Exploring Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

Fiona Maclean soaks up the culture while getting to know the local wildlife in this beautiful, heritage rich country

Around four hours drive from Colombo Airport, Anuradhapura is home to many of Sri Lanka’s heritage sites, national parks and wildlife reserves. Depending on the time of year, you may see elephants, leopards, deer, cormorants and storks. And, you will not be able to avoid the monkeys, colonising the ancient palaces with little regard for whether or not Buddha is sleeping, perched on pillars and rooftops and ignoring every ‘do not sit’ sign on the massive thrones.

Staying at the Cinnamon Lodge Habarana, I was almost fooled into believing they were employed as staff. Not only did they hold court every morning on the lawn outside my lodge, but they also seemed to be working as roofers – chuckling happily as they tore down the tiles of the lodge house in search of fruits and berries that might just be trapped underneath.

This part of Sri Lanka has a monsoon season that runs from December to February so visiting in October it was the end of the dry season and wildlife was scarce. Driving to Polonnaruwa one afternoon I spotted a lone elephant trying to make her way across the road. It was, so I was told, a likely indicator of rain later. Sure enough, on our way back to the lodge, the heavens opened and the elephants emerged. Standing on the roadside in torrential rain, looking across the plain to the water tank they seemed slightly surreal, a rainy mirage in the distance.

It was not the wildlife though, but the ancient cities and historic temples that stood out for me as the essence of this part of Sri Lanka. We started our ascent to Unesco world heritage site Sigiriya early in the morning to avoid the heat of the mid-day sun. This fortress-citadel was built in the 5th century at the top of a 600-foot rock. Today, visitors climb up a metal stairway, but the original staircase was cut into the rock, with a grand crouching lion forming the entrance. The route for contemporary visitors seems precarious enough while the original steps would have been enough to dissuade all but the most persistent of attackers. King Kashyapa (473–495 CE) had a reputation as something of playboy and built magnificent throne rooms, decorating his palace with a stunning mirror wall, paintings of beautiful Sri Lankan women and a fabulous water garden with an ancient hydraulic system feeding fountains at the foot of the citadel.

Polonnaruwa is another Unesco world heritage site, much of it built by King Parakramabahu I (1123–1186 CE) who was also responsible for developing extensive irrigation systems across Sri Lanka, reputedly saying at the time

‘”Not even a little water that comes from the rain must flow into the ocean without being made useful to man.”

The remains of the city has buildings and monuments dating back to the 10th century AD. We visited the stunning Gal Vihara, built by Parakramabahu, with four statues of Buddha carved into a single granite rock face. The largest of the statues is the reclining Buddha, at 46 feet 4 inches, whilst the smallest is around 4 feet 7 inches high. An overwhelming place to visit, there are numerous monuments to explore including what is regarded as Sri Lanka’s finest Vatadage, believed to have been constructed to hold Buddha’s tooth. Much of the architecture shows the influence of Hindu builders from India and statues of Buddha rub shoulders with Hindu gods.

Our third Unesco world heritage site visit was to the Dambulla cave temple. First impression was misleading. A massive Golden Buddha seated in the cliff looked down over the car and coach park, the gorge bridged by a queue of painted Buddhist monk statues paying their respect to the Sitting Buddha. My expectation at that point was of the Sri Lankan equivalent to the London Dungeons.

It takes another climb up the side of the cliff to reach the Cave Temples. There are over 80 caves in the complex, originally housing pre-historic Sri Lankan man. Now, the five main caves are shrines, dating back to the 1st century BC and developed until the end of the Polonnaruwa era. The caves include one dominated by 16 standing and 40 seated statues of Buddha, along with Hindu gods Saman and Vishnu. And, there are statues of King Vattagamini Abhaya responsible for honouring the monastery in 1st century BC and of King Nissanka Malla in the 12th century ad for gilding 50 of the statues.

The entire complex includes the Golden Temple, fronted by the Golden Buddha Statue, the Rock Temple and a development foundation dedicated to supporting Buddhism and particularly the Rangiri Dambulla monks. There is even a Buddhist radio station. And, while the contrast between ancient and modern seemed at first a little disconcerting, by the end of the visit, it seemed entirely appropriate to have a modern 100 foot high gold plated Buddha, unveiled on 6th May 2001, looking down on the land below. This is a living religion and even the ancient cave temples are still in use.

I’d arrived at the Cinnamon Lodge Habarana hoping to see wildlife, unspoilt countryside and a few historic monuments. I left, overwhelmed by the heritage sites in the area while accepting monkeys as part of my day-to-day life. More than anything else, the resort and the region as a whole has a great sense of calm. Where better to relax and explore what at times seemed like another world.

Fact Box
Fiona stayed at Cinnamon Lodge Habarana

Fiona travelled with Walkers Tours