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  • Cecilia Clark

Sigiriya, Sri Lanka: March 21 - 23, 2024

Lion Rock, Sigiriya, as viewed from Pidurangala Rock

The first morning in Sigiriya we were up before dawn to hike up Pidurangala Rock for sunrise. Before the sun came up, it was blessedly cool. At the top the sunrise was obscured by low clouds, but the view at the top was expansive. The best view is of Lion Rock where other people also rose before sunrise to get to the monastery at the top. There are no structures at the top of Pidurangala Rock.

The trail up began with rock steps. Closer to the top and when we had some light, the trail became a scramble through huge boulders.

On the way down we had time and daylight to see what we had missed on the way up. A 40 ft/12 m Buddha reclines under a large rock face. The portions of the statue looted by treasure hunters have been reconstructed using bricks. The statue dates to 6th-7th century AD. The position of the Reclining Buddha shows he has attained parinirvana as indicated by the position of the upper foot (left) being slightly back from the right foot. He has left his physical body and in death has achieved nirvana.

Under a similar massive rock face are a series of cells used by monks.

Toward the bottom of the trail we saw the Pidurangala Image House which contains a reclining sleeping Buddha. The image house, through imagery, symbolizes the Buddha. Shoes must be removed to enter.

In the late afternoon, we were driven the 1-1/2 hours to Ritigala Archaeological Site. Ritigala Mountain, the highest mountain in northern Sri Lanka, was barely visible from the top of Pidurangala Rock. The tallest peak, at 2513 ft/766 m was obscured by low clouds. Fortunately, the archaeological sites located within the first 200 meters.

Ritigala Mountain is a residual mountain meaning it is the heavy rocks left behind after the effