Sri Lanka 2017 Part 4: Polonnaruwa and safari in Minneriya

Tuesday, August 1, 2017


This morning, our itinerary called for a visit to Polonnaruwa, another UNESCO World Heritage site.  We had another delightful breakfast at the lodge, complete with pots of coffee.  We took the buggy (golf cart) to the entrance, where Prasad and Dinesh were waiting for us at the appointed hour.  It was a fairly short drive to the city.

Polonnaruwa was the second great capital city of Sri Lanka, built during the 11th and 12th centuries.  It was a thriving commercial and religious center, and the archaeological remains are in excellent condition, giving you a good idea of what city life was like back in the day.  The ruins were “rediscovered” by the British during their rule of Sri Lanka.

Our first stop was the museum, which had a scale model of the ancient city.  Prasad used it to give us an overview of what we would see.  The museum also had some wonderful artifacts.  There were bronzes, statues, and even ancient medical instruments.  We spent about 45 minutes to an hour there getting our bearings and then it was off to the races.  Dinesh had the van ready, so our plan was to drive to each group of ruins. 

Our first stop was the Royal Palace.  In its heyday, it was said to have seven stories.  The walls were three yards thick, and the holes were there to hold the floor beams for the higher floors.  They must have been made of wood and are no longer visible.  In some places, black charring is visible.  There is mention of a great fire in the history books.

Here we are at the Royal Palace entrance, looking very regal.

I’m always fascinated with the infrastructure, especially all things water, sewer and drainage related.  Prasad explained that this was an indoor toilet.  My daddy didn’t even have that when he was growing up.

Bricklayers used to be artisans.  These are still standing after 1,000 years.  

In the next picture, you can still see the plaster that once covered the walls of the Royal Palace.  It’s now protected with a pane of plexiglass to keep water and sun damage to a minimum.

Imagine what this would have looked like with all seven stories on it.  It must have made an imposing impression on visitors to the palace.  Isn’t that always the point of a palace?

The Council Chamber, also known as the Audience Hall, was the place where the king summoned the nobles of the kingdom.  

Notice the intricate carving at each level:  these are dwarves.  A dwarf served the same purpose in a Sri Lankan royal court as a jester:  they were the jokesters, the entertainers.

Lions are a symbol of the king and of the Sinhalese people, who are said to have lion’s blood running through their veins.

Elephants are also associated with the royal court.

This is a drainage pipe.  We saw them all over the site, and they still function.  They are set down end to end, with nothing holding them together at the joints.  

The bathing pool still holds water.   Can you see the crocodile at the lower right?  He’s a water spout.

Where people live and work, they must go potty.  This is a septic tank.

And back around to the entrance of the Audience Hall.  The royal lion greets us at the entrance steps.

Our next stop was the quadrangle.  Prasad showed us this next building, the Satmahai Prasada.  Its purpose is a mystery lost in time.  It is shaped like a pyramid but has no interior (except for the small “cave” seen at the front).  The staircase (to nowhere) is on the outside, and crumbling figurines are set within the wall niches.  We spent some time guessing about what it might be used for.  Greg was particularly intrigued and kept tossing out ideas to Prasad, which were quickly and firmly rejected.  After a while, I told Prasad, “People have been trying to figure this out for hundreds of years, but Greg is going to solve the mystery in five minutes.”  

We had to remove our shoes and hats and cover our knees for visits into the holy places in the quadrangle.  I kept a skirt in my backpack for coverage, while Genene chose to wear long pants.  Genene and I wore sandals on the theory that they would be quick and easy to remove, and we had been making fun of Greg for being a typical tourist and wearing tennis shoes.  The last laugh was on us because when we removed our shoes and walked barefoot, the ground was burning hot.  Greg still had his socks on, so he could stand the walk a little better.  Even Prasad was hopping around like a cat on a hot tin roof.  We ran from shady area to shady area to look at the ruins and listen to Prasad’s explanations.  

The Vatadage is a circular relic house.  There is a lower terrace and an upper terrace.  At the top, four separate entrances lead to central dagoba with its four Buddhas.  Prasad told us that each Buddha was set at a cardinal point on the compass.  We got out our iPhones and verified.  Prasad was delighted.  He had not realized that smart phones have a compass.  I know he will download the app onto his Samsung!

