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.
Ahhh Lori, thank you beyond measure. All the skills exhibited by the Sri Lankan villagers are on par with your skills as a recounteur of the adventure.