Saturday, 20 April 2019

Backpacking Sri Lanka - trip to Anuradhapura

Backpacking Sri Lanka - trip to Anuradhapura
Sri Lanka is home to an ancient and complex civilization with a recorded history extending back over two millennia. This civilization accomplished great feats, from the construction of ancient cities to irrigation systems that are still in use today. The sheer depth of Sri Lanka's cultural heritage is recognized by UNESCO, which declared six archaeological World Heritage sites in the country. From enormous dome-shaped relics of Buddhist temples to the ruins of ancient cities and statues in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, to the towering stairways leading to the Golden Dambulla Temple, and the sensual frescoes of heavenly maidens adorning the regal rock-fortress carved into the mountain of Sigiriya, yours truly have been fortunate enough to marvel at all of these, and also many other sites ensconced within a small area known as Sri Lanka's cultural triangle.

I find it quite strange that a fair percentage of travelers who have voiced their opinions in various travel forums, didn't find the sacred city of Anuradhapura worthy enough for their time spent, and some of them have also suggested to visit Polonnaruwa instead. Analyzing their reviews make me wonder if they were trying to find Seychelles in Sri Lanka! Among all rural to urban places I have explored in Sri Lanka, if I have to pick a single destination that can quench the historical, cultural and spiritual thirst of a sensible traveler, my indubitable recommendation would be Anuradhapura. In this blog I'll give you unbiased glimpses of this sacred city, so that you can decide for yourself whether Anuradhapura should find a place in your Sri Lankan backpacking itinerary.

Backpacking Sri Lanka - trip to Anuradhapura
Abhayagiri Stupa.
Presently designated as an UNESCO World Heritage site, lying in the north central province of the country, located 206 kilometers north of Colombo, with its huge area of archaeological ruins comprising myriad dagobas, monastic buildings and bathing tanks dating back to as old as 4th century BC, the sacred city of Anuradhapura boasts of being the first capital of erstwhile Ceylon, and also one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. In my latest backpacking itinerary, you won't find any mention of Anuradhapura, because I had explored this ancient city back in 2017, during a flying visit to Sri Lanka. Purpose of that visit was definitely not tourism.

Sometimes we pass through very rough phases of life when everything seems to be out of control. Here 'everything' is a misnomer. Often, a single problem appears so gigantic, we let our life revolve around it like an enslaved satellite. Initially, we fail to recognize that the root of the chaos lies inside our head, and consequently we keep rummaging for a solution everywhere physically possible. I was the troubled wayfarer then in pursuit of peace. Long ago, someone had spoken highly of Ruwanwelisaya Stupa. I was told that the ambiance of Ruwanwelisaya possessed healing potential. Those days, if I were randomly advised, I wouldn't have fumbled in gulping dog piss too. It's obvious that the gross metaphor portrays nothing but my helplessness at that point of time, and also desperation to regain normalcy.   

Backpacking Sri Lanka - trip to Anuradhapura
Sandahiru Seya under construction.
Boarding the early morning AC-intercity train from Colombo Fort station, I had made my peace-hunting and highly compulsive trip to Anuradhapura. That was my first Sri Lankan train journey. Well, to get a fair idea about my frenzy relating to trains, you might be interested to dig out my old narration on chasing a steam-engine hauled Himalayan train with Benu, or just flip back to the earlier post solely dedicated to train travel in Sri Lanka. Irrespective of my bias for railways, if you're contemplating on traveling to Anuradhapura from the country capital, the morning intercity train should be your transport of choice. It'll not only be the fastest and most comfortable mode to munch those 200 kilometers, but also shall help you shorten your itinerary by saving almost an entire day to explore the sacred city.

Owing to its prehistoric infrastructure, getting around on trains in Sri Lanka might be little overwhelming for foreigners. Despite its apparently outdated form, the country has an extensive railway system serving all major towns and cities, mostly "value for money" and visually rewarding option for backpackers. You may refer my earlier article to understand how inexpensive and intriguing train travel in Sri Lanka is. Like most other tourist attractions of the island, a foreigner must purchase an expensive entry ticket to explore the ancient city of Anuradhapura, which costs 25 USD for a single day pass as of today. SAARC passport holders are required to pay half, provided they can produce their passports in the ticketing counter.

