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Saturday, September 24, 2011


Kandy is the cultural capital and also the second largest city in Sri Lanka. It was the Kandyan Kings who nurtured and propagated Buddhism together with this town. According to a belief, Buddha’s tooth relic was smuggled from India  so as to protect it from the so called evil kings. They believe that the tooth relic brings in prosperity to the land where it is kept.

Tamil is the official language in addition to Sinhala and most of them converse easily in English or Tamil. We were advised in the beginning not to engage in conversation on controversial issues with the natives. There is some amount of mistrust between the Tamils and Sinhalese. At the same time we also found many of the temples being renovated even in lesser Tamil dominant towns.

Sri Lanka has a very good road network through out and reasonably good rail connectivity, of British Era, between major cities. We wanted to feel both the experiences and planned to take up the 3 hour bus journey from Colombo to Kandy, to begin with.

In about an hours time, the bus reached hilly terrain, leaving behind the hot and humid coastal planes. The bus was almost full. A Sri Lankan girl sitting behind me showed the point to get down to reach the elephant orphanage at Pinnawala. It was originally started as an orphanage for elephants and calves that are handicapped by landmine explosion. Now it is one of the biggest centres for Asian Elephants. She also showed us some other points of interest like the rail museum, and the botanical gardens while travelling in the bus. In between an elderly women kept her heavy baggage below the seat of our son, depriving him of the comfortable leg space. Our Son Achu wanted to convey his displeasure but I stared at him to keep quiet.

We had  booked a room in “Sevana Lodge” Kandy well in advance. It had basic facilities like airy rooms, good linen, neat toilets and  hot water shower. The owner with her family is living downstairs. She has converted the 1st 2nd and 3rd floors into a Guest house.

Auto Rickshaws (Tuk Tuks) are available through out though the cheapest and best mode for local travel is the town buses.

Kandiyan people are beautiful. They are not very fair but have good features possibly due to the traditional classical dance form they practice. We got a glimpse of one such dance in Kandy. It resembled a war dance and had combination of excellent reflexes, songs and rhythm of drums.

Kandy has a beautiful lake in the middle, beside the famous Tooth Relic Temple, (Dalada Maligawa), the most sacred of all the Buddhist centres in the world. The ticket costs SL Rs.1000/- for foreigners and SL Rs.500/- for SAARC country citizens. The Structure was partially damaged once by the LTTE bombers killing eight people.

Sri Lankans are big fans of elephants. Elephant tusks (ivory) are displayed in all Buddhist shrines. The annual festival of the tooth temple (resembling the Dussera of Mysore) and the procession involving elephants and Kandiyan Dancers is world famous.

Sri Lankans have better civic sense compared to Indians. The towns and cities are kept clean. Parts of Kandy town, its junctions, roads, old buildings and sub-ways resemble some unknown town in England or Europe. Yes, the influence of the Colonial past. Unpredictable rains added to the charm.

The second major attraction in Kandy, the Royal Botanical Gardens at Peradenia, five miles away from the town, is the home for the rarest species of plants in Sri Lanka. Said to have set up in the 13th century by the Kandiyan Kings, this 150 acres garden is a professionally managed centre displaying botanical wealth of Sri Lanka. The creative and scientific method of display of different species is praiseworthy. There are sections allotted for different species having different variants of same species found in the sub continent. One cannot finish the whole area in a day. We spent half a day in the garden. A must visit place in Kandy.

We also visited a hill town, Nuara Elia, located about 70 miles south of Kandy, famous for the tea plantations described as the Switzerland of Sri Lanka. Europeans preferred to stay here for the cool weather. It is also an escape for the Sri Lankans from the scorching heat of Colombo. Paucity of time and non availability of train ticket forced us to reduce the trip to a one day affair hiring a cab, which costed us SL Rs.4000/-. It was school holiday time in Sri Lanka.  The hill station has under it a vast area of tea gardens and associated processing centres. A very big lake and a beautiful garden are the major attractions.

