We rise early, to a spectacular dawn chorus. Our rickshaw stands by to take us to Sigiriya, a complex of palatial ruins dating back to the 5th century.
The first thing we see on our approach is a huge 200m-high rock busting out of the ground and dominating the sky. It takes some effort to imagine that a palace with sprawling grounds, elaborate water gardens and pavilions once stood atop it. All that remains are craggy ancient ruins and dark mysterious pools. Most of the structures fell long ago, but their imprint and foundations are still here – and, while it’s easy to get lost, it’s said that some people walk around as if they’ve been here before.
It’s the done thing to scale the rock, a little daunting at first but, armed with a lust for adventure and some good walking shoes, I’m soon rewarded by stunning frescoes of buxom, wasp-waisted concubines. I fantasise that these were what motivated the kings, as a promise of what lay in wait at the summit. What greets us at the top is a stunning view. Up here, you can see that the entire site is unblemished by tourist shops and cafés, with only the odd visitor here and there. If only the same were true of every archaeological site around the world.
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We move on to Polonnaruwa, the once-great capital of the Sinhalese kingdom, over 1,000 years old. In its heyday, it was the commercial and religious capital and today it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The archaeological treasures to be found here give a good indication of what the kingdom once looked like, with palaces, temples and dagebas (memorial domes) testament to the might of King Parākramabāhu, who built his palace seven stories high here in a spellbinding feat of engineering.
The site is best explored by bike. My rusty specimen has definitely seen better days and I look more like Elliott from ET than Indiana Jones. Polonnaruwa is utterly atmospheric and still visited by pilgrims, who make offerings among thick mists of incense smoke. A reclining Buddha emphasises the significance of the city as a religious centre – Buddha in such a pose represents the period of his last illness before entering parinirvana. It signifies that this place was once deemed so magnificent, Buddha himself would have been happy to die here.
Suddenly, and without any warning, the heavens open. Perhaps it’s a spiritual cleanse – many of the pilgrims seem to think so. They stand in the warm torrent, beaming from ear to ear, laughing and accepting the drenching. The tourist in me has me running for cover, but then I stop. Rather than seeking shelter in a hut, a calm comes over me and I, too, accept this baptism. Having seen what I’ve seen in the past days, it seems foolish to flee from the water that not only feeds the land, but also the soul and spirit of this island nation.
I’m thrilled to have the chance to experience what in my mind is the real Sri Lanka. Being here, with my loved one by my side, dancing in the rain, makes me feel that I, too, perhaps am ready to get down and recline. I have found the enchanting place I spent my life searching for. I can’t say with any certainty that I’ve been here in a past life, but what I do know is that I’ll be here again.
Photography by David Hawkins, Hendrik Cornelissen, Melissa Kumaresan and Egle Sidaraviciute via Unsplash
Get out there
… travel as a couple. We travelled as an openly gay couple and received nothing but wonderful hospitality. It’s not uncommon here for men to travel together, but it goes without saying to exercise caution in more rural areas.
… take tea. Not just in the historical style at a luxury hotel, but take time to understand the agricultural significance of this national industry.
… travel long distances between destinations by private car. It’s cost-effective and easy to arrange. The ability to detour when you want is a bonus.
… shy from taking a train journey. They don’t go fast and are often delayed, but this will give you a slow travel opportunity to see the country.
… forget to indulge in a curry or any other home-cooking. Try the Murunga, a green bean, the fruit of the horseradish tree. It’s simply delicious.
… be scared seeing elephants roaming free everywhere. It’s for the best. Stay clear of anywhere offering an elephant experience; what goes on behind the scenes isn’t worth the experience.