When I was in Polonaruwa, Ian, a Brit, and I went on a ‘safari’ in a jeep to a national park to see lots of wild animals. Ian arranged it with an obnoxious young man who had irritated me a lot when I first arrived in town. Well, the driver that he selected didn’t take us to a national park but to a private thing—cheaper for him as the fee we paid covered the admission charges and the national parks are very expensive; the jeep had terribly loose steering, no tread on the tires, the brakes had to be pumped and the driver drove recklessly, all the while talking on his phone, picking his nose and waving to his friends; the wild animals?—we saw about 15 elephants, not hundreds as in the national park, and not another species unless you count the herd of cows. We were only there for about an hour instead of the three as proposed. So it goes.
The next day made up for it. I hired a tuk tuk to take me around the scattered Polonnaruwa 10th century ruins. The driver was totally accommodating, and watched for and pointed out wildlife around the ruins. We saw three groups of deer, one having two big bucks with full racks of antlers, a fox, two big iguanas, and many birds. This was a better safari than the safari! The thousand-year-old ruins were wonderful with beautiful carved stone Buddhas and elephants, great big dagobas,
many remains of palaces, temples and royal baths,
a lotus pond (stone pond in the shape of a lotus flower) and lots more. It was topped off by a small, nice museum.
The bus ride to Anuradhapura was one of those pleasant ones—bus not too crowded, good road, pretty scenery and good, though hot, weather. We passed a stream with three elephants lying in the water receiving their baths from their mahouts, and rice harvest seemed in full swing—I even saw one small thresher doing the work.
Anuradhapura, the third of the ancient cities, had its own set of ruins; these were mostly from 300 to 100 BC. There is surprisingly a fair amount to see although it’s true that some had been spiffed up in the 10th century and again lately. There were dagobas, tanks, pools, palaces, Bodhi tree shrines and temples with quite a bit of original rock carving to enjoy. I saw a ruined monastery that accommodated 5000 monks and the refectory had a 30-foot by 3 X 3 foot trough for people to contribute cooked rice for the monks to eat. There was a smaller one for the vegetable curries. The Bodhi tree here has been cared for over 2000 years, which is well documented and recorded.
One of the huge dagobas (like an overturned bowl with a thing on top) was being rehabbed and the ‘brick brigade’ was working hard. This was a string of mostly women starting at a pile of bricks alongside the dagoba and leading to women on scaffolding going up the side of the very high dagoba. The bricks were heavy—about 12″ X 8″ X 1 1/2″. They were sent hand-to-hand to their destination up the side of the dagoba through the brigade of about 40 women.
But this is certainly Elephant country! Elephants are on everything and were carved extensively back then, too. I learned that female Asian elephants never have tusks and only 5 % of male Asian elephants do unlike African elephants. Gestation is 22 months and females have babies until they’re about 50. Somebody wondered if then they got hot flashes!
One day I took a city bus to the New Bus Stand in Anuradhapura and got a bus to Mihintale, the place where in 242 BC Buddhism came to Sri Lanka. The king, Devanamplya Tisa, was deer hunting when he met Mahinda, the son of Asoka from India who converted him to Buddhism. Again, lots of dagobas, temples, monks’ refectories, and beautiful stone carvings graced this jungley hill, including a ruined hospital with a stone person-formed tub to soak the patients in special oils and leaves. I was offered grass to smoke by my guide that latched on to me as I walked from the bus, but I contented myself with a soda and fresh lime during a break from climbing around that mountain. He said he liked to smoke grass for ‘meditation.’ On the way back to Anuradhapura (9 km) the bus broke down but after 30 minutes it was repaired and I arrived back in time for a beer and a late lunch.
It’s very clear that tourism is way down because of the LTTE terrorism. Several countries recommend ‘no travel’ which makes it difficult here. The poor people engaged in the tourist trade are quite desperate and when my driver that took me around the Anuradhapura ruins begged me to let him take me to Mihintale the next day, I was in a quandary. I much prefer to go on my own, on a public bus, which always gives me a kick, and when I turned him down and did go on my own, I felt bad. In Mihintale I didn’t have the heart to say no to a guide. Whenever I go on my own without using a guide, which I prefer, or whenever I walk instead of taking a tuk tuk, it feels like I’m withholding a living from somebody. And, of course, the fun has gone out of bargaining.
I went on another sojourn Saturday to see the 40′ tall Aukana Buddha, carved in the 5th century. It required two buses, the second one going past a 5th century ‘tank’ constructed by King Dhatusena who made lots of them. This tank was a man made lake about five miles long and three miles wide, with high berms all around. Some ‘tank’! The Aukana Buddha was beautiful in a lovely jungle setting and in perfect condition—but of course the bus rides were most of the fun. We came upon some kind of festival with about 50 monks sitting in a line, eating. There were many people around, mostly dressed in white, who I imagine had supplied the food. There were colorful flags and a truck with a loudspeaker.
Yesterday I took a bus to Kurunegala where I am now. I’m staying in a beautiful 150-year-old villa overlooking a lake which is yet another ancient tank. Of course the first thing this setting required was two gin and tonics, followed by rice and curry—there’s nothing better! I am sleeping in a four-poster bed with canopy and taking my ease on a verandah. Only one week left—that will be just right!