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…..



Thursday, 22 January 2015

Dambulla and on to Kandy: Part 5 of Sri Lanka, Isle of Serendip

In the morning we were disturbed by tapping on the window. Drawing the curtains we saw a monkey (more precisely a toque macaque) sitting on the balcony. When it comes to aggressive begging macaques have few scruples so, following the hotel’s advice, we left the door firmly locked.

Toque Macaque on our balcony, Heritance Hotel, Kandalama
After another good breakfast we made our way, yet again, to Dambulla. It is a small town, reputedly home to 68,000 people but feeling much smaller and if there is more than a single main street we did not see it.

The city was first settled in the seventh century BC though recently excavated graves suggest a sophisticated civilization existed in the region two millennia earlier. Modern civilization has given the city a 30,000 seat international cricket stadium, built in 2000 in a remarkable 167 days, which has hosted many one-day internationals though as yet no test matches. It also boasts the biggest wholesale fruit and vegetable market in northern Sri Lanka with a semi-permanent traffic jam outside, but for us the main attraction was Dambulla’s ancient rock temple.

The temple’s modern additions include a large Buddha image on top of what looks like a restaurant but is actually a museum.
The Golden Temple, Dambulla
It may lack the gravitas I would expect from a religious building, but the locals seem happy enough and come here to celebrate their weddings.

Wedding party, Dambulla Golden Temple
The rock temple is behind and above the modern image. After climbing 200m to the top of Sigiriya Rock yesterday, the 100m climb up broad staircases and gently sloping paths was a rest cure, particularly as we did not have to remove our shoes until the top.

Lynne plods up to the Dambulla Rock Temples
At the entrance to a wide, paved ledge a monk tied a length of white cotton round our right wrists to symbolise the passing of knowledge. On the ledge five caves lurk under the overhanging rock face, enclosed by an outer wall.

A paved ledge beside a rock overhang, Dambulla Cave Temple
The Rock Temples date from the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa periods. The nearest and smallest ‘Cave of the Divine King’ was crowded and dark, indeed it was only by taking flash photographs - for once permitted - that we found it was filled by a 14m long reclining Buddha...

Head of the Reclining Buddha, Cave of the Divine King, Dambulla
.... with an image of his disciple Ananda at his feet. Despite the temple being Buddhist there is an image of the Hindu god Krishna, whose divine power created these caves, at the Buddha’s head.
Ananda, Cave of the Divine King, Dambulla
Entering the ‘Cave of the Great Kings’ next-door is one of those stop-and-catch-your-breath moments. 50m long and 25m deep, its name comes from the 1st century BC King Vattagamani Abhaya, who honoured the monastery and is commemorated by a statue, and the 12th century King Nissanka Malla who gilded many of the Buddha statues of which there are 56 - 16 standing and 40 seated. There is also a spring which drips healing water through the roof into a stone font; it is in all the guide books but somehow we missed it.

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The third cave, entered through a thick wooden door, is the ‘Great New Monastery’ and has 18th century Kandian style murals and mosaics and another 50 Buddha statues.
 
Plenty of Buddhas, Cave 3, Dambulla Cave Temples 

The final two caves are a slight anti-climax. Cave 4 holds multiple identical meditating Buddhas, while in Cave 5 the statues are more recent being of brick and plaster. A 10m long reclining Buddha is surrounded by paintings of Vishnu and Kataragama.

Reclining Buddha, Cave 5, Dambulla Cave Temples
We descended to the museum, which has the sort of artefacts you might expect and did not detain us long, then located Ravi in the car park and set off south towards Kandy, Sri Lanka's second city.

After a coconut stop where Ravi insisted on borrowing the coconut vendor’s machete and scraping out what little flesh there is in a drinking coconut…

Ravi is determined to get full value from his coconut
…we arrived at a spice garden, or rather we stopped at one of a line of them strung along the roadside. The garden, surrounded by coconut palms, grew pepper vines, nutmeg, clove, cardamom, cinnamon, vanilla and aloes among others. We tasted cloves, cardamom and cinnamon fresh from the trees. Before drying, the green clove bud’s flavour is intense and they are hot on the palate, while cardamom seeds explode in the mouth with a dizzying freshness. Nibbling bark peeled from a tree would normally be eccentric, but when it is a cinnamon tree, the fragrant sweetness is astounding.

Cardamom, Highland Spice Garden
We were interesting in buying culinary spices, cinnamon and cloves being the two particularly associated with Sri Lanka, but the man who showed us round was keener to sell us cosmetic oils and medicaments with heftier price tags. The hair remover certainly worked, a small bald patch on my arm proved that, but it did little to solve my real problem - the reluctance of hair to grow on my head.

 
Green Vanilla pods, the Highland Spice Garden
We enjoyed looking at the plants and tasting the spices in their natural state and managed to leave with the spices we wanted and with no creams or lotions. I am cynical about cosmetic products whether straight from a garden or expensively packaged. There is no way to remove wrinkles - apart from polyfilla - nor should one be sought, wrinkles are nature's way of adding character to a face.

