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.

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