After decades of intense civil war and a devastating tsunami, peace has finally returned to Sri Lanka, an island of millennia-old temples and timeless ruins.
By: Candace Rose Rardon | Originally published in WildJunket Magazine April/May 2012
H e isn’t blinking. My eyes stay fixed in this impossible staring contest, willing the figure in front of me to defy the odds and give me a wink.
But then again, at over 2,000 years old, this guy probably has had a little practice.
With his perfect golden skin and impeccable posture, he’s one of 153 Buddha statues lining the walls of the cave temples in Dambulla, Sri Lanka. Built into a 160-meter rock, the Golden Temple of Dambulla began as a Buddhist monastery in the 3rd century BC – a truly unfathomable amount since my own country is barely 400 years old.
Although they differ in size and shape, each cave temple is a marvel of shrines, boldly-painted murals, and Buddhas in a variety of poses: sitting, standing and even reclining – one such statue in the first temple measures 14 meters long. Inside, the air is fragrant with the smell of incense, still sweet from the pink and white lotus blossoms brought by pilgrims. As I move from cave to cave, rain begins to fall outside. The gentle trickle against the rock only adds to the peaceful atmosphere surrounding the site.
Outside the temples, I pause for a moment at the edge of a cliff – the landscape parting like stage curtains to reveal the world below. Only the giant crown of the golden Buddha’s head is visible amidst the trees. I spot the road I’d just traveled on from Kandy, now a thin black ribbon winding in and out of the forest. The expansive flatlands are ringed by dark, jagged hills and just in the distance, the unmistakable mound of Sigiriya Rock.
“You want tea?” It’s one of the guides I’d spotted walking around the complex earlier, a man named Pramatissa. He’s sitting beneath a tree with a few other guides and inviting me to join them.
I soon learn one of the men isn’t a guide but has come from the town below. Every day twice a day, Anantu makes the trek up the hill bearing samosas, egg patties and a thermos of black tea, providing breakfast and lunch for the guides.
“Anantu is from Trincomalee,” Pramatissa tells me. “He moved here twenty years ago because of the war.” Located on the northeast coast of the country, Trinco (it’s often shortened), was severely affected by the civil war and the 2004 tsunami.
I head back down the hill with a belly full of two cups of warm tea and I take this mention of the war as a sign that I’m on the right path. As fascinated as I am by Sri Lanka’s millennia of history, it is the chance to learn about the country’s more recent past that intrigues me most.
Sri Lanka lies just 20 miles south of India in the Indian Ocean – a mere dollop of an island, yet it is steeped in a history far greater than its geographical size.
Ceylon’s Ancient Past
Sri Lanka lies just 20 miles south of India in the Indian Ocean – a mere dollop of an island, yet it is steeped in a history far greater than its geographical size. The first settlers are said to have arrived in the 5th century B.C, and throughout time, the country has been known as Taprobane by the Greeks, Serendib by the Arabs (where we get the word ‘serendipity’) and as Ceylon during British rule – that itself an iteration of the Portuguese Ceilão. All these names reflect the country’s rich, cultural heritage and the important role it has played in the region over the last few centuries.
Just as Sri Lanka gained independence from the British in 1948, the country began to turn against itself. Years of ethnic tension simmering below the surface finally came to a boil. From 1983 to 2009, a civil war raged between the Sinhalese government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as the latter group battled for an independent Tamil state. Peace talks and ceasefires were attempted several times throughout the two decades of conflict, but it wasn’t until May of 2009 that the Tamil Tigers finally agreed to lay down their arms.
This being my first visit to a post-conflict zone, I’ve arrived with a desire to see how such a status affects the country; both what remains of the war and how the nation is re-building. But before I get to Trinco, I have more ground to cover – ground even more ancient than Dambulla. It’s as though I have to learn about Sri Lanka’s past before I can understand its present.
This is a preview of the 10-page feature on WildJunket Magazine. If you enjoyed this preview, you can read the full article in WildJunket Magazine April/May 2012.