Sri Lanka – Priceless Buddhist Heritage (2003)

Sri Lanka – Priceless Buddhist Heritage (2003)

The flight from Chennai to Colombo is a kaleidoscopic experience. The plane cruises along the emerald coast of the Indian peninsula where waves flirt with beige sands, their pearly froth sketching an undulating design along the shores. Through the scratched panes of your Airbus 320 you spot Poompuhar, where the Cauvery, sapphire-hued and serpentine, mingles with the turquoise of the Bay of Bengal. The sun glides down the horizon rapidly and its golden rays pierce the imperious ocean and turn it into an expanse of translucent topaz. For a few minutes you soar over open seas, and then Thalaimannar, the sword-shaped projection jutting out into the sea, comes into view, and you begin your descent into palm-fringed Colombo.

Riot of Colours

The first thing you notice about Sri Lanka is the riot of colours. Bright orange tender coconuts heaped on the roadside every few yards, dusky women in their floral sarongs sheltering under colourful parasols, the lambent green of the luxuriant tropical vegetation, the ruby-red-tiled houses, the striking magenta of the ubiquitous `birds of flowers’, the bright cane and reed handicrafts lining the storefronts, the canary yellow and coral red sports utility vehicles that clog the narrow streets of the capital, and the deep blue sea forming a continuing backdrop all along the road from the airport to the hotel. The drive from the airport to the hotel through the heavily traversed Galle road, which runs parallel to the coast, easily takes an hour and a half. The hotel is on the high street, just yards away from the sea, but the only sea view you get is from your bathroom window and that too when you stand on a stool and crane your neck. You decide to explore the neighbourhood and discover that the series of lanes that lead to the seafront do not open out into the sea but are blocked by ramshackle tenements that face away from the sea.

January appears to be the peak tourist season in Sri Lanka. Tourists come by the plane-loads and head straight to the beaches that stretch for miles in the south and west of the island. Many travel to Kandy to visit the temple and to watch the fire dance. But there is more to Sri Lanka than beaches, masks and fire dance. It is home to one of the longest surviving civilisations on earth and as such, a repository of a rich and resplendent cultural heritage. Strewn over a relatively small area, which Sri Lankans call the cultural triangle, are Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura, Kandy, Mihintale, Dambulla and Sigiriya, home to priceless Buddhist treasures that have withstood the ravages of time and which together offer a tantalising peep into a distant and aesthetic past.

Mahavamsa and Culavamsa, two ancient chronicles, offer an unbroken record of Sri Lankan history over the past two and a half millennia. Virtually the entire history of Sri Lanka is coterminus with the history of Buddhism on the island. In 307 B.C., Mahendra (Sri Lankans refer to him as Mahinda), son of Emperor Asoka, brought the Buddha’s message to King Tissa Devanampiya who established the first Buddhist capital in Anuradhapura. For 1,300 years thereafter, Anuradhapura was the capital of successive rulers.


Anuradhapura is essentially a Buddhist city as few cities in the world are. It is the seat of the sacred tooth relic and home to the `tree of enlightenment’. The tooth relic has been a cherished souvenir for successive rulers not only because it is believed to have been retrieved from the Buddha’s funeral pyre itself, but convention has it that its possession guaranteed stability to the ruler. The Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura is believed to have grown from a branch of the peepul tree at Bodhgaya that was brought by Sanghamitra, daughter of Asoka, in the third century B.C. Sanghamitra also established an order of Buddha bhikunis (nuns) for the first time on the island.

Anuradhapura is a sprawling complex of shrines, temples, monasteries, stupas (dagobas) and tanks. The ruins indicate that it was a walled city that was planned and laid-out well, with four suburbs of living quarters for the four castes and professions. Today, most of the superstructures have either crumbled or are in a somewhat sorry state. The huge stupas, solid circular structures whose grace and beauty the Chinese traveller Fa Hien raved about in the fifth century A.D., have now been stripped of their external ornamentation, laying bare brick and plaster. Of Abhayagiri, the great dagoba, Fa Hien says: “Four hundred feet in height and decorated with gold and silver and all kinds of precious substances combined.” In its heyday, it sprawled over 500 acres (200 hectares) and housed 5,000 monks and was the second most powerful institution after the king. Although bushes and weeds now cover its perfectly proportioned sides, the monument still exudes grace and harmony. Another dagoba, the bubble-shaped Ruwenweli built by King Dutagamani, is said to have cost 6.4 million coins in wages. It is said that the workers received food, clothing and several `extras’ as well. It has a stunning array of plaster and limestone elephants holding up the stone-flagged platform and is one of the most photographed monuments of Sri Lanka. Thuparama Dagoba, the oldest of many temples in Anuradhapura, is believed to contain the right collar-bone of the Buddha.

