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Stupa is as stupa does

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Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
Sunday, 17 February 2019

I am a somewhat slovenly and half-hearted collector of coins and banknotes. My collection consists of what is known in the hobby as a "job lot" - a random collection of cheap poorer-quality specimens, usually acquired by pure chance, with little attempt to collect a certain denomination or certain country or certain date in any systematic manner.

When I was a teenager somebody gave me some older Sri Lankan banknotes, I think they were issued in the 1970s. One of them featured a gleaming white stupa - "dagaba" in Sri Lanka - in a town called Anuradhapura. I was intrigued by this place - not only because of the giant spiked helmet, but because of how unpronounceable the name is. (For those watching at home: it's something like unna-RAH-duh-poo-ruh.)

It was time to finally visit this place. Landana, the tuk-tuk driver who took me to Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa the day before, came around at half past eight to pick me up. I told him yesterday that I was going to Anuradhapura and I asked if he could deliver my clean laundry (which I had dropped off at a commercial laundry that morning) and then take me to the bus station. He made me an offer I could not refuse - three thousand rupees all the way to Anuradhapura.

I told him that I would think about it but truth be told, I didn't have to think very long. Maybe fifteen seconds. The bus would have cost around a hundred rupees. Cheap, sure, but have you ever been on a Sri Lankan bus? I am only one hundred and seventy centimetres tall but even that is too lanky for Sri Lankan bus seats. My knees are always jammed right up against the seat in front of me and my feet are curled under the seat right up to the legs of the person sitting behind me. Nearly every bus plays loud Sri Lankan pop music that sounds like live pigs being castrated with rusty circular saws without anaesthetic. Most buses have 3+2 seating, the aisles are so narrow that my thighs are squeezed between every pair of grab handles on either side of the aisle, and the seats themselves are so tiny that if I share a triple seat with two others I am squashed into mushy pulp. Sri Lankan buses are poorly ventilated, often the windows are stuck closed, and I have yet to mention the drivers. I keep calling them psychopathic maniacs but I think that is being too lenient. A better description would be demons that have somehow escaped the portals of hell and have been sent to Earth as a divinely inspired reminder of what awaits you if you sin too much in this mortal life. Sri Lankan bus travel is dangerous, uncomfortable and absolutely terrifying.

Sri Lankan tuk-tuks are also terrifying, but they are like a ride in a battery-powered golf cart going twenty kilometres an hour in the grounds of a retirement village in Queensland compared to the buses. There is adequate ventilation, great views and decent photo opportunities, no annoying "music", and they don't have to stop every kilometre to let people on and off. So it is no wonder that I gleefully accepted Landana's offer. Twenty-four Australian dollars is nothing. It wouldn't even get me six kilometres in an Uber car in Sydney. Landana was offering me the same price for seventy-two kilometres. Also I have been so very good with my money, I had been sticking to my rough budget, and I have been such a good boy. Deal!

So Landana arrived with my laundry, I got changed into clean clothes, I settled my bill with Kumar and said goodbye to him and his wife and girls, and jumped into Landana's eight month-old Bajaj RE and headed north on the A9 highway towards Anuradhapura.

The A9 between Dambulla and Anuradhapura is the best road I have seen in Sri Lanka excepting the E03 expressway between Bandaranaike International Airport and Colombo. Unusually for Sri Lankan highways, it had a consistently wide shoulder, at least one and a half metres wide, even over culverts and bridges. The lane was at least four, possibly five, metres wide. The standard width of traffic lanes on Australian highways is three and a half metres. The highway was so wide that, assuming that slow traffic went onto the shoulder, there was more than enough room for one car to overtake another car, or a bus to overtake a tuk-tuk, without the overtaking vehicle encroaching upon the lane in the opposing direction. The surface was soo smooth too with such bright white lines. I was impressed.

Heading north from Dambulla you enter the North Central Province, the agricultural heartland of Sri Lanka, with its innumerable irrigation tanks covered in mats of lotus pads and blossoms, its rice paddies with scarecrows - not the scarecrows of children's books, merely plastic garbage bags fluttering in the breeze tied to timber stakes, the highway fringed with palm trees and small villages and banana trees and small market stalls selling whatever the smallholders can grow in their curtilages. The hills and rocky outcrops became less frequent until the tuk-tuk roared at 55 km/h through a landscape as flat as the Netherlands.