We found here a temple dedicated to Goddess Sita (Sita Elia). According our Ramayana, this area should have been Ashok Van. The priest showed us the footprints of Hanuman who landed here in search of mother Sita sitting below a Ashok Tree.

It was great to witness the expertise and professionalism with which the PWD people work here. It took only an hour for them to clear the road block caused by a landside in the Nuwara Elia- Kandy Section. JCBs were being put to use to remove the earth and big cutting machines removing the fallen trees.

While returning from Kandy, we opted for Train Journey. Only 3rd class tickets were available, obviously the cheapest. Train journey offers most of the panoramic view of the hill country. Excellent Sri Lankan Tea and some snacks were provided to us in the train. Overall, the two and half hours train journey from Kandy to Colombo was the highlight of our trip.

Authored by: PN Sampath Kumar,
                  Cochin Shipyard, Kochi.
Second of the Series

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Sigiriya (Sri Lanka), A Palace in the Sky

A Guest Post by:
P.N. Sampath Kumar,
                                  Cochin Shipyard, Kochi                                  

I heard of Sigiriya, the historical monument in Srilanka for the first time while surfing internet in 2004 when my colleague in the office entrusted me with the job of planning his vacation in Srilanka. Considering the risk of travelling too much deep into that country due to the turbulent political situation and also the difficulty in climbing the number of steps for his ailing wife prompted him to opt out that option. But those inputs initially saw the seeds of curiosity and longing to visit this place at an opportune time.

Magestic Sigiriya Rock
For SriLankans “Sigiriya” is more than what our Taj Mahal is for us. Derived from the root Sanskrit name Sinha Giri (meaning Lion Mountain) this city used to be the capital of the 5th century King “Kashyapa”(479 – 497 AD). The Story goes that King Kashyapa, the son of Dhatusena (King of Anuradhapura – 50 KM north of Sigiriya) and half brother of Prince Moggallana killed his father fearing that his half brother would be appointed as the next king. He shifted his capital from Anuradhapura to Sigiriya and created this beautiful city in a span of, they say, 7 years. Sigiriya provided an ideal place for a fortress as it was in a difficult-to-approach remote area. His half brother Dhatusena though fled to India fearing for his life, came back stronger after few years and defeated his brother Kashyapa in a war. It is said that Kashyapa committed suicide by cutting himself, not wishing to die at enemy’s hand. The site became a monastic refuge after his death. In the 16th and 17th centuries, it served as an outpost of the Kandyan kingdom but later went into ruin and was rediscovered by a British archaeologist Mr. H.C.P. Bell.
All these in the backdrop of my mind, we included this site in our itinerary during our vacation to Srilanka in mid April 2011. We were staying in Kandy, in central Srilanka. It was a Sunday morning, after breakfast (we came across a couple of south Indian restaurants run by Tamils in Kandy) we proceeded to Sigiriya by a hired cab on a one day trip. Our Driver ‘Tamura’ from ‘Kandy Cabs’ was a nice boy who understood little Tamil and English. As advised by Ms Shakuntala, the owner of the hotel where we stayed, we got sufficient sandwiches, flavoured milk packets and bottled water parcelled for the journey. Itinerary included visit to Dambulla cave temples also en-route.

Kandy has unpredictable weather. We feared rain en-route as it was playing hide and seek for the last two days in Kandy. After a few miles (it is all miles and yards in Srilanka) alongside the Mahaveli River, and later through the reserve forest, we reached Matale town. We took a break there to have a cup of Srilankan tea and later walk around the big goddess temple (Muthu Mari Amman) in the middle of the town. I was told that Mahatma Gandhi has once visited Matale in 1927 and laid foundation stone for one school here.
Mariamman Temple at Matale
We furthered our travel through paddy fields and coconut plantations. The journey through the unknown land was pleasant. Paddy fields are getting ready for sowing. Farmers ploughing the land with buffalows is a usual scene. Air smelled mud. Occasional scenes of houses resembled the Malabar Coast in India. The tiled houses there are the most suitable for the rainy whether. On both sides of the road, there were shops selling bananas, fruits and vegetables and tender coconuts. Tourism is becoming a serious business. It was nice to see big Banyan trees on both sides of the road. Thanks to the conscious effort on the part of the government. Banyan trees are great source of Oxygen and even prevent depletion of ozone layer, they say.