Some of the Buddha statues were in better condition than others.  

The stupa behind this Buddha may have once held Lord Buddha’s Tooth Relic.  We will hear a lot more about the relic when we get to Kandy, where the Temple of the Tooth Relic is now.  The tooth relic is revered by Sri Lankans.   This Vatadage is a very holy place to the people here.  

The carved entrances to the terrace were particularly beautiful.  As I mentioned, Sri Lankans consider this to be holy ground. There are volunteers who patrol the site, making sure the proper reverence is shown.  Greg accidentally got into trouble on the lower terrace here.  He was following Prasad’s lead.  When Prasad came down to this lower terrace, he absent-mindedly put his ball cap back on.  Greg followed suit, and we immediately heard whistles from the ground below.  One of the volunteers gestured, and Prasad and Greg quickly uncovered their heads again.  

The seven-headed cobra hood is a symbol of royal power.  And check out those dwarves.  

The statue at Bodhisattva Shrine caught the light well.

The next view is from within the Hatadage looking back at the Buddha on the compass point at Vatadage.  There are three buildings in the quadrangle with rhyming names:  Vatadage, Hatadage, and Atadage.  Can you guess at the roots of the words? They are numbers.   Hata means sixty.  Dage means relic shrine.  One theory says that Hatadage was built in 60 hours.  Another theory says that it used to hold 60 relics. 

There are three granite Buddha statues within the Hatadage shrine.  The one in the middle looks directly at the Buddha in the compass point in the Vatadage.

Latha-Mandapaya is a curious structure.  It is surrounded by a latticed stone fence.  Eight columns shaped like lotus stalks with unopened buds at the top surround a small dagoba.  It is said that Nissanka Malla, the king who ruled from 1187 to 1196, sat in the enclosure to listen to chanted Buddhist texts.  He was the king who declared that only a Buddhist had the right to rule, securing his position and justifying his claim to be king.  

The Gal Pota or Stone Book is inscribed with the virtues of King Nissanka Malla.  The slab, which weighs 25 tons, was dragged here from 100 kilometers away.  

As we left this area, Prasad pointed out the warning that is inscribed at the entry/exit point:  the fate of anyone who steals from this area is etched in stone.  You will return as a ghost, a dog, or a carrion bird.  

We took a break and drank king coconut water.  It was cool and refreshing, but the three of us could hardly finish one.  

Our next stop was Rankot Vihara.  It is the largest stupa in Polonnaruwa and the fourth largest in the country.  We ran upon a group of school children on a field trip, and they joyfully ran up to us.  Each one would greet us and formally inquire:  “How are you?”  

The stupa is a place of great power.  Prasad explained that if you look at the structure in a very basic way, you see a triangle.  Many ancient structures have this shape so that they can receive power from the “beyond.”

Our final stop of the morning was at Gal Vihara.  The temple contains four rock relief images of the Buddha, carved out of solid granite.  There are several theories about what they mean.  Whatever they represent, they are colossal and beautiful….

In particular, the standing figure with crossed arms generates debate because it is an unusual gesture not seen very often in Sinhalese sculpture.  Some think it is the Buddha at an early stage of enlightenment.  Others say that it is the Buddha showing “sorrow for the sorrow of others.”  Prasad holds to the theory that this Buddha is a peacemaker of sorts:  there were two competing schools of Buddhism, and at one time the priests were at war about it.  Prasad says that the gesture means “no argument.”

The schoolchildren reappeared.  They had a time of worship at the statues and then they played again.  

We finished the tour, barely scratching the surface of Polonnaruwa, and headed for lunch.  We had a special treat in store.  Jaga Foods is one of the best restaurants on the island.  They have a farm-to-table concept.  We pulled up and the first thing we saw was their garden.  Mango, banana, pepper by the rows.  They aren’t lying when they say the food is fresh here.  

