It turns out to be a short night. Our neighbours decide to have an after midnight talk out on their terrace right beside our door, but hey, we’re at the beginning of a promising roadtrip so it’s forgotten in the morning. Rohan is ready for the drive at 8 a.m. and so are we. Negombo looks sleepy as we leave town, but Rohan tells us that the shops and pubs stay open all night and close around 6.a.m. We must be leaving a lot of sleeping people behind, but we are wide awake heading north and inland. It’s a real introduction to the crazy Sri Lankan traffic now. The roads are well maintained, but the two driving lanes are just artificial as there seem to be like 4 lines of traffic.
Cars, tuk tuks, motorcycles and busses are out there. Oh yes, the busses, driving like mad men. Apparantly the privately and government owned busses race eachother. And they’re not afraid of honking. In fact all drivers are honking because that’s part of survival on these crazy roads. We spot a little van with the L sign and the girl in the driver’s seat is holding on to the driving wheel like her life is depending on it. Well, actually I believe her life IS depending on it, it must be horrifying to learn to drive in this chaos. I ask Rohan if tourists are allowed to drive a car. He smiles: “Yes, but it’s not recommended.” I get the point.
A great thing about Rohan is that he’s not just driving us around, he is also a qualified guide and tells us about his country, the culture, the history, the food, daily life, ... We ask many questions untill after an hour or 2 we get sleepy and oh horror, take a nap. How can we nap while there is so much to see?
Just before noon we reach our first stop of the day: the Isurumuniya Vihara, a venerable rock temple. Our very first temple visit! At the entrance there’s a check to see whether our clothes are suitable for the temple visit. Lesley’s outfit is leaving too much skin uncovered to their taste and they bring out some extra textile to tie around her waist, covering the legs. We take off our shoes and walk on the hot sand. Rohan takes us inside the small temple museum where we see some sculptures and carvings. The temple itself is a bit of a hotchpotch of buildings. There’s a main shrine and we learn that all temples have guardstones and moonstones. It’s not that busy, we mainly see local people, dressed in white. They come to pray and pay respect to the buddha.
It’s our first encounter with a giant buddha statue as well, lying down. Rohan is doing his very best to explain to us, but it’s a lot to take in with all the names of the gods and historical figures. We climb up to a viewing platform above the temple. We have arrived in Anuradhapura, once the most important city of Sri Lanka. There’s a thousand-plus years of history buried here. It’s a very large area, rather hard to orientate between the different monasteries and dagobas. I had never heard of Anaradhapura before coming to Sri Lanka, but for well over a thousand years Sri Lanka’s history was shaped right here and the fame of this city reached as far as Greece and Rome (signs of trade have been found). It was a golden age that came to an end in 993 when Indian invaders took over. The ancient city was largely forgotten until its ‘rediscovery’ by the British in the 19th century. You could spend days here discovering all the sites, but we are trying to see as much as we can in one day. We leave the Isurumuniya Vihara behind us and as we walk back to the car Rohan points out that there are crocodiles in the lake right beside the temple complex. “It’s strange, they don’t even have warning signs,” he says. Hopefully no one is tempted to go for a swim.
The sacred tree
We have a quick lunch in a former government house. It’s set in large gardens with many trees offering shade. There’s a large open porch where we sit down and have a yummy Asian lunch with spring rolls and noodles. But there’s plenty more to visit, so we move on to the Mahavihara, the oldest of the city’s monasteries. It was built around the Sacred Bo Tree or Sri Maha Bodhi. According to popular belief, this tree was grown from a cutting taken from the original bo tree in India under which the buddha attained enlightenment. Again we take of our shoes, make sure we are properly covered and have a look around. We see more people dressed in white, offering flowers, praying. Monks dressed in the typical orange clothes sit quietly. We are not allowed to go up to the tree itself, but we get a blessing and a white ribbon tied around our right wrist. Rohan explains it’s for a safe journey.
