Into the Sacred Heart of Buddhism

Anuradhapura, 25-26 August

It’s just over 100km on the bus from Trincomalee to Anuradhapura, and it marks the start of our journey back to Negombo international airport on the west coast, where we’ll be catching our flight to India at the end of the month.

The Sacred City of Anuradhapura, a world heritage site, is famous for its well-preserved ruins of an ancient Sinhala civilization. It is considered sacred to Buddhists and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. The ancient city covers an area of about 40 square km, so we plan to visit some of its major sites by bicycle the next day. For now all we need to do is procure food after skipping breakfast earlier in the day.

We’re staying a bit away from the town, and not wanting to push my luck any further with Lauren today since I have already made us climb over a barbwire fence en route to the hotel, we’re looking for a restaurant on the nearby main road. The first one we find sports a promising sign that reads “beer garden and Chinese restaurant”. It’s eerily quiet when we sit down on plastic chairs in the middle of a gravel stone clearing, barren but for a gigantic, disused water feature in the corner, which tells us this must be the beer garden (of the type where dreams go to die). A man appears from the nearby building, clearly shocked to see visitors. After some hesitation he serves one kind of beer, Carlsberg. When we ask about food, he simply replies: Food?? You want rice? Or noodles? We’re too stumped to respond right away, and he comes back with a menu, which contains about 800 options, but only two are available, you got it, rice and noodles. We’re happy to accept a Carlsberg, but the whole place is a bit too odd to hazard a meal here. Naturally, the next restaurant along is even worse, it’s the filthiest looking all-you-can-eat buffet on the planet. At this point I’m hungry enough to start filling up a plate with curry and flies, but for Lauren to talk some sense into me, bless her heart. Being the brains of the operation, she instead finds a Pizza Hut that delivers not bad pizzas.

The next morning we set out by bike in good spirit. The steering wheel comes with a phone slot for hands free navigation and I have done my homework presetting the sights we’ll want to visit. We grab a quick lunch from a bakery and off we pedal to the ancient town.

Dome-shaped structures called Stupas are one of the hallmarks of Sri Lankan Buddhism and pop up everywhere on the island, and the ones in the Sacred City are the most impressive.

Jetavanaramaya was the tallest Stupa in the ancient world standing at 400ft, and was built during the 3rd century. It is believed that part of Buddha’s belt is enshrined here.

Ruwanwelisaya is said to contain the largest of Buddha relics anywhere in the world (shame you can’t go inside, no matter how much Lauren searches for a secret door). This one was built around 140 B.C. The kings architects designed the dome to resemble a bubble of milk (though looking at a stupa’s general shape perhaps the female form may have been of some inspiration too?)

Finally we trace back the Buddha’s Tooth relic to its original custodian, the Abhayagiri Stupa, which does beg the question how the tooth was extracted from the enclosed dome to end up in Kandy. Again, no secret doors found.

Other major sights we visit include the Bodhi tree, grown from a sapling of the very tree beneath which Buddha found enlightenment in India and the oldest planted tree in the world. Its grandeur is measured more by the size of the crowd than the tree itself.

The massive Elephant Pond was used as a bath for the 5,000 priests of the Abhayagiri Monastery. Water is supplied by a tank through underground canals which to this day are still in working order. The Twin Ponds are a smaller, but more intricately designed version of ancient Sinhalese pool.

The ancient town covers a huge area and new excavations are still in progress. Perhaps the best part of our visit is where we go out and explore the ruins of lesser buildings, overgrown by plants and a favourite hangout spot for stray dogs and different kinds of monkeys.

We’ve had a great time in Anuradhapura, we’ve not fell of our bikes once (maybe once), and our visit to Sri Lanka is beginning to draw to a close. There’s just one final stop at Wilpattu National Park where we hope to see Leopards and Sloth Bears on safari!


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