Backpacking Sri Lanka - trip to Anuradhapura
Isurumuniya Rajamaha Viharaya.
Often foreigners grumble about steep entry fees at most Sri Lankan tourist sites. In my humble opinion, their complaints are not baseless. You might argue- visiting other Asian UNESCO World Heritage sites, say, Angkor Wat of Cambodia does cost a fortune too. But, it is to be remembered there is only one such expensive attraction in Cambodia. While someone who's limiting his itinerary to Sri Lanka's Cultural Triangle, i.e- the sacred city of Anuradhapura, the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, the ancient city of Sigiriya, the ancient city of Dambulla and the sacred city of Kandy, has to shell out roughly 100 USD for entry tickets. For me, that's a big amount! Although I did spend liberally in my last trip to Sri Lanka, I did not buy an entry pass for Anuradhapura back in 2017.

I had spent two nights in the city and my agenda was limited to praying at Ruwanwelisaya. Entry to Ruwanwelisaya is absolutely free. You might want to oblige the shoe-keeper with few cents though. I had reserved my stay close to the Clock Tower, which was at a walking distance from the railway station. The moment I came out of the station building a Tuktuk driver smelled my nationality and approached me to play his Hindi language skill card. He offered to take me for an extensive ride through the old city without the need of purchasing the expensive official pass. Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani tourists are easy to be disguised as locals. Please refrain from falling for those apparently money-saving traps.

Backpacking Sri Lanka - trip to Anuradhapura
The oldest-surviving tree of the planet!
Ruwanwelisaya was about 3.5 kilometers from my guesthouse. I was adamant to reach there on foot, probably as the easiest method to impose self penance. What was the necessity of penance? Well, our minds have been conditioned for centuries to make us believe that voluntary suffering boosts up our Karma level, and also mitigates some volume of accumulated sins. While reading this blog at your leisure you would probably fathom the irrationality of this mindset, but I tell you, when surrounded by dense cloud of adversity you too would go old school, and deal penance for prospective peace. November is not the ideal month to visit Anuradhapura. Expect a hot and humid weather, interwoven with short spells of surprise shower. Carrying an umbrella would definitely make sense.

It took half an hour of rapid sweaty jaunt under the midday sun to reach my destination- Ruwanwelisaya Stupa. With an astounding height of 103 meters and circumference of 290 meters, the massive white dome-shaped Buddhist shrine is one of the tallest ancient religious monuments, and considered second holiest site in Sri Lanka, next to Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic at Kandy. It preserves a history that dates back to circa 140 BC. Unlike, Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, Ruwanwelisaya is mostly visited by pious Sri Lankan Buddhists blissfully clad in white clothes, which protects its spiritual ambiance from turning overtly touristy. The way devotees pay their respect before the stupa is itself a sight to behold!

Backpacking Sri Lanka - trip to Anuradhapura
Sarananda Piriwena Buddha Statue.
Remember, you have to take off your shoes before entering the temple premise, and the granite underneath gets very hot by noontime. To prevent blistering your soles, go for a saunter around the stupa only with your socks on. Especially if you are a non-Buddhist, you'll be intrigued by the profoundness of faith explicit in every body movement of pilgrims, and myriad rituals conducted around the stupa, like- circumambulating the relic several times, reading religious texts, wrapping the mammoth hemispheric structure with huge rolls of red/saffron fabric, ornamenting the base with bucketful of lotus (literally), burning incense sticks, meditating, and various other things.

After a clockwise amble round the stupa, I found a makeshift shade under which few more devotees were praying in silence. I joined them. Shutting your eyelids tightly merely obscures your eyesight for that moment. It has no role in remodeling your vision or regulating your flow of thoughts. Prayer and meditation are better not practiced with an utterly restless mind. Speaking from own experience, sooner or later you'll run out of patience. Thankfully, a brief shower interrupted my futile first attempt of prayer. When the murky sky mended her leaks, I decided to use G-Maps to my advantage and explore few monuments located nearby Ruwanwelisaya.

