Lessons from the past in Anuradhapura

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I stood at the base of the dagoba and thought, “huh”. It was impressive – tall and made from red bricks that were clearly very old – but it was nowhere near as beautiful as the gigantic white dagoba called Ruwanwelisaya that I had just seen on the other side of the Anuradhapura ruins.

I flipped halfheartedly through my guidebook to learn that the red brick dagoba is called Jetavana. I read on, hoping to learn something compelling. The guidebook stated matter-of-factly (as guidebooks tend to do) that Jetavana was built in the third century and once stood 120 metres tall… making it the third tallest structure in the ancient world only surpassed by the two Great Pyramids of Giza!

Immediately, I felt embarrassed. Moments before, I had leaned nonchalantly against these ruins, assuming them rather dull after the drama of the other sites in the area. I had had no idea that what I was looking at was once one of the most impressive feats of human engineering in the world. This just one more example of how travel can humble the traveler… I made a mental note to carry my guidebook with me more often when exploring the rest of the country.  

Earlier that day – much earlier, in fact, around 4AM – we had exhaustedly stumbled into a tuk-tuk to take a bus to these ruins, one of the points of what is called the “cultural triangle” of Sri Lanka. Consisting of the ancient sites of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, and Sigiriya, each site in the cultural triangle is a must-see for travelers on the island. Up until this past weekend, I had only so far seen Sigiriya and, with plans to see Polonnaruwa with a friend visiting from Canada next week, I figured it was also time to see Anuradhapura.

Six hours on an only-slightly-terrifying bus later, we arrived in the Anuradhapura town. We ate some roadside pineapple, dropped our bags in our AirBNB, then hired a tuk-tuk to bring us through the ruins. (We were originally going to bike around the ruins but after a crash-landing from a bike in South Africa a two Christmases ago, I’ve been a little hesitant about biking for tourist activities. Thankfully, my friends graciously understood and willing to lay down the extra cash for a tuk-tuk.)

For the next several hours, we dodged rain storms and monkeys and even a small herd of buffalo to wander around the ancient ruins at Anuradhapura. It wasn’t until I read in my guidebook about Jetavana, however, that I truly understood the value of this site. After that, I learned to better appreciate the opportunity to explore this side of human history. It’s an honour to walk where so many people over the centuries have also walked, as locals and tourists alike.

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Inside our only-slightly-terrifying bus from Colombo to Anuradhapura town

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First view of the outstanding Ruwanwelisaya dagoba

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Close up in the sun of the beautiful Ruwanwelisaya dagoba

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In contrast, the ancient Jetavana dagoba

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Exploring around the Ruwanwelisaya dagoba

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One of the many Buddha statues in and around the Anuradhapura ruins

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Selfie in front of the amazing elephant pond, which is an ancient water reservoir name for elephants because of its immense size

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