Culture and Politics


Sign on the outer moat of the rock fortress at Sigiriya

As we have worked our way from Kandy to Dambulla to Sigiriya to Anaradhapura, we have been immersing ourselves in ancient Sri Lankan/Buddhist history. Who knew the Sri Lankans had worked out complex hydraulic systems long before the birth of Christ? And that there are more bits of the Buddha interred in dagobas and under temples than you could count?

Our first stop on the bus was at Dambulla where we climbed to the huge rock caves above the town which house an incredible collection of old Buddha images large and small. The Sri Lankan Buddhas don’t smile as beatifically as the Burmese ones, but they are peaceable looking fellows none the less. The caves date from the 7th century and are rather well preserved considering that. Every inch of ceiling and wall space is intricately painted and the caves crowded with statues of the various acolytes of Buddha surrounding the images. We had a pleasant hotel there with a pool which was lovely after two hot days of climbing.

We took a day trip by tuk tuk from there to visit the massive rock fortress of Sigiriya, a highlight so far. It was two hours of climbing steps to reach the summit where the king constructed his palace, on the very top of an enormous boulder. Imagine the skill it took to provide his bathing pools and pleasure domes up there with a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. Quite the impregnable space particularly considering the crocodiles. One of the main events there is a wall of quite well preserved frescoes of apsaras (nymphs) depicted only from the waist up, but very detailed with jewellery and other accoutrements. To reach them you climb up an endless rusty metal stairway attached to the rock face. The early archaeologists (1895) are shown in pictures sitting on bamboo platforms suspended by ropes from the rock face. A head for heights was a requirement in the job description. Beside the wall of apsaras is a polished rock bearing ancient Sinhalese writing. These are actually early graffiti in which their writers (or inscribers as they are carved into the rock) comment poetically on the effect of viewing the lovely apsaras. Fortunately Sri Lanka has 3 official languages – Sinhalese, Tamil, and English so they provide signs in all 3 at the monuments.

On from there we went by bus to Anuradhapura, another impossibly old conglomeration of ruins which was the ancient capital of Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese majority are quite keen on preserving it, so it is surrounded by construction zones. It is a UNESCO site and has been since 1985 but it is so sprawling and wide spread that it has been impossible to police the ticketing I think, so they seem to be constructing a huge pavilion which will be the new entrance. How that will work I am not sure, as the ruins are scattered around ordinary housing and shops etc all within the site. Our tuk tuk driver pointed out his own house as we went by. We hired him to take us all around the site for 5 hours as it is impossibly spread. It is not at all spectacular like Bagan in Burma or Angkor Wat, despite its history, but there are some interesting features to its sites, like the myriad of huge ablution pools, all fed by a complex system of water ways, and the enormous stone trough-like feeding stations for the thousands of monks who lived here — imagine a trough where 200 cattle could feed at once. The faithful brought pots of cooked rice to contribute to the monks and poured the contributions into the communal trough. They must have used shovels to reach what was in the bottom, and how they cleaned them out was not made clear. Many sites within the park are in constant use as devotional sites, including the ancient bhodi tree which is (so they say) the result of a cutting from the very tree in India where Buddha found enlightenment.

The next day we went about 15 kilometres away to a site called Minhitale which we loved despite the 1850 steps. This is the place where the envoy from the king Ashoka in India who was sent to convert the Sri Lankans to Buddhism met the king of Sri Lanka, and by asking him the silliest riddle you’ve ever heard of, converted him on the spot. The king erected a dagoba (those dome shaped stupas you will see in the pictures) on the place and interred a piece of Buddha’s collar bone and a hair…See what I mean about the poor man’s remains being dispersed all over the place. At any rate it was a tranquil and peaceful place, scarcely any tourists, just a few Sri Lankas doing their pujas, and at the very top (reached by a series of treacherous footholds carved into sheer rock, fortunately there was a railing) we could see all the way back to the dagobas of Anaradhapura and a 360 degree view of the gorgeous green countryside.