Huge Buddha at Dambulla base
Dambulla Caves - Outside
The reclining Buddha
Dambulla town is also the home for the most impressive cave temple in Asia, dedicated to Lord Buddha. Situated on top of a rock, the five caves are said to have been continuously occupied since it was established in 3rd Century BC. There is a functioning monastery. Dambulla is famous for murals, mostly Buddhist themes. They also run down below a good museum detailing the Jataka and other stories related to the Tooth Relic.
A Chaitya
Though entry for the Sri Lankans is free, foreigners including Indians are charged SL Rs.2200/- (1 SL Re= In Rs.0.45). Despite being funded by UNESCO, and liberally supported by Buddhist countries like Japan and Burma, they charge such huge fee from the foreign tourists. Elsewhere, in Srilanka, SAARC member country citizens are allowed 50% discount on entrance fee. (We availed this discount in Sigiriya and in Kandy Tooth Temple).

Dambulla is a lovers’ paradise too. Roadside shops selling lotus flowers, incense sticks, souvenirs and eatables are aplenty. On a whole, this place somehow did not impress me. This was my first encounter with a Budhist Shrine outside India. They have reduced it to being only a pilgrim centre, run by a group of ritualists catering to the needs of the poor locals.

Sigriya seen from Dambulla rocks
The view around Dambulla rock is enchanting. Sigiriya fortress seen at a distance of 13 miles was inviting us. In the next half an hours travelling through difficult village mud roads (the main road was under repair) we reached Sigiriya. SL Rs.1650/- was the ticket charge per person. We hired a certified guide (paid him SL Rs.500/-). We bought a bottle of cold water and followed our guide Perera. He gave us a very good brief introduction on the city of Sigiriya beginning from King Kashyap till the end.
Main entrance - A moat at the foreground
Old brick work
The city is about three kilometres in length and one kilometre in width surrounded by huge wall and an outer moat filled with water for added protection. Creatures like lizard monitors are in abundance. Their predecessors would have helped the intruders and thieves to climb the fort those days. A notice board cautioned the visitors against loud noise which could disturb the wasps on the big trees. Hornets attack is common here.
The water gardens
Experimenting with a fountain
The well-organised and landscaped gardens around Sigiriya consist of pleasure garden, water gardens, fountain gardens, boulder (stone) gardens and terraced gardens. The water garden, as it is called, particularly consisting of a number of symmetrical ponds and countless fountains on both sides of the main pathway welcomed us to the fort. Some of the fountains in the water gardens are still operable during rainy seasons. Our friend Perera demonstrated it by exhaling air into one of the holes to show water gushing out from the other fountain.
The king's summer palace was also located close to the water gardens, which are amazing constructions for those early ages. The gardens of Sigiriya are said to be the oldest such constructions in Asia and one of the first in the world. Excavations (by UNESCO) are still incomplete and a lot more need to be done.

Ruins of the Palace
The Lion Gate
Halfway through lion gate
The royal palace was built atop the rock while other buildings and gardens were built around the rock. Only the foundations of these structures remain now. At one time, a gigantic brick lion sat at one end of the rock while the climb to the top started with a stairway that led between the lion's paws and into its mouth. Although the lion is no longer there, the paws and the first steps are still visible. The stairway built around the rock leading to the summit is astounding.
The highlight of Sigiriya trip is the wall paintings (frescoes) of 5th Century AD period. From over 500 paintings only around a dozen paintings only are seen. Rest of it would have been destroyed by vandals or Budhist monks who would have thought that these paintings might distract them. These frescoes would remind one of the Ajanta cave paintings in India. Some believe the women depicted in these paintings to be ‘apsaras’. On a closer look, one can easily make out that these women were from different races. These beautiful women resembled, Indian, Chinese and even African faces. The quality and the bright colours speak volumes about the artists of bygone era and the techniques they used.

