Day 5 (3 of 3).
It was about 2.5 hour drive from Dambulla to Kandy. After settling in at our guesthouse, we hopped on a tuk tuk for Sri Dalada Maligawa, or the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. The temple is the most important attraction in Kandy and probably the most sacred Buddhist site in the country. We wanted to visit during the evening puja, the prayer session when the altar door of the gold casket that carries the Buddha’s sacred tooth would be opened for blessing. The tuk tuk dropped us right at the entrance of the temple compound, at a busy section of Kandy Road where it bends upon reaching the waterfront of Kandy Lake. After security check and a pleasant stroll through the forecourt dotted with historical memorials, we stored our shoes at the shoe booth for foreigners. At the temple entrance, we purchased some lotus flowers as offering.
Apart from its religious importance as a relic of the Buddha, the tooth relic has long been considered as the symbol of political power since the ancient times. After a war was fought in India over the possession of the tooth relic 800 years after the Buddha’s death, the tooth relic was eventually brought to Sri Lanka by Princess Hemamali. It was first housed in the Abhayagiri Vihara in Anuradhapura, then to Polonnaruwa and other cities in the nation as the capital city shifted from place to place. In late 16th century, the tooth relic arrived in Kandy. In the 17th century, it was periodically fallen in the hands of the Portuguese invaders. With the aid from the Dutch, King Rajasimha II eventually drove the Portuguese away and recovered the tooth relic. King Vira Narendra Sinha (reigned 1707 – 1739) was responsible for building the current temple that houses the sacred tooth.
We approached the temple after walking through the forecourt. Before entering, we left our shoes at the shoe storing facility.
Paththirippuwa, the octagonal pavilion built in 1802 by Sri Vickrama Rajasingha, was intended for the king to showcase the tooth relic and address the public. Since the British era, Paththirippuwa has been used as a library of the temple.
We entered the temple complex through an arch passageway full of wall paintings.
Time was still early for the puja, so we decided to visit the Royal Palace complex next to the temple first. We ventured out into Maha Maluwa, the Great Terrace dotted with statues and pavilions, as well as Magul Maduwa, the Royal Audience Hall. Looking back to the temple from Maha Maluwa, we could see the golden canopy of the main shrine.
Magul Maduwa or the Royal Audience Hall was where the king met his ministers and facilitated public audience. Built in 1783 by King Sri Vikrama Rajasinha, Magul Maduwa is supported by two rows of elegantly carved wooden pillars.
Maybe the time was late, most buildings in the Royal Palace area were closed. Before heading back to the temple, we stopped by a prayer pavilion.
Behind the main shrine we arrived at a prayer hall with a golden statue of the Buddha. The room also houses a series of paintings depicting the legend of the Sacred Tooth.
In front of the Palle Malaya or the lower level of the main shrine lies the Hewisi Mandapaya or the drummer’s platform. Beats from the Hewisi drummers marked the moment of puja, the evening prayer.
Hewisi drummers dressed in traditional costumes perform their rituals twice daily.
Visitors can walk around the richly decorated Palle Malaya (lower floor of the main shrine).
Above the main shrine is the golden canopy built in 1987, while the upper floor of the main shrine, known as Weda Hitana Maligawa, is the venue where the main worship takes place in front of the shrine of the Sacred Tooth.
The upper floor of the main shrine is known as Weda Hitana Maligawa, a beautiful timber pavilion where tourist and local worshipers wait for the opening of Handun Kunama, the main shrine that houses the Sacred Tooth.
On the upper floor, we put down our lotus flower offering on the long table and sat down at a corner to wait for the actual ceremony.
During puja, visitors are allowed to get close to Handun Kunama where the Sacred Tooth is housed.
The Handun Kunama where the Sacred Tooth is housed is covered with golden decorations.
The metal work of Handun Kunama is exquisite.
During the actual ceremony, the window of Handun Kunama was opened, allowing us who queued for quite some time to get a quick peek at the golden casket of the Sacred Tooth. After a quick peek, we left the Weda Hitana Maligawa altogether as it was getting really crowded and a little chaotic.
On the lower level, tourists and worshipers lined up for entering different shrines and display areas.
We left the temple through the same passageway we came in.
It was completely dark when we returned to the forecourt of the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic.
Day 5 (2 of 3).