After about ninety minutes I arrived at the Senowin Holiday Resort guest house. I said my heartfelt goodbye to Landana and an equallt heartfelt hello to the owner of the guest house, Purmina.

Purmina ushered me in to the house, a large two-storey family home with the top storey converted to guest accommodation, and she offered me tea. She also offered to organise bicycle hire to explore the Sacred City of Anuradhapura which I accepted. While we were waiting for the bicycle she offered me tea and we sat and had a good chat.

Purmina is an interesting lady, a little younger than me, with impeccable English. She has a university degree in textile science and before she started a family she worked as an import-export agent in Sri Lanka's garment industry. She asked me what I thought about Sri Lanka. Rather than my usual "yes, yes, Sri Lanka is great," I decided now was the time that honesty was the best policy.

"I absolutely love Sri Lanka and I absolutely hate Sri Lanka at the same time," I said.

She didn't flinch. "That's great. What do you love about Sri Lanka?"

I comtinued with my honesty. "There is absolutely incredible natural beauty everywhere. The food is totally amazing, especially the fruit and vegetables, they are just divine! And the people are so warm and friendly and hospitable. I love the place."

"That's great," Purmina said. "Now what do you hate about Sri Lanka?"

"Well ..." I got nervous. Would I cause offence? Purmina with her education and fluency in English was the first Sri Lankan I felt I could open up to. I persevered. "There are a few things. I am Australian. In Australia, when someone asks you a question, and you don't know the answer, you say 'I don't know, sorry'. If someone asks you a yes-or-no question, and the answer is 'no', you say 'no'. But here, when I ask a question - like, directions to a bus stop or if some place is still open - people won't say 'no', they will never admit that they don't know the answer, they will make up some nonsense that they think I want to hear. You ask ten Sri Lankans the same question and you get ten different answers. It is absolutely infuriating!"

Purmina wasn't offended, or if she was, she didn't show it. "Yes, I totally understand where you are coming from. But in Sri Lankan culture, you can never say 'no'. If you say 'no', that is very disobedient. Sri Lankans are very honest people, but yes, we try to keep everyone happy and show everyone respect. They are not trying to mislead you or lie to you, they mean very well, but they are trying their best to give you an honest answer and keep you happy. Your culture is very different to ours but you are in a different country now."

I almost burst into tears of joy. I explained what had happened at Bandarawela station a week ago, where my train was delayed and the station staff kept saying the train would "definitely be moving in fifteen minutes" for hours on end, until the train started moving again after a six and a half hour delay.

"Yes, that's a common problem on Sri Lankan railways. They really have no idea. They are just trying to keep all the foreign visitors happy. The railways are terrible. They were given to us by the British but they haven't been improved at all ever since independence. They make people so ashamed to be Sri Lankan!"

I told her not to be ashamed. It's not the fault of the average Sri Lankan that the railways are stuck in the nineteenth century.

It is easy, so very easy, even for people who consider themselves intelligent and tolerant, to visit or move to a foreign country, be confronted by profound cultural differences, and ascribe those cultural differences to some moral failing of the citizenry. "Oh, those Ruritanians are a bunch of shifty lying buggers!" "You gotta watch out for them Lower Slobovians, they'll cheat you out of your life savings without turning a hair!" What cruel, needless misunderstandings, what bloody wars, what terrible genocides, what countless atrocities have happened throughout the history of the human race simply because people from one culture haven't taken the time and effort to sit down with people from another culture and tried to understand how the other culture works?

The bicycle man arrived with my hire bike for five hundred rupees added to my hotel bill. Purmina promised that she would organise a good bike. I do not doubt her intentions. It was a good bike by Sri Lankan standards. The brakes actually worked. Somewhat. The brakes would slow me down but not enough to come to a stop. To stop I needed to scrape the soles of my sandals on the road. The wheels weren't wobbly, rust hadn't completely consumed the frame and spokes, and I could maintain a speed of about ten kilometres an hour on flat ground. That makes it a good bike.

