Touring Sigiriya; Polonnaruwa, Heritage, Monastery, Buddhism

After my experience with Rani the elephant,  I then did some more traditional touring of Sigiriya, sight-seeing the next day at Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka.

Driving to Polonnaruwa Sri Lanka I noticed that there were an inordinate amount of army camps proudly displaying their various battalion insignia at their front gates.  When I questioned this the reason seemed to be that during the Tamils last uprising they came very close to this area and after the conflict it was deemed a strategic place to station troops for the future.

The road also passes through Minneriya with its huge ancient lake on one side.  Apparently during the evening herds of 200-300 wild elephants cross this road to get to the lake for water.  I was hoping to catch this spectacular sight, but it wasn’t to be.

Touring Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa a world heritage site

The ancient city of Polonnaruwa  is a world heritage site and the remains of the ancient kingdom of King Parakramabahu I which dates back to the 12th century. Although unable to boast the same glory as Anuradhapura it still has amazing ruins from the past set over only 4 kilometres. I reckon you’d need a good 2-3 days for touring Sigiriya and surrounding areas to really view it properly and I only had the one. Bodhi drove me to the most important places, but I noticed some tourists hiring bicycles to get around which seems an eminently sensible way to explore the site.  I visited the small but very informative museum before setting off around the site.


The first stop was King Parakramabahu’s palace, or rather the remains.  Set next to the lake he had built to irrigate the land it looks all very impressive as was his throne shaped like a lion where he conducted his day to day business with ministers.  The stone pillars in the chambers denote where each minister would stand, and it didn’t take much imagination to envision a resplendently dressed king sat on his stone lion asking his various ministers what had and hadn’t been accomplished.

The next stop in touring Sigiriya in Polonnaruwa was to view an ancient statue of a man with what looks like a scroll.  Opinion is divided as to who this might be.  Some say it is King Parakramabahu himself, others that’s is simply a depiction of some wise sage. I really do sometimes wish a time travelling machine were reality so that we could go back and get answers to our historical questions.

As subsequent kings took over the throne they never seemed to want to live in their predecessor’s palace and would build another.  I visited the last King Nissankamalla’s even more impressive palace.  You can see the holes where wooden beams would have held other storeys of the building as well as wander around remnants of various rooms and staircases that he and his courtiers would have used.

His ministers chamber was even loftier that the first kings and his bath was sumptuous though more a swimming pool rather than a bath as we know it (imagine how much bubble bath it would take!)

Then on to a pyramid structure though again the history behind this was a little sketchy.  I have no idea whether it was influenced by what the architect may have seen on a trip to Egypt or whether it was vice versa.  I like to think the Egyptians did it first.

Touring Sigiriya Polonnaruwa temple complex

Next was the temple complex which is where the sacred tooth was originally housed.  Interestingly the complex has a mixture of ancient Buddhist and Hindu temples so religious tolerance was obviously at work.  Though it was rainy and muddy, hats and shoes still had to be removed for this site and I realised how soft the soles of my feet are compared to Sri Lankan’s every time I stepped on a sharp pebble.

At the Buddhist temple there are 4 seated buddhas facing north, south, east and west.  On one of the seated Buddhas there are remnants of the white calcium or lime overcoat that all the statues would have been covered with. The stone plinth at the bottom of each staircase is a Moonstone with 4 circles of carved beasts again relevant to Buddhism.  They are the buffalo, the lion, the elephant and the duck.  Moonstones were the ancients version of a doormat and would have been handy for standing on while your feet were washed before entering the holy temple.

On an aside, all the black marks you can see in the pictures are scorch marks where the Tamils tried to destroy these monuments and set fire to them in the last war.  And sadly, at the last temple, there was a high vaulted room where obviously a tall buddha of at least 10m would have stood and he was apparently covered in a white shimmering layer that sparkled as the sun hit it from cleverly constructed holes in the top of the wells. However, again, the Tamils had torn this down and destroyed it during the last war so only an empty plinth was visible.

And then finally onto the 3 buddhas that are carved out of the rocky outcrop they are forever attached to.  One reclining, one standing and one sat meditating.  Again all 3 are pretty huge and I was impressed at how the carvers had incorporated the different colours of rock strata to add texture and movement to the statues and avoid the darker streaks which would have spoilt the overall effect.  They also seemed to have done it without ever making a mistake as there were no corrections I could see.  I’d like to think our artisans would be able to accomplish the same even if you took away their computer simulations and modern tools however I wonder….

Touring Sigiriya, taking in some local food

We were late on our way back and night was already drawing in (hence why I missed the elephant herds crossing the road) and I knew the French group would be at dinner by the time I got back to the hotel.  Not wishing to face the noise we stopped off at a local roadside restaurant called Maha Kithula in Bandiwewa and the owner, Nadeeka, fed us her home cooked food consisting of 8 different components, chicken curry, rice, dahl and a host of vegetables cooked and spiced in different ways.  It was delicious, and I could see why locals cram in here to eat though, from the writing on her walls from other tourists, I would say it is definitely a favourite place for visitors too once discovered.