We arranged a taxi from Sigiriya to Kandy, and made a stop at Dambulla to visit Sri Lanka’s largest cave temple complex. The UNESCO World Heritage site is usually visited along with Sigiriya or Kandy nearby. About 80 caves are found in Dambulla, with most of the highlights found in five caves. The 153 statues and 2,100 sq.m of murals of the Dambulla Cave Temple represent the finest example of Buddhist cave art on the island.
King Valagamba of Anuradhapura concerted earlier caves into a Buddhist temple in the 1st century BC. Later kings continued to expand the cave complex. By the 11th century, the caves had become an established religious centre on the island. This significant religious hub remains to the present. The white verandas and colonnades outside of the caves were added in 1938 as an embellishment to the two thousand year old cave temple network.
The 10 minute climb up to the rock temple prepared us spiritually for the visit.
Near the cave temple, a family of monkeys greeted all visitors with funny looks.
At the temple entrance stairway, a cat was busy chewing onto grass.
The 1938 verandas gave the ancient cave temple an elegant facade to greet visitors.
The Cave of the Divine King is dominated by the 14m long reclining Buddha.
Above the reclining Buddha, the walls and ceiling of the cave are covered with Buddhist murals.
The statue of Ananda, favourite pupil of the Buddha, stand next to the feet of the reclining Buddha.
A rather Western appearance of the 1938 veranda give the cave temple an elegant look, contributing to the fact that the cave temple is continuing to evolve as time goes by.
Reinforcement were added to the cave entrances.
Antique wooden booth inside the Cave of the Great Kings.
In Cave of the Great Kings, the largest cave of the temple, a small stupa and a “healing” spring dripping from a ceiling crack are two of the distinct features apart from the collection of statues and murals.
Every inch of the cave is covered by murals.
In this cave, King Nissanka Malla of Polonnaruwa was responsible for gilding of 50 statues in the 12th century.
Artificial lighting have been installed to replace candles from the past.
Statue of what could have been King Vattagamani Abhaya or Valagamba, the first patron of the temple.
Throughout history, these caves have been repainted over and over again.
Lighting at some of the other caves are dimmer than the Cave of the Great Kings.
We loved the tranquil atmosphere of the lotus pond, white veranda and rock caves. After checking out the caves of Dambulla, we moved on to Kandy, the last historical capital of Sri Lanka before the colonial era.
Day 4 (2 of 3).
Parakramabahu I (reigned 1153–1186) is often considered as the greatest ruler of the Polonnaruwa Kingdom. Under his rule, Sri Lanka had entered a prosperous time. The ambitious king unified the island into one kingdom, expanded and beautified the capital city, constructed extensive irrigation systems, reformed the army and religious customs, and conducted in military campaigns in Burma and South India. Today, many surviving structures of Polonnaruwa, such as the Royal Palace, the circular Vatadage at the Quadrangle, the Lankatilaka Viharaya and the Buddhist statues of Gal Vihara, all could be traced back to the majestic ruler. King Nissanka Malla (reigned 1187 – 1196AD) continued the building spree of his predecessor Parakramabahu I, and spent much of the nation’s resources on construction. One of his most prominent projects was Rankoth Vehera Stupa, the largest stupa in Polonnaruwa and fourth largest in Sri Lanka. With a base diameter of 550 feet and an original height of about 200 feet, Rankoth Vehera was the skyscraper of ancient Polonnaruwa.
Our third stop in Polonnaruwa was Rankoth Vehera Stupa, the tallest structure in the ancient city.
Similar to the stupas in Anuradhapura, small shrines known as vahalkada were constructed at the four cardinal axes of Rankoth Vehera Stupa for offerings of worshipers.
Completed in 1190AD, the Rankoth Vehera Stupa was constructed in a similar style as Ruwanwelisaya in Anuradhapura, which was built over 1000 years prior.
An beautiful tree at the base of Rankoth Vehera Stupa provides a great spot for worshiper group to gather and perform Buddhist chanting.
Around Kiri Vehera, smaller stupas were also constructed as burial place for royalties and high priests.
On our way to Lankatilaka Monastery, the fourth highlight of Polonnaruwa, we passed by Kiri Vehera, the second tallest stupa in the ancient city. Kiri Vehera is believed to be built by King Parakramabahu the Great (1153-1186 A.D.) in memory of his Queen Subhadra.
Then we arrived at Lankatilaka Image House or Lankatilaka Vihara, the largest image house in Polonnaruwa. Unlike traditional stupas, the building focused on presenting the religious image, a large standing statue of the Buddha. Two tall pillars frame the entrance of the building. The original pillars were thought to be two times the existing height. The building was part of the Alahana Pirivena Monastery complex erected by King Parakramabahu 1 (1153-1186).