After my near-death on a bicycle in Tissamaharama caused by brakes that were not operational at all, I was nervous about getting on a bike in Sri Lanka again. But Anuradhapura is huge. The attractions are spread over several square kilometres. You cannot walk around Anuradhapura. I could have hired a tuk-tuk but I wanted to go at my own pace, and I was getting sick of tuk-tuks having spent a whole day yesterday in one and ninety minutes this morning.

I applied more sunscreen and pushed off at eleven o'clock. The Sacred City of Anuradhapura is a couple of kilometres west of the modern town. I needn't have worried about the traffic. Bicycles are probably the most popular way to see Anuradhapura and the roads were full of other foreign travellers on equally crappy bicycles. My bicycle wasn't squealing like a wounded fox with every turn of the pedal cranks and the wheels weren't wobbling like they were shaped like eggs so mine was obviously better.

Because Anuradhapura was so huge, there are three ticket offices scattered around the UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is my fifth World Heritage Site in four consecutive days, and my seventh in Sri Lanka. (There are eight World Heritage Sites here, the only one I didn't visit was the Sinharaja rainforest. For some reason, none of the huge numbers of travellers I have met have gone to Sinharaja. I kind of regret not seeing it.)

I tried finding one of the ticket offices. I came across two young German women who were just as lost as me, they pointed me in the wrong direction. It was only after looking at my Lonely Planet and Google Maps on my phone that I finally found an office. I paid my Rs. 4,525 entry fee, got my large cardboard ticket with perforated tabs that could be torn off for each area, and went off to find my first attraction, the Sri Maha Bodhi tree.

I would be lost without my Lonely Planet. I am equally as lost with my Lonely Planet. The quality of the maps in Lonely Planet travel guides is absurdly risible. Whole streets, even major arterials, disappear into the ether on Lonely Planet maps. A street that you think is only two blocks away is actually nine blocks distant. Street name labels are placed on the wrong streets, attractions are shown hundreds of metres away from their true locations, and many are the times when I have navigated to the exact location of a feature of interest shown in a Lonely Planet map only to find myself staring at a stormwater drain or a sporting goods warehouse or a hardware shop car park. I don't expect maps in travel guidebooks like Lonely Planet to be at the same level of quality as, say, Ordnance Survey topographic maps from Britain, but a bit more care and attention to detail would not go astray.

Not helping matters was the terrible signage in Anuradhapura. Signs to attractions at major intersections were either completely absent or only in Sinhala. I pick up new languages quite quickly, I have learned the Sinhala alphabet so I can pronounce Sinhala words without knowing what they mean, but I still couldn't read most od the signs. Occasionally I would stop at an intersection and pronounce each Sinhala character syllable by syllable. Sri ... Ma ... ha ... Bo ... Yes! The Sri Maha Bodhi tree! Got it!" Only to miss a turn off the road because it wasn't signed at all.

I finally reached my first major attraction of the day at midday, the Sri Maha Bodhi tree. This is one of the oldest known trees in the world, planted from a cutting brought from India 2,200 years ago. It is a bo tree, an attractive fig-like tree with broad, venous shield-shaped leaves, that through longevity had branched out into several mutually supporting trunks. Buddha achieved enlightenment while meditating under a bo tree, and this tree being the oldest bo tree in Sri Lanka, it is the object or veneration. A polite young Sinhalese man who was there to pray told me he was grateful that he had passed his university exams and was making offerings, coins wrapped in a handkerchief tied to a railing surrounding the tree, out of gratitude and asking for blessings for exams to come.

Next to the Sri Maha Bodhi tree was a large rectangle of hundreds of closely spaced columns, the remains of the Brazen Palace. Anuradhapua was the royal capital of the Anuradhapua Kingdom which flourished for over a millennium from roughly the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka in around 300 BC to the fall of Anuradhapura after the Indian Chola empire invaded in around 1000 AD. The Brazen Palace was one of many royal residences.

A short, though still appallingly signed, distance to the northeast was the Jetavanaramaya complex, dominated by a large brick dagaba (stupa) and a dizzying complex of ruins - walls, gates, water tanks. About ten minutes to the northwest is the Citadel, the inner sanctum of royal power. Not much remains of this, the citadel was razdd long ago and much of it is now small farms and shops and houses. The remains of the royal palace can be seen, and on the other side of the road are two symmetrical guard houses that once protected the main entrance to the palace. A short distance north are the ruins of the Mahapali alms hall. A very long deep trough where citizens donated rice and other goods to the Buddhist monks was still clearly visible two thousand years later, as was the alms house's s very deep water well shaped like an inverted pyramid. Next door were the remains of the Sacred Tooth temple. The most remarkable thing was that a whole bunch of primary school-age boys who live in the neighbourhood were playing a stick-and-ball game called elle among all the ruins. Why not? This was their neighbourhood, after all, and their ancestors have lived in this area for thousands of years.

