly dressed young lady looked me up and down with, I thought, justified contempt and then said, ‘as you are,’ which put the emphasis heavily on ‘casual’ rather than ‘smart’.

I was ever so slightly smarter when we went to dinner. I do not generally like hotel buffets, they can so easily turn a dining experience into mere feeding, but I must admit this was a very good one. It was also expensive - by Sri Lankan standards, though perhaps not by five-star hotel standards.


Sri Lanka, The Isle of Serendip
 


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