Sri Lanka Elephants and a bucket list item ticked

My first morning in Sigiriya dawned and I jumped up with glee as I was about to tick off one of my ‘must do before I die’ items.  I had arranged to meet with a local mahout and his elephant (elephants are my favourite animal after monkeys) to help give her morning bath.  I arrived at the designated spot at a rivers edge and waited.  Whilst waiting we noticed a marsh crocodile swim towards us and crawl up on to the opposite bank.  “It’s a young one” said the guy who had organised the elephant for me. It may have been young, but it was quite long enough to make me wary and keep an eye on that bank.  However, I was then thankfully distracted by the female elephant arriving, splashing along the river with ears flapping and looking positively happy.  She knew her bath was imminent and obviously adores it.

Elephant bathing and feeding

Her name is Rani and she is 26 years old.  Her mahout called himself Alan which I suspect he has anglicised for tourists.  The first thing Rani did when she arrived was to urinate and defecate straight into the river – I don’t know if you have ever seen an elephant do either of these things, but it is prodigious! Charming I thought and waited until the river had flowed for a while before stepping into the water myself, still warily eyeing the opposite bank for the crocodile.

 

Rani lay down and waited expectantly.  Alan gave me a piece of coconut husk (the bit that encases the coconut) and showed me how to splash Rani with water and then use the fibrous inner part of the husk to scrub her skin. I cannot describe in words for you how privileged and ecstatic I was.  I scrubbed away at her back along with Alan and then behind and around her ears before moving to her trunk and looking into her face and eyes – I saw as much pleasure reflected back in them as there were in mine. After a while it was snack time and up she stood, sucking up trunkfuls of water and spraying herself down.  I was passed bananas, papaya and watermelon and allowed to feed them to her. She delicately took my offerings from me curling her trunk around the fruit and my hands before gently taking the fruit and popping them into her mouth. Her look of contentment was a picture (which Bodhi missed taking a picture of!) and I hugged her trunk trying to pass on my thanks in some way.  Even whilst writing this I can feel the thrill and there are tears in my eyes as I remember this experience which I will remember for the rest of my life.

Something I want to make clear, as it did worry me before I arranged this experience, is that most elephants in Sri Lanka are wild and cannot be approached.  The ones in captivity are the ones that, for whatever reason, are unable to be returned to the wild.  They are used for tourists to give rides (something I was not comfortable with doing) and bathing experiences as well as being used for ceremonial occasions, however, they are very well cared for.  The mahouts that own them must pay an enormous amount of money in Sri Lankan terms to keep one, so it is in their interest that the elephant is treated well and remains healthy.  However, I cannot help but feel sad that such an intelligent, social and emotional mammal is consigned to a fairly solitary life and hope that captive elephants will become a thing of the past in the future.

Sri Lanka, Dambulla Caves and Buddhism

After this brilliant start to my day it was then time to investigate the Dambulla caves.  Driving through Dambulla town it was clear that this is a hive of activity.  Apparently, all the fresh produce around Sri Lanka comes into Dambulla and is then distributed out to all the other regions.  Because of this it is a town that never sleeps, and various modes of transport are coming in with goods to offload and then others going out with deliveries 24 hours a day.  Prosperity is evident and Dambulla is a fast expanding, developing town and area with building projects galore underway.

Arriving at the Dambulla Caves Bodhi announced that the entrance we had pulled up to was not the entrance we would be going in by.  Apparently 2 senior monks had fought over who should be in charge of the tourist entry (and obviously their entrance fees) to the caves.  It was finally decided that there would be 2 entrances created, one for each, and the tourist entry point would be swapped between them at different times.  The main entrance we were at is the grandest called the Golden Temple with a large golden buddha and stupa which is why we were there. (I’ll explain what Stupa is in a minute).  Afterwards we would drive around to the other entrance to gain admittance.

Buddhist monks are supposed to eschew all material things (apart from their food bowl), be celibate and spend their time in various forms of meditation following the path the Buddha took.  Hence why the community around them tend to look after all their physical needs such as food.  The orange (saffron) robe the monks here wear is supposed to represent the colour of dead leaves which are useless to anyone signifying to other people that they have nothing so are not worth attacking or molesting.  The robe itself is made from torn strips of cloth stitched together in order to make it useless to anyone who might think about stealing it from them.

