The cultural triangle in Sri Lanka doesn’t fit inside the frame of a white sand beach or wildlife safari, but it’s as relevant and impressive as any celebrated destination in the country. It carries with it an impactful impression that affects even the most sightless tourist. But it deserves a bit of photographic explanation on my part. Not for the lack of understanding from others, but because I’m the last person that would have understood this region’s significance had I not visited for myself.
I’m not religious. I’d love to join the ranks of those who say I’m spiritual instead, but truth be told, I can’t say honestly that I’m all that spiritual either. Perhaps that’s just the way we comfort ourselves for feeling godless – lay no claim to a denomination, but suggest you’ve got your own mystic supplication. Who knows? For me, my belief system lies in the mountains and rivers that overpower my existence. It lies somewhere within the wind, rain, snow and wild creatures that we scramble to understand, yet study endlessly in an effort to make sense of each in our own terms. It’s a personal decision and I mention it only because it’s relevant to Sri Lanka’s ancient cultural triangle in that there’s something mystical about each of these brilliant destinations.
But whether you’re guided by faith, simply have faith, or consider yourself faithless, no one walks away from this region of the country without feeling something greater than him or her. It’s an area grounded in Buddhism and the structural remains of 2,500-year-old kingdoms. One of the oldest human histories on earth, Sri Lanka contains significant cultural destinations that dot themselves in an unassuming triangle smack-dab in the middle of the country. This is Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle and this is a breakdown of our journey to each stop along the way.
First, we visited the ancient city of Anuradhapura. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, this ancient city is significant for it’s well preserved ruins and its status as the first ancient capital of Sri Lanka – a title that it held from 4th century BC until 1017 AD. Today, it’s a Buddhist mecca and plays home to countless dagobas, monastic buildings, and pokunas, and of course the oldest living tree – the sacred Bo-Tree. Supported by gold beams, it dates back to 245 BC and was where Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment.
For someone like me, that doesn’t mean as much as I know it should. But after witnessing a high monk in total mediation – unaware of anything and anyone around him – after holding a Bo leaf from the sacred tree in my own hand – after visiting the ruins of a bygone era – and after being blessed by a monk – it really is hard not to appreciate the implications of such a place. At the very least, it makes you reevaluate the concept of time and our impact on the planet.
Next on our itinerary was Polonnaruwa. Like most of the ancient kingdoms along the cultural triangle, Polonnaruwa is an impressive example of a city built around a complex irrigation system. Thousands of years prior to what we consider a modern pioneering practice, the ancient civilizations of Polonnaruwa simply relied upon it. King Parakramabahu I even demanded that no rainwater go back to the ocean without being used to develop the land. It didn’t. And that same irrigation system is still in use to this day. But water is one thing, structures are another and here you’ll find some so well intact, that it’s hard to believe they’re as old as they are.
A visit to the cultural triangle would not be complete without climbing the ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya. Seen for miles, this world heritage site looms 600 feet above the plains and carries an ominous presence throughout the terrain. The entrance has several acres of lush gardens, man made ruins, and crocodile-filled moats while the rock fortress itself is comprised of several stairs that access the cave frescoes and palace ruins on top. The frescoes are incredibly intact and their colors are as vivid as the day they were painted. From there, it’s a narrow, steep climb up an endless array of iron steps that scale the rock face above the lions entrance – a daunting task for the faint of heart. But once you reach the top, the rewards far outweigh the energy spent on the way up. From here, you can see for miles while under you lies the remains of a massive grotto, palatial structures and open spaces reserved for lavish rooftop parties of the primal kind. The only party I witnessed, however, was a viper slithering across a primordial brick wall.
On the long hike up to the golden temple of Dambulla, you’re greeted by troops of monkeys, that feel as if they’re a haunting reincarnation from the 2nd century BC. This sacred site has some of the best preserved murals and statues – all contained within gilded caves 530 feet above the lower plains. These caves, impressive in their own right, acted as an asylum for King Valagamba in his 14 year exile from Anuradapura when it was attacked by South Indian rebels. Today, they act as a testament to Buddhism and the preservation of history.
Still considered the cultural capital of the country, Kandy lies high in the mountains of Sri Lanka. It’s home to the University of Peradeniya and the Dalada Maligawa or Temple of the Tooth, which houses Buddha’s tooth relic in a casket that is revealed at night to a lavish ceremony that includes Kandyan dancers and drummers. The building itself is impressive and was built to resemble similar structures in Anuradhapura. From here, we moved on to the tea plantations of the highlands – the next post in this series.