As the afternoon lengthened we visited the Gal Viharaya Buddha stone sculptures at Polonnaruwa. The land around is so green and gentle in this region of the island: central, around 100 metres altitude, and generous rainfall. And to be by the giant reclining stone Buddha (14 m long) and the giant sitting Buddha just near it – carved from a vast solid granite seam of natural stone – with the gentle and green natural world, quiet and untouched by violent winds, made me think that Buddhism’s emphasis on quiet meditation could easily take hold and flourish in such a landscape, as it did more than two thousand years ago.
After Polonnaruwa we stayed in north-central Sri Lanka, and travelled south. As we drove through the dark, jungle on both sides of the road, the driver slowed to a stop. A large wild elephant was standing by the side of the narrow road. The driver accelerated past, clearly scared that the animal would do something unexpected like take a swipe at the vehicle.
The next morning as I was lying in the dark around five thirty I heard the cluck and cry of a peacock in the jungle near our cabin. After we rose and left for the mountain fortress called Sigiriya. It was around six thirty and en route we stopped by a meadow illuminated by the sun tipping over the horizon in orange glow, and the driver turned off the engine.
All around us a soundscape of bird song piped, called, sung and effused, in quiet worship of the rising sun. We were the only people around and this moment was more affecting than many tourist visited ‘sites’ on conventional itineraries. I can’t reproduce in words what it was like standing by this tropical meadow in the early morning light with a strange dawn chorus, but if I tried I might resort to overused adjectives like ancient and untrammeled, sacred and delicate.
We continued onwards to the mountain and to Sigiriya.
This is the moat around the palace, built in the sixth century A.D.
We continued walking, and there it was, rising over the thick jungle, a vast pillar of stone capped with palace ruins, rising up into the sky with a majesty that rivals any other human monument.
We were there as it opened at seven, and I went ahead. I stepped on a bridge over the long and wide moat, perfectly designed and executed in large stone slabs. I was the only person there at that time, and I moved up the stone corridors and staircases with a sense of intrigue for what such a kingdom had constructed at the same time that Europe was in the Middle Ages.
Further up huge boulders were strewn about and the stairs wound through them, fitting snugly with cut stones, stones worn by centuries of feet. And then the ascent began.
The path cut directly across the massive face of the stone monolith, a 370 metres tall volcanic plug, a face which actually overhangs the landscape below at many points. Upon reaching the first ridge the stairs turned and opened out into a landing. And then they began again, but at this point flanked by two giants lion’s feet, heavily clawed, and cut from the rock itself.
Coming to this palace in the sky as a denizen of Lanka would have been one of the most awe-inspiring experiences of any kingdom then or now. The stair case became extremely precipitous and I clung to the iron railings, looking down on a vividly green patchwork of primary rainforest and stone tanks. The horizon reared up here and there into mountains at the border of this bowl of deep green forest. Bird song floated up in snatches from the forest canopy far below.
And then we reached the summit.
Palace walls reached here and there, and we looked down on the plan and forest far into the distance, mostly uncut for agriculture.
Sigiriya is, although I didn’t know this until today, clearly one of the greatest places on planet earth, a sublime blend of natural majesty and human civilization. I now add it in my mind to the pantheon of great natural or cultural sites on earth, along with things like Chartres cathedral, Stone Henge, Manchu Pichu and Milford Sound. I am surprised that I was unaware of this wonder of the world until coming to Sri Lanka a few days ago.
This is one of the King’s baths in the sky.
On the way down I bumped into a friend from France who I hadn’t seen in years. It’s always a surprise to see a familiar face half way up a cliff face on a tropical island in the Indian Ocean.
Further down I came to the famous frescoes of Sigiriya.
This may have been one of the women from the King’s harem. These frescoes are situated hundreds of metres up painted on ancient plaster stuck to a sheer stone face, and I wondered how many people had had actually seen them in the days when they were fresh.
Walking down I explored the ruins around the palace, cut out of, or into, the natural stone.
Its hard to believe this place is real. It is a palace in the sky which cascades down into green trees and gardens. The morning I spent there will mark one of the high water marks in my travels.