Chatting to Nadeeka afterwards I found out that in 1995 her 21-year old policeman husband had been targeted and killed by the Tamils.  She was left alone with a son and daughter to raise and a father to look after.  Though she did receive a small pension from the police because her husband had been so young it wasn’t enough to live on.  Obviously, with a bit of entrepreneurship in her, she added a large lean-to to the main house, kitted it with tables and chairs and then stocked it with food offerings straight from her kitchen.  Hey presto, she opened her own restaurant which is doing nicely though she finds it a struggle to compete with the large hotels in the nearby vicinity.  Though we only spoke briefly I get the impression she will figure a way around this problem too.

Back at the hotel I snuck past the French crowd at dinner, Ajhit organised me a plate full of tempting deserts and I retired to my room.

Touring Sigiriya; Ritigala Rock Monastery

The next day was on my touring Sigiriya adventure was to be a visit to Ritigala Rock Monastery.  Ritigla Mountain is the highest in Northern Sri Lanka and translates to ‘safe rock’.  The Monastery has not yet become touristy so the area around it is pretty basic (it’s the only time I was faced with a hole in the ground toilet rather than a western lavatory) but in a way the fact that it was not heaving with tourists made a pleasant change.

The monastery was built by monks in the 1st century BC but is not Buddhist.  It was a place where 500 monks lived in contemplation and meditation in a very solitary environment embracing extreme austerity.  Some became complete hermits and lived in cave like dwellings in the forest on the mountainside.

The monastery itself starts at the base with a large ‘bath’ where the monks would bathe and collect food that the villagers brought for them.  Then steps and a stone pathway lead 750 metres upwards leading to various ‘landings’ (17 in total) each with 2 small building footings still visible, 1 may have been a room for monks to mediate in the 2nd we’re not sure of but could have been a cooling or heating room.  Alongside these rooms is also a raised walking edge where monks could pace and meditate at the same time. There was even a decorated plinth on one of the landings with feet carved into it and a hole which could only have been an ancient urinal.

Following a young local man who had joined me and Bodhi for the ascent he suddenly shot off to one side.  Scrambling over tumbled down stone buildings, rock ledges and clambering through the forest floor strewn with twisting roots we eventually emerged at one of the cave dwellings the hermit monks used.  It really was a cave chiselled out of the rock overhang with a well thought out drip channel carved all around the top to divert rain water away and a stone seat outside the entrance way.  As I sat on the stone seat looking out over the landscape below and listening to the birds chirruping, whippling and warbling a sense of peace descended over me. It began to rain but with the thick canopy of the forest overhead you could only hear the rain pattering on the leaves.  I closed my eyes enjoying the peacefulness and could quite imagine why monks might prefer a hermit’s life to one in normal society.

Touring Sigiriya, Lake Kala Wewa

Once back down the mountain we continued touring Sigiriya with a drive to Lake Kala Wewa.  It was built in the 5th century to provide water for irrigating the crops and to feed the canals that were used for transportation.  The road follows on the top of the raised lake banks with one side having the water for the lake below and the other the villages and crop fields.  Even today locals take their washing to the lake and then back over to their side and lay it all flat out on stones to dry in the sun.  Their cows are tethered all along the village bank side with their accompanying white Egrets who eat their ticks and flies for them.  While observing them and having noticed how vines used the trees in the forest to support themselves to grow, I was reminded of the benefits of biologically beneficial symbiotic relationships where both support/sustain the other without causing harm.  The trick, I have always thought, is to simulate these types of relationships in our every-day work practices which would then lead to a more harmonious way of (co)operation.


I noticed a lot of boats pulled up on the lake shore and went over to ask what it was they caught with them.  It was with sad expressions that I was informed ‘nothing’. Apparently, the boats had been donated by the UN after the tsunami to help the local communities get back on their feet.  Problem is that they are the wrong sort of boats!  The ones donated are fine for close shore fishing but most of these fish stocks have all but disappeared.  What was needed were boats that could go out further following the fish shoals.  Nice one UN – perhaps ask the local communities what it is they actually need before you supply things next time?

Feeling peckish I stopped off at a local café which really was a local café not someone’s house.  Owned by a Sri Lankan who didn’t speak a word of English (thanks to Bodhi not a problem) retired from the army having had his leg shot off during the Tamil uprising.  The food was very basic, curry gravy and a fried egg but he made the most delicious fresh Paratha I have tasted for a long time.

Our last stop of the day was at Aukana to look at another standing buddha hewn from rock and standing over 12m high overlooking one of the ancient king’s lakes.  This one is posed in the ‘blessing’ attitude.  Again, all very impressive and cleverly executed.  I ear-wigged a conversation a senior monk was having with a group of Europeans in the temple and gleaned that this monument too is not yet exploited to its full tourist potential.  Something perhaps the monks here need to bring in some much-needed revenue?

The next morning, I prepared to leave Sigiriya Jungles and Cyril very sportingly came out to wish me well and see me off.  Next stop on my journey is to Wilpattu National Park to see if I can spot Sri Lanka’s famous leopard.

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



Sigiriya elephants