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Dambulla, Sri Lanka
Saturday, 16 February 2019

Kumar, the owner of the Vihangi Guesthouse in Dambulla, had arranged a tuk-tuk and driver for the day for five thousand rupees, and the tuk-tuk arrived at eight in the morning for a long and exhausting day checking out not just one but two UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The tuk-tuk driver is a gentleman named Landana, a quiet yet friendly middle-aged man who stopped at places along the way to point out interesting sights. I felt at ease with him. There seems to be a world of difference between the greasy, untrustworthy touts who hang around bus stations and ATMs intrusively seeking my business, and the mild-mannered, professional drivers that are arranged for me by the guest houses I stay at.

The first site on our agenda was Sigiriya, about twenty kilometres northeast of Dambulla. Sigiriya is one of the more unusual places I have visited. It is a massive rock monolith with vertical sides that sticks two hundred metres above the northern Sri Lankan plain and on top of this unusual geological feature are the remains of a temple-palace complex.

I paid the foreigner's admission fee of a bit over five thousand rupees and entered the complex. First you cross two square moats, and then you walk through a symmetrical array of tanks, gardens, terraces, ramparts and walls all laid out on a perfect grid. After a few hundred metres you proceed through the Boulder Arch and up the first of many, many stairways.

At first the stairs are solid and made of stone. Soon you reach the sheer cliff face of Sigirya. The stairway becomes a tight spiral staircase inside a steel cage bolted to the side of the cliff. Terrifying enough but it is only a foretaste of what is to come.

At the top of the spiral staircase you reach the rock paintings. Ancient murals are still to be seen inside a small rock overhang on the side of Sigiriya. Here the walkway becomes a checkerplate steel platform cantlivered to the side of the cliff. With every person treading on the platform, it bounced up and down. I would like to say that I enjoyed the murals but I was too busy trying to suppress a panic attack.

After a bit more climbing you reach a large flat rock platform, the Lion's Paws. Here there is a Red Cross first aid station, drinking water, and some trees you can sit under while you catch your breath. There is still a little way to go. The top of the Sigiriya monolith towers over you, and you access the top by walking between two giant stone lion's paws and up more staircases.

These staircases aren't like the others. They are so steep they are more like ladders. The railings are so low, they are at about thigh height. Unlike the lower staircases were ascending and descending visitors are separated, on the final staircases at the top people going up and down push past each other. The stairs are made out of checkerplate steel treads with no risers between the treads. And there is no solid ground under the stairs; each step is cantilevered off the side of the cliff face. The whole assembly of stairs bounce like crazy with all the passing foot traffic and when you look down you can see the ground far beneath you between the steps.

I don't have an especial fear of heights; certainly none worse than the average human being. But I did on Sigiriya. All the signs warning about wasp's nests didn't help things. And while climbing these final stairs I had a panic attack. There were crowds behind me, crowds ahead of me, crowds pushing past on their way down. And I just had to break down into a hyperventilating wreck.

Suddenly I felt a man's hands gently pushing me from behind and a soothing Sri Lankan voice telling me it was all going to be OK. He told me he would take care of me and stop me from falling. He admonished me to not look down, just look at the steps one-by-one as they passed.

I didn't dare turn around to see him. I just concentrated on climbing up step by step and getting my panic under control. Eventually I reached the top. My guardian angel introduced himself and it is to my eternal shame that I forget his name. He was a guide, unofficial and unlicenced of course, and he asked me if he could be my guide for two thousand rupees. Deal.

He pointed out all the sights on top of this truly remarkable place. Over two thousand years ago the top of this rocky outcrop two hundred metres above the surrounding plains was an immense temple-palace-fort-monastery complex most likely dating to the era before Buddhism arrived in Sri Lanka. There were deep water tanks, a large flat expanse of grass that was a dance hall, the throne of the temple's king, remains of walls and stairways and gates. It was lovely and it obviously took a lot of work to build. It was also very hard work to get to. I hope the monks and courtiers and nobles who lived here gave huge tips to the Domino's Pizza delivery man.

It was soon time to descend back to the Lion's Paws. My guardian angel-slash-tour guide warned me that going down was much worse. He was right. I must have turned the colour of alabaster such was my terror. But I was going to be OK because my very own angel was holding my hand and steadying me every step of the way.

I reached the Lion's Paw and the angel-guide led me to the Red Cross station where there was free drinking water and a shady place to sit outside. I sat for a while and drank many litres of water and recuperated. This is the really stupid thing about living with anxiety and depression - you never, ever know when it is going to hit and the stupidest, most unexpected things set them off. I never knew I had a fear of heights but Sigiriya kortified me.