Two beautiful guard stones mark the entrance of Lankatilaka.
According to some accounts, the building was originally five storey high, while the statue was 41 feet tall. The entire structure, including the main Buddha statue, was made from clay bricks.
Near Lankatilaka, we passed by an impressive pool in the Alahana Pirivena complex. This pool was part of a larger bathing and water storing network.
Gal Vihara, the impressive rock temple featuring four Buddha relief statues carved from a single piece of granite rock, was our last stop at Polonnaruwa. 15 feet of rock was carved away to create the surface where the statues were carved.
The statues at Gal Vihara are considered some of the best ancient Sinhalese sculpting art.
Some believe that the 22’-9” standing statue was not depicting the Buddha, but instead monk Ananda with a sorrowful look standing adjacent to the reclining Buddha at his deathbed.
The 46’-4” reclining statue depicting the parinirvana of the Buddha is the largest statue in Gal Vihara.
The Gal Vihara marked the end of our brief visit of Polonnaruwa by car. Ideally if we had more time, we would spend more time walking or cycling around the archaeological park to fully appreciate the scale, planning characteristics and other highlights of the ancient capital.
Day 4 (1of 3).
100km southeast of Anuradhapura stands the ruins of Sri Lanka’s second ancient capital, Polonnaruwa. For two hundred years, Polonnaruwa served as the centre of the nation after Anuradhapura was sacked by the invading Chola Kingdom from Southern India in the 10th century. The Chola Tamils destroyed Buddhist monuments and monasteries, and established a new capital in Polonnaruwa. In 1070AD, Vijayabahu I of Ruhuna Kingdom (southeast of the island) drove the Chola out, unified the country, and established the second major Sinhalese kingdom and restored Buddhism as the national religion. Polonnaruwa flourished as the most important medieval city in Sri Lanka until the 13th century when the island was again invaded by the Tamil Pandya Dynasty from India.
Today, the archaeological ground of Polonnaruwa is a popular tourist destination in the Cultural Triangle (marked by Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandy), the region on the island dotted with ancient capitals and World Heritage sites. To save time, we hired a private car from Anuradhapura to Sigiriya, with a detour to Polonnaruwa. At Polonnaruwa, our driver took us first to the visitor centre for the admission tickets and a brief visit to the museum, before driving us to the five highlights in the archaeological park: Royal Palace, Quadrangle, Rankot Vihara Stupa, Lankatilaka Monastery and the Buddha statues of Gal Vihara.
Built by Parakramabahu I (reigned 1153-1186 ) in the 12th century, the Royal Palace was once seven storey tall in its heyday.
The Royal Palace of King Parakumba was said to contain 1000 rooms. Now only a few dozens remain.
Much of the crumbling ruins is covered with lush green moss.
The Royal Bathing pool (Kumara Pokuna) near the Royal Palace was a delightful treat for visitors.
Built by Parakramabahu I (reigned 1153-1186 ), water would enter the pool through the two dragon mouths, and could be drained out after use.
The Audience Hall of the Royal Palace is another feature at the Royal Palace.
The Audience Hall is famous for the frieze of elephants, each has a unique pose.
Two stone lions guard the entrance of the Audience Hall.
The stone pillars of the Audience Hall have some amazing details.
The second highlight we visited at Polonnaruwa was the Quadrangle. On a raised platform, Quadrangle encompasses a cluster of religious structures erected by different rulers of Polonnaruwa. Atadage is the oldest building among them all. Built by King Vijayabahu the Great (1055 – 1110), Atadage is believed to house the Relic of the Tooth of Buddha. Adjacent to Atadage, Hatadage built by King Nissanka Malla (1187 – 1196) was also a shrine for the Relic of the Tooth of Buddha.
Built by King Nissanka Malla (1187-1196), Nissanka Latha Mandapaya is an interesting structure with unique columns and a small stone stupa. The building was used for the king to listen to Buddhist chanting.
Built by Parakramabahu I to house the Relic of the Tooth of the Buddha, or by King Nissanka Malla to hold Buddha’s alms bowl, Vatadage was an essential structure at the Quadrangle.
Because of its circular form and well preserved carving details, Vatadage is also the most famous building in Polonnaruwa.
Vatadage has two stone platforms and a small stone stupa atop. Steps and statues were constructed at the four cardinal directions. Stone pillars suggest that a wooden roof might have once covered the circular structure.