Jaga greeted us in person and explained the rules.  There was a buffet, and above each simmering pot was the main ingredient of the dish.  That made translation easy.  You just looked at the fresh fruit or vegetable sitting on the plate above the pot.  Jaga told us to “draw a line” about four pots from the end on the right side.  Those dishes were “Sri Lanka spiced.”  The name of the last dish was “dynamite curry.”  It was dynamite in every sense of the word!  We tried everything, and it was all wonderful.  We also had our first Sri Lankan roti, which is akin to a tortilla or pita but is made with coconut and onion, giving it a sweet, savory taste.

The tables at Jaga are on a covered patio with a great view to a bayou-like stream, and as we sat having our lunch a water monitor came to the bank and posed for us.  

Now we knew why this little fence was erected.

For the second time in as many days, a Chinese tourist provided us with some amusement and bemusement.  He grabbed his young child, trotted him down to the edge of the fence, and began trying to take photographs of him with the monitor.  He had the kid posed dangerously close to the monitor.  Jaga came running out and yelled, “Get back away from the fence!  The monitors are quite aggressive.”  The tourist was shocked.  He said, “They are not your pets??!”  Jaga said, “No, they aren’t!   They are wild, and they very much like Chinese people.”  Everyone snickered a bit at Jaga’s joke as the man scrambled to get his kid back up to safe ground.  They made it, thank goodness.

In five minutes or so, we got even a better understanding of how aggressive these creatures can be.  A second water monitor appeared, and the two of them made ugly noises at each other.  Then a fight broke out.

They rumbled.

They rassled!

They both got up on their back legs and tried to throw each other over.

The big guy prevailed, and the little fella swam off.

Get out!  And stay out!

Jaga invited us to write on his ceiling.  The walls and ceilings were covered with praises for the food and hospitality.  Genene added ours to the mix.

After lunch, we prepared for our first safari.  We headed for Minneriya National Park.  There are two parks in the area, and the elephants move from park to park, depending on availability of water.  Sri Lanka is in the midst of a devastating drought.  The monsoons that should have happened last September did not come.  It still looks like a lush, tropical paradise from our point of view, but the reservoirs are at historic lows.  For us, that meant the water was easy to find, and the elephants should be too.

 The jeep queue to get into the park was daunting.  

We sat in the air conditioned van while Prasad handled all the details of getting our tickets and finding us a jeep driver.  After a short wait, we were off.  We had to drive quite a while through what I would describe as a scrub before the landscape changed and we started to see our first animals.


And there they were:  the ellies!  Right off the bat, we saw this tusker.

This lake would normally cover much more ground.

The herd hung out next to the woods.  The elephants in Sri Lanka are much more shy and wary than those we saw in Africa.  Of course, poaching is a big problem in Africa, but the elephants here have more DAILY conflict with humans over habitat encroachment.

We saw fishermen on the lake.

This cow and calf were alone, separated from the herd we saw earlier.  We wondered why.

Eventually the elephant herd made its way to the water to drink.

We had a lot of human company.

Can you spot the very small baby?  The herd kept it mostly hidden from our view.  

We left the park, and Prasad joked, “Now you have seen 15 elephants…and 75 jeeps!”

We were hot and tired when we got back to our hut.  Genene’s favorite thing about this place was the lily pond just inside our front door.  She stuck her feet in and…

The fish came running!  They nibbled on her feet.  Fish spa!

We were so exhausted, and tomorrow we will leave for Kandy.  That meant we had a lot of packing to do.  I made the evil suggestion:  let’s skip the wonderful lodge dinner and order room service.  Greg and Genene were in agreement immediately.  Furthermore, as long as we were dining in the privacy of our rooms, let’s “cheat” and eat “Western”.  And so we did.  We packed our gear and ate hamburgers, club sandwiches, and French fries.  We love the spicy food here, but at some point, your belly says, “Give me a break.”  And besides, we knew we would not have a better meal than the one Jaga cooked for us at lunch today.

The main lodge is beautiful at night.



Tomorrow we hit the road again and see more of this beautiful country.

