Suitcase and World: It's all about Polonnaruwa!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

It's all about Polonnaruwa!

Our day this morning began with breakfast on the balcony. 

We had ordered breakfast to be served at 7:30a and the waiter pretty much appeared on the dot with the food. It was our first taste of the string hoppers that is typical of Sri Lanka. The hoppers were accompanied by coconut sambol otherwise known as pol sambol, a green curry sauce and curried tuna. I nibbled a bit on my brother's breakfast as there was more than enough to share. The waiter soon returned with a pot of tea. I'm really enjoying the tea in Sri Lanka - they know how to brew it the way I like it!

After breakfast, we packed up our bags and headed outside to wait for Chandana and Chami. By 7:30a, the guys still hadn't arrived and I got a bit restless so I wandered about the grounds. That's when I spotted the two of them having their breakfast in another building on the hotel grounds. We acknowledged each other's presence and I headed back to the hotel entrance to wait for them. No rush.

Soon enough, I saw our white mini van pull up to where we were waiting. While Chami loaded our luggage into the back of the van, Chandana cleared the bill. I noticed he was more casually dressed today, in shorts and a polo shirt.  I like that as I think he's starting to feel more comfortable being around us.  Besides, in this weather, it would be cruel to expect him to wear a dress shirt and pants every day.

In the van we all went and down the road we headed. Destination for the day? Polonnaruwa!  Very excited!

First stop of the day? A place called Juiceez for freshly squeezed juice. From what I could make out, the place is run by an agricultural firm of some sort. In addition to the restaurant, which served the juice, there was also a small shop where agricultural items like seeds and fertilizer were for sale.

After downing glasses of mango (which my brother had) and avocado (which Chandana had) juice, the guys wandered over to the plant nursery adjacent to the restaurant. Who knew but it turns out that Chandana is very knowledgeable about plants. It was a perfect match for my brother who is a plant lover. The guys wandered up and down every aisle possible. My brother was thoroughly enjoying learning about plants unfamiliar to him.

Finally it was time to hit the road! The one thing about the so called Cultural Triangle in Sri Lanka - it covers a very small area so driving around to see the various sights does not take long.

But first another food break :-) Actually, we hadn't deliberately stopped for this but we had pulled over to the side of the road and my brother spotted a vendor selling pieces of something wrapped inside yellow pieces of paper. Turned out they were Sri Lankan sweets - sort of like harder version of a power bar.

One was gingelly flavored and the other tasted like it had ginger in it. I learned later on that gingelly is the Sinhalese word for "sesame" which made sense as the one piece had tiny flecks of black sesame seeds in it. It was difficult to break off bite sizes of the stuff but my brother somehow managed though a lot of crumbles tumbled to the floorboard :-) Very, very sweet but tasty. Could only take a small piece without liquid to counter the sweet.

Then a stop to check out a tall statue which is a replica of the Aukana Buddha from the Aukana temple located nearby the temple complex in Dambulla. Unlike many other Buddha statues, this one was shows Buddha in the "Asisa Mudra" or the blessing position, with the right hand turned sideways to the viewer.

Although the original statue was hewn out of a single piece of rock, the replica was not. It was, however, carved following the same proportions as the original meaning that the length of the body is nine times that of the face. As with the original, the replica is also standing on a lotus blossom.

The replica statue was situated on a small hillock overlooking one of the many lakes that King Nissankamalla had constructed as part of Polonnaruwa. It was shoes off (again) to check out the small site. Even though the site was located right next to the lake, there was no breeze blowing off the water to cool us off. It was gearing up to be another sweltering hot and humid day. Argh.....!!!

And yet another stop to check out some iguanas.  What?  We pulled into yet another roadside stall. Chandana bought a mango and I bought a Sprite.

I followed the guys across the street. There, overlooking a small stream, was a young man trying to lure two large iguanas to shore with a small fish. It was all a sideshow for tourists. Fish devoured by the iguana and Chandana indicated to my brother to pass over a small tip to the young man. A 10 rupee bill was handed over and we got back in the van and continued on our way.