Monkeys are everywhere in Sri Lanka.
At all temples or ruins, including Vatadage, tourists would be reminded that taking selfies with their backs toward the statue of the Buddha is prohibited.
Completely built with bricks, Thuparama is about 84 ft long and 56 ft wide. Its brick walls are about 7 ft thick.
Inside Thuparama, the central seating Buddha statue was long gone. Yet the adjacent limestone statues survive till the present day.
Day 3 (4 of 4).
Mirisawetiya Stupa was just five minute walk away from our hotel Sanctuary at Tissawewa. As we left the ruins of Abhayagiri Monastery, it was still a little early for supper, so we decided to check out Mirisawetiya Stupa before sunset. The road leading to the stupa was decorated with colourful Buddhist banners and flags. Large group of people, some dressed in traditional costumes, gathered at the entrance parking lot. Red carpet was laid on the ground leading into the forecourt of the stupa. We were excited to see the scene, despite we couldn’t figure out exactly what was going on. We figured that there must be a certain kind of religious ceremony taking place. And so we followed the red carpet, took off our shoes at the forecourt, and entered the stupa complex.
It was still too early to call it a day, so we asked the tuk tuk driver to drop us off at Mirisawetiya Stupa.
A long red carpet led us into the stupa forecourt. A large TV screen was broadcasting the speech of a monk.
The vivid Buddhist colours and traditional costumes stand out extremely well from the white wash stupa.
The costume looks like to be some kind of ceremonial costumes.
Shrines at the Mirisawetiya Stupa was full of offerings.
Monks also gathered at the stupa with their offerings.
Crowds sat down at various locations around the stupa.
A parade of ceremonial procession walked right by us.
Followed by a number of people dressed in white.
Because of the crowds and security control, we could not move freely around the stupa.
We stayed with a group of worshipers for a while.
And admired the stunning Mirisawetiya Stupa below the setting sun.
Unfortunately we didn’t understand the language so we didn’t stay for long at the scene.
Later at night, we found out that the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka came to Mirisawetiya Stupa for a visit. What we saw was part of the ceremony associated with his visit.
Due to the close distance, we could still hear the speakers of Mirisawetiya‘s ceremony from our hotel until late at night. The event perhaps gave us an insight on how a Buddhist event might have look like in Anuradhapura over a millennia ago. The next day we would move on to Polonnaruwa and then Sigiriya, two other popular attractions in the Cultural Triangle.
Day 3 (3 of 4).
From 399 to 414AD, Chinese monk Faxian traveled to India and Sri Lanka in search for Buddhist scriptures. In his travelogue A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms, he documented the places he visited in his journey, including Anuradhapura where he stayed briefly in 412AD. Faxian gave the following account on Abhayagiri, the largest Buddhist monastery in Anuradhapura: “A monastery, called the Abhayagiri, where there are five thousand monks. There is in it a hall of Buddha, adorned with carved and inlaid works of gold and silver, and rich in the seven precious substances, in which there is an image (of Buddha) in green jade, more than twenty cubits in height, glittering all over with those substances, and having an appearance of solemn dignity which words cannot express. In the palm of the right hand there is a priceless pearl…”
Founded in the 2nd century BC, Abhayagiri Vihara was once a world renowned Buddhist monastery and learning institution attracting monks from all over Sri Lanka and surrounding countries including Java, Burma and India. In the 4th century, the Buddha’s tooth relic was brought to Sri Lanka from India. Abhayagiri was selected as the shrine and designated venue to showcase this precious relic in public veneration. Supported by different rulers, Abhayagiri continued to serve as the main hub of Mahayana, Theravada and Vajrayana Buddhism until the 12th century, when Anuradhapura was sacked and abandoned, and the national capital was moved to Polonnaruwa. The magnificent monastery fell into ruins for 800 years until late 19th century and early 20th century when excavation and restoration work began. Today, Abhayagiri has become one of the largest clusters of ancient ruins in Sri Lanka, where gigantic stupa, stone pools, brick walls, foundations of multi storey buildings, and exquisite stone carvings in the midst of lush green jungle reveal the bygone glory of Anuradhapura two millennia ago.
After lunch at Sanctuary at Tissawewa, we hopped on a tuk tuk for Abhayagiri Dagoba, the largest monument in the monastery vicinity.
Although not as crowded as Ruwanwelisaya and Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, Abhayagiri Dagoba is popular among local worshipers.
