Feb 18-19, 2017
We killed half the day in Colombo because we could only get a train ticket to Anuradhapura in the afternoon. We were both sunburnt, sweaty and already over this seaside capital from the days prior.
We took a tuk tuk to the train station and got into our second class seats. If we hadn’t known this was a train, the plastic seats and unbearable heat and humidity could surely have been a torture device used during the Sri Lankan civil war.
Surprisingly, the train left on time and the urban sprawl was quickly behind us. With the windows down and the beautiful rural landscapes on both sides, this ride was a breath of fresh air both literally and metaphorically.
The only downsides were that the train bounced up and down on the tracks to the point where you could easily understand how derailments can happen. Also, the train moved deathly slow, taking 5 hours to travel less than 200 kilometres.
We got a tuk tuk to our hostel, the first backpacker-type accommodation we’ve seen in Sri Lanka, “City Resort”.
We spoke to the overly-eager manager and he advised us what the ideal way to visit Anuradhapura was, since we only had one full day to explore its vast grounds. Time was of the essence.
We had arranged for the same tuk tuk driver that brought us to the hostel to take us out for the day. His name was Nadira.
Nadira met us just past 8am and we sped to our first destination, the ancient Isurumuniya Vihara Temple dating back to 247-207 BC.
This temple was really beautiful and contained some very fine carvings into a rock face as well as a tranquil lotus pond in front.
We also climbed up to the top and it provided us beautiful views of Tissa Wewa water tank and some gigantic distant stupas. Seeing these massive structures made us quite excited for what the day had in store.
Nadira then led us down a little path to the Royal Pleasure Gardens where the highlights were the King’s bath and one of the world’s oldest maps. Similar maps have been found in Egypt and Mexico. Aliens?
Since I was an idiot and didn’t put two and two together, I decided to wear shorts on a day where we were visiting scores of holy places. I had borrowed a sarong from the first temple, but figured it would be best if I purchased my own to bring to all the other temples. I got a spiffy white one and was ready to blend in.
Our next stop was the most impressive of the day- not for its aesthetics, but for its importance and mystique.
We exited the tuk tuk and made our way to the Sri Maha Bodhi, Anuradhapura’s and possibly Sri Lanka’s most sacred Bodhi tree. This tree is said to be the world’s oldest historically authenticated tree, estimated to be over 2000 years old.
Actually, only the portion of the tree held up by the golden stilts belongs to that ancient wooden marvel.
Since it was a weekend, the complex was teeming with pilgrims dressed in beautiful white garb which contrasted to the bright orange of monks and colourful prayer flags, making this place visually stunning.
It was absolutely blissful to walk around this atmospheric place while listening to the pilgrims chant prayers to Buddha.
Our next stop was the most aesthetically pleasing of the day, the gigantic Jetavanarama Dagoba.
The Jetavanarama Dagoba is a Buddist stupa built in the third century, measuring over 120m high and was surpassed only by the great pyramids in Egypt at the time it was built.
Today it is 70m high and is considered to be one of the tallest stupas in the world, requiring over 90 million bricks to construct (according to Nadira).
We took a slow clockwise walk around it and were joined by white-clad pilgrims adding to its religious significance.
This stupa is a UNESCO World Heritage site and requires a hefty 25USD entrance ticket to view it, but is well worth it in my opinion.
From there we visited the ruins of a monastery built for 3000 monks which is apparently very popular for Sri Lankan wedding photos.
We were soon at the entrance to Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba, along with hundreds of other people. What sets this one apart is that it is guarded by hundreds of sculpted elephants whose tusks were originally real ivory and eyes real gem stones. Unfortunately these relics were plundered by Indian forces.
This beautiful white Dagoba is from 140 BC and measures 55m. It was fantastic walking around it with hundreds of pilgrims praying and chanting.
Our next stop was the gigantic Abhayagiri Dagoba, said to be THE biggest stupa in the world, measuring 75m today and over 100m when it was originally built in the 1st century BC. Since the sun heated up the stones around it, we did a brisk walk around it to pay our respects to Buddha.
After resting our nearly-burned feet, we made our way past a snake charmer and monkey enslaver on our way to Ratnaprasada and its beautiful guard stone, said yet again to be the most beautiful in all of Sri Lanka.
A short distance away from here was Sri Lanka’s most beautiful moonstone: kind of like a fancy stone doormat leading to a staircase. To be fair this one from the 9th century was remarkably well preserved.
We then visited Anuradhapura’s smallest stupa, the Lankarama Dagoba.
The penultimate stupa of the day is said to not only be the oldest in Anuradhapura, but also the oldest visible stupa in the world. The Thuparama Dagoba was constructed in the 3rd century BC and is believed to contain the right collar bone of Buddha.
What set this one apart were interesting pillar-like structures jutting out around it. Scholars still cannot agree on their true purpose.
Nadira then took us to Basawakkulama, a beautiful water tank from the 4th century BC that provided beautiful views of the massive stupas we visited on our epic tour of this ancient city.
Nadira had gone above and beyond his 4-hour tour obligation and showed us literally everything that Anuradhapura had to offer in just under 6 hours. He even gave me a tuk tuk driving lesson! Whattaguy!
Rather than taking it easy upon our return to the guest house, we were right next to the central market and decided to give it a little gander.
We then decided to do another super cheap tour of another sacred city called Mihintale, a mere 13km east of Anuradhapura.
Tracy and I got to ride in a car (me up front while she was squished like a sardine in the back) and other people we met at our hostel had to follow along in tuk tuks.
Our first stop was a pretty impressive parasitic tree supposedly called the meditation tree.
We were then driven to a small Dagoba that had numerous people praying and chanting in front of it. As buses would pass, an occasional passenger would quickly hop off the bus, pray, throw a coin and run back onto the bus in a matter of seconds.
We were finally driven up to Mihintale’s parking lot. Our drivers told us that if we each paid 150 rupees (~1.25 CAD) we could get a guide of the site, so we all agreed.
Our guide looked like the product of an orgy between Seal, Lionel Richie and a hippopotamus. He had a greasy Gerri curled mullet with deep facial scars on both cheeks and a total of 4 teeth in the 4 corners of his mouth.
Despite his distinct appearance, he really had some sass and could speak 6 languages.
He spent way too much time explaining the significance of Kantaka Chetiya, a Dagoba near our start point.
We then climbed higher, dropped off our shoes and made our way to the Monk’s Refectory & Relic House, which comprised several ruins and a beautiful sculpture of a lion.
Some more steps led us to several more Dagobas and long winded descriptions of the surrounding structures.
One of the highlights of the evening was just after dark, a group of boisterous drummers were signalling the puja, or daily offerings in front of the various monuments.
Mihintale is significant to Sri Lanka because it is here where the King Devanampiya Tissa of Anuradhapura was converted to Buddhism by the Indian emperor Ashoka in 247 BC.
Pretty interesting stuff.
Of course our original drivers swindled the guide and he was pissed at the amount we were giving him, but it really wasn’t our fault. Since it was after dark, we just kind of walked away.
Then, upon our arrival back at the hostel, we were swindled yet again on the price of our transportation to and from Mihintale despite being promised it would be extremely cheap.
This left a little bitter taste in our mouths, but we weren’t going to let it spoil an otherwise incredible day in two of the most religiously significant cities in ancient Sri Lanka.