We passed through a town where the women all wore headscarves. 'Sri Lankan Moors', Tamil speaking Muslims, who may be Tamils who converted to Islam or an entirely separate ethnic group - the issue is under debate - make up 10% of the country's population. 75% are Sinhalese who are overwhelmingly Buddhist and 15% are Tamils, largely Hindus. Sinhalese and Tamil are official languages and English is constitutionally defined as a ‘link language’. The Sinhalese migrated from Bengal in the 5th century BC, or even earlier, and their language is related to the northern India languages, though long separation has made the relationship distant. Tamils colonised northern Sri Lanka from southern India in the 2nd century BC. A long, vicious and ultimately unsuccessful war was fought from 1983 to 2009 by the Tamil Tigers to establish an independent Tamil state. A minority group of Tamils, the 'plantation Tamils' where brought over by the British in the 19th century to work in the tea plantations of the central highlands and did not, on the whole, support the Tamil Tigers. There are also some 30,000 Sri Lankan 'Burghers', of mixed European descent and 15,000 Vedda people who are believed to be the island’s indigenous inhabitants.
Dambulla is not marked, but it is a little to the south west of Habarana
(which is marked though it is much smaller!)
Matale is the last sizeable town before the road starts to rise into the mountains. At the entrance to the town is the Sri Muthumariamman Kovil Temple. When it comes to colourful exuberance you cannot beat a Hindu temple. This is Sri Lanka, so there was a charge for walking round the outside; it cost more to go in, but Hindu temples are always showier on the outside so we did not bother.

Sri Muthumariamman Kovil Temple, Matale
School children were heading home for lunch. School uniforms are usually all white, for boys and girls, as though everybody was in the cricket team. Girls wear white dresses, somewhat incongruous teamed with a tie (though not, it seems in this case).
 
School uniform, Matale

Beyond Matale we stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant. It was clean and modern, if a little characterless. Doubling as a local shop, it was largely patronized by locals. The vegetarian rice and curry buffet was more interesting than most, but would have been better if somebody had lit the burners under the trays.

Driving through Matale
We rose gently into the foothills of the central mountains and by the time we arrived in Kandy in late afternoon we had reached 500m. With 125,000 inhabitants, Kandy is Sri Lanka’s second city. It was the capital of the Kingdom of Kandy from the late 15th century until the start of the colonial era and was the place where Buddha’s Tooth was kept. It is still there. When the British moved the capital to Colombo 1815 the link between Tooth and capital was broken after 2000 years.
The Temple of the Tooth, Kandy
The Temple of the Tooth sits beside a lake. I had thought this might be one of the highlights of the trip, but the temple is an unmemorable pile surrounded by the administrative buildings of the British raj. Some parts are new; the Tamil Tigers detonated a truck bomb at the entrance in 1998 killing 20.
 
The Temple of the Tooth, Kandy

The temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but that does not mean visitors will see The Tooth. It sits inside a gold casket which is very rarely opened. In fact we did not even see the casket (my photo is of a replica in another temple); it is only displayed two days a month.

Replica of the Casket of the Tooth
When the Buddha was cremated in 543BC various body parts were rescued from the flames. In the 4th century BC, with Buddhism in decline in India, the tooth was smuggled to Sri Lanka wrapped in the hair of a princess. Bella Sidney Woolf saw the tooth in 1914 and described it as a ‘tooth of discoloured ivory at least three inches long – unlike any human tooth ever known.’ In 1597 a Portuguese traveller claimed it was a buffalo tooth. To express doubts about the Tooth’s authenticity is deeply offensive, so I will keep my scepticism to myself.

Inside the Temple of the Tooth, Kandy
Every year the Tooth is paraded in its casket through the streets of Kandy carried by an elephant. This job was done for fifty years by an elephant known as Raja. When he died in 1998 he was stuffed and put on display where he is viewed as reverently as a holy relic.

Rajah, the former bearer of the Tooth
In the courtyard is the audience hall, built in 1783, partly burned by the British when they took Kandy in 1803 and then promptly restored. It was here in 1815 that the Kandian chiefs handed over power to the British. Some of the pillars survived the fire and are originals.
 
Audience Hall, Temple of the Tooth, Kandy

Our hotel was only a couple of hundred metres from the temple, but Kandy is a strange city arranged down a series of valleys around the lake and in many places neither looks nor feels urban. Our hotel room overlooked paddy fields; squirrels ran up and down the corner of the building, monkeys played in the palm trees.....

Kandy from our hotel balcony
....... and we watched a white-throated kingfisher waiting for a meal.
White throated kingfisher, Kandy
To find our own meal we walked back towards the lake. The only option, a small business on a corner by the water was doing a brisk take-away trade but there were  also a few seats inside. We sat at a rather sticky table and ate devilled chicken and rice. Devilled dishes are the only genuine Sri Lankan alternative to rice and curry. Pieces of meat come in a thick brown sauce with a flavour not far from Chinese sweet and sour but with a good chilli hit. We resorted to them on a number of occasions and although devilled beef (like most Sri Lankan beef) is too tough to enjoy, they make a pleasant change.

The locals kept coming for the take-aways, but by the time we had finished all the tables were filled by Europeans escaping from various hotels. We drank fruit juice; Lynne's lime was fine but my pineapple was so thick I gave up on the straw and resorted to a spoon. Despite the doubtful cleanliness of the place we suffered no adverse reaction, indeed we had no problems the whole time we were in Sri Lanka.


Sri Lanka, The Isle of Serendip

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