About a three hour bus journey away from the beaches is the ancient city ruins of Anuradhapura. The main town these days isn’t much to look at except for the lovely art-deco train station.
On the west side of town however around the 3rd century BC was a flourishing capital city of the local kingdom and an important centre of monasteries, stupas and religious life for the newly introduced religion of Buddhism.
The city was the subject of multiple invasions and eventual abandonment and decay but the sights with restoration give some sense of the scale. The entire historical site is quite spread out so a bike is useful to get around.
None of the religious sites themselves looked to charge me any entry but officially there is a $25 a day ticket fee for foreigners. This is somewhat loosely enforced by checks around the roads so your mileage may vary depending on how closely you stick to the main routes.
Cycling around and peeping out through clearing in the trees one sees stupa after stupa – some in red brick while others gleaming bright white.
One of the most impressive structures is the Abhayagiri stupa which dates back to the 1st century BC and the original 100m structure is thought to be the 3rd highest building in the world at the time (the top two being Pyramids in Giza). The current rebuilt version still soars 75m out of the forest constructed of tens of millions of bricks.
Nearby is one of the finest Buddhist carvings in Sri Lanka – the samadi (meditating) Buddha. Sitting in a perfectly serene pose gazing down with equanimity at the flowers laid in front apparently the Indian independence leader Nehru pondered a photo of this for calm when imprisoned by the British.
The holiest place in the complex is that of the Bodhi tree. The historical Buddha realised enlightenment under a Bodhi fig tree in Bodhgaya in Northern India. A cutting of this historical tree was brought here by the princess of the famous King Ashoka and the trees have been tended for 2000 years.
In the evening I headed back to the Bodhi tree at sunset where pilgrims had come for evening chanting and overflowed out of the central hall. Dressed in white and bring flower offerings to my great surprise I heard them recite some of the same versus we had read in the Nilambe retreat although much faster! In the fading light, with the smell of flowers and incense this was the perfect close to my time in Sri Lanka.
Stayed: T&T hotel $12.50 a night – highly recommended
Good place to eat: Nuwarawewa Lakeside Hotel
Coffee stop: The Sanctuary at Tissewewa. Near the ruins but service is a bit slow/chaotic
- Get a mountain bike for 500 LKR a day
- Try to plan sight visits so it’s not just one stupa after another
- Stay for a while by the Bodhi tree – ultimately the tree isn’t the sight but the people watching