But first, more food!

Chandana cut up the mango and passed the slices back to us. Very flavorful and sweet. I am enjoying sampling all the foods but this constant eating is going to kill me. Okay, it won't actually kill me but I will definitely pack on the kilos :-(

Our ride took us alongside more lakeside views.

Chami made a left turn into a parking lot. Out of the van, we took the path that led up to a statue of King Parakramabahu memorialized in stone.


Back in the car and more lakeside views.

It was not long before we arrived to the entrance to Polonnaruwa. Chami parked the van. We were at the Visitors Center. We followed Chandana to the ticket counter where he bought our tickets - again, pricey and again, another beautiful booklet with a small DVD inside.

Front and back covers of the ticket booklet.

Inside the covers - the ticket and the DVD.

First stop was the museum. For a small museum, it was actually quite interesting and informative - got a good insight into Polonnaruwa before actually seeing it. Comparatively speaking, Polonnaruwa is geographically more spread out than Anuradhapura so we had to drive from one attraction to another.

Next stop on the Polonnaruwa itinerary. The Rankoth Vihara stupa. As we headed towards the stupa, we passed by ruins of a former marketplace. 

Then the stupa. By now, it was starting to look like all the other stupas we had seen before it. :-(  In fact, it was supposedly modeled after Ruwanwelisaya in Anuradhapura. Rankoth Vihara is the largest of the stupas in Polonnaruwa.

Although we could have walked closer to the stupa to get a better view, I think we were all beginning to melt in the heat so standing under the shade of a tree and seeing the stupa from afar was good enough. Besides, you can't go inside anyway.

We got in the car and headed back towards the Visitor's Center. This time instead of heading to the museum, we followed a path that ran adjacent to the museum. A smattering of vendors lined the path and a few approached us with offers to buy the souvenirs they were hawking. As always, I graciously decline the offer and move on.

As we walked along, I could see what looked like drainage ditches. My guess is that these were constructed to bring water from the various man made lakes to locations in the center of the city. Ancient Sri Lankans were quite the engineers!

The path eventually led us to one of the highlights of Polonnaruwa. I recognized it from the distance - the Gal Vihara!

We had to take our shoes off to enter the heart of the site. There they were! Under the protection of a corrugated tin roof, there were the two statues of Buddha siting, the one of him in the death position and the one of Ananda, his faithful disciple. Although I had seen countless images of all three statues in all my pre-trip reading, it was amazing to actually see them in person.

Looking at the boulder straight on, from left to right, it was the large sitting Buddha, the small sitting Buddha, Ananda and then Buddha in the the death position.

Large sitting Buddha with hands in the meditation position.

Small sitting Buddha with hands in the meditation position.

Buddha laying in the death position; Ananda standing by his side.

For some reason though, all four statues looked a bit smaller than I had expected but nonetheless, I thought they were really simply but beautifully carved - all four were hewn from the same large boulder. I loved the facial expression of the Buddha in the death position - very serene with a slight hint of a smile on his face.

The smaller of the two sitting Buddhas was housed inside an alcove cut into the boulder. 

Ananda was posing in a bit of a relaxed position which does signify something but I can't remember exactly what.

We had to do a photo op before we leaving and Buddhist protocol dictates that you never stand with your back to the Buddha. When in Sri Lanka, do as the Sri Lankans do :-)

Somewhere on our walk we passed by another stupa. I can't remember what this one is and I don't have a description of it in my pre-trip posting on Polonnaruwa. Oh well.

Back in the van with the air conditioner, full on and blasting on our faces, to cool off.

Next stop. The place formally known as the Dalada Maluwa or as Chandana referred to it - the Sacred Quandrangle. According to the sign, the area contains buildings that either housed the tooth relic of Buddha or else were dedicated to worshipping the relic. Whatever the reality is, this area is considered to be the religious heart and soul of Polonnaruwa as it contains the oldest and most sacred buildings in the city.

I read somewhere that there are 12 buildings in the Dalada Maluwa but to me, only 4 are really obvious. The rest are either really small or have truly been reduced to ruins.

