Rooms with a View

Trip Start Nov 16, 2007
Trip End Dec 15, 2007

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Flag of Sri Lanka  ,
Thursday, December 6, 2007

North of Kandy, the tangled green hills of the central highlands tumble down into the plains of the dry zone, a hot and denuded region covered in thorny scrub and jungle, and punctuated by isolated mountainous outcrops which tower dramatically over the surrounding flatlands.
The island's northern plains are now often referred to as the Cultural Triangle, the three points of this imaginary triangle being placed at the great Sinhalese capitals of Kandy, Anuradhapura (An-a-rad-hap-ura) and Polonnaruwa (Pollen-r-rue-a).  In fact, this tourist-oriented invention presents a rather warped sense of the region's past, given that the history of Kandy is quite different and separate - both chronologically and geographically - from that of the earlier capitals.  The real Cultural Triangle lies some distance north of Kandy, with its angles at Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Dambulla, and is better described by its traditional name of the Rajarata, or "The King's Land". 
From Kandy, Karu and I (happily, he was available to continue as my driver for the remainder of the trip) ploughed straight up the main road north towards Dambulla.  About 2km north of Matale, we made a stop at the monastry of Alivihara.  Despite its modest size, Alivihara is of great significance in the global history of Buddhism, since it was here that the most important set of Theravada Buddhist scriptures, the Tripitakaya, were first committed to writing.  During the first five centuries of the religeon's existence, the vast corpus of the Buddha's teachings had simply been memorised and passed orally from generation to generation.
The heart of the complex consists of a sequence of cave temples, tucked away in a picturesque jumble of huge rock outcrops and linked by flights of steps and narrow paths between the boulders.  The caves are relatively modern in appearance and of limited artistic merit, but the setting is atmospheric, especially with a number of shaven-headed Buddhist monks clad in striking orange or red robes wandering around. 
The first temple houses a ten-metre sleeping Buddha, a kitsch makara torana entrance and a celing painted with lotuses.  A second cave temple concealed another sleeping Buddha and various pictures demonstrating the lurid punishments awaiting wrongdoers in the Buddhist hell - including images of miscreants having their skulls sawn in half or being impaled on spiky-branched trees.  For some reason a local guide walked across to me and proceeded to point out a large painting denoting the punishment for getting drunk.  Noting that the drunkards were getting their tongues cut out by metal shears, and thinking back to quantities of beer and arrack consumed at the Test match, I quickly thanked the guide and told him his services were not required any further!
A final flight of steps led up past a bo tree to the very top of the complex, where a dagoba and terrace offered fine views down into the temple and across to the grand hills in the distance.  After speaking to some overly gleeful and cheeky teenage monks about England's defeat at the Test, I tried not to imagine them being impaled on spiky-branched trees, and headed further north to the Nalanda Gedige.
The gedige (Buddhist image house) occupies a scenic location close to the Mahaweli Ganga, with fine views of the steep green surrounding hills.  Virtually nothing is known either about the gedige itself or the monastery of which it once formed part - though different sources date it from anywhere between the seventh and twelfth centuries.  Apparently, the gedige is purely South Indian in style, and looks quite unlike anything else in Sri Lanka.  Constructed entirely of stone, it's laid out like a Hindu temple, with a pillared antechamber, leading to an inner shrine which is encircled by an ambulatory.
After a further stop to briefly tour some spice gardens we arrived at the dusty little town of Dambulla, famous for its remarkable cave temples, one of Sri Lanka's outstanding man-made attractions.  The cave temples are cut out of an enormous granite outcrop which rises over 160m above surrounding countryside offering majestic views across the plains of the dry zone as far as Sigiriya, over 20km distant.  Archeological evidence suggests that these and other caves around the rock outcrop were inhabited during prehistoric times, but their later incarnation as Buddhist shrines dates back to the days of Vattagamani Abhaya who reigned in 103 BC and 89-77 BC.
Comprehensive restorations and remodelling were carried out by the Kandyan kings Senerath (1604-35) and Kirti Sri Rajasinha (1747-82) - who commissioned many of the vast number of murals which now decorate the interiors. 
At the bottom of the steps to the cave temples stands the bizarre Golden Temple, a shamelessly kitsch building topped by a huge seated golden Buddha reaching a height of 30m.  There is far too much detail required to describe the caves (hopefully the photos will provide an idea), but in summation, the temples are little masterpieces of Sinhalese Buddhist art: five magical, dimly lit grottos which seem to glow with the rich reds and golds of the innumerable statues that fill every space and the paintings that cover every surface.
Finally, we moved onto the Kandalama hotel, my base for the next two nights.  Located around 10km from Dambulla on the beautiful Kandalama Lake, this is one of the country's most famous hotels, and ranks amongst the finest works of outstanding Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa.  It's not hard to see why.  The hotel is stunning, managing to be simultaneously huge (it's the best part of a kilometre long) but almost invisible, being built into a hillside and concealed under a carefully nutured canopy of jungle growth, so that nature is never far away (e.g. bats fly up and down the corridors after dark).  Stylish rooms with all mod cons, amazing views all round the hotel, excellent food, and a spectacular swimming pool, mean the next couple of days will not be a hardship! 
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