The ancient cities of Sri Lanka

By Ian Lloyd Neubauer

Sri Lanka, Cultural Triangle, Sigiriya, Unesco World Heritage

The rock in the triangle

Sri Lanka may be known for palm-fringed beaches, but it also houses a treasure trove of archaeological sites, the most magnificent of which lies in the geographical heart of the country – an area known as the Cultural Triangle. The region is home to no fewer than five Unesco World Heritage sites, including the soaring rock fortress of Sigiriya (pictured), built in the late 5th Century.

The Sri Lankan government launched the Cultural Triangle Project in 1982 to restore, conserve and promote Sigiriya and the area’s other ruins, but the project ground to a halt– and tourism fizzled — less than a year later when a bloody civil war erupted. In 2009, the Sri Lankan military defeated the Tamil insurgency and, as a result, tourism has been growing – visitors to Sri Lanka increased 25% in the last year alone. With the high season kicking off in December, visitors will likely be flocking to the Cultural Triangle – and Sigiriya, in particular. “They all come here because of that rock,” said Chaminda Jayasekara, resident naturalist at Jetwing Vil Uyana, one of dozens of hotels that have sprung up in the region. “It’s the main attraction in the triangle and probably all of Sri Lanka.” (Ian Lloyd Neubauer)

Sigiriya, frescoes, King Kasyapa, Sri Lanka, Unesco World Heritage site

The frescos of Sigiriya

According to legend, King Kasyapa built the palace of Sigiriya on a 200m-high natural stone column for defensive purposes – and he had reason to worry. In the year 477, he fled the capital of Anuradhapura after murdering his father, King Dhatusena. He feared his brother, Mogallana, would avenge the killing, and nearly 20 years later, Mogallana did just that, returning with an army from self-imposed exile in India and capturing Sigiriya. Mogallana gained not only the fortress but also stunning frescos commissioned by Kasyapa. Thought to be portraits of the king’s favourite consorts, the frescos differ from other Anuradhapura-era paintings because of their deep colour tones and fragmented borders. (Ian Lloyd Neubauer)

Sri Lanka, monkeys, macaques, Cultural Triangle, Sigiriya, Unesco

Monkey photo bomb

Sri Lanka is crawling with monkeys. Thousands of them were scampering off the road when I motorbiked to the Cultural Triangle from the capital of Colombo.

I took this photo when a macaque leaped across my path on the long stone concourse that leads to the base of Sigiriya. Macaques are small but can be aggressive; in fact, they’ve been known to relieve tourists of their cameras or bags if left unattended. (Ian Lloyd Neubauer)

Sri Lanka, Sigiriya, Unesco World Heritage

Ancient water gardens

A guide points to the quadrilateral pools at the centre of the oldest surviving gardens in Asia. Built from limestone in the Persian layout known as char-bagh, or four gardens, the pools at Sigiriya are connected to the moat surrounding the lower palace via an underground conduit that works as well today as it did when the pools were built more than 1,500 years ago. (Ian Lloyd Neubauer)

Sri Lanka, Sigiriya, Unesco World Heritage site

Hornets and lion’s paws

In 1890, the commissioner of Archaeological Survey of Ceylon HCP Bell led a team to clear the thick jungle that had taken over Sigiriya during centuries of neglect. The crew performed backbreaking work in blistering heat and relentless wind, and its efforts were bookended every morning and afternoon with a challenging climb and descent. Yet the work paid off: the team discovered an enormous lion’s head, legs and paws chiselled into the southern face of the rock. The head and legs collapsed in the early 20th Century; today, only the paws remain. Visiting them can be tricky: the paws reside under a large colony of hornets’ hives, which can become active in the afternoon during the June to October dry season, prompting authorities to close the site temporarily. Officials have discussed removing the hives, but according to Jayasekara, the hornets would likely build new hives in the same spot. He also said the hornets help preserve the frescos by eating mosquitoes and other insects that would otherwise chip away at the 1,500-year-old paint and plaster. (Ian Lloyd Neubauer)

Sri Lanka, Cultural Triangle, Unesco World Heritage

Behold the kingdom

King of the world – that’s how Kasyapa must have felt standing up here surveying his vast kingdom. Taken near the end of the dry season, this photograph shows the few small puddles that remained inside the cisterns from the previous rainy season. Local guides theorised that during Kasyapa’s time, the cisterns were filled year-round by conduits connected to the garden pools. But how did the ancient Sri Lankans transport the water to the top without pumps? “I feel they had some mysterious way to get the water up there,” said tour guide Arugam Shana of Dream Paradise Vacations. “I am not saying it was magic, but an industry or technology that was lost or forgotten over the centuries.” (Ian Lloyd Neubauer)