Believed to reach a height of 115m, Abhayagiri Dagoba was once the fourth tallest monument in the classical period, behind the Egyptian Pyramids in Giza and the Jethawanaramaya Dagoba.
The shrine in front of the stupa houses a reclining Buddha.
Abhayagiri Dagoba just went through a 15-year restoration at 2015 as a UNESCO project.
Devoted worshiper praying at the stupa.
The majestic stupa was the main focus of the entire Abhayagiri Vihara Monastery.
A group of Western Buddhists sat down and listen to the teaching of their mentor.
Another highlight at Abhayagiri Vihara is the ruins of Pancavasa palace hidden in the woods.
The Pancavasa was famous for its exquisite carvings.
Interesting carvings of Buddhist guardians at Pancavasa.
All these exquisite carvings are not the reason why tourists flock into the woods in search for the ruins of Pancavasa.
All tourists come here for one thing, the moonstone carving on the ground.
Moonstone is a unique architectural feature in Sri Lanka. It usually appears as a base landing at a set of steps. Moonstones symbolize samsara, the endless cycle of reincarnation and the path to nirvana. Each ring of animals represents a successive phase of one’s passage through samsara.
The last thing we checked out in the monastery area was the Samadhi Buddha Statue. The statues is believed to be part of a sacred Bodhi tree shrine.
The 7′-3″ Samadhi Buddha Statue was carved out from a dolomite marble. Sculpted in around the 5th century, the statue is considered one of the nation’s finest.
Day 3 (2 of 4).
In ancient times, two Buddhist monasteries dominated the religious scenes in Anuradhapura, the Mahavihara and Abhayagiri. Both monasteries were home to thousands of monks and represents the two competing sects of Theravāda Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Their sectarian conflicts led to destruction of the Mahavihara, the main monastery of Theravada Buddhism built by the King Devanampiya Tissa. Upon destroying the Mahavihara, King Mahasena (reigned 273-301AD) constructed the Jetavanaramaya Dagoba to house the relic of the Buddha’s belt. Some also believed that the dagoba was built upon the place where Mahinda, the eldest son of Emperor Ashoka who first introduced Buddhism to Sri Lanka, lectured Buddhism. Reaching a height of 400 feet, the original Jetavanaramaya Dagoba was the third tallest structure in the ancient world, behind the two Egyptian pyramids in Giza. After Anuradhapura was abandoned in the 11th century, the stupa fell into ruins and subsequently renovated to its current height at 233 feet in the 12th century. The stupa was gradually covered by shrubs until 1909, when conservation and clearing works began.
Towering above the horizon east of Ruwanwelisaya, the Jetavanaramaya Dagoba was the second great stupa that we visited in Anuradhapura. On Google Map, Jetavanaramaya Dagoba appeared to be less than 1km east of Ruwanwelisaya. We were too lazy to walk under the scorching sun, so we hopped on a tuk tuk for Jetavanaramaya. Upon arriving at the famous stupa, we were surprised by the lack of visitors. Unlike Ruwanwelisaya where the white stupa was surrounded by worshipers, Jetavanaramaya Dagoba appeared quite empty with only a handful of locals and foreign tourists.
Once again we had to take off our shoes before entering the stupa platform.
It was hard to imagine the imposing prominence of the original 400 feet tall stupa.
A handful of local worshipers put down their offerings on the stone pedestals in front of the stupa.
Beautiful statues of Buddha made of pink stone stood out prominently against the stupa wall.
Dressed mainly in white, local worshipers circled the stupa in clockwise direction.
Another Buddha statue is made with translucent white stone.
Pieces of fine statues and relief carvings were placed in front of the brick stupa walls.
At one side of the stupa stands a small worship hall.
The Jetavanaramaya was constructed with special bricks made with 60% fine sand and 35% clay.
In early 20th century, Jetavanaramaya was covered with dense shrubs.
We left Jetavanaramaya after walking a full circle around the monument.
No tuk tuk could be found at the entrance of Jetavanaramaya. We decided to walk back to Ruwanwelisaya where we might be able to flag down a tuk tuk.
On our way, we walk by Silachetiya (Kujjatissa) Stupa, another 2000-year-old historical structure built in the era of King Saddhatissa (137 – 119 BC).
Near Ruwanwelisaya, we bumped into a group of tufted gray langur hanging around in the archaeological park.
From Ruwanwelisaya, we decided to walk back to The Sanctuary at Tissawewa via Basawakkulama Tank, where locals enjoyed picnic lunch by the water .