Graffitti on the mirror wall
A mirror wall beside the main stairway to the rock is another wonder. It is coated with a mirror-smooth glaze and continues to shine despite being exposed to rain, sun and winds for centuries. The graffiti on the wall is believed to have been written between the 6th and 14th centuries by the many visitors who were delighted by the splendor of the rock.
Pool at the summit
King's Assembly area
A throne at the summit beside the pool
At the summit an archaeology enthusiast can spend hours looking at astonishing features of such an architectural wonder. The remnants of the swimming-pool, pools providing drinking water and pipes leading off from them are still visible. Meeting places, stone seats, courts and sentry posts are nearby.
View from the summit
Farm Lands
We stood there admiring the surroundings, looking at the dense forest on the one side which would have been hunting place for the kings in search of wild elephants to be used in wars and the far reaching fertile paddy fields on the other side which provided them abundant wealth of grains. Somewhere beyond those fields in the north is Anuradhapura, King Kashyap’s birth place. Towards East, 80 miles away is the famous Trincomalee, one of the most beautiful harbours in the world. And in the south-west about 100 miles away is our temporary base in Srilanka. We had to leave as it was already 5 pm in the evening. Sayonara Sigiriya ....

Friday, September 2, 2011

Conch Shells : Fossils

Several years ago, I was told by one of my friends that he has inherited a solid (stone like) Conch Shell and that he is keen to let me have a look. Later on When I visited his place, he showed me his antique possessions over a cup of tea. Among other things, the solid Conch Shell was also present. I examined it and realized  that it was a million year old real fossilized Conch Shell. My friend was too happy to learn about it.  He had, however, no clue as to how it was sourced.

Once, when I was travelling in Shahpura area of Mandla District in Madhya Pradesh (India), I was informed that plant and tree fossils are scattered over a very wide area. Now it falls in Dindori District and has been protected as part of the National Fossil Park. The area forms a part of the great Vindhya/Satpura Mountain Ranges which divide India into North and South.

In an another occasion I was  traversing  the same terrain accompanied by a youth from that area. I questioned him if fossils of other living beings are also obtainable thereabout. He got enthused and offered  to take me on a hillock which according to him, had lot of things in store. We parked the vehicle at a convenient place and proceeded to scale the hillock known as “Karpa”. Karpa is also the name of the small town nearby. On the way and particularly on the summit, I was wonderstruck to find many boulders wherein fossilized Conch Shells were embedded. The rocks were fragile enough to be broken to take out the shells they encompassed. It was my GK (though poor) which suggested that the boulder rocks could have been formed  by the lava emitted during some volcanic eruption, millions of years ago. There could have been the Sea or a lake over there and the volcanic eruption created the hillock and brought up the Sea Shells which got deposited on the top of the hill. I collected few of them for my self and some more to serve as give a ways. I also brought along with me a piece of rock wherein the shell was in an embedded form.

According to the Hindu Mythology, when the Vindhya ranges started moving up (gaining height) it was feared that this could cause hindrance for the Sun (God) to move to the South. The assembly of Gods decided to entrust the problem to a Seer (Rishi) named Agastya. Agastya in turn accompanied by his family and disciples went up to the Vindhya Mountain and requested it to scale down its height to provide a passage to the South for his entourage. The mountain, in veneration, bowed down and assured to remain subdued till the return of the Seer from his journey to the South. However, the Seer was not to return and the mountain is keeping its promise.

While I was in service, these fossils served a wonderful purpose. I used to wrap them in a silver foil and present them to high dignitaries duly gift packed with a request to keep it in their prayer rooms. It was being emphasised to them that these fossilized shells will give them peace whenever they are troubled. They used to accept the gift  with great reverence, as Conch Shells, in Hindu faith are objects of that kind.
The story will begin again when somebody inherits them.