Next to the Sacred Tooth temple was an active archaeological dig, protected from the elements by a large galvanised steel shelter on which monkeys were playing. Brick foundations and cellars of some building were clearly visible in the giant soggy pit. New ruins get found in Anuradhapura all the time. For centuries this place was lost to the forest. It is only since British archaeologists rediscovered the ruins in the tangled greenery in the nineteenth century that conservation efforts started and the monuments restored to their proper glory.

Another painful ride - the bike only had one gear, not low enough to climb even the tiniest inclines without getting off and pushing but not high enough to go any faster than about fifteen kilometres an hour - brought me to the Abhayagiri Monastery in the far northwest of the Sacred City of Anuradhapura. But not before my bike broke down. The chain got thrown off the gears. I turned the bike upside down and got to work. But the chain was encased within a metal guard, I rarely see this on Australian bikes but it is common in the Netherlands. I couldn't figure out how to remove the cover. There didn't appear to be any sort of clip or pin I could remove. I stuck my finger in the small hole around the bottom bracket and tried to feel where the chain was. My finger became smeared with a very thick layer of soot and grime. This bike had never been cleaned or serviced in its life. I was about to scream "damn this blasted country where nothing ever works!" when a tuk-tuk driver went passed. He got out, expertly removed the chain case (there was a small section at the back that could be removed with some force), put the chain back on, refused to shake my hand because his hands were now filthy, and went on his merry way. What did I say about how when this country sends you to despair, someone comes along and makes everything right once again? How many times have I found myself stranded on an Australian road due to a flat bicycle tyre or a bus that has been cancelled or a flat battery in my car? And how many people have stopped to help? Hint: it's not a very high number. In Australia, and the West generally, you're on your own. In Sri Lanka they haven't totally lost that spirit of helping a stranger in difficulty.

Thanks to this anonymous stranger ai reached the Abhayagiri Monastery. On the way there were some more sights - the fourth century AD Samadhi Buddha statue, the Twin Ponds where monks would bathe. The Abhayagiri Monastery was a massive complex of several residential compounds for monks - their living quarters, their classrooms, their refectory halls, their administrative offices, their water tanks. I cannot describe the scale of this. The centrepiece is yet another giant brick dagaba. There is the Elephant Pond, a very large tank used to supply the monastery with its water needs. Walking around Abhayagiri it was all too easy to imagine the days when the streets were full of rows of chanting monks walking from the refectory to their theology classes, or from their dormitories to the dagaba to pray and chant in unison for the Anuradhapura kingdom to be blessed.

The sun was getting low in the sky. There was no way I was going to see all of Anuradhapura. It really needs two full days to appreciate, from dawn to dusk, such is the gigantic scale of the place. This wasn't like Polonnaruwa, a compact little town that could be seen on foot in a few hours. This was a true metropolis with hundreds of thousands of people. Not just royalty, not just monks, not just bureaucrats, but the many people who were required to service their needs - the plumbers, the cobblers, the tailors, the merchants, the bricklayers, the barbers, the carpenters, and all their wives and children and elders.

I checked out two more dagabas, the Thuparamaya Dagaba, a small white stupa, and the stunning Ruwawelisaya Dagaba. This snow-white dagaba was built on a scale greater than mere human beings. It took me fifteen minutes to dawdle around it on hot pavers (all visitors are required to remove hats and shoes before approaching1any dagaba or statue of Buddha. Make sure your dresses and shorts cover your knees).

These ruins are not just mere museum pieces for the benefit of travellers. They are active places of worship. A very large prayer meeting was being held in the forecourt of the Ruwawelisaya Dagaba, a saffrom-robed Buddhist monk leading a large assembly of white-clothed parishioners in a soothing, monotonous prayer chant.