However, as I looked around I noticed that alongside this ostentatious entrance were huge buildings emblazoned with huge signs announcing, ‘Buddha radio’ and ‘Buddha TV’.  Considering this blatant commercialism and the squabbling over the entrance fee rights I did wonder whether these particular Buddhist monks were really living the life that Buddha intended with his teachings!

You will see Stupa’s all over Sri Lanka (the dome shaped constructions).  Any sizeable village and town will have a least one at its centre, usually near a school and alongside a temple.  The shape of the Stupa is also reflected in a lot of the Sri Lankan architecture.

The Stupa symbolises the main teachings of Buddha.

  • The lower dome part represents our human ‘sufferings’ – everything that goes badly, wrongly or against us, basically our selfish, greedy, self-absorbed, materialistic lives.
  • The box on top of the dome represents the 4 noble truths – it’s when we realise the truth about our sufferings, their causes, our desire for them to cease and the discovery of our path to accomplish the cessation of our sufferings.
  • The spire on top of this box are the 8 pole parts – the 8 things we should follow to end our suffering (right view, right words, right mindfulness, right livelihood, right approach, right thoughts, right actions and right mind concentration) and
  • the flame pinnacle represents ‘nirvana’ – where we accomplish all the below steps (enlightenment) and there is no rebirth afterwards.

Until we reach the pinnacle the Sri Lankan’s believe we keep coming back and are reborn into worse ‘sufferings’ if we have not led a good life previously.  I am not one for religious dogma but the philosophy of living a good, kind, caring and positive life are definitely worth aspiring to.

Dambulla caves and a lot of climbing

Having found the correct entrance, I was then faced by hundreds upon hundreds of steps stretching upwards for about 1km.  With my dodgy legs my heart quailed and it was going to be hard work anyway in the heat.  Luckily the monks that originally built these steps were a canny lot, they build rest areas into most of their long stair climbs at temples – presumably they found it hard work to get up there too. It took a while, but I made it.

At the top the views are astonishing though when I went it was still very overcast, so Sigiriya Rock was only a distant blob on the horizon.  Having removed shoes and hat again I then entered the complex which has 5 caves built into the rock face housing 153 Buddhas, including a reclining buddha, and 3 kings.  All the caves are highly decorated inside with dim lighting so as not to damage them, so it was hard to photograph in them.  Outside I loved looking at the rock floor which is never slippery when wet and has beautiful striation marks where the rock has folded in swirling patterns. I also spotted a large brass bell near the entrance and was told that the monks use this if one of them is sick and needs help and the villagers below rush up to help. If for the views from the top alone the climb was worth it but always remember you are going to have to get back down again (though there is a longer cobbled slope alternative).

 

After this escapade we had a late lunch at the Kalenduwa Hotel on the bank of Kalenduwa lake.  The hotel was designed with nature in mind so utilises a rocky escarpment as part of its walls and has been sympathetically built with the local flora and fauna in mind.  It sort of protrudes out of the wilderness without harming it.

We then headed off to Sigiriya Rock itself which loomed impressively in front of me and dominates the landscape for miles around.  However, it had begun to rain again and after the Dambulla caves I had to admit defeat from attempting another long and arduous trek upwards so simply looked at it from the bottom.

Returning to the hotel that evening I noticed what looked like rickety tree houses in the paddy fields.  I was advised that this is where the farmers tend to camp out at night to protect their crops from wild elephant trampling through and wild boar rooting up their valuable rice harvest.  They use fire-crackers these days to scare off the marauding wildlife and you can hear the sound popping away most nights. A lonely occupation they also play a local form of flute to pass the night hours and their neighbours in adjoining fields will join in with their own flutes or drums.  I wonder how long this will last until someone hits upon a more efficient but less romantic way of keeping the elephants and boar at bay.

If you missed my previous travel blogs on Sri Lanka, you can find them here:

Arriving in Sri Lanka

Perseverance and bruises

Finding answers – within yourself

Travel Tips

Kandy

Sigiriya