Backpacking Sri Lanka - trip to Anuradhapura
The Brazen Palace.
Walking few hundred meters along the neatly maintained promenade heading towards Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi led me to Lovamahapaya, more popularly introduced as "Brazen Palace" by tourist guides. The structure has a richer history than its present day appearance. Lovamahapaya was built by the King Dutugemunu in 2nd century BC for the use of monks of the Maha Viharaya, for their performances in the chapter house. Prior to this, probably the King Devanapetis had also built a chapter house at the same place. Upper levels of Lovamahapaya are believed to have been constructed with timbre, while during the reigns of various kings this massive edifice has been renovated.

Historical data reveals that, during the reign of King Saddhatissa this building had been destroyed by fire, after which it was reconstructed into a larger seven-storied structure by the king. That was not the only touch-up it received. Lovamahapaya was constantly maintained by several rulers down the timeline till Parakramabahu the Great of Polonnaruwa. Walk few meters past the Brazen Palace and you'll get the entrance to Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, the temple complex housing the most sacred "Bo Tree" (fig tree) of Sri Lanka, more importantly the oldest-surviving tree of the planet! There is an entree fee for foreigners politely termed as donation associated with Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi temple. But if you follow my walking trail, it won't cost you a penny.

Backpacking Sri Lanka - trip to Anuradhapura
Ruwanwelisaya Stupa is mostly visited by pious Sri Lankan Buddhists.
The sacred Bodhi Tree of Anuradhapura was planted in 3rd century BC by Princess Sanghamitta, daughter of Emperor Ashoka, and it is believed to have been vegetatively propagated through a branch of the parent Maha Bodhi Tree of Bodh Gaya, India, beneath which Siddhartha Gautama had attained enlightenment and became Buddha. It goes without saying that Sri Maha Bodhi is highly revered by Buddhists from all over the globe. Everyday thousands of pilgrims gather around this tree bringing offerings, praying and performing multitude of religious practices. Many devotees wait indefinitely under the Bo-tree to collect a freshly falling leaf. Obviously, don't confuse that drive of faith with your childhood zest to fill up herbarium sheets for biology project.

An essential off-topic thing, if you're an Indian backpacker don't be surprised to encounter occasional acts of extra-friendliness, obviously due to geographical proximity and healthy diplomatic relation between two SAARC nations. This doesn't mean you can take things for granted and crave for concessions wherever you've to spend a dime. Sri Lankans are basically very warm and welcoming. But you should also keep in mind that the economy of this tiny island large relies on tourism. So, be a responsible traveler.

Backpacking Sri Lanka - trip to Anuradhapura
The reclining Buddha inside Isurumuniya Temple.
I took the paved road from the southern exit of Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi temple. It passed by the ruins of Southern Monastery, followed by a crossroad to reach Sandahiru Seya, a giant dagoba under construction which is bound to attract your attention from a fair distance. Sandahiru Seya is being erected by the initiative of Sri Lankan Government as a token of appreciation towards armed forces and police personnel in their long battle against terrorism for establishing peace in the country. It is the first stupa among nine such peace memorials to be built in each province under this particular project.

Although there's no official announcement, it is believed that Sandahiru Seya shall rank among the tallest stupas of Sri Lanka once its construction gets completed. On the opposite side of the road, the colossal white Sarananda Piriwena Buddha Statue dragged me to its holy feet. A Buddha statue of similar size and posture is not uncommon throughout the island, but definitely novel sight for newcomers. It was late afternoon by then. More importantly, I had been constantly on the move since last 24 hours. I had physically exerted myself as much as I could, yet a fulfilling session of prayer at Ruwanwelisaya was still pending!

