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Buddhaland


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Dambulla, Sri Lanka
Friday, 15 February 2019

Before I left Kandy I decided to send a text message to Sisira, the tuk-tuk driver who rescued me after I got off the train at Katugastota because the platform at Mawilmada was too short. He had given me his number in case I needed his services again.

I had my last breakfast at Traveller's Home and said goodbye to incredibly polite Manik - her equally well-mannered husband Mahesh was at work so I bade him farewell him the night before - and waited out the front for Sisira and his ultra-wide tuk-tuk to appear at half past nine.

My train was scheduled to depart Katugastota at 10:41 so there was plenty of time to accept his offer of a quick tour. First, he drove me to the Polgolla Dam, a wide but not very high concrete dam with ten sluices on the Mahaweli River in Kandy's northern suburbs. This dam is used for hydroelectricity, the impounded water is fed by gravity through mostly underground penstocks to another lower river basin to the north at Ukuwela where there is a hydro power station.

I then asked if we could check out the Katugastota railway bridge. I had crossed this bridge on the train on Wednesday. It's as long and as majestic as anything built by John Whitton, Australia's greatest railway engineer of the nineteenth century.

The Katugastota railway bridge on the Matale Line is a long lattice truss bridge with arched braces over the structural gauge connecting the lattice truss on either side at regular intervals, very similar to the old Meadowbank railway bridge or the old Como railway bridge in Sydney. It is a magnificent old bridge still in regular service. Like all railways in Sri Lanka, the bridge does double duty as a footpath and the bridge had many pedestrians on it.

I was standing at the north end of the bridge at the level crossing taking photographs looking down the bridge. I turned around and right behind me was a train sneaking up on me from behind. I got the fright of my life. The crossing gates hadn't descended and the bells hadn't rung and I was not expecting a locomotive silently coasting along towering above me.

I needn't have worried, the train was only going at walking pace, stopped, and then reversed back to Katugastota yard. It was a neat, very European-looking engine, a Class M5C diesel-electric locomotive, hauling several wagons of concrete sleepers, and it was just shunting onto the passing loop at Katugastota to make way for the next down passenger train at 10:41.

Sisira explained that his tuk-tuk wasn't a taxi, strictly speaking, it was actually a private tuk-tuk for personal use. The tuk-tuk served as his famiky car. But he said nothing was really stopping him from hiring his vehicle out. I got the feeling that he was out of work and looking for a second income. He kept asking me to take a longer tour for a bit of extra money. I looked nervously at my watch and said we didn't have time, but he kept pestering me.

I asked Sisira to just take me to Katugastota station, there was only half an hour until the train and the things he wanted to show me were quite far away. I paid him the agreed price of Rs. 1,500 - quite generous for forty-five minutes' tuk-tuk hire; a whole day typically costs five thousand - and then he pleaded for even more. I got the feeling he was a desperate man, and that the thousand rupees I had given him out of gratitude the other day had gotten his hopes up. I tipped him another couple of hundred but he didn't seem satisfied.

I paid my thirty rupee fare, waited at Katugastota, filmed some of the shunting manoeuvres of the train carrying sleepers, and waited for the 10:41 local train to Matale. There weren't many other passengers. I think we were outnumbered by the three station staff. The over-staffing you find in all government workplaces in Sri Lanka is just ridiculous. Three station staff for a very quiet suburban station that gets six trains a day in each direction is self-evidently absurd. Yesterday I went into the administrative office at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic to ask for directions to a particular pavilion. Inside were six public servants at their desks and every single one of them was just reading a newspaper. National park ranger's offices are the same. Maybe it's all a government make-work scheme to reduce the unemployment rate, or maybe strong unions force the government to never retrench staff in any circumstances. I am an active trade unionist and a socialist but I also love efficiency, productivity and the work ethic. When workers are productive, and compensated fairly for any productivity gains they make, and profits shared with workers in the form of increased pay and conditions, everyone benefits. I fail to see how featherbedding government workplaces like this is good for taxpayers, good for government finances, good for economic growth, good for effective service delivery or even good for the mental health of the workers themselves who do nothing but read newspapers all day. Such a job would drive me insane.

The 10:41 down Matale Line train arrived, an M7 hood-unit locomotive hauling four ancient red carriages. I boarded, the train was nearly empty. I said goodbye to Kandy. Yes, the city centre is an unmitigated dump, truly a hell on earth, and the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic and its museums were disappointing. But I did find some redeeming features - the Udawattekelle Forest Sanctuary, pleasant and prosperous outer suburbs, a beautiful old railway bridge, green hills surrounding the city and a really nice but hard-to-get-to guest house up high on a ridge with soothing breezes.