It was after five o'clock and my bike had no lights or reflectors. The roads in Anuradhapura have no street lights. It was time for me to leave though there was a whole section in the far south of the Sacred City I didn't even touch. I quickly checked out the Basawkkulama Tank, a nearby irrigation dam where a brilliant sunset was starting, and headed east back into the modern town as quickly as possible. I rode past little farms and cottages where children in shady frontyards waved hello. I waved back. Because I am the coolest boy in the world, because I spent a day cycling through ancient monasteries and shrines and palaces, and there is nothing in the world quite so cool as a boy or a girl on a bike exploring the world, this amazing planet which has been granted to all living beinga for all of us to share in peace and harmony if we could all learn how to, and the best way to learn is to get on your bike and start exploring.

I arrived back at the Senowin Holiday Resort - a rather grand name for a modest guest house. I mean, with a name like that there should be swimming pools and banana daiquiris and deckchairs. I am not complaining, it is a very nice place with a very nice owner who introduced me to her very nice extended family. But it is not a "resort" in the word's natural and ordinary meaning.

The two young German women who had innocently given me the wrong directions earlier soon arrived, they were by coincidence staying here as well. They were dripping head to toe in sweat, just like me when I arrived back at the house; the first thing I did was have a shower. Wherever you go in Sri Lanka, every white person will be drenched in sweat, their clothes clinging to every part of their bodies, even if they aren't doing much, like just sitting at a hotel having a drink. The locals, even if they are climbing mountains or riding bicycles, will be dry as a bone. Do Sri Lankans not have sweat glands? I am certain, without seeing the scientific evidence, that people from ethnic groups originating in higher latitudes cannot genetically handle tropical climates.

We chatted for a while, shared some tips on what to see - I was finishing my holiday going anticlockwise and they were just starting their holiday going clockwise. The ladies gave me a restaurant tip, and one of them escorted me part of the way while she was going to an ATM to try to retrieve a swallowed bank card.

I went to the restaurant on modern Anuradhapura's main street. I sat down and ordered my meal, cheese kotthu (stir-fried strips of roti flatbread mixed with vegetables and spices) with fresh lemon and pineapple juice. My order took forever to arrive. I was very thirsty, almost dehydrated, after cycling in the heat and humidity all day. I had run out of bottled water. On each table was a stainless steel jug of water with several clean glasses.

Without really thinking about it, I made the assumption - which at the time seemed very reasonable but was actually very stupid - that no restaurateur would be so evil as to knowingly serve their patrons water that would make them sick. Surely killing your customere is bad for business? So I poured a full glass of water into one of the glasses and drank it in one big gulp.

I instantly knew I made the wrong decision. The water looked clean, it smelled clean, but it tasted muddy and stagnant, like water from a fish tank. It definitely was not bottled water.

I hoped it wouldn't turn out wrong. There was no immediate reaction. My order of cheese kotthu and the juice arrived and, starving, I devoured them. It was towards the end of my meal that it started. Massive stomach cramps with a fever-like sweat over my whole body. I paid my bill and walked as quickly as possible back to my room.

The Sri Lankan Police had set up a traffic checkpoint on the A12, Anuradhapura's main street. I walked past the checkpoint and a three-stripe officer, presumably a sergeant, motioned me to stop.

"Hello, sir. What's your name?"

"Urban Reverie."

"And where are you from?"

"Australia." I hoped to hell that he wasn't going to ask me for my passport, it was in my room.

"When did you arrive in Sri Lanka?"

"January the thirtieth."

"Mark Taylor is a good player, isn't he? He's my favourite cricketer."

So the policeman just wanted to chat with a foreign stranger. What a relief. "Yeah, Tubby Taylor, that's going back about twenty years or so," I said, feigning an interest in cricket, a sport that I, along with a large number of Australians, usually find about as interesting as watching grass grow. I was very sick, sweating all over, and anxious just to get back to my guest house.

"Yes. And Steve Smith. When is he coming back?"

It was probably not wise to tell the copper that I am not a board member of Cricket Australia and therefore have little knowledge of such matters. "Yeah, dunno, I heard he copped a twelve-month suspension after the sandpaper business in South Africa, I think that was in March last year, so maybe next month?" I swear that cricket is an elaborate practical joke the Australian people play upon themselves. We have to pretend to be interested in cricket, to do otherwise is to expose yourself to accusations of being un-Australian, but in reality most of us dislike the sport and it's really only the sad old obsessive-compulsives who remember every single batsman's score in the Third Test between Australia and India in 1985 who give a crap about cricket.

