KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
After leaving Kandy and driving to Anuradhapura, I noticed that my throat was a little sore and my nose was starting to drip. Oh no, could I have picked up a cold or flu from the other guests at the Serendip Stone Bungalow? The husband, wife and seven-year-old daughter had set off to see the Cultural Triangle themselves, but were planning to see it by moving in a clockwise direction, the opposite route to our own. As they left in the morning they told me that they were all feeling unwell, but as they had hired a car, they felt they had to press on.
I was feeling tired and I ached all over, but we were under the same constraints ourselves, so we set off for Sigiriya to see the frescoes painted on the face of a huge out-cropping of rock that was once the magma core of a volcano that eroded away. The fact that fairly strenuous climbing was involved was more than a little daunting. I had seen aerial photos taken of the flat top of the rock and I really wanted to be one of those who climbed all the way up for the views.
The highways in this region of Sri Lanka are in great shape although they remain only two lanes, with no shoulders to speak of. The traffic was light, no politicking on this day, but Manjula did warn us that the President was due to visit Polonnaruwa that afternoon, our very destination for the night. Why on earth did his aides choose this week to visit the ancient cities?
We left the main highway and drove along a narrow road through the forest for 13km and then we saw the UNESCO World Heritage site rising high above us. We headed straight for the western entrance where Manjula dropped us off before he drove to the parking area near the south gate. When we passed through the entrance booth, the attendant tore off the portion of the ticket for Sigiriya but I noticed another person checking our ticket number on a laptop nearby.
From this point, we had a great view of the rock but to get to it, we had to walk thorough a large complex of beautiful symmetrical water gardens containing bathing pools, platforms on little islands, and pathways lined with low brick walls and tall trees. Near the base of the rock we discovered a large boulder garden. These boulders once formed the base for buildings, but all that remains are the depressions where timber columns were once inserted. It is here that a series of steps leads upwards to the base of the rock and then begins to ascend the rock itself.
We were out in the full sun and the tall trees were keeping the air very still, so it wasn’t long before we were feeling the effects of the heat and humidity. The steep climb only added to our discomfort and it seemed pretty clear that we would only climb high enough to see the frescoes, and no higher. The frescoes are half way up the western face and once we reached the top of the stone brick staircase we came to a modern metal spiral staircase that would take us to a long, sheltered gallery in order to see the frescoes. It was here that we noticed a sign warning us to be quiet, as noise might startle hornets in the vicinity.
Anil had given me a hard time about visiting the Cultural Triangle after he read that this region is home to five different species of venomous snakes. We were warned to watch out for them in the dry zone around Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, especially when visiting the ancient ruins. Now we had to beware of stinging hornets as well. Anil was ready to turn back, but I somehow persuaded him to carry on; we had already come this far.
It was a good thing that he didn’t remember transcribing the letters that my brother had sent home from Sri Lanka when he visited in 1975. Anil typed up all David’s letters from his year-long journey and we made a book of them for David for his 50th birthday present. In preparation for writing about this area, I went back and reread the letters he sent from Kandy and this is what I discovered:
We went to Sigiriya the old fortress town built in the 5th century. Quite impressive. There was a rock towering 800 feet above. Really nice. They have paintings on the side of the rock. They had 500 at one time but only about 20 are left but they are on a straight cliff 400 ft. above. How they painted them I don’t know. We tried to climb to the top but they had ‘Beware of Hornets’ signs around as we were going up. Some people came and told us to be quiet because there were some flying around.
This guy came down swinging his jacket. They have a metal cage there and we all ran into it. Then about 500 hornets came buzzing around us. They were about 1.5 inches long. Big ones. They should not let people up there. It’s really dangerous. We had to wait in the cage for half an hour and then make a run for it. None of us got stung but other people did.
While we were in the cage some English people came along and wanted to go up. We told them to go away but the girl wanted to go up. We kept on telling her not to but she went up half way and started screaming and two guys had to go and get her down. The guys got most of the stings too. Dumb girl.