My angel-guide showed me down the rest of the way. He pointed out the queen's throne about half way down, a sheltered rovk overhang where her throne was carved into the stone and beside each of her feet was a large dimple in the stone where water and flowers were placed to keep the throne smelling nice. There was another area where the temple-king and his advisors met, and the Cobra Hood Rock, a natural rock feature that is exactly what it says on the tin. There are fragments of frescoes visible inside the cobra's hood.

We reached the bottom. I paid the angel-guide our agreed two thousand rupees but he asked for even more. Maybe he's not so angelic after all. I didn't have much small change so I think I gave him theonly another one hundred. He looked a little aggrieved. Maybe his modus operandi is that he carefully watches everyone who goes through the Lion's Paws, uses some sixth sense that enables him to predict who will break out into panic on those diabolical stairs, and follows them and pretends to be their guardian angel so they will be so grateful they will shower him with money. Perhaps I should have done likewise but I believe a deal is a deal. We agree on two thousand, that means I pay two thousand plus any gratuity I may decide upon, even if you are the Archangel Gabriel.

I met Landana among all the tacky souvenir stalls at the bottom and returned to his tuk-tuk. We took off slong some narrow yet well-built jungle road. Along one side was a tall electric fence. Landana explained that this was the boundary of the Minneriya National Park, famous for its very large numbers of elephants, and that the fence was to keep the pachyderms inside and prevent them from causing chaos to surrounding communities. When we rejoined the highway we stopped on the banks of Minneriya Lake, a very large irrigation tank that is famous for The Gathering, when over a hundred elephants gather on the shore to drink from the dam. But this only happens had certain times of the day and no large grey beasts were to be seen.

After I had a rice and curry buffet lunch at a thatched-roof open-air restaurant on the shore of another lake, I bought a ticket to Polonnaruwa National Park. Polonnaruwa was the royal capital during the Polonnaruwa period after the fall of the Anuradhapura Kingdom in the tenth century AD until the thirteenth century AD. The ruins of Polonnaruwa are remarkwbly well preserved.

I spent the afternoon bouncing from ruin to ruin in a state of amazement and awe. I will say this about the Sri Lankan government - despite its general incompetence and inefficiency and meaningless red tape and blatant over-staffing, they do a very good job of running national parks, both natural sites and cultural sites. The grounds are as well managed and maintained as anything in Australia, the rules protecting the parks are strictly enforced to the point of searching every bag and ruthlessly confiscating any plastic, there is plenty of informative and clear interpretive signage at every feature of interest.

The main feature of Polonnaruwa is the Quadrangle, the undisputed seat of royal power. Here there are the remains of a large Buddha statue that was formerly encased in a grand pavilion, a former temple of the Sacred Tooth (Buddha's tooth bounced from capital to capital across the island as the fortunes of the various kingdoms waxed and waned), palace halls and sundry other ruins. There are remains of water tanks, dagabas (the large bell-shaped shrines that are commonly known as "stupas" in English), council chambers, and a large rock with not one but four Buddha carvings in a row.

I was in awe. This place was far more advanced and civilised than Northern Europe a thousand years ago. Here in South Asia there were cohesive, relatively expansive nation-states with intricate professional bureaucracies, large standing militaries, codified laws, vast irrigation networks, sanitation systems and massive institutes of higher education.

My British ancestors a thousand years ago, as well as people from similar northern European cultures, lived in poverty in peasant hovels during the stupor of the Dark Ages. Northern Europe was a rabble of tiny, constantly warring principalities and dukedoms and petty kingdoms, there were no universities, not much infrastructure apart from mere donkey tracks and the occasional water mill, the bureaucracy consisted of an ever-changing coterie of whichever brown-nosing courtiers were in favour with the sovereign at the time, sanitation consisted of latrines that were emptied direct into rivers for the next village downstream to drink, water supply consisted of cholera-infested wells and weirs, the law was not so much a codified body of statutes but whatever string of brain-farts some capricious chieftain had uttered that morning, militaries were ad-hoc affairs consisting of small formations that shifted allegiances at the drop of a hat.

Where did it all go so wrong for South Asia and the East in general? And where did it go so right for Europe, and Britain and Northern Europe in particular? This civilisation at Polonnaruwa and its successor kingdoms became ossified, and only three centuries after the fall of the Polonnaruwa kingdom the Portuguese colonised the coastal parts of Ceylon to ruthlessly exploit the local labour force and natural resources, then the Dutch kicked them out and expanded the colonised areas and continued their exploitation, and then the British kicked them out and expanded their rule over the entire island for 133 years and kept on with the exploitation, throwing in some divide-and-conquer tactics for good measure that played the Sinhalese and Tamils off against each other, a tactic that contributed to the eruption of a three-decade civil war after independence.