One of those 4 buildings is the Vatadage....the circular building that I had seen countless photo images of!

As described in Wikipedia:
"Vatadage (Sinhala: වටදාගේš) is a type of Buddhist structure found in Sri Lanka. It also known as dage, thupagara, and cetiyagara. Although it may have had some Indian influence, it is a structure that is more or less unique to ancient Sri Lankan architecture. Vatadages were built around small stupas for their protection, which often enshrined a relic or were built on hallowed ground. Circular in shape, they were commonly built of stone and brick and adorned with elaborate stone carvings. Vatadages may have also had a wooden roof, supported by a number of stone columns arranged in several concentric rows.
Only ten vatadages now remain in Sri Lanka. The builders of many of these monuments are unknown, as are their time of creation. The oldest such construction is believed to be the one surrounding the Thuparama stupa. The best example of a vatadage is generally believed to be the one at Polonnaruwa. Along with it, the vatadages at Medirigiriya, and Tiriyaya remain more or less intact."

Even the step rises and side guards are carved.

A unique feature of the Sinhalese architecture of ancient Sri Lanka is the *andakada pahana*, also known as a moonstone. A moonstone is an elaborately carved semi-circular stone slab, usually placed at the bottom of staircases and entrances. The animals, represented on the moonstone, are elephants, lions and horses. It's the most beautiful *Welcome mat* I've ever seen!

In all my travels, I've never seen a building quite like it, it's a very unusual structure but beautiful. Even the guardstones are gorgeous.

I have to admit that I was completely fascinated by this structure. I must have walked around it at least 3 times to admire it and to take photos....lots of photos!  Same was true of my brother :-)

Located across the path from the Vatadage is the Hatadage. In Polonnaruwa, it was the Hatadage that housed the sacred tooth relic of Buddha.

Three Buddha statues carved out of granite rock are located within a chamber of the shrine. One of the statues can be seen from the entrance to the Hatadage.

My brother went in to take a closer look at the statues.

Another photo op with the bro and again, can't turn your back to the Buddha :-)

Located catty corner from the Vatadage is the Thuparamaya, a building that also was supposedly erected to house the tooth relic. It is often referred to as an image house. I'm not exactly sure what that means.

According to what I read, what's unique about the building is its vaulted roof, semi-cylindrical in shape, constructed entirely out of brick. It is believed that Thuparamaya was built by a minister of King Parakramabahu but there are no records indicating this for certain so who knows. In any event, I could not find entry into the building so I just snapped a couple of photos from the outside and went on my merry way.

While the guys were still wandering about the complex, I took shelter under the shade of the trees. There was a stone bench to sit on and rest my feet. Before you know it, the guys joined me. It was getting oppressively hot and humid and what little relief the shade provided was welcomed!

On our way out of the Sacred Quadrangle, I caught glimpse of the 4th of the buildings - Sathmahal Prasadaya which is a seven storey tall brick stupa built in pyramidal form. Unfortunately, neither one of us took a photo of it. Go figure. :-(

Back in the van and more views of the lakes built by Nissankamalla. It's actually amazing to realize that these massive bodies of water were man made centuries ago. Today, Sri Lankans living nearby still use the lakes....mainly for recreational purposes though I would suspect that in the more sheltered parts, the waters are also used for daily bathing and doing the laundry.

As we drove around Polonnaruwa to go from one landmark to another, it quickly became evident just how large this ancient city was. We did see some tourists bicycling to get around. I don't know how they were surviving in the heat and humidity.

It was getting to be midday and my stomach was just beginning to growl but we had one more place to go before lunch. Chami parked the van and we all walked down a long path towards the ruins which were located to both our left and right. On the right were the ruins of the royal palace built by King Vijayabahu I, most likely for himself.

In my pre-trip reading, I had read that the palace was the once the grand residence of Parakramabahu I but that was incorrect as the sign on the premises indicated. What remains now are a pretty set of ruins with some walls still standing.

