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Explore the Ancient Temples of Sri Lanka 1

Homage to the Blessed One, the Worthy One, the Highest Self—Enlightened One!

Published: 2014-02-09

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THERE is something suitably humbling about arriving at Anuradhapura - the first Sinhalese capital, founded 2500 years ago - on a bicycle at the end of a long, hot ride through Sri Lanka's central plains.

As I freewheel around the ancient city, from which Sri Lanka was ruled for 1000 years, I'm not merely dwarfed by the physical size of the sprawling metropolis but by the scale of the ambition shown by successive kings in creating it.

If the lavish palaces and mountainous stupas (mound-like hemispherical structures) they built were the grandiose statements of royal intent, the extraordinary knowledge of hydraulics shown by Anuradhapura's planners, in designing the city among reservoirs and irrigation channels, was centuries ahead of its time.

Flowering from the seed of Buddhism, newly arrived from India and built around a cutting from the sacred bo tree, Sri Maha Bodhi, Anuradhapura became one of the most sophisticated cities in the world.

It is with this bo tree, the oldest recorded tree on the planet, and its surrounding temple, that I begin my exploration the next morning.

It is a holy day and as we approach the temple we are hit by a wave of colour and sound. Pilgrims from all over Sri Lanka are here with offerings of flowers, food and incense.

Orange-robed monks move among them, a frail old woman steps forward with a cardboard tray of ceramic pots and a chanting family, holding aloft a 90-day old baby, arrives for the child's all-important blessing.

Everywhere I go in this World Heritage city it is a similar story, ancient ruins resonating with human faith and as relevant to Sri Lankan Buddhists - who make up 70 per cent of the country's 21 million inhabitants - now, as they were when they were built.

The nearby Ruwanveliseya Dagoba for instance, built by King Dutugemunu in the 2nd century BC, is not just one of the oldest stupas on Earth but a gleaming beacon, kept spotlessly white by teams of painters hanging precariously from its dome.

Ruwanveliseya and another stupa, Jethavana, built in the 3rd century AD and once the tallest dagoba on Earth, were considered wonders of the world in their time.

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I reach Anuradhapura near the end of an 11-day cycling odyssey through Sri Lanka that has taken me from its major city Colombo to the southwest coast, up through its hill country and to Kandy, another former capital.

Now, with three days remaining, I have three ancient cities, Sigiriya, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, all World Heritage centres, to take in.

From the first Sinhalese capital we cycle on to its second, Polonnaruwa, one of Asia's greatest cities in the 12th century. We arrive as the sun sets over the giant Sea Of Parakrama reservoir, beside which it is located, passing a Victorian mansion where a young Queen Elizabeth stayed in 1957.

The next morning my guide Siri takes me first to the Archeological Museum on the shores of the lake. It is an excellent place to start, detailing the early influence of the conquering Cholas, a Tamil dynasty from southern India, the story of how much of it was built, in the 12th century, by King Parakramabahu and displaying a scale model of how it looked then.

Later, we cycle between five sets of ruins, from the royal palace group, with its seven-storey centrepiece to the citadel with its dagobas and Hindu kovils (temples), to a northern group, with huge Buddha rock carvings that are among Sri Lanka's finest.

The next day, I'm midway through climbing the 1240 steps to another ancient complex, Sigiriya, which sits atop a 200m-tall rock rearing out of the jungle, when I see a gallery of lustrous frescoes on a sheer rock wall. They depict 21 scantily clad women who come from as far afield as Mongolia and Africa. Their origins are as mysterious as those of the once-splendid complex that adorned the rock's summit.

Sigiriya is steeped in mystery, a once-thriving city abandoned in the 14th century and not rediscovered until 1898, by British archeologist H.C.P. Bell.

Local guides delight in retelling the melodramatic legend of the dysfunctional 5th-century King Kasyapa constructing his palace eyrie.

After reaching the top and looking over the intricately laid-out water gardens below and beyond to the surrounding plains in which the king could have watched his enemies emerging, I'm convinced that Sigiriya was not the work of monks.

May all be happy and well!