Kuttam Pokuna, the ornamental twin ponds in Anuradhapura, is an engineering marvel of a bygone era. At the far end of one of the ponds is an inlet with a system for trapping mud and dirt. The water first flows into a pit where mud sinks to the bottom. The clear water then flows into a rim and from there into a chamber before it enters the pond itself through a spout. Now the water is greenish, partly because of the moss and partly because of the reflection of the green surroundings. The Buddhist triangle is strewn with ponds of exquisite shapes and sizes, indicating the importance of water in a monk’s life.


Polonnaruwa became the capital in the11th century A.D., when the Cholas attacked Anuradhapura forcing the Sri Lankan kings to move southeast to a less vulnerable spot. It is located on the banks of a vast artificial lake framed by a mountain range on one side and banana-fringed paddy fields on the other. Polonnaruwa’s claim to fame comes not only from the many ruins that dot its verdant landscape, but from its pre-eminent position as the site of a complex irrigation system that turned this barren strip into a land of fecundity. The network of canals and tanks dates back to the first century A.D., but it seems to be in good repair 2,000 years later. Two of the canals emerge from a culvert adjoining the lake and you cross and re-cross them several times during your peregrinations through the town.

Polonnaruwa was founded in the 11th century by King Vijayabahu I, a much-revered ruler in Sri Lanka, for it was he who rescued the kingdom from the Chola invaders, renovated its disused tanks, re-established monasteries and brought monks from Burma (Myanmar) to train novices. But then, it is King Parakramabahu, his successor, who seems to have garnered all the glory. It is his statue – or at least believed to be his – that adorns the banks of the lake which itself is called `Sea of Parakrama’. Culavamsa describes Parakramabahu as a warrior, statesman and builder of temples and palaces, but most of all, he is remembered for his waterworks. Nowhere is his obsession with water more apparent than in this passage from Culavamsa attributed to the king himself: “In the realm that is subject to me there are, apart from many strips of country where the harvest flourishes mainly by rain water, but few fields which are dependent on rivers with permanent flow or on great reservoirs. Also by many mountains, thick jungles, and by widespread swamps my kingdom is much straitened. Truly in such a country, not even a little water that comes from the rain must flow into the ocean without being made useful to man.”

Thanks to Parakramabahu’s foresight, today Polonnaruwa is a fertile expanse of paddy fields interspersed with banana and coconut plantations. Amidst this lush green lie scattered the many viharas and monasteries laid waste by weather, vandalism and internecine strife. But even so they hark back to an era of unmatched architectural elegance. Parakramabahu’s seven-storey-high brick palace – Vijayanthapasada – now survives as a mere shell without a roof but offers a faint glimpse into a distant past tinged with pride and glory. The 12th century Gal Vihara, which houses the recumbent Buddha, is an exquisite example of the rock-cut Buddhas of Ceylon, remarkable for their utter simplicity and Spartan appearance. Vatadage, a circular shrine, houses another Buddha statue that is a study in stark elegance. Polonnaruwa is dotted with Hindu temples and deities and Hindu architecture seems to have had a great deal of influence on Buddhist builders through the ages.

