A Tale of Two Ancient Cities

From our base on Pipistrelle in Trincomalee we managed separate trips that took us to the interior of the island.  Both were interesting and fun in very different ways.

Continuing our cultural activities, the first was a visit Sigiriya and Dambulla, two ancient cities off the main road south west to Kandy, the cultural capital of Sri Lanka.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sigiriya is famous for its massive rock, which towers above the plains, and dates back millions of years.  It is perhaps Sri Lanka’s single most impressive site.  Near vertical rock walls soar to a flat topped summit that contains the ruins of an ancient civilisation.  Controversy remains amongst archaeologists as to whether it was originally an unassailable palace, or a monastery.

The route to the top is hard work, and also needs a good head for heights, as vertical spiral staircases take you to natural cave shelters that are home to very well preserved frescoes, thought to date after the 5th century, but the exact date is not known.  From there the path clings to the sheer side of the rock, before emerging on the north side on a large platform where two enormous lions’ paws were excavated by the British archaeologist HCP Bell in 1898.  This later gave the rock its name, Lion Rock, and originally a gigantic brick lion sat at this end of the rock, but has since disappeared.

A series of open steps and grooves in the rock from here provide access to the terraced summit, and more splendid views, as well as interesting archaeology.

There is a separate museum set amongst the gardens that lead to the rock, but we were not impressed by the fabric of the museum, or its exhibits which was all looking rather tired and not good value for money.  At $30 US each, the admission price to the site we considered expensive. There are separate prices for locals and foreigners throughout Sri Lanka, and we very much got the impression that the government is taking advantage of us ‘tourists’.

But without paying the fee we would not have been able to admire this awe inspiring site, nor appreciate the rock caves at Dambulla – again a charge of $25 US each.

Dambulla’s famed Royal Rock Temple is situated about 160 metres above the town, and is reached after an ascent on foot up the sloping rock face from the modern Golden Temple.  Happily it seems far away from the bustling commercial centre and one of the biggest wholesale markets in Sri Lanka, and  similarly to Sigiriya, the views from the top are very good.

Five separate caves contain about 150 Buddha statues, paintings.  The Buddha images were first created over 2000 years ago, and over the centuries subsequent kings added and embellished the superb cave art.  It is believed to have begun in the 1st century BC, when King Valagamba took refuge here.  After regaining his throne, he had the interior of the caves carved into magnificent rock temples.

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