Backpacking Sri Lanka - trip to Anuradhapura
Kuttam Pokuna - Twin Ponds.
Exhausted mind and starving body is no good for soul searching. If your radiated signals are too weak to be transmitted to the big boss, the very purpose of prayer gets defeated, I justified myself before taking the half an hour of brisk walk back to the hotel. Having roamed over ten kilometers through the streets of the old city, I realized that the archaeological sites at Anuradhapura are too scattered to be comfortably walked from one end to another. Next morning I rented a bicycle for the day and explored few more tourist attractions of the sacred city, before heading back to Ruwanwelisaya for prayer.

Isurumuniya Temple was the first stopover. Entry to this temple isn't free for foreigners and you might find it disappointing to know that your 25 USD day pass to the sacred city of Anuradhapura doesn't cover entrance fee of Isurumuniya. Despite this administrative fallacy, Isurumuniya Rajamaha Viharaya, established by King Devanapiyatissa in 3rd century BC is worth visiting, because of the view from its top and also stone carvings preserved in its museum. The Isurumuniya temple complex comprises an old shrine room, a new shrine room, the museum, the Stupa and the sacred Bo-Tree. Going back to its time of origin, 500 children of high-caste were ordained by the Maha Thera, and the temple was built for them to reside.

Backpacking Sri Lanka - trip to Anuradhapura
The morning AC-intercity train from Colombo to Anuradhapura.
Visit the small museum to find renowned Isurumuniya Lovers, the Gupta style carving on stone dating back to 6th century BC, representing King Dutugemunu's son Saliya and maiden Asokamala in an intimate posture. Barefoot walking under the scorching sun is not the ideal way to enjoy Isurumuniya. Reach there little before sunset and document the vivid, variegated horizon from the top. Taking the advantage of wheels I rode to the extreme other end of the old city to find Abhayagiri Stupa, a massive dagoba in its original brick form built more than 2000 years ago, standing tall with all its glory amidst a tranquil woodland setting. In size it is easily comparable to Ruwanwelisaya, and you need to circumambulate barefoot around it to appreciate how enormous it is.

It was initially coated with white painted plaster which has given away over the years. Lookout for elephant head carvings, moonstones and few other relics (like- Samadhi Buddha Statue) around this stupa. Five minutes of lazy pedaling took me to a pair of old bathing ponds, Kuttam Pokuna, which might not be visually very appealing, but serves as a testament to exquisite engineering and architectural skills of ancient Sinhalese. The faces of the pools were cut out of granite slabs which include the bottom and the sides of the pool. Flights of steps are seen on both ends decorated with punkalasa and scroll design. Embankments were constructed to facilitate bathing of monks using pots. Water to the pools were transferred through underground ducts and filtered before entering the pool.

Backpacking Sri Lanka - trip to Anuradhapura
The illuminated Ruwanwelisaya Stupa in the evening hours.
My Anuradhapura sightseeing was pretty much limited to these, as I have already revealed you my actual purpose of visiting the sacred city. In those two days I had visited Ruwanwelisaya several times. The ambiance around the illuminated stupa post dusk is also ideal for praying. Another unique thing about Ruwanwelisaya is, despite its high devotee count round the clock, you won't find the place noisy or chaotic. You will get to listen chants from various lips, smell fragrances of different offerings and perceive human movements on all possible directions. Strangely, all these sensations at Ruwanwelisaya sync and align themselves to your spirituality hunt!

You must be curious to know if the trip to Anuradhapura did help me in cleansing my greasy phase. Although I'll take a rain check on this, reading between the lines shall fetch you the missing paragraph. I would recommend you to reserve a single night in your Sri Lanka travel itinerary for Anuradhapura, to have a quick glimpse of her monuments on a rented bicycle or tuktuk. However expensive it seems, traveling with an official validation is not only healthy for your dignity but also soothing for your nerves. Do not fall prey to scam disguised as lucrative offer. Always travel with a valid entry pass purchased from the official counter. In next blog I'll take you to the old town of Galle, another UNESCO World Heritage site, located on the southwest coast of Sri Lanka.

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