Sri Lanka, Polonnaruwa, Unesco World Heritage

The palace walls

About 55km east of Sigiriya is the ancient capital of Polonnaruwa. Built in the 12th Century, it’s the second oldest of Sri Lanka’s kingdoms and one of the country’s best-planned archaeological sites. Set on a sprawling complex north of the modern-day town of Polonnaruwa, it comprises eight major archaeological sites littered with thousands of statues, ramparts, edifies, temples, rotundas, tombs, stupas and artefacts. This photograph shows the royal palace built by King Parakrambahu the Great, the architect of ancient Polonnaruwa. Only three stories remain, but in its heyday the palace stood seven stories high and featured more than 1,000 chambers. The crevices and sockets on the thick brick walls are thought to have held large wooden beams, while the ceiling was covered with terracotta tiles. Archaeologists have found evidence that suggests the palace was destroyed by fire before it was abandoned. (Ian Lloyd Neubauer)

Sri Lanka, Thuparama Gedige, Cultural Triangle, Polonnaruwa, Unesco World Heritage

Tomb raiders

The inner sanctum of Thuparama Gedige temple is pictured here. The temple is found within the Sacred Quadrangle of Polonnaruwa. It’s one of the only temples in Polonnaruwa with its roof intact.

The vast majority of Buddha statues I saw here were decapitated. Some of the heads can be seen at Polonnaruwa Museum, though most made their way to private collections through the global black market for stolen antiquities. (Ian Lloyd Neubauer)

Sri Lanka, Polonnaruwa,

Walking on the moon

At the entrances to many of Polonnaruwa’s edifices, priceless moonstones adorned with intricate carvings of elephants, buffalos, monkeys and lions are used as doormats, with visitors being required to remove their shoes at those that still serve as Buddhist shrines. With or without shoes, the constant pounding of feet will wear away the detail in these moonstones, especially as tourism grows.

Overall, I found Polonnaruwa to be somewhat neglected, with priceless statues lying on the ground and not a trash can in sight. In contrast, Sigiriya was clean and its artefacts were well maintained, with 400 archaeologists working at the site. And while 25% of the grounds around Sigiriya have been excavated, significant discoveries are made every few months. Most recently, a 2,000-year-old clay pot was found close to the moat. (Ian Lloyd Neubauer)

Sri Lanka, Polonnaruwa, Unesco World Heritage

Photographers on tour

Most of the visitors to Polonnaruwa are Sri Lankan. On the day I was there, I saw no more than 50 foreigners, including a group of Chinese travellers on a two-week photography tour of the country. (Ian Lloyd Neubauer)

Sri Lanka, Cultural Triangle, Ronkot Vihara, Unesco World Heritage

Dome of the rock

Built by Parakrambahu’s successor, King Nissankamalla, this colossal stupa called Rankot Vihara soars 55m high. The stupa’s dome is a big mound of dirt covered in brick mantle and plaster. Its shape is peculiar – more egg-shaped than round – and it’s surrounded by small brick shrines. When I visited Rankot Vihara in the mid-morning, I had it all to myself. (Ian Lloyd Neubauer)

Sri Lanka, Gal Vihara, Polonnaruwa, Buddha statues

No selfies allowed

At the very north end of Polonnaruwa is Gal Vihara, featuring four giant Buddha statues carved into a solid granite cliff. It’s the holiest place in the park; visitors must approach barefoot and are prohibited from turning their backs to the statues, so selfies aren’t allowed. This photograph shows the feet of the 14m-long reclining Buddha, one of the largest sculptures in Asia. The left foot is slightly withdrawn, indicating that the Buddha is not sleeping or resting but has attained parinirvana, or nirvana-after-death. The site is also home to a 7m-tall standing Buddha and two other statues of the Buddha in a seated position. The statues were recently covered by scaffolding to protect them from sun damage, which makes photographing them a challenge. (Ian Lloyd Neubauer)

Sri Lanka, Polonnaruwa, Cultural Triangle, Unesco World Heritage

Smiling for the camera

At an archaeological site outside Polonnaruwa’s city gates, Sri Lankan newlyweds in period costume posed for a photo, and were happy to let me steal a snapshot of their special day. With nearly a quarter of the country’s 21 million people aged 15 to 25, weddings are a big business. On the morning I checked out of my hotel in Polonnaruwa, a group of 200 unionised freelance wedding photographers had gathered in the lobby for an annual meeting. When I asked one if the group planned to take time out to photograph the ancient city, he shrugged to indicate he found the ruins blasé. “We see photographs of the old city all the time,” he told me. “It’s my dream to go to Paris and photograph the Eiffel Tower.” (Ian Lloyd Neubauer)

[Via BBC Travel]


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