The second day began with Sigiriya. We grabbed a hasty breakfast, set off in the morning from Chaaya Village, packed into the TBC Asia tour buses, and headed for the Lion Rock.
If you’re Sri Lankan, and you’re reading this, you’ll already know what Sigirya is, so you can safely skip the next para. If you’re not – well, here goes.
Well over 1500 years ago, there lived a king named Dhatusena. He had two sons: Kashayapa, the older, son by a lesser consort, and Mogallana, who was the Official Heir Apparent.
Kashyapa, who was apparently not a very dutiful son, walled up his father alive and took the throne for himself, leaving his brother to flee to India. Knowing that his brother would be back someday, Kashyapa moved everything to Sigiriya, in the Central Province, where he commandered this huge rock that dominated the countryside and literally built his castle in, on and around it.
It was a combination fort and pleasure palace, and by all accounts it was a smart move: the rock looms over an otherwise flat landscape, and the only thing of equal height – a hill some distance away – would have been too far to attack from with the siege weapons of those days. It was also a masterpiece of urban planning back in the day: Kashyapa’s architect (/s) are unnamed, but probably deserve an award.
What is left now are the ruins of the palace on the rock, surrounded by moats and the ruins of walls and gardens – a sad reminder of times long gone. Halfway up the rock there a terrace, with staircase fronted by two lion’s feet. They say there was once a complete lion there, but time and war have taken its toll only the place: only the paws remain. That, and the wasps that inhabit this place, come sun, rain or tourists.
Anyway, climbing it is no joke. It doesn’t hold a candle to the likes of Adam’s Peak, but it’s a steep, sometimes scary ascent; it does take the wind out of you. from the top you can look down and see miles upon miles of treetops – the entire landscape around you, really, streams, trees, statues, roads just laid out all around you. For a moment you feel like the proverbial ant that looked up and thought “I am king of all I survey.” Then the exercise (or lack thereof) catches up to you and you realize that great power is secondary to a great gym membership.
The descent is faster. On the way down you are accosted by tradesmen, selling wooden Buddhas and boxes full of hidden compartments. There’s always two prices: one for the locals and one for the tourists. 2000 rupees for the Magic Box, sir. I give you good price. Magic Box, Magic Box, Magix Box.
It didn’t end there, of course. Next stop: Polonnaruwa. I’ve visited many times before, but I never knew that you can rent a bicycle and essentially cycle through the whole of the ruined city.
You start at a point just near the road that leads to the old kings’ conference hall; from here you’re able to pedal your way through the network of newly built roads connecting the major points of interest. It’s a short side – soon you find yourself handing over your bike near the Gal Viharaya and hopping out – but cycling is as fun as hell. Mind you, you do miss out on the lesser known parts of Polonnaruwa. No biggie there: I’ve seen those many times.
The sad thing is that I never really appreciated Polonnaruwa before. Perhaps it’s because I came here with la familia, who are an annoying bunch at the best of times; it’s startling how much detail you miss when you spend most of your journey imagining a giant rock falling on someone and crushing them into pulp.
Or perhaps it’s because this time I explored this place with a bunch of tourists – people to whom this experience was still fresh, and therefore beautiful; people to whom the magic has not yet faded.
In one spot, I found an almost perfectly preserved sandhakada pahanaa (a moonstone), so detailed you could make out the bridles on the horses; in another, we explored an empty hall where once a golden samadhi Buddha statue had stood, ringed by six or eight other Buddha statues. The central statue, apparently a brick construction covered with beaten gold, had apparently been destroyed in the war of Kalinga Maga, eight hundred years ago; it had left behind a huge, sad empty space, a looming sense of something lost and gone forever.
The guide waited until everyone had left, and turned to me.
“Mahaththaya, enna, balanna (sir, come, see)” he said, lighting a candle and turning off the harsh electric lights that now lit the place. As the gloom enveloped us, he held the candle to each of the Buddha statues, each of which glistened – differently.
Explaining that each of the statues was built with a different form of granite, the old man showed me a slit in the ceiling. Once, the sunlight and moonlight had filtered in through that slit, striking the golden Buddha’s face, making the statues around him sparkle in the gloom, each shining in their own special way. Now the statue and the magic are gone, and that task falls to an old man with a candle in his hand.