2017 Sri Lanka Part 3: Sigiriya and a village tour

Monday, July 31, 2017

We started early this morning.  Prasad and Dinesh advised us to meet them at 6:30 AM for the short drive to Sigiriya Rock Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage site.  The climb to the summit is over 1,200 steps, and the heat becomes oppressive as the day wears on, so it is best to get an early start.  As we stepped out the front door of our room, we heard a dog barking.  Genene is obsessed with the dogs here and loves to count them.  They are ubiquitous.  Prasad assured us that they have all been vaccinated and that rabies has been eradicated on Sri Lanka, but I told Genene on day 1, “Look but don’t touch.”  In any event, we heard the dog making a racket, and Genene wanted to go see him.  I’m an old country girl at heart so when I saw the dog, I was immediately reminded of my first Irish Setter Rusty, who loved to tree squirrels in the backyard when I was a kid.  Sometimes Dad would go out in the yard and shoot the squirrel, just to shut Rusty up.  Anyway, I could tell this dog was barking at something, and I told Genene, “Stop looking at the dog and look up.”  In a moment, we saw them:  macaques!  The monkeys romped from tree to tree, and the branches rustled with the weight of them.  I never shouldered my camera so I didn’t get a shot, but we thought it was a fun start to the day.

When we got to the lodge for breakfast, one of the employees showed us a crocodile in the pond.  We hadn’t even left the hotel yet and already had two wildlife sightings!    


We took the golf cart (or as the porters here call it, the buggy) to the front entrance, where Prasad and Dinesh and our van awaited.  They had cold water for us, and we made the short drive to Sigiriya.  We had to use the “foreigners” entrance.  There is a separate car park and entrance for Sri Lankans, and they pay lower entry prices as well.  I can certainly understand that, but it’s a little jarring to be called “foreigner” right there on the entrance sign.

Sigiriya is a giant rock, a citadel, rising out of the plains.  The rock served military and royal functions during the reign of King Kassapa, whose short tenure lasted from 477 to 495 AD.  According to history, King Kassapa sought out this strategic fortress after overthrowing and murdering his own father, the previous king.  In the end, King Kassapa had to abandon this fortress and commit suicide when his step-brother came for him.  Paybacks are a bitch.

 Before we started the hike, I got some shots at the entrance and ticket booth area.  We told Prasad about seeing the monkeys this morning, and he warned us that they were “naughty monkeys.”  This sign gave the same advice.

The lily pond was beautiful in the early morning light.


We began the hike.  Prasad walked very fast, and I struggled to keep up with him.  

Sigiriya was protected by a series of crocodile-filled moats.  


The lower level had water gardens, the ruins of which are still visible.

 This is a fountain.  Prasad says that when it rains hard at Sigiriya, the hydraulic system still works perfectly.  Water runs from the top of the rock fortress down through the various basins and this fountain actually runs.  I wish I could see that, but I’m glad we were not climbing to the top in a driving rain.

Sigiriya waits for us in the morning haze.

Here we are, as fresh as daisies before the climb.

Can you see the troop of naughty monkeys? 

The baby is hanging on for dear life.

 This is a ruin of a stupa or dagoba, a place where a monk might go for meditation and to seek enlightenment.

This snake slithered across the ruins.  We were astonished to see a old Chinese woman, iPhone in hand, practically run at it while trying to get a photograph.  She wasn’t going to stop either.  I think she would have walked all the way up to it and tried for a selfie. Prasad scolded her pretty harshly and told her not to get too close.  She did stop in her tracks, but the snake was scared and quickly disappeared. 

Ruins are still clearly visible in the base of the rock.  Can you see the lip ridge carved into the rock at ceiling level?  This ingenious and simple construction causes the rain to sheet off the rock at the ridge, instead of continuing to flow down into the brick structure.  What a marvelous low-tech engineering solution to a drainage issue.

Some original paint can be seen on the rock wall here.  After Sigiriya was abandoned as a king’s palace and fortress, it was used by Buddhist monks.  They plastered over most of the paintings, which had been of lovely ladies.  How do we know what was there?  There is a graffiti wall further up the mountain, and the graffiti makes references to the wall art.   There may have been as many as 500 ladies painted on the rock face.  

After some stair climbing and walking, we entered the boulder gate into the fortress.