So enough about history, you know me, I am really just as interested in finding out what people today think and how they live. I am not sure if it is just that we are very comfortable in Asia, and I think that could be part of it, but we feel this is a wonderfully welcoming and relatively easy place to travel in. The people are so friendly, always smiling and greeting us on the street, and not in that naive way of some places we’ve visited where they stare and stare because we are so weird to them. These people are well educated and seemingly surprisingly prosperous considering what the last 30 years have been like for them. Remember though that we have not yet been to the east or the north where the worst fighting took place and where the Tamil population is concentrated.

From what I can gather, it seems that the root of the problem is similar to what happened in Malaysia. Just as the British in Malaysia promoted the Chinese as they were very good at bureaucracy and very able students, the same thing happened with the Tamils here. Though only 1/3 of the population (less now) they held a high proportion of government posts, and through the merit system, gained a large number of university spots. Just as happened with the Chinese in Malaysia, the Sinhalese majority decided to reverse that, and with a stroke of a pen, over a one month period declared Sinhalese as the only language to be used in government and imposed quotas for Tamils at university.

There are apparently three distinct groups of Tamils here, all originally Indian. The high class Tamils, who speak a slightly higher type of Tamil, have been here for hundreds of years, and ran a lot of businesses as well as holding positions in higher education and the government. The Muslim Tamils came from all over as traders 200 or more years ago. There are quite a few in Kandy, including the owner of our guesthouse there. They were mainly merchants doing export and import so also well to do. The last group were the tea pickers imported by the British in the 19th c and chosen from the lowest castes in India to be labourers. According to Sue, the German wife of our host in Kandy, her staff would refuse to allow workers from that caste to use cups and plates when she employed them as day labourers at the guesthouse, as recently as 15 years ago. Sue was a great source of information.

What the country has endured during the civil war and its various lesser periods of unrest has been truly terrible and has resulted in the Tamil diaspora, many of whom landed in Toronto. Both sides refuse to disclose their casualties and probably never will as terrible atrocities were visited upon the innocent bystanders as well as the combatants. In the newspaper Canada’s foreign minister was quoted as urging the Sri Lankan government to follow the recommendation of the United Nations and allow proper inspection and documenting of the so called “refugee” actually internment, camps in the north where many non combatants including women and children are known to be confined. Sue was on the periphery of two bomb blasts and is lucky to have survived. She and her husband, Faesz never traveled even as far as Colombo together for fear they would both be killed and leave their 2 sons orphans. Everyone has lived under that sort of cloud, as bombs have gone off in the most unlikely of places, including the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy and the main temple area here in Anaradhapura.

The country seems to be determined to get back on track, with road repairs and construction going on everywhere. Stability in government (though seemingly pretty much at Tamil expense) has resulted in a huge increase in taxes and the price of everything has doubled they say. Gas is more than in Canada by the way. One result is that the prices in our guide books (the trusty Rough Guide as usual by far the better of the two) are at least doubled since both books were researched in January 2009 before the war was officially ended. Throngs of disgruntled tourists rock up at the guesthouses and think they are being ripped off because the price is not what it says in “the book.” Faesz and Sue were driven mad by it. He personally cooked the most amazing 12 course Sri Lankan curry dinner every night — I am sure the best food we will ever eat in SL — and said that his monthly vegetable price had more than doubled in the last year. So what looks like paradise is never quite that.

Well I was intending to gas on about the very interesting saris they wear here but that can wait for another day. We are off to Trincomalee on the early morning bus tomorrow. It is on the east coast and the beaches north of there are reputed to be outstanding. There is nothing much in the guide books about it as the fighting was really fierce there when their research was being done, but our guesthouse in Negombo has a place up there so we are headed for that. May not be internet, it sounds a bit isolated so will send another blog next week when we reach Kandy again. Best regards, your elderly but willing travelers.

Sent from my iPad


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