‘The Enchanted Island’ was a brilliant name for our tour, designed by Cox & Kings to explore both cultural attractions and natural wonders.
This was my second visit to the island but the magic was as bright as ever, from temples and ancient cities to sacred lakes and rocks imbued with thousands of years of history.
Our first port of call was Mihintale, the cradle of Buddhism in Sri Lanka where in 247 BC the war-weary king was converted by Prince Mahinda, a disciple from India. Today pilgrims come from all over the country, especially in June during the full moon when according to legend, it all began. It’s a long climb up the hill – 1840 steps although you can park about halfway up – then the massive white stupa greets you with a secluded temple, home to a colourful Reclining Buddha. Reflect for a while then climb up the sacred rock, if you dare, look up to the Seated Buddha on the ridge and take in the fabulous views. Below are ruins of a monastery and a hospital which may have been the oldest in the world.
It’s only a few miles to Anuradhapura, the original capital founded around the 4th century BC by Pandukabhaya, the first real Sri Lankan king, some say, marking the start of a golden era. Centuries later, after the Chola conquest, the capital lost its political status but its religious importance never faltered, thanks to a sapling from the original Bo Tree under which Buddha attained enlightenment. It’s still there today, carefully propped up, surrounded in prayer flags, offerings and banners carrying wishes or thanks. There are ancient moonstones and columns, statues, twin ponds, and the island’s oldest dagoba but my favourite was the beautifully restored Great Stupa, enclosed by a stunning wall of life-sized stone elephants. Chanting drifted now and then and monks in orange robes gazed at the birds.
The next day, after an idyllic night in the forest-clad Kandalama hotel, we made our way to Polonnaruwa, the second capital from the 11th to the 13th century. In this vast archaeologic site, we wandered around impressive monuments, from the palace remains and council chamber to the circular relic house and stone inscriptions and images. But most of all I remember the Gal Vihara with its four Buddha sculptures carved out of a single granite wall. It was hot in Polonnaruwa but we cooled down with coconut juice and strolled by the lake across the road.
That afternoon, I could barely wait for the climb to Sigiriya, the Lion Rock where a citadel com palace was built 1500 years ago by a patricide king. Imposing, precipitous, the rock rises some 660 feet above the plain and as you approach through the royal pleasure gardens, you wonder how you’ll ever get up. Stone steps, flimsy stairways, few handrails, it’s a dizzying climb but you can rest for a minute or two in the fresco cave, looking at the divine maidens, so enticing but no photos allowed. Then it’s up again to the Lion’s Terrace, a place to stop and marvel at the views or catch your breath and face the final stretch. Up there you will feel on top of the world but when ruins begin to glow in the setting sun, don’t wait too long to come down.
Day five and it was time to move on, first a quick look at the Dambulla cave temples and their 185 statues then on to Kandy, the island’s cultural capital surrounded by mountains and famous for gems, handicrafts, folklore, botanical gardens and ancient houses and temples. The Temple of the Tooth (a Buddha’s relic) is the most sacred on the island so expect lots of pilgrims and tourists and remember where you leave your shoes. Wood carvings, painted ceilings, sculptures, gilded ornaments, it’s an art lover’s delight and you’ll need plenty of time to do it justice. Meanwhile, just a few steps away, boats invite you to sail on the lake and feel the vibes in the most enchanting city at the heart of Sri Lanka.
Read about Natural Wonders in Sri Lanka.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Cox & Kings