On the climb up, we were able to see the remaining beautiful frescoes known as the “Heavenly Maidens of Sigiriya,” but sadly photography was not permitted.  The sheltered gallery rests in the rock face, and the shapely women are still as colorful as they were in the 5th century.  Some people believe they are apsaras (celestial nymphs), while another theory holds that they are King Kassapa’s concubines.  They are pretty ladies, whoever they were.  You’ll have to google it or take my word for it.

We were allowed to photograph the graffiti wall.  The graffiti has been left from the 6th century through the 14th.  Archaeologists study the writing and find clues about who was here and what they saw.  According to Lonely Planet, a typical scribbling is:  “The ladies who wear golden chains on their breasts beckon me.  As I have seen the resplendent ladies, heaven appears to me as not good.”  Ah, people used to be more interesting.  Nowadays someone would probably just write, “Kilroy was here.”  

About two-thirds of the way up, we got a break and an excellent vista.  

Prasad warned us to talk quietly.  There is a particular problem at Sigiriya.

They aren’t kidding!

Prasad explained that wasp and bee attacks are frequent, and there is even a shelter built out of screens in this area.  First aid workers stand nearby.  Thankfully we did not need their services, though Prasad told us that a few weeks back, several Chinese tourists ended up being hospitalized because of a particularly violent attack.  He said they were talking too loud.   I’m glad he didn’t tell us about any of this until we got up there, because Genene is very afraid of bees and wasps and she would have spent the entire time fretting.


This ruin was probably barracks of some sort.

A lookout perch.

We prepared for the final ascent, which begins between the Lion’s Paws.  

 A little wider view gives more perspective.

From here, you can see the top.

Up we climbed.  I am woefully out of shape and had to stop from time to time along the way.  I sounded like an asthmatic, and I am amazed that the bees didn’t attack and kill me for wheezing so loud.  

We made it to the top!

My baby is not so little any more….

From the top, the views are stunning.  The catchment basins still hold water.  

The king’s throne.


When we finished exploring the summit, we had to go back down the way we had come up.  It was starting to get a little more crowded.  These two photos give an idea about how steep the rock face is.

As we went back down, I looked back at where we had been.  I wondered about how well all these scaffolds are secured into the rock.  

On the way out, we had to pass through the vendors hawking their wares.  It reminded me of all the rides at Disneyworld and how they always funnel you through the gift shop on the way out.  

Dinesh (at right) was waiting for us at the van with fresh pineapple.  It was so sweet and delicious, and we let the juices run down our faces, hands and arms.  

It was late morning when we finished our Sigiriya climb, and Prasad suggested that we take a tour of the nearby village.  We could get some lunch and learn how the local people live and work.  

There is a motorcycle in the way in this next photo, but can you see this cart?  It’s being pulled by what the villagers were calling a “tractor.”  It looks more like small lawn mower with tiller handles for steering, and they loaded it down with people.

Our ride was much lower tech–a bullock cart.

The cart had no shocks.  If a car rode rough, my dad would say, “This thing rides like a log wagon.”  I think that an Arkansas log wagon and a Sri Lankan bullock cart are probably first cousins.

Our bullock cart “driver” guided the animal by scratching his back.  If he scratched on the right side, the bullock moved left and vice versa.   If the bullock slacked his pace, the driver just gave a little touch and the animal sped up.  

We passed other carts and bicycles along the road.

We saw families in the water.  Looks like Mom is doing the wash while Dad plays with the kids.

A young man casts his net to fish.

We alighted from the bullock cart, and I checked to make sure I still had all my fillings.  We scrambled down a hill and climbed into a boat.

Here’s the ramp, which probably isn’t OSHA approved.

A heron sits  in the tree.

A kingfisher watches the water.

Dinesh is a man of many talents.  He can drive, and he can paddle.  

Our bullock cart driver, now a boat pilot, stopped and collected lily pads.  He made this hat for Genene.

They picked a beautiful lotus flower for my my beautiful girl.

We crossed the lake to our destination.  Get a load of this boat ramp.

We met two lovely women whose job was to teach us about village life.  They went right to work.