I'm not a historian. I'll leave it to others to list the causes to which the success of Western civilisation over the past five hundred years or so can be ascribed. I will say, however, that Polonnaruwa gives the lie to this silly notion that civilisations are permanent, that one civilisation is destined to be superior to others for eternity due to some permanent innate quality, and that the areas of the world that are now poor shall always remain so, and that the areas that are now rich shall likewise always remain so. Walking around Polonnaruwa, the famous poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley’s kept ringing through my head:

'My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains.

Shelley’s words don't just apply to fallen ancient civilisations. They apply to our own as well.

It was time to leave Polonnaruwa, I was exhausted even though there were still a few ruins I hadn't checked out. On the drive back to Dambulla in the late afternoon I had a good chat with Landana. I asked him about tuk-tuks and how much they cost and what it is like to be a tuk-tuk driver. He told me that a brand-new tuk-tuk, such as the Bajaj RE he was driving (by far the most popular model), costs eight lakh rupees - about six thousand Australian dollars.

Of course, few Sri Lankans have eight hundred thousand rupees stashed away in a biscuit tin at the bottom of the wardrobe. But it's OK, you can buy a Bajaj RE on hire-purchase. It only costs you Rs. 13,200 a month for five years, after which the tuk-tuk is finally yours. But of course tuk-tuks aren't the most robust and durable of motor vehicles so after five years of intensive use you need to lease another one and the cycle continues.

I have been in Sri Lanka long enough to know that a typical short taxi ride in a town costs a local about Rs. 50 or Rs. 100 (foreign visitors can expect to be quoted much more which they usually willingly pay). But there are far more tuk-tuks on the streets than there is demand for them. There doesn't appear to be a system of taxi plates that owners have to bid for at a government auction, the tuk-tuks all just carry ordinary vehicle plates. The barrier to entry for new drivers is very low, they just have to sign a hire-purchase agreement promising to pay the lease agreement every month. So men - it's only men - who find themselves out of work or bankrupted out of their farm lease a tuk-tuk and start driving a taxi.

Hence why whenever you leave a bus or railway station there are mobs of desperate tuk-tuk touts begging for your services. Most tuk-tuk drivers spend a huge portion of their days not in revenue service. It must take a large portion of the days of a month to do enough taxi trips to earn the Rs. 13,200 needed to pay the lease off, not to mention earn enough to pay for registration, fuel, insurance and maintenance. And only after those costs are met can drivers think of putting food on the family dinner table. No wonder so many tuk-tuk drivers are so pushy and intrusive and a few of them sometimes resort to underhanded tactics and lying and scamming tourists to get business. These are desperate men in desperate situations mostly just trying to give their families a decent life.

On the A9 between Habarana and Dambulla, Landana stopped the tuk-tuk on the hard shoulder and pointed off to the right. About a hundred metres away there was an elephant, munching away on shrubs, flopping its ears around. A whole lot of other vehicles had stopped too to admire the beast, both foreign travellers and locals. This wasn't a national park, just scrubland amongst all the farms and villages. What a magnificent noble animal.

Landana dropped me off back at the guest house shortly before six. The guest house owner called a tuk-tuk to take me to a nearby restaurant for another rice and curry buffet. Not only was I too exhausted to walk but the neighbourhood is teeming with vicious dogs that become even more aggressive at night. I can't ever get tired of rice and curry. Every rice and curry is its own unique symphony, no two are the same. Even at the same restaurant the kaleidoscope changes from day to day, sometimes massively, sometimes subtly. Just like Sri Lanka itself, rice and curry never ceases to surprise, to challenge, to inspire, to educate.

Sigiriya

Sigiriya

Boulder Arch at Sigiriya

Boulder Arch at Sigiriya

Sigiriya spiral staircase

Sigiriya spiral staircase

Lion’s Paws stairway

Lion’s Paws stairway

Ruins at top of Sigiriya

Ruins at top of Sigiriya

Queen’s throne at Sigiriya

Queen’s throne at Sigiriya

Minneriya Lake

Minneriya Lake

Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa

Dagaba at Polonnaruwa

Dagaba at Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa

Stone Book at Polonnaruwa

Stone Book at Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa

Dagaba at Polonnaruwa

Dagaba at Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa

Moonstone (used for cleaning feet before entering sacred sites) at Polonnaruwa

Moonstone (used for cleaning feet before entering sacred sites) at Polonnaruwa

Buddha carvings st Polonnaruwa

Buddha carvings st Polonnaruwa

Elephant near Dambulla over man’s right shoulder

Elephant near Dambulla over man’s right shoulder

Posted by urbanreverie 23:21 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged ruins elephants sri_lanka polonnaruwa dambulla sigiriya tuk-tuks Comments (0)

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