Monday 15 September 2014

Day 146: Dambulla and Sigiriya - A day for superlatives

Rhesus Macaque monkeys at the
Dambulla Cave Temple
A day featuring a five-hour drive does not sound terribly exciting, but it depends what you see in the other seven hours.  We drove north through the lush, forested interior of the island towards Dambulla cave temples, worthy of many more than five hours in the back of a car.  (As you can already tell, their beauty has a tendency to make people talk like travel guidebooks.  Anyone allergic to superlatives should read no further.)

The caves are hidden under a rocky hilltop.  We climbed up to it accompanied by some monkeys (aren't we always?), then looked out across the jungle at a view dense with chlorophyl.  But better views awaited in the dimly-lit innards of the rock, where King Vatta Gamani Bhaya hid himself for eighteen years in the first century BC.  When his kingdom was restored he rewarded the monks living here with a stunning gift of interior design.

Huge statues of buddhas fill the five cave temples while the ceilings are painted with scenes from Buddha's life.  The natural curves and protrusions of the stone seem to weave themselves organically into the story, although a few patches of damp disrupt things very slightly.  I hope they have some good conservators looking after these caves, to keep the drips at bay, because they are otherwise incredible.  (Add further superlatives as desired.)

The second room felt the most impressive

Bettering the cave temples is a tough job but Sigiriya's rock fortress certainly comes close.  Seen from a distance, this natural stone tower block would look impressive without any human edifice on top of it.  (OK, so I'm really starting to sound like a guidebook.)  But add a set of steps carved into the rock, and a palace-cum-stronghold on the summit, and it would tempt the most dedicated couch potato to climb to the top.  (Yes, definitely guidebook speak.)  It would also tempt them to conclude that a truly frightened king lived here.  (Just exactly how inaccessible do you need your palace to be?)

Two of the cloud maidens
King Kassyapa I was presumably terrified after chaining up his father and leaving him to die of starvation.  The rock fortress didn't save him but that need not stop the cameras from whirring and the mouths from drooling centuries later.

A couple of features to note included the cloud-maidens painted on the rock, which the guidebook considers a must-see (presumably because they show that Disney is not alone in demanding a minute waist and enormous breasts in the perfect female form.  Whatever their artistic merit, surely these paintings are a 1500-year-old wet dream?) and the enormous lion's claws sculpted into the rock at the foot of the stone staircase.  If only the whole lion remained, ready to pounce!  

At least the view cannot have changed much over the centuries, while ways of capturing it have improved considerably.
The rock fortress at Sigiriya
View to the south

Think you can finish it Susan?
To celebrate such an amazing, incredible, fabulous (OK, enough with the superlatives, we get the picture) day, it was time for a Sri Lankan fish curry.

It just needed a beer to help it down and we were soon happily swigging one.  'Wonderful,' thinks Guy.  And with that, the bank of superlatives shuts up shop for the day.

Reclining Budda at Dambula
A cobra to keep the rain off
The monkeys provide constant entertainment!
A view across the flat landscape of north-central Sri Lanka

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