Polonnaruwa is also home to the moonstone, a uniquely Sri Lankan architectural innovation. Originally built as a part of a complex of steps, balustrade and landing leading to the shrine of the Buddha, the moonstone has survived even as the rest of the edifice has crumbled. It is a semi-circular rock ornamented with elephants, horses and conventional boughs and creepers in eternal hot pursuit – much like the lover in Keats’s Grecian Urn. At the centre is a lotus. The significance of the moonstone is debated, but its imagery may well represent stages in the spiritual path. According to one interpretation, the first ring on the outside of the stone depicts flames, which represent desire. Once desire is left behind, one steps into the next circle, a stately frieze of four animals – elephants, horses, lions and bulls – pacing around the ring. Passing behind these four sorrows as the Buddha did, you reach a creeper with twisting leaves symbolising life-force, but when this craving is surpassed you reach the goose or hamsa, which decides between good and bad. At the centre is the lotus, symbolising purity and the approach to nirvana.
As you stroll through the ruins of Polonnaruwa, you are surprised to find numerous bhikhus, shaven-headed and maroon-robed, wandering around. It gives you the impression of having been transported through ages on a time-machine. As you chat them up, you learn that they are initiates at the seminary and are on a study tour. When you request them to pose for a photograph outside a Hindu temple in Polonnaruwa, they oblige cheerfully and unselfconsciously.


Your next stop is Sigiriya, the citadel atop a monolithic red rock that rises 370 metres vertically. Built more than 1,500 years ago by Kasyapa I, a parricidal king fleeing from retribution, Sigiriya is the most impressive surviving vestige of ancient Ceylon. As you puff your way up the series of winding steps and pause ever so often on the pretext of admiring the view below, it is difficult to imagine how anyone could have made this rock the capital of his kingdom. Everything from construction materials to food must have been hauled up the rock’s sheer sides. The steps get narrower and narrower until they spiral upwards vertically. There is even a stretch where you move gingerly on a wooden plank suspended by chains on the side of the rock. On one side of the rockface are frescos of beautiful apsaras that bear some resemblance to those in Ajanta. A stretch of mirror wall, where lime plaster still gleams like glass, has also survived the ravages of time.
When you think you have finally reached the top, you find that you are only half-way up, near the lion-foot entrance to the fortress. The toenails of the lion’s paw are made of mortar, lime and rock. You enter the awesome throat of the lion through a stairway and heave yourself up for 20 more minutes, lurching and teetering precariously on the ledge. Atop the rock are the foundations of a once-grand palace. The entire citadel area is spread over three acres with well-demarcated spaces for a royal lifestyle. Surprisingly, there seems to be no dearth of water on the rock. Amidst the ruins is a large tank said to have been the summer bath-house of the royalty. Even today it is filled with water. Your guide tells you that water from the tank flows into bath chambers attached to the living quarters. There is little doubt that the citadel at Sigiriya and its surrounding waterworks are the finest manifestation of hydraulic engineering. You get a stunning view of the surrounding jungles and the magnificent, landscaped gardens sustained by a complex latticework of fountains, conduits, water channels and cisterns.

Just about 20 kilometres from Sigiriya is Dambulla, another granite hillock with several caves. The largest cave houses 48 statues of the Buddha and a few images of Hindu gods such as Vishnu and Saman, the latter dating back to the 12th century. Like Sigiriya, the Dambulla caves also provided refuge to a king – Valagambahu – fleeing an invading army. The caves also contain murals of scenes from the Buddha’s life. At the entrance to the rock caves is a stupendous golden Buddha in padmasana – a recent addition – towering majestically against a cobalt blue sky.


Kandy is a lovely town perched on the banks of a serene lake. The temple houses the sacred tooth relic, which was shifted from Anuradhapura as the latter fell to invaders. In 1998, the 450-year-old temple was partially destroyed in an attack by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – a truck laden with explosives was rammed into its precincts. The attack failed to dislodge the tooth relic. The temple has since been rebuilt to its original glory and the tooth relic attracts devotees and tourists alike. The temple is illuminated in the evenings and resounds to the music of cymbals and drums. Kandy is also the place where every evening one can watch traditional Ceylonese dances performed with colourful masks. The tastefully constructed auditorium is choc-a-bloc with European tourists. The performance ends in fire-walking with the dancers inserting a flaming stick into their mouths.

As you wrap up your tour of the Buddhist triangle, your only regret is that despite the adoption of Anuradhapura, Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa as World Heritage Sites by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), very little information is available to curious visitors. Despite charging a stiff entrance fee at each monument, the Sri Lankan tourism department does not seem to think it necessary to make available credible literature on the priceless heritage that attracts tens of thousands of visitors to this land of serendipity year after year.

(Published in Frontline dated March 13, 2004)

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