The train rattled through the outer suburbs of Kandy and then through scattered pieces of farmland and small villages. The train then climbed into hilly country covered with tall rainforest. It passed under two giant silver pipes, penstocks that carry water from the Polgolla Dam to the Ukuwela hydroelectric power station, and called at various tiny unstaffed halts and larger stations in small towns.

I arrived at the line's terminus at Matale at about 11:37. I looked at Google Maps, there was a bus station only a few hundred metres north. Excellent!

I exited the station and found myself in a congested, dreary town at the bottom of a long valley. The street the station was on was the usual Sri Lankan melange of racing tuk-tuks, honking buses, shelves full of merchandise extruded from shop doors onto the street, nonchalant street dogs and concrete drains. I later learned that Matale's claim to fame is that it is the geographic centre of Sri Lanka.

After about ten minutes I reached the bus station - or not. It was actually a construction site, it looked like the station was being rebuilt. There were a whole lot of buses parked on the street outside preparing to depart, so I asked the conductors and passers-by where buses to Dambulla leave from but I either got no answer - English is surprisingly poor in Sri Lanka considering the country's lengthy history in the British Commonwealth and its free universal education (on paper, at least) - or conflicting useless answers. The bus to Dambulla leaves from the other side of the street! From the railway station! From the next street west! Yes, yes, I know that the inability of many Sri Lankans to give a straight, accurate answer is a cultural difference and that I should try to be more tolerant and understanding yada yada yada. But that doesn't make it any less infuriating.

Eventually one old guy sitting out the front of a shop took pity on me and offered to show the way to the Dambulla bus. I thought he might be looking for payment but he refused to accept a tip, he did it out of altruistic love of humanity and hospitality towards foreigners. Sri Lanka is like this - just when the country sends me almost to the brink of despair, the universe will send someone who restores my faith in the country and its people.

The old man with his Muslim cap couldn't come all the way, but he walked with me for about fifteen minutes and showed me to the street and pointed to a radio tower and banyan tree where the bus stop was located. I thanked him profusely and walked another ten minutes to the stop at a major intersection.

It was still very confusing. Many buses left from inside the acute angle formed by two main roads, more buses left from a yard to the west, and some more left from a stop on the street. I tried asking people where the bus to Dambulla left from but got either blank stares - don't count on English being spoken in towns where tourists never go - or even more conflicting information. I should have just caught a bus all the way from Kandy to Dambulla like a normal person. But I am not a normal person.

Finally a helpful young man who looked like a betel nut-chewing thug but actually had a heart of gold showed me the stop I needed and even hailed a bus for me. Long may he prosper.

I got on the crowded bus. One of the few seats available up towards the front where I stored my backpack was on the left side on the second row. This meant that I got a full view of the road ahead while the bus swerved, honked, sped and overtook overloaded vegetable trucks with three millimetres to spare. I was too busy making the Sign Of The Cross repeatedly to take note of the scenery along the A9 highway. I am not religious at all. But you know what they say - there are no atheists in foxholes or on Sri Lankan buses.

After nearly an hour I hauled my luggage off the bus and stood on the dusty shoulder of a busy highway outside a gleaming golden stupa. It was a walk of about a kilometre to Vihangi Guesthouse on a back street on the south side of Dambulla. On every street I took there were dogs, quite aggressive ones. I find that dogs in large cities are quite harmless and indifferent but in small towns and rural areas they can be quite vicious. My guess is that dogs in rural areas are frightened by the presence of unfamiliar people.

I had to make a very lengthy detour to avoid all the dogs in the early afternoon heat to reach the guest house. I finally reached my accommodation, a large single-storey family home on a generous lot with a smaller building divided into three hotel rooms in the frontyard. Only a girl aged about twelve and her younger sister aged about nine were home, their parents were out of house. I introduced myself and said I had a room booked for the night but they knew very little English and just stared at me blankly.

I also needed a bathroom quite fiercely. I tried communicating this using mime to no avail. I tried Sinhala but had forgotten the word for "toilet". Was it "valikisi"? "Salaviki"? "Vakisili"?

Hopping around while my bladder was about to burst, I ransacked my daypack to find my Sinhala dictionary. I could find everything else except for that. I eventually found it buried under everything else, flicked through the section beginning with T, and found it - "vasikili".

"Vasikili! Vasikili! Vasikili - NOW!" I shouted.

"Ummm, wait. Wait for father. Father coming soon," the older girl said.

"I can't wait. Vasikili - now!" I saw that some of the doors to the accommodation rooms had keys in the door. "Come on, can't I just go into a room and use a toilet?"