Local legend has it that this site was once a fortress and a royal palace for a king during the 5th century. Residents in the area believe that the frescoes were paintings done of the kings many wives and concubines. However, archaeological evidence suggests that this was a long-standing Buddhist monastery and that the paintings represent Tara, and important Mahayana Buddhist goddess. I was inspired to come to Sigiriya when I saw a reproduction of one particular fresco in the National Museum in Colombo.
While we were viewing the frescoes, we were delighted to find that Manjula had climbed the stairs to join us. He told us that he had been there before, several times, the first was on a field trip from school. It was Manjula that pointed out the huge hornet’s nest attached to the wall high above the paintings. Luckily for us, despite the chatter of a large group of young male students, there didn’t seem to be any hornets buzzing around that afternoon.
Anil was only too happy to head down the stairs, but I was feeling pretty good despite my cold and persuaded him to go a little further up, at least to see the ‘Lion’s Paws’ on the north side of the rock. The description in the Lonely Planet made it sound like it would be a difficult climb, but when we saw the stairs, they were no worse than what we had mastered already and so he agreed. As we rounded the corner of the rock, we found a lovely breeze was blowing and it was so refreshing we actually enjoyed the next portion of the climb.
The two enormous lion’s paws were discovered by HCP Bell, the British archaeologist while excavating the site in 1989; Sigiriya means ‘lion rock’ in Sinhala. The stairs to the summit start here; a brick staircase that climbs between the two paws and then changes to a narrow metal staircase, bolted into the rock face. There is a separate set of rungs for those ascending and descending. It looked so secure, that I urged Anil and Manjula to join me and climb to the top for the 360° view.
It turned out to be a relatively easy climb but as we moved up the stairs, I looked at the small toeholds cut into the rock face and thought about how difficult it once was to make it to the top. The summit is large, approximately 1.6 hectares and at one time was covered with buildings. Only the foundations remain now. It’s easy to see why people would think this was once a royal palace. The views are spectacular, and a huge pond cut deep into the rock looks like a modern swimming pool. It was probably used by the monks to store water.
We didn’t stay long, we had a long drive ahead of us, so we quickly clambered down the metal stairs and bypassed the fresco gallery by taking a different route down the rock cut stairs. A path lead us though the rock gallery towards a stunning rocky projection known as ‘Cobra Hood Cave’. To our surprise and dismay, just past the cave we came upon a man with several snake baskets and a large python stretched out on the ground near his feet. Anil was really freaked out and I wasn’t much better. We insisted that he move the snake from our path and when he picked it up and through it in the bushes, we made a hasty retreat.
We were next assaulted by a long line of souvenir booths selling everything from postcards to carved wooden elephants. I know that everyone needs to make a living, but it gets a little tiring to find that you are ushered past the shops on the way to the entrances and exits of any place of interest. There has to be a better way to contribute to the economy than buying kitschy items to take back home to people who don’t want them anyway. For us, it’s out of the question; we won’t be back in Canada for a few more months.
We tried to find a place to have lunch in the little village at the base on the south side of the rock, but nothing looked appealing, so we pushed on and satisfied ourselves with the biscuits we always have on hand, and a few more swigs of bottled water. We don’t really like to have three large meals a day, so we planned on having a large Sri Lankan dinner at our destination in the evening.
As we pushed on eastwards towards Polonnaruwa, we passed through a large national park, Minneriya. The best time to visit the park is between June and September when the water in the large tank has dried up and the animals have access to the grasses and shoots that emerge. There are supposed to be upwards of 150 elephants here, as well as macaques, sambar deer and leopards. However, because we were passing through shortly after the rainy season, the tank was full and it would have been hard to see the animals in the lush green forests with heavy undergrowth at this time of year.
We did have a laugh though when we saw a yield sign along the highway warning us to watch out for large lizards crossing. It’s hard to imagine this part of Sri Lanka being dry and dusty, ever. As you can see from my photos from Sigiriya, the forests in every direction are abundant and there isn’t a patch of grass as far as the eye can see. Perhaps another trip to Sri Lanka, at another time of year is warranted?