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Sri Lanka: Between a rock and a tooth

Some might recognise it as the country that gave us Ceylon tea, some might know of its famous beaches, while some others might have heard of its turbulent past. However, unbeknownst to many, Sri Lanka’s most impressive asset is one that has laid in ruins for centuries.

As a tiny dot of an island, one might be forgiven for forgetting that it was established in 543BC, and has a history chock full of tumultuous dynasties and magnificent urban planning rivalling those in the Roman Empire (which it maintained close ties with). Renowned for their technological precision, they built elaborate aqueducts and dams, and it was the first country in the world to establish a dedicated hospital.

The Lion's Gate

However, among all of these, the one architectural prominence was Sigiriya, now an archeologist’s wet dream, and a UNESCO World Heritage site. A rock fortress carved out of a monolith, it is surrounded by an extensive network of gardens, reservoirs and even a croc-filled moat.

Built by Sinhalese prince-on-the-run Kasyapa (AD477-495), it is fair to say that the entire fortress was built out of paranoia. After imprisoning and then murdering his father, he fled the ancient capital and built a palace on top of a monolith which afforded expansive views across the flatlands, and surrounded it with pleasure gardens, fountains and a moat filled with man-eating crocs.

Grooves were cut into the rock face to act as stairs, and halfway up the monolith, there was an imposing sculpture of a lion, the mouth of which served as the entrance to the palace proper. The entire fortress was built to withstand an impending attack, but it never came.

The fortress became a monastic refuge site in the 16th century before falling into disrepair.

View from the top

Today, Sigiriya is on every Sri Lankan itinerary. Plenty of tourists – along with the local population of wild dogs and monkeys – trudge their way up the top of the rock. There are even ‘minders’ to help those wheezing to get to the next step. If you have cash to spare, you can splurge on a hot air balloon for an aerial view.

The lion statue has long since crumbled, leaving only its 2 front paws that flank the stairway. The hand-cut step grooves are replaced by metal rung stairs, and not much is left of the fortress itself, save for remnants of walls, pillars and pools.

The views are still as expansive, and even in ruins, its immense gardens and pools can still make any urban planner jealous.

The rock also features a ‘Mirror Wall’, which is made of porcelain and so well-polished that it was originally possible to see one’s reflection. These days, the ancient graffiti – some dating back to the 8th century – steals the limelight. Another attraction is a cave filled with painted bosomed ladies – some say that there were over 500 of these buxom nymphs all over the rock wall, but they were wiped out when the palace became a monastery (so as not to ‘disturb meditation’).

What a paint job...

More cave frescoes can be found in the nearby Dambulla Cave Temple, but there are no nymph paintings here. These are meditative caves, so you’ll find plenty of flowery icons and illustrations depicting all things Buddha.

Dambulla’s main attractions are the 5 cave temples, and in each cave lies at least one Buddha statue (the second cave has 56!) and frescoes that adorn every surface of the walls in vivid hues of red and gold as if painted by a monk with plenty of time or OCD.

Getting to these caves requires a rather long stair climbing exercise, after which you will need to remove your shoes to enter the caves (which can be taxing when the floor heats up like a baking tray in the afternoon).

The former capital of Sri Lanka, Kandy is home to the Temple of the Tooth which houses the chomper of Buddha.

Entrance to the tooth

The temple itself has ornate carvings, but it’s nothing compared to the containers that house the Buddha’s tooth: it’s 7 layers of golden dagoba caskets, adorned with precious gemstones. It’s no surprise that the inner sanctum where the tooth lies is where all the visitors flock to. Come July, the tooth is taken out and paraded in the streets with much pomp and circumstance at the Esala Perahera festival which involves dancers, drummers, carnival barkers, elephants and everything you can imagine.

Outside the temple, Kandy’s city centre is reminiscent of colonial outposts, with rows of whitewashed shophouses and the iconic Queen’s Hotel, a former Governors Mansion.

Designated a UNESCO Heritage Site, the city’s British architecture provides a stark contrast to the ruins of ancient Sinhalese kings that lie just a few hours’ drive away.


Read more about the country’s tea heritage in Sri Lanka: Tea and more.

3 Responses to “Sri Lanka: Between a rock and a tooth”

  1. [...] course, there’s much more to Sri Lanka than tea. Read up on Sri Lanka: Between a Rock and a Tooth. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted [...]

  2. Hiran says:

    Many thanks for publishing this great articular on Sri Lanka. I’m very pleased to see that you and the family has really enjoyed the experiences of Sri Lanka. This is great way to say thank you Sri Lanka. If you have any plans to travel again please do contact us.

    Best regards
    Hiran Gunasekera

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