"No. I don't know which room for you."

"For bloody hell's sake, I need to go now!" I defied the girl and went into room 1 - I reasoned that a room with a key in the door was not currently in use by a guest. I was right.

Suitably relieved, I waited outside the rooms for about twenty minutes until the owner and his wife had returned from errands. Kumar greeted me and showed me into my room, room 1. I went into the air-conditioned room, my first since Tissamaharama, and rested a while before I tackled my next UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Dambulla Temple Cave.

I took a tuk-tuk to the ticket entrance a couple of kilometres away on the other side of the highway and bought a ticket. There was a very steep rock staircase up to the top of a rock monolith. Dambulla lies in the intermediate zone between the Hill Country to the south and the pancake-flat plains of northern Sri Lanka, and the terrain around here is mostly flat country with rocky outcrops poking through the ground like a particularly severe outburst of acne on a teenager's face. Many of these stunning monoliths were used for religious and military and political purposes in Sri Lanka's early history.

After a very steep walk with a vertical gain of about one hundred and twenty metres, I emerged onto an expanse of barren rock near the top of the monolith. There is a little booth where you have to store your shoes for twenty-five rupees and after leaving my shoes there I showed my ticket at the gate and entered the temple complex.

The Dambulla Cave Temple consists of five separate caves, really just rock overhangs. The caves are walled off from the exterior by a long white colonnade; you access the caves through portals inside the colonnade.

If you feel like overdosing on Buddhas, come to Dambulla. The Buddhas were magnificent works of art, some up to two thousand years old, and there are magnificent murals on the ceilings of the caves too. Some Buddhas were standing, other Buddhas were sitting, and I think three very large Buddhas were reclining on their sides as if they were watching Masterchef on Channel 10 after a particularly tiring day at work.

Outside the caves there are great views of the surrounding district, flat green forests, farms and dams studded with soaring rocky outcrops. I descended by a different staircase and ended up at the Golden Temple where I had gotten off the bus from Matale on the A9 highway.

The Golden Temple is very new, I think it was built in 2000. The centrepiece is an enormous golden sitting Buddha statue sitting on top of a white two-storey temple building, the entrance of which is shaped like a dragon's mouth. It all felt very tacky, like a theme park. On the bottom floor was a Buddhist Publication Sales Centre, nearby were the studios of a Buddhist television station, there was a family of fibreglass elephants in a garden next to the temple, there was a walkway through a fake cave grotto lined with hundreds of fibreglass orange standing Buddhas, and out the front was a giant golden stupa to attract passing traffic. The hundreds of howling schoolchildren and a whole fleet of tour coaches in the car park added to the theme park feel. This wasn't a temple. This was Buddhaland. I tried to come up with a marketing slogan. "Come to Buddhaland - Nirvana in just one day!" All that is missing is a ferris wheel in the shape of a chakra and a whitewater rapid ride with vessels shaped like pink lotus blossoms.

After checking out Dambulla's very modest town centre choked with trucks headed for Sri Lanka's main wholesale fruit and vegetable market, I returned to Vihanti Guesthouse too exhausted to do anything except enjoy a yummy rice and curry dinner put on by the hosts.

Polgolla Dam

Polgolla Dam

Katugastota railway bridge

Katugastota railway bridge

The train that snuck up on me at Katugastota

The train that snuck up on me at Katugastota

Train at Matale station

Train at Matale station

Dambulla Cave Temple complex

Dambulla Cave Temple complex

Ceiling mural at Dambulla Cave Temple

Ceiling mural at Dambulla Cave Temple

Meditating Buddha at Dambulla Cave Temple

Meditating Buddha at Dambulla Cave Temple

Standing Buddha at Dambulla Cave Temple

Standing Buddha at Dambulla Cave Temple

Boddhisatvas in Dambulla Cave Temple

Boddhisatvas in Dambulla Cave Temple

Reclining Buddha at Dambulla Caves

Reclining Buddha at Dambulla Caves

Scenery from Dambulla Cave Temple

Scenery from Dambulla Cave Temple

Stupa at Dambulla Golden Temple

Stupa at Dambulla Golden Temple

Golden Temple at Dambulla

Golden Temple at Dambulla

Cave grotto walkway at Golden Temple

Cave grotto walkway at Golden Temple

Fibreglass elephants at Golden Temple in Dambulla

Fibreglass elephants at Golden Temple in Dambulla

Buddha statue at Golden Temple

Buddha statue at Golden Temple

Dambulla Clock Tower

Dambulla Clock Tower

Posted by urbanreverie 21:04 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged trains temples caves buses sri_lanka railways kandy dambulla matale

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