"Yes. Do you like Ricky Ponting?"

"Yes. Of course I do! He was a very good captain of the Australian team." All I know about Ricky Ponting is that he was the captain in the 2000s. Apart from that, I know nothing.

"Very well. What is crime like in Australia? Is it worse than here?"

This was worse than an actual real-life formal interrogation. At least in an interrogation I would have an idea about the issue I was being asked about. The copper was standing very close to me and his eyes constantly alternated between roaming over my entire body and staring directly into my eyes. "Well, I don't know much about crime in Sri Lanka. There is definitely more traffic crime in Sri Lanka, motorists in Australia are much more law-abiding and safer on the roads. But I think Sri Lankans are much more respectful to each other and to property. I have never seen graffiti on walls or on bridges here. In Australia, there is graffiti everywhere. Australia has a huge problem with drugs, also Australians get drunk very often and cause trouble. I rarely see drunks here or people affected by drugs."

The eyes continued to search into the very interior of my soul. "Very well. So, there are many Sri Lankans who try to go to Australia, illegally. Not legally, but illegally, why is that?"

Sigh. Now I was expected to give a concise answer to this question about the hornet's nest that is Australian asylum seeker politics. "Well, Australia is a very wealthy country. The minimum wage is about two thousand and two hundred rupees per hour. That's about the minimum wage for two days in Sri Lanka. Australia has much better health care, better education, better social security, more job opportunities, because Australia is so wealthy. So that entices a lot of people to try to come to Australia." All this is undoubtedly true; Australia's economic success and relatively generous social benefits do make it an attractive destination for asylum seekers. I could have also mentioned that nearly all of the asylum seekers are Tamils from the north of Sri Lanka, the tourism boom that has done so much to invigorate Sri Lanka's economy has yet to reach the Tamil north, the region has yet to fully recover from a desperate three-decade civil war, during that war the military seized a lot of land and has yet to repatriate much of it to its former owners leaving many Tamils landless and jobless, and the Tamils, despite efforts from the government to include them in the new post-war Sri Lanka, still face discrimination and inequality. But it would have been unwise to press these points with a Nosey Parker police officer

The copper seemed to be unable to think of another question. "Am I free to go now? I am terribly sorry but I need to go back to my hotel room."

"Yes. You can go now. Thank you, sir. Enjoy your stay in Sri Lanka!" He shook my hand and I walked as fast as possible to a supermarket to buy two bottles of water.

I was in agony by the time I got back to my room. It was going to be a quiet night for me, no listening to music or writing my blog. I stripped off, turned the ceiling fan on full blast, unfurled the mosquito net, climbed under the net into the sheetless bed with nothing but my phone and my bottle of water, constantly sipped from the bottle to keep myself hydrated, and writhed in agony, clutching my stomach, hoping that sleep would arrive soon and that the ceiling fan would relieve my febrile, delirious sweating fits.

Very wide A9 highway

Very wide A9 highway

Dodgy bicycle

Dodgy bicycle

Elephant Pond at Anuradhapura

Elephant Pond at Anuradhapura

Dagaba at Anuradhapura

Dagaba at Anuradhapura

Dagaba at Anuradhapura

Dagaba at Anuradhapura

Twin Ponds at Anuradhapura

Twin Ponds at Anuradhapura

Samadhi Buddha statue

Samadhi Buddha statue

Sri Maha Bodhi tree

Sri Maha Bodhi tree

Brazen Palace at Anuradhapura

Brazen Palace at Anuradhapura

Dagaba at Anuradhapura

Dagaba at Anuradhapura

Tank at Anuradhapura

Tank at Anuradhapura

Dagaba at Anuradhapura

Dagaba at Anuradhapura

Archaeological dig at Anuradhapura Citadel

Archaeological dig at Anuradhapura Citadel

Trough used for storing donations at monk’s alms house

Trough used for storing donations at monk’s alms house

Posted by urbanreverie 23:24 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged water ruins bicycles sri_lanka anuradhapura Comments (0)

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