Our bus arrived in Goreme at around 08:00. Surprisingly the bus went all the way to the village centre, instead of the otogar at Nevsehir. Arriving at Cappadocia in early morning felt like waking up in another world: minimal traffic, occasional herds of sheep, stone houses and cave dwellings. But it was the bizarre rock formations, some of which towering straight up the sky known as fairy chimneys that captured our imagination. The unique rock formations of Cappadocia began 2.6 million years ago when eruption of the ancient volcano Mount Erciyes covered the area (about 20,000 square kilometres) with lava and ash. The ash later solidified into soft rocks exposed to erosion from wind and water. As most of the soft rocks were eroded away, the remaining hard rocks appeared like stone chimneys towering towards the sky.
We checked in at Hotel Elif Star to begin our temporary stay in a cave. The owner Jacky and her cat welcomed us. Jacky pulled out a map and recommended to us a number of hiking trails around the area, and a few lookouts for sunset watching.
In the midst of fairy chimney rock formations, unique valleys and the open air museum, Goreme is the main tourist hub in Cappadocia.
Inhabited since the Hittite era (1800-1200 BC), cave dwellings had been constructed in the era for thousands of years.
Throughout history, cave dwellings and underground structures have been carved out from the volcanic tuff. These rock-cut houses of Cappadocia provided homes and hideouts for people escaping from wars and persecutions from close and afar.
This world famous UNESCO world heritage town receives significant amount of tourists, reaching a record high of 3.8 million in 2019. When we visited in 2006, Goreme still maintained a relatively peaceful ambience.
Souvenir shops lined up the main street of Goreme.
Remnants from the past were still visible on the fairy chimneys in the side streets of Goreme.
Other than cave dwellings, other buildings in Goreme are also constructed with the local stones.
We stayed at Elif Star, one of the many cave hotels in Goreme.
This people-friendly cat approached us during our breakfast time at Elif Star.
Late afternoon offers the best moment to photograph the unique rock formations.
There are several popular spots to watch the sunset in and around Goreme.
Everyday, if weather is fine, tourists should be able to appreciate the scenery of fairy chimneys blanketed in the orange glow.
Around Goreme, there are a number of hiking trails to explore the interesting rock formations.
Even without exploring the surrounding valleys, visitors at Goreme can still get close to the fairy chimneys.
Cappadocia offered one of the best sunset scenery we have ever experienced.
We watched the sunset everyday while we were in Cappadocia.
At night, Goreme returns to its former tranquility after tourists make their way back to their hotels.
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 5 (1 of 3).
After watching the majestic sunset from Pidurangala Rock the day before, we were excited to climb the actual Sigiriya Rock in the next morning. We get up early in order to arrive at the ticket office of Sigiriya right at 7am sharp. A short tuk tuk ride dropped us off at the gate of the archaeological park.
Reaching almost 200m above the jungle, the fortress on Sigiriya Rock was the site selected by King Kashyapa (477 – 495 AD) for his new capital. In 477AD, Kashyapa I seized the throne from King Dhatusena with a coup. His half brother and legitimated heir to the throne, Moggallana, fled to South India. Kashyapa moved the capital from Anuradhapura to Sigiriya, where he erected a city around the rock and a fortress/ palace atop the plateau. Despite the effort of fortifying Sigiriya, the eventually downfall of Kashyapa was inevitable. He was eventually defeated by Moggallana, who returned to Sri Lanka in 495AD with an Indian army. After defeating Kashyapa, Moggallana returned the capital to Anuradhapura and converted Sigiriya into a Buddhist monastery which lasted for another 800 years.
Our tuk tuk passed by the moat of the Sigiriya fortress.
After getting the admission ticket, we entered the archaeological park of the Sigiriya Rock. The short lived capital of Kashyapa lies pretty much in ruins now.
We did manage to arrive earlier than most tourist groups, and enjoyed a short moment of tranquility at the base of Sigiriya Rock.
Going through the natural triangular gateway, our 1200 steps up the rock officially began.
A few dogs greeted us at the beginning of the ascend.
At midway, we arrived at the Mirror Wall, a 3m wall covered with a glazed material that had been around for over a thousand years.
Apart from modern markings, some graffiti on the Mirror Wall date back to visitors between the 6th to 14th century. These markings remind us that marking graffiti at tourist attractions has been a thousand-year-old habit of humanity.
A spiral staircase led us to a series of small caves where the famous ancient frescos depicting a group of beautiful ladies. It is commonly believe that the depicted ladies are either celestial nymphs or the king’s concubines. No photography was allowed.
Continued onwards from the caves of frescos, we followed the only stepped path up.
The name Sīnhāgiri, or Lion Rock, came from the lion like structure of the fortress gateway at the upper platform. Two massive lion paws guard the upper fortress gateway.
Beyond the lion gate, a narrow stair allowed visitors to ascend in single file.
After some sweat and heavy breathing, we finally reached the top of Sigiriya. The plateau top is pretty much occupied entirely by the ruins of the fortress/palace.
Looking down to where we came, we could see the central axis of the entry path.
Looking across the jungle, the lush green Pidurangala reminded us of the amazing sunset.
We walked around the ruined fortress for about half an hour.
The view from the top of Sigiriya was not bad, but it was not as stunning as the view from Pidurangala Rock.
After an exhausting morning of climbing the Sigiriya Rock, we returned to the village and prepared for our departure.
We would move on to Dambulla, a transportation hub in the region which is also famous for its Buddhist cave temples.
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 (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.