The brick walls are thick and massive and you can still see the holes between the floors. It's believed these would have held wooden beams that would have supported the floors.

Behind the ruins of the palace were the ruins of the former garden, with pools.

Facing the ruins of the Vijayabahu Palace are those of the Audience Hall, the place where the the king would occasionally address his subjects or listen to their complaints.

Brother and Chami standing, facing the palace ruins with the Audience Hall ruins behind them.  Chami's first camera :-)
The ruins consist of a three tiered platform with an impressive staircase on one side.


On the bottom tier of the platform are figures of elephants, on the second lions and on the third, dwarfs.

On the top of the platform, there are four rows of pillars, 12 in each row.

All are decorated with floral designs. 

Moonstone at the bottom of the stairs.

Back in the van and on the road, our ride took us again alongside the lake. Man, it's big!

It was a short drive to our destination. Not sure where we were going when Chami pulled the van over to the side of the road. To our right was the lake and to our left, well, there was nothing or so it seemed.

We followed Chandana and crossed the road to our left. Up a short flight of stairs and we found ourselves in front of a teeny, weeny store. Out front, under the protective shade of the roof, was a small table with four chairs and a small bench. There were no other patrons in the place so it wouldn't have taken a rocket scientist to figure out that this was where we were going to be having our lunch and the table was our spot.

A young woman appeared, with a toddler on her hip. Chandana introduced her to us by telling us that she used to work for him.....that is until she got pregnant and had her baby. Now, she helps to run the store which belongs to her family.

Our meal of rice and curry soon came to the table. The rice was fried with bits of Maldive fish in it and if I must say so, very tasty. Whoever cooked it knew exactly how to fry rice. Glasses of freshly blended papaya juice completed the meal. With no apologies to anyone, I ate like a pig.

Dessert was baby jackfruit which I had never had but will glad die for to get another helping. The flesh was tender and super sweet.

From our table, we had a view over the lake. It was a hazy summer's day and I could swear you could see the humidity just hanging over the water. There were a few locals sitting inside a van, doors open, just chatting away. Chandana said they were there to picnic and perhaps they were but it seemed odd to be sitting, crammed like sardines inside a tin can, on such a hot day. There were a few brave souls who did venture towards the water but from my vantage point, I couldn't see whether or not they actually made it into the water.

My belly was full. I was ready for a nap. Actually, I was ready to call it a day and mercifully, our next stop was the hotel in Dambulla. Yay!

We backtracked towards the town. I recognized the landmarks - Bentota Bake House and the wholesale veggie market. Although we were staying back in Dambulla, Chandana decided to put us up at another hotel for the night. If we liked it, we would be back for a second night; if not, we would return to the Hotel Rhini Village.

Chami parked the van in the hotel's lot. As I got out, I found myself staring at a very non-descript two story tall steel and glass building with large windows. It didn't look like anyone was there. Turns out that wasn't where we were staying as we followed Chandana to a simple covered, concrete patio with a bunch of tables and chairs. At the back there was a bar and hanging on the wall above the bar was a TV. I was standing in the the hotel's dining room. I took a seat at a table and we waited for Chandana to get us our room key. He soon appeared with the bell boy in tow. I had more hands reaching to roll my suitcase for me than I had handles so I gladly removed my fingers from the hold and let the bellboy at it.

Down a garden path we went, passed a small swimming pool that looked very inviting. There was a Caucasian couple relaxing in the water. We were definitely coming back!

We then entered into a U shaped complex lined with single story, single room duplex bungalows. We got to the end and the bellboy opened up the door to the room. Super spartan. No window just a bed with a mosquito net. Bathroom was clean. I had the bellboy turn on the air conditioner. Had to make sure that worked before I would give the green light on the room. The air conditioners are installed high up on the wall and you need a remote control to operate it. The bellboy clicked on the power button, on the remote control, and nothing happened. Not a good sign. He repeated a couple of times with no luck. We all started to stare up at the unit and it was the bellboy who noticed that the plug seemed loose. I won't say how he clamored up to reach the plug but he did and when he jiggled it, the wires came completely loose. NOT A GOOD SIGN! Although he was going to continue to try and make the unit work, I was concerned that he would risk getting electrocuted even if he touched the live wire by accident. So, I went outside, explained the situation to Chandana and asked him to get us another room.