Today the temple is a very peaceful site, so when Rohan tells us that this very same place was the scene of a massacre by the Tamil Tigers in 1985 it’s hard to grasp. From the seventies until as recent as 2009, Sri Lanka was torn by a bloody civil war. And in May 1985 nuns, monks and civilians were shot down as they were worshipping inside the Buddhist shrine. It’s shocking to hear, especially since the theme of terrorism has come so close to our homes as well.
The Great Stupa
From the monastery we move on to our very first dagoba: the huge white Ruwanwelisaya (“Great Stupa”), 55 meter high. It’s very impressive. From the entrance steps lead up to the huge terrace on which the dagoba stands. What is kept inside the bubble shaped building, no one really knows for sure. It is said that various remains of the Buddha are enshrined here, but the thing with stupa’s is that you can’t go inside, so these days it remains a bit of a mystery. But we agree with Rohan that it’s good to have some mysteries. You walk in a circle around the building. At several points people sit down and pray. It’s hot in the afternoon sun and we have to keep our feet moving so they don’t burn. Tip: wear short socks J It’s a tourist thing, but it will make the visit bearable for your feet.
Jetavana and Thuparama dagoba
Another impressive sight is the huge red brick Jetavana dagoba. In its original form this construction was 120 meters high, today at 70 meters high it’s still the tallest and largest structure made entirely of brick. It’s a shape we are definitly not familiar with in Europe, so we stand there in awe. Plenty of monkeys around here, apparantly they like to steal food and car keys from tourist hands, so we are warned J And if you visit 2 stupa’s, why not a 3d? Nearby is the Thuparama. The first stupa to be built in Sri Lanka looks somewhat more modest than the previous ones we’ve seen. Thuparama simply means ‘the stupa’, it’s white and stands less than 20 meter high. It’s actually a reconstruction built in the 19th century. A few men are climbing up the construction to decorate the top for a celebration. Yes, there are celebrations all the time J
Road to nirvana
Anaradhapura is also our introduction to the moonstones, semicircular stones, carved in polished granite. The stones are placed at the entrances to shrines to ‘concentrate the mind of the worshipper upon entering’. They represent the spiritual journey from the endless succession of deaths and rebirth to nirvana and the escape from endless reincarnations (represented by the lotus at the centre of the design). It’s another lesson for us in buddhism.
Luxury jungle flat
It’s a lot to take in for one day and we’ve only seen a fraction of what the site has to offer, but the day is coming to an end and we have to make it to our home for the night, the Rock garden hotel. Rohan tells us the place is owned by a guide who married a rich Italian woman. She must be very rich because the place is seriously impressive. It is built like an old palace, it feels like we are entering a different time walking up to the entrance building complete with a pond and lotus flowers, stone elephants along the steps, and some spiritual music playing in the background. We are offered refreshing towels for hands and face, and a cold juice. Then we walk up to the reception following paths through the garden/forest. The buildings are scattered around the grounds, connected by elevated paths, putting us on tree level. We definitly weren’t expecting this kind of upscale thing and our amazement only grows as they lead us to our ‘room’. It’s more like a luxury flat in the jungle with kitchen, sitting area, huge bathroom, dressing, ... I had no idea this was waiting for us. We are left behind feeling a bit speechless. The sun is going down quickly so we soon head out for a walk around the huge grounds. There aren’t that many houses/rooms, so it all feels very quiet. And even the swimming pool is built for a king and queen. We sit there for a while untill the lights along the paths are lit and the last rays of sunlight have disappeared.
Dinner is served in a temple, I can’t call it any other name. Complete with large pillars and dimmed light. Again the spiritual music welcomes us and we are invited to discover the buffet. Lots of typical Sri Lankan food instead of touristy stuff, and that’s how we like it. No loud talking here, the whole setting creates a natural quiet way of being. The house cat sits at our feet. Well, there are worse ways to end day 2 of our roadtrip. So many impressions already and we’ve only just started.