Sam Bowker: The Grand Tour Diary (2005 - 2006)

This is the archived journal of a 2005-2006 'Grand Tour' around the Eastern Mediterranean and along East Africa, written by Sam Bowker, whilst in search of his PhD topic.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Sri Lanka - Sites of Significance

Dedicated to Louise's Bump

This is the first of three updates summarising just a few of the highlights from this adventure in Sri Lanka.

There have been too many things happening, and too few opportunities to describe them to you. So allow me to bring these events to you now, so that there can be something else to talk about when we next catch up!

Buddhist Temples and Palaces of Sri Lanka

Something I especially wanted to do on this Grand Tour was check out "important old stuff". The kinds of things you simply cannot do in Australia, bar our Indigenous cultures. Sri Lanka possesses numerous sites of great significance that are exactly this. They are unique places and architecture which have hosted events and continual cultural usage over many centuries. They are all profound, beautiful, jaw-dropping and very special indeed.

There are three I'd like to describe here - the Cave Temples of Dambulla, the ancient fortress / summer palace of Sigirya, and the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy.


Dambulla is located in Sri Lanka's mid-northern "dry country", only a few hours drive from Colombo. This drive takes you past inummerable roadside stalls selling bright orange coconuts, handmade rope, plastic inflatable toys and exotic-sounding household products. Lots of Sri Lankan drives are like that actually. Aishwarya Rai is invariably to be seen in every town, incongruously matching her face to advertisements of "Lux" soap. She appears to be Sri Lanka's (and perhaps India's) answer to Megan Gale.

The cave temples begin with an enormous gold Buddha, easily 30 metres high, behind which the pilgrim's ascent winds its way up the mountain. Under hot, humid, crowded and steep conditions, with vicious territorial monkeys and persistant souvenir hawkers, this was not an especially easy climb. The temples themselves are a stunning row of white buildings tucked into an overhanging cliff, serving to protect the ancient painted caves. These were made over a number of centuries, and are loaded with fascinating staturary. When I have more time I'll link you to the images elsewhere online. Our guide was very helpful, and clearly enjoyed his work, although he appeared to have been doing the same thing for many years.


Another majestic climb, Sigirya is part military fortress, imperial pleasure palace, former Buddhist temple, and a lot of James Bond. It lies on top of a massive rock that lurches out of the ground like an emerging cicada-shaped Godzilla. The pathway to the rock takes you through the remains of extensive water gardens, moats, and forests, leading to the sheer ascent up a 1950s-era cast iron ladder and stairwell. It is rusted, but so many hands have passed over it that is has developed a silky patina and unusual maroon hue.

This caged spiral staircase takes you to the few remaining frescos (techically tempura) that once adorned much of the ascent to the palace. They are topless dancers, costumed and bejewelled, beckoning to each other and generally being very distracting to the Buddhist monks who later destroyed about 500 of them. They were created (some at truly impossible angles) for the enjoyment of the original creator of the palace, well before the monks reappropriated the site.

The "mirror wall" that lines the next section of the pathway carries a threat of imprisonment if touched. That is something we should have tried at the Portrait Gallery! It is a shiny plastered (?) surface inscribed with archaic Singhalese graffiti, mostly in poetic praise of the dancers mentioned previously, and has proved of tremendous value to modern linguists.

The final aspect of the ascent will be described purely by images. I'll get these online when I have the opportunity.

The palace itself remains only in the form of foundations, but it's really Kublai Kahn material. Tremendous views, not too many tourists, great freedom to explore. Very very Wow.

Temple of the Tooth

Quickly now, my last description. This temple is one of the top sites for Buddhist pilgrims worldwide, as it holds the relic of Buddha's left front tooth, snatched as he was cremated. It is now in Kandy, although the artworks describing the saga of the Tooth narrate the stealing, theft, smuggling, and political manhandling that the Tooth has gone through over the centuries.

Inside the temple was loud with drummers, dark with nightfall and candles, humid with the tropics and the breath of hundreds of visitors - Buddhist and tourist alike. We arrived just as the golden door to the tooth itself was being shut. Another twenty minutes of reflective time followed, just waiting, sweating, and being generally silent as all the noise and commotion continued around us.

The door finally opened to reveal a luminescent gold stupa, quite some distance into the chamber, which the most dedicated tourists and serious pilgrims bowed to as they quickly passed by from a few metres away. It was an excellent sight, worth the wait.

I am due to leave for Cairo in a few hours, but shall be heading off to dinner with the Australian High Commissioner (ie, Ambassador) in Colombo in a few minutes. The next two Sri Lanka summaries will be much shorter, I promise.


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