She broke open the coconut like it was an egg.  


Prasad explained that no part of the coconut would go to waste.  The outer husks are piled up around the trees for mulch.  The inner shells are used as drinking cups or bowls.  The meat of the coconut is, of course, eaten.

She mixed a vegetable curry.

Genene tried her hand at grating the coconut.  

Coconut milk is made by pouring water into the freshly grated coconut.  You squeeze, squeeze, squeeze until the water becomes milk.  

This lady is using the post to drive into the bucket, which is filled with rice.  The force of the dropping post separates the rice from its husks.

I took a turn.  It was satisfying to pound on the rice, though I tired quickly.

She tossed the rice into the air.  The hulls flew away, leaving behind the perfect grains of rice.  She wouldn’t let us help with this part, probably because she knew we would have tossed it all on the ground.

The curry is simmering.

The ladies showed us how they used handles around the tree to climb for coconuts.  Have I mentioned that Dinesh is a man of many talents?  He saw the challenge and immediately took it.  Up the tree he went.  The ladies got great joy from this and laughed heartily as he shinnied up the tree.

He waved from the top.

And back down again.

Nothing is wasted.  Coconut tree fronds are woven and used on a thatch roof.  The ladies showed us how it was done.

It took about three minutes for each of them to weave a panel.  

Time to eat!  The coconut bowls had a hole in the bottom.  She dipped the water out, held it up, took her finger off the hole, and we had fresh clear “running” water.

Curry, fried lake fish, okra, rice and chips.  No utensils are used.  Sri Lankans eat with their hands, using each of their five fingers to mix the different foods for different flavors.  It was delicious.

Here’s the whole spread.  Prasad is on the left and Dinesh on the right.

After lunch, we admired their vegetable garden.

Elephants and humans are in conflict in Sri Lanka, and these lookout towers are used to watch for the beasts before they get to the garden.  It’s about like a deer stand.  Villagers use firecrackers to drive the elephants away.

Genene and I climbed into the lookout.  As soon as I got in there and took this shot, I climbed right back down.  I don’t think it was made for a big American girl like me.  I was afraid of going through the floor and ending up on the ground.  

After lunch, they let Genene try to grind some millet.  She’s rocking her skull ring and Fall Out Boy wrist bands!

The naughty monkeys played nearby.  I caught a brief glimpse of a mongoose but was unable to get a shot of it.

This weaver’s nest was hanging eye-level from a tree.  


We heard the sound of a motor in the distance.  Our chariot ride was approaching.  We bade our goodbyes to the hard-working ladies.  A single tuk-tuk came to the village house and picked us all up–the Gordon family plus Prasad and Dinesh.  It was a tight squeeze.  Before long, a second tuk-tuk appeared, and Dinesh and Prasad climbed out and got into their own tuk-tuk.  We are not sure what happened, but our driver was not a happy camper.  When he pulled up to the starting place for the tour, he had a very animated conversation with the tour operators.  They were all hollering at each other, and we took the opportunity to climb out and get away.  No tip for you, Mister Grumpy-pants!  We asked Prasad what had gone on, and he said that tuk-tuk drivers were always in a bad mood.  

We were hot, sweaty and beat.  Luckily it was not a very long drive back to our lodge, and we were happy to go to our hut and take a load off.  We showered off and rested for a while.

At supper time, we took the short walk from our hut to the lodge.  Again, we heard rustling in the trees.  Our day ended as it began: the naughty monkeys climbed around over our heads.  They were so much fun to watch as they jumped from tree to tree.  

We saw so much today.  It was hard to process.  How do you build a fort out of a slab of rock using no machinery?  Imagine the manpower it took.  How long does it take to paint 500 women onto a wall for your king?  The paint is permanent, so there is no second chance to get it right.

And then there are the questions about life today.  How do you protect your food supply from an elephant?  How many parts of a coconut can you use?  How long does it take to pound enough rice and shred enough coconut to feed your family?  Can you weave a thatch roof fast enough to keep the out the monsoon rains?

The ingenuity of the people–ancient and modern–is amazing.  I can’t wait until tomorrow.