A Sense of Travel — Sri Lanka

A SENSE OF TRAVEL . . . With Georgia Hesse 

Sri Lanka boasts more names than there are grains of rice in a paddy – Ceylon (British colonial name, dropped in 1972), Serendip (from the Persian fairytale “The Three Princes of Serendib,” employed by Horace Walpole to coin the word “serendipity” in 1754), Taprobanê, Pa-Outchow (“isle of gems” in Chinese), and many, many more.

Sri Lanka is a never-never land, a phantasmagoria, a mythosphere. Dangling like a teardrop off the southeast coast of India, only slightly larger than West Virginia, she crowds into her space primeval jungles where leopards  lurk; swatches of arid desert; wide beaches both boutique-chic in Bentota and Galle and business-bustle in Trincomalee; hill country where brilliant green tea estates stun the eye.

Around Ratnapura, precious gems hide in water-filled alluvial pits in the shadows of 7,360-foot Adam’s Peak, a point holy to four religions: Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Muslim. Each cites the footprint impressed on a boulder at the  summit. Was it made by Adam as the Muslims say, or by Gautama Buddha or by Lord Shiva during a dance or by St. Thomas the Apostle, as Roman Catholics believe? I know only that more yellow butterflies flutter there than anywhere on earth and that the greeting most uttered by pilgrims along the trails to the top is “karunavai”: peace.

Rocks that rose from the ocean in Mesozoic times (150 million years ago, perhaps), brought to the commerce of antiquity a generosity of gems  plucked from the dreams of the Queen of Sheba and Cleopatra,  Elizabeth Taylor and Catherine the Great: rubies, alexandrites, aquamarines, amethysts, tourmalines, cat’s eyes, garnets, zircons, and sapphires, always sapphires, including the 400-carat Blue Belle that adorns the British Crown.

Somewhere in childhood we became enchanted with the ruins of Greece and Rome, of India and of Egypt. Of Ceylon-Sri Lanka we are ignorant. Our books say nothing of Anuradhapura, of Polonnaruwa or Mihintale or Sigiriya. These have the unfinished, random, insubstantial qualities of dreams. Unlike in Pompei or Ephesus, the only structures deserving to endure were those dedicated to the Buddha. Wood and clay sufficed for profane places, houses and shops and arenas which have by now been swallowed by the earth.

Human settlement began in Anuradhapura, the ancient capital, in about 500 B.C.E.  In the annals of monumental masonry, the ruins rank second only to the pyramids of Egypt. The king dwelt in a bejeweled palace of 1,000 chambers, but when the city fell in the 10th century, only the holy Bo tree, the Sri Maha Bodhi, was supported as the relic of past splendors. In its shade, Buddha himself gained enlightenment. Attacked by a bad blight in 1950, it was saved by wizards from the Smithsonian Institution.

Anuradhapura is nearly inexhaustible. Do not miss the Jetavanarama, most massive earthmound of its kind on earth. Bulging atop eight acres, it is larger than all but two of Egypt’s pyramids. Just 32 miles away, the Aukana Buddha  stands four stories tall. His name means “sun-eating.” Visit him at dawn.

Anuradhapura endured for 1,400 years through the reigns of 123 kings. Her successor, Polonnaruwa, lasted for two centuries (the 11th to 13th) and a dozen rulers. Its centerpiece, the Terrace of the Tooth Relic or, more simply, The Quadrangle, a grouping of 12 superb structures, stands in the center of the city. The huge “tank” or irrigation lake that served as lifeblood was constructed by a thousand men working 24 hours a day for at least 12 years.

Of all the prodigious artworks of Polonnaruwa, the four 12th-century sculptures known as the Gal Vihara will most startle your senses. Who first imagined attacking a wall of granite with a chisel (?) and “releasing” (previewing Michelangelo) the spirits of Buddha that lived within the stone? One poses proudly, his arms crossed, his expression calm, his body relaxed, standing 23 feet tall. (In fact, this is not Buddha but a favorite disciple, Ananda.)

Near Ananda, a 46-foot Buddha reclines, entering into the state of parinibbana, relinquishing human existence and blissfully entering  Enlightenment. (Nibbana we know as nirvana.) His head depresses his pillow slightly; his form as serenely undisturbed as it has remained for nine centuries. When he awakes, we will have passed beyond time.

And now we leave? Not before we have beheld the stupendous red stone monolith that soars 600 feet out of densely green scrub jungle into the high blue of sky. This is the Citadel of Sigiriya, a rocky fortress crowned by a fabled palace that presided here 16 centuries ago – and endured for only 18 years. Its ruins stretch across the bulk of Lion Rock; the site settles into the memory with all the mystery of myth. Once a pilgrim had to ascend through the stony jaws and throat (“giriya”) of a lion (“sinha”), whose shape was sculpted halfway up the monolith.

Today, you mount a stairway between gigantic paws with terrifying toenails. Within a grotto on the western face, bare-breasted maidens smile and frolic; Asia’s oldest landscape gardens survive as do lovely ponds, rippled by a lazy breeze. Hold your breath. Nothing in “Star Wars” surpasses Sigiriya.

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