Friday, May 22, 2009

Anuradhapura – an Ancient and Sacred Grandeur of Sri Lanka

There is an element of thrill traversing through the unsecure terrain or brushing past the boundaries of militarily hostile neighbors. I felt this excitement at the India Pakistan Wagha border in Amritsar, traveling past the southern Lebanon townships near Israel border. However, neither of the above would match the excitement of our travel to Anuradhapura along A9 highway that heads straight to Jaffna. Anuradhapura was considered as a last frontier in the battlefield of LTTE and Sri Lanka Govt.

It was Nov 2008. Sri Lankan defense forces were nailing down LTTE but LTTE still had the punch. There were reports of LTTE losing hold on the eastern front but Northern machinery was still intact. There was a lurching fear that LTTE might get desperate and bounce back to avenge their loss of eastern front. Exactly a year ago, LTTE had made daring air, ground attack on the Anuradhapura Air Base, and destroyed seven aircrafts. This was the highest casualty suffered by Sri Lanka Air Force in their war against LTTE. Though our journey was not exactly inside the LTTE territory, we were almost under their nose.

Temptation to witness historical and spiritual place outweighed any risk it might invite. We were fortunate to get a shield from police headquarters in Anuradhapura but were clearly been instructed to reach before it gets dark. Our journey started from Kandy via Matale, a place that has taken brunt of many wars against British forces but also known for beautiful woman. I wonder if there was any association between these two factors.

We drove past through Aluwiharaya – a Buddhist holy place. We could see a temple built on a rock, and were told that a view from the top is great. We could not afford to take a stop over, as we had to hit the Anuradhapura by evening. In fading light, traveling through green lush rice paddies with an occasional cyclist or bunch of hamlets along the road did bring a sense of fear. There were stories of mugging, hijacking along the A9. Though these incidents happened past Anuradhapura but name A9 had become notorious. Meanwhile, police office kept us calling to know our whereabouts. This was indeed reassuring. As the night cover descended on us and with just car light, we could only see silhouettes of swaying trees on the either side of the road.

The visible signs of barricades on the either side of the road made us aware that we were in Anuradhapura. The security was alert; men touting machine guns would watch car occupants at a distance under high beamed torch. It was obvious that they could not risk with incidents of spate of suicide bombers. This would be followed by cursory investigation with the driver while metal detectors would be in use against every part of the car. I realized, being a national did bring certain friendliness on their faces. I had witnessed the same at Kandy Shrine (Temple of the Tooth), when they allowed me to carry my camera after being told of my nationality. Few more barricades, a police officer’s car, and a bike were waiting for us to take us to beautiful Palm Garden resort.

Palm Garden Village Hotel is a luxurious landscaped property with many chalets. After our exciting and adventurous trip, I would have loved to have Lion beer, but on a full moon day, no alcohol is served. Nonetheless, it made me happy to be in this holy city on a holy day.

A brief snapshot of Anuradhapura: This city was established by Devanampiya, who ruled from 305 to 266 B.C. Around the same timean Indian emperor Ashoka (304 BC – 232 BC) was of the Maurya Dynasty ruled almost the entire Indian subcontinent from 273 BC to 232 BC. Mahindra and Sanghamitra were twins born by his first wife, Devi, in the city of Ujjain. King Ashoka sent these two children to Sri Lanka with cutting from the 'tree of enlightenment’. In their company, Devanampiya converted to Buddhism. Since then, Anuradhapura became not just great monastery but also political and religious capital that flourished over 1,300 years. Like Angkor Wat, this place was also hidden in dense jungle for many years. Now a UNESCO world heritage site, the place is on the map of world travelers with all its palaces, monasteries and monuments.

After the work in the morning, we visited Bodhi Tree Temple (The Sri Maha Bodhiya). This is the second most sacred place in Sri Lanka, after the Sri Dalada Maligawa, or Temple of the Tooth, in Kandy. This Bodhi tree is part of original Bodhi tree under which the Gautama Buddha attained Nirvana. This makes this tree of 2000 year old. The temple complex is surrounded by historical remnants. The original branch of this sacred tree is supported with iron crutches. The tree stands on a special platform, protected by a gold plated railing.

A white-stone Ruwanveliseya Dagoba is another holy place adjacent to Sri Maha Bodhi. This place is surrounded by a wall of carved elephant heads is the biggest stupa at Anuradhapura. As one walks past Sri Maha Bodhiya to Ruwanveliseya Dagoba, one can go past the Brazen Palace. This was a dwelling for the Buddhist monks over 2000 years ago. Now only 1,600 stone columns are mute witness to what was to be ten storied, thousand-roomed monument. Ruwanveliseya Dagoba like any other stupa is built in a round shape with a point on the top. I wondered what it be like inside this dome? Is it empty inside or filled by bricks? However, I learnt that one could not go inside. This is not a place of worship but rather a place to store the ashes of monks. The stupa is conceived in the shape of a pure "water drop or a bubble".

We could not visit the Thuparama Dagoba, the oldest temple in Anuradhapura that is believed to contain the right collarbone of Buddha and The Jetavanarama Dagoba, 3rd century stupa that also houses 3000 monks and many museums that detail the history of Anuradhapura.

After thanking our police friends in Anuradhapura, now with no fear of LTTE and rejuvenated with spiritual purification, we started our return journey via Kurunagale. "Kurune" means an Elephant with protruding teeth and Gala in Sinhala means rock. This place named after Elephant Rock has a sprawling lake and also Buddha perched on the hill. We enjoyed our food with Lanka beer in relaxing surroundings of resort and headed back to our temporary home at Tran Asia Hotel - Colombo.

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