A monumental rock formation rises almost straight up from the heart of Sri Lanka. It’s known as Lion Rock — Sigiriya. Archeologists think humans have been living on and around it for more than 10,000 years, and many believe that in the late 400s (AD), a king named Kasyapa built a garden and palace at the summit after overthrowing and murdering his father. No buildings remain, but the ruins and fortifications are mind-boggling, considering the height and verticality of the site.One small area on top of the formation. How DID the workers get all those bricks up the sheer walls?
Steve and I climbed Sigiriya toward the end of our stay in Sri Lanka, and we spent some time gazing out at the views in every direction. “What strikes me,” Steve commented, “is that the guy who built this had to have been one of the greatest assholes in history.”
I knew he wasn’t thinking of the patricide, but rather the staggering expense and unimaginable suffering it must have cost — all to satisfy this one paranoiac’s miserable thirst for glory and security. We stood there, despising Kasyapa for a moment. Then we went back to enjoying our time up so high.
Visiting Sigiriya was one of the best things we did in Sri Lanka (the island south of India formerly known as Ceylon). The climb up to the top — around 1200 steps — wasn’t as hard as I’d feared. All those stairs were fenced so well the ascent never felt too frightening.We entered the grounds shortly after 7:30 am, when the day was still cool, and the hordes of Chinese tourists had not yet arrived. About halfway up, we shook our heads in wonder at the frescoes painted in one long gallery in the sheer rock face. A parade of women with Barbie bodies — tiny waists and beautiful naked breasts — decorate the wall. (Scholars suppose them to be either heavenly nymphs or a depiction of Kasyapa’s concubines.) A little further on, we passed graffiti dating back to the 6th to 14th centuries. Awestruck visitors scratched the comments, mostly noting how hot the ladies were.Guards stopped us from taking any pictures of the frescoes, but the lion’s paws carved into a plateau near the top are a popular photo op.
Although climbing Sigiriya ranked among our favorite activities in Sri Lanka, it was one of several. I’ve already written about our time in Colombo and Galle Fort and the idyllic southern coast.One of the views from Galle Fort.
After our one-night stay on the beach, we traveled north and stopped along the way at one of the country’s national parks where, to our amazement, we had one of the best game drives of our lives. We counted more than 25 elephants during the two hours our Jeep bounced over the park’s dirt paths. Not just elephants, but crocodiles, wild buffalo and boar, monitor lizards, monkeys, snakes, other mammals, and a host of birds live in the park.Next we traveled to the cool, misty highlands; spent a morning hiking and loving the green-drenched vistas at every turn.Old trains that run over single tracks built by the British colonialists in the early 1800s are a part of the tea-country landscape.
We took a train from Ella through the emerald tea plantations……where Steve proved remarkably adept at picking tea leaves…
and we wound up in the city of Kandy. At a temple complex there, Buddhists revere a fragment of one of the Buddha’s teeth.It’s never shown to the public, but the ardor of the pilgrims is evident.
The final phase of our Sri Lankan journey took us to remnants of the ancient world, not just Sigiriya but also… …the Royal Rock Temple complex in Dambulla, filled with about 150 statues of the Buddha that followers began creating about 2000 years ago.Painted designs and images make it look like the cave ceilings are covered with exquisite Oriental rugs.
The vast spiritual complex at Anuradhapura was founded in the 4th century BC and contains three of the biggest monuments ever built in the ancient world, inferior only to the pyramids at Giza.This one was made from more than 90 million bricks and stood at the center of a monastery complex that once housed 3000 monks.
And nearby grows one of the oldest and most venerated trees in the world — a bodhi tree believed to have been grown from a cutting of the original one in Bodhgaya, India under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment.
We had some bad moments. A couple of dismal hotels depressed us. We inched and lurched through too many hours of awful traffic. We had a heartbreaking experience with the first of two driver/guides we hired. But I had to fight back tears when we said goodbye to the second of the two; our time together was so richly meaningful.
Besides sharing his encyclopedic knowledge of Sri Lanka with us, Omar also took us to the house where he was born and some of his extended family lives today. We stopped at his own home too; chatted with his wife and sister-in-law, met a son and daughter, admired his two-year-old grandson.For most of his life, Omar’s been a driver — of cars and trucks and tuk-tuks — but he also has worked for a number of NGOs, including a journalism team that did some fine reporting toward the end of Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war. Belying his sweet, even humble, demeanor, he seemed resourceful and astute to us. He didn’t hide his voracious appetite for breaking news. We talked a lot about the political uproar that’s been roiling Sri Lanka since late October, when the current president shocked everyone by firing the prime minister and replacing him with the strong man who ended the war (in 2009) but at the cost of abysmal human-rights abuses.
Since the war, Sri Lanka has become a superstar travel destination, but this turn of events was scary. It raised the specter of instability and even violence breaking out again. While Steve and I were tromping around India, tourist bookings all over Sri Lanka were evaporating. The Sri Lankan rupee fell even further than it did earlier in the year — good for us but bad for the Sri Lankans. We sensed gloom, even a touch of desperation, in the almost-empty hotels and restaurants.We saw this demonstration near the Parliament building in Colombo. Omar sounded optimistic; he said he thought the fracas would turn out to be just a rat’s nest of political scheming and ego, rather than a tinder pile that could explode into a conflict in which a lot of people would die. He knows a lot more about Sri Lanka than me; I hope he’s right. The country is packed with more beautiful and interesting areas than other places many times its size. But when thuggish narcissists play games, they can cause a lot of pain for the common folk.Newspapers still appear to be thriving, and people were scanning them anxiously.