 While we waited for the bellboy to return with a key to another room, my sharp eyed brother noticed a cashew tree hanging over the roof of the bungalow. Fruits had dropped to the ground and we picked up a few to take a closer look at them. The fruits weren't the best so Chami decided to climb up the tree and pluck a few specimens for us. The man is a monkey in human form. He clamored up and down the tree in a matter of seconds!

By the time we were done ogling the fruit, the bellboy was back with the key. He opened up the door to the second room. It was far more spacious than the first, with 3 separate beds instead of one, the bathroom was clean and most importantly, the air conditioner worked like a champ!

We dumped our luggage, changed into our swimsuits and headed for the pool. The Caucasian couple that had been there earlier had left so the pool was empty. This one was not quite as nice as the one yesterday, lot more leaf litter floating in the water, but it did the trick of cooling us off. Both Chandana and Chami soon joined us and chatter filled the air. We were really starting to bond with the two of them and very quickly becoming a traveling family. I like that.

The sun was slowly beginning to drop over the horizon, signalling the end of day. We had been in the pool for quite some time and my fingers had long gotten crinkled. It was time to head out. Before we left the pool area, we arranged with Chandana to meet up at 7:30p for dinner.

Back in the room, it was a quick shower to wash off the chlorine. There was nothing to do in the room so well before 7:30p, we wandered out to explore the hotel's grounds. The place is small, really small so no much exploration to do. Instead, we plopped ourselves down on some benches located in the garden next to the dining room. Temperature wise, it was comfortable - always that way after the sun sets. Would have been perfect if not for the fact that it's this time of day that the mosquitoes venture out in search of humans like me to nibble on. It started with one swat aimed at an itchy spot on my leg. I don't think there was a mosquito attached to that spot anymore but my reaction was to still swat at it. In a matter of minutes, I felt like I was having to swat every patch of skin on my legs. Argh!!! I hate mosquitoes!! To save myself, I decided to just walk around rather than sitting still in one spot. Made conversation with my brother a little difficult so I ended up shuffling back and forth in front of the bench he was sitting on. For some insane reason, the mozzies don't go after him. I guess I have *sweeter* blood :-)

The same Caucasian couple, who had been in the pool, we already sitting at a table in the dining room. We soon took up a table near to theirs. Chandana ordered our food for us and as we waited for it to arrive, he told us about the itinerary for tomorrow. We would be going to Sigiriya. I'm very much looking forward to that. He had to make a trip back to Colombo to greet an arriving tour group so he would not be going with us. Instead, Chami would take us to breakfast and then to Sigiriya where we would meet up with a local guide who would take us through the complex. Sounds like a good plan.

We were sitting earshot distance from the Caucasian couple and as they heard us talking about Sigiriya, the woman interjected into our conversation. From the moment she spoke, I knew she was from the UK. She told us that they had just been there today and that the bees had attacked them. Bees?? What bees? Apparently, there are bees in Sigiriya that attack the tourists and so to protect yourself, you need to don a beekeeper's suit. What?? At first I thought they were making up a story but Chandana provided confirmation. The woman told us that they had been stung on the head. What?? Getting stung by bees while touring a UNESCO World Heritage site?? I had never heard anything so crazy in my entire life! I guess we'll see tomorrow. I asked her about the walk up the boulder itself. Was it strenuous? She said not but to make sure we had on good shoes. Luckily, both of us came prepared on that front.

Dinner was a simple meal. Most memorable dish was the eggplant curry. Super tasty.

After we said goodnight, we headed back to the room and did our usual nightly duties before hitting the sack.

Day 3 in Sri Lanka had unfolded nicely and as always, I was tired. Time to catch some zzz's.  We have another long day ahead of us tomorrow. 

Goodnight from Dambulla!