Sri Lanka: A world of wonders


In Sri Lanka, our nine-day road trip took us to the ancient kingdoms of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya, the sacred city of Kandy, and ended in the nation’s capital, Colombo. In the former royal cities of the north-central region, we explored the 2,000-year-old legacy of the Sinhalese culture that gave the world colossal built-brick monuments, sacred Bodhi Tree shrines, cave temples and sublime images of the Buddha. Buddhism came to Sri Lanka by way of India in the 3rd century BC and remains the dominant religion of the land. A stronghold of Theravada Buddhism, Sri Lanka played a pivotal role in the spread of the teachings throughout Southeast Asia. Heading north toward the cultural triangle, we came across fertile and abundant farmlands, lakes and reservoirs that enhanced a remarkably green landscape, well–tended fields and rural dwellings. The name Sri Lanka, meaning “sacred and resplendent land,” appeared true to form.

We arrived at the Bandaranaike International Airport past midnight. The 20-minute drive along sparsely lit roads took us to Kotugoda, where we stayed overnight before setting out on our road trip. The Wallawwa, a 200-year-old manor house turned boutique hotel, melds colonial design elements with contemporary furnishings. By day, the tropical garden comes alive with flower and fruit-bearing trees. The hotel features a cozy library, and a living room that opens to a verandah shaded by Frangipani trees. The Wallawwa provided a welcome respite before taking the five-hour drive to Anuradhapura. We traveled along well-paved roads and sighted market stalls, fruit vendors, agricultural fields and plots of land abundant with coconut trees. On the way, we stopped at the Arankele Jungle Hermitage, and the site of the Aukana Buddha statue from the 5th century BC. Our guide Sumedra explained that the jungle hermitage goes back to the pre-Christian era. Situated in a forest, it served as meditation pathways for the forest monks.

The Aukana Buddha statue is considered the largest statue of the Buddha in the Anuradhapura area. It is depicted in a standing posture, measuring 39 feet in height and is cut out of a living rock. It is thought to be the work of the master stone sculptor, Barana. On the grounds stands a Bodhi Tree shrine, the most popular type of religious structure in Sri Lanka. Schoolchildren on a field trip had gathered by the shrine. There, we met the chief monk of the Aukana Monastery, the Venerable Dhammakiththi Thera. In his quarters, he showed us a collection of sacred texts that were discovered at the foot of the statue. He spoke about the importance of bringing one’s consciousness to the present moment, and Shamatha — a form of meditation that helps you gain awareness of your thinking and your thoughts. With the historical and natural wonders we had seen thus far, our thoughts were squarely in the here and now.

It was a three-hour drive to the Ulagalla Resort, a former ancestral estate of the local nobility.  A 150–year-old mansion stands at the center of the property, and 20 villas are spread across 58 acres of verdant landscape. Upon entering the compound, we were offered cold refreshments, and driven by buggy to our villa. The glass-walled villa overlooks a wide expanse of greenery. We spotted birds, monkeys and squirrels. Sports enthusiasts can take a kayak out to the nearby lake, go horseback riding along the resort trails, go mountain biking or try their hand at archery. We didn’t venture far from our private sanctuary — a cool and comfortable refuge after a long day of touring Anuradhapura and its environs.

Anuradhapura, the first royal capital of Sri Lanka dates back to the 4th century BC, and is one of the eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites of the nation. It remained a center of power and urban life from the 4th century BC to 11th century AD. Anuradhapura’s kings fortified their city with defensive walls and gates, constructed the most complex irrigation system in the ancient world, expanded housing to accommodate a growing population, as well as providing healthcare, education and sanitation. Here, we saw massive structures known as dagobas or stupas, symbolic representations of the Buddha’s burial mound, the remains of former monastic buildings, as well as bathing and water tanks. Water tanks and reservoirs were built in the dry zone areas to ensure sufficient water supply for year-round agriculture.  Among the landmark structures of the area, the Abhayagiri Dagoba dates back to the 1st century BC. The majestic structure of brick was originally over 100 meters in height. It was one of the greatest monuments of ancient times — comparable in scale to the pyramids of Giza. The Abhayagiri Monastery once was a center of learning for 5,000 monks and attracted scholars from around the world. In the vast archeological park, stands a shrine dedicated to the sacred Bodhi Tree that was grown from a cutting of the original tree brought from Bodhgaya, where the Buddha attained enlightenment. The tree stands at the southern end of the Mahavihara Monastery and is bedecked with prayer flags and lights. It is a potent symbol of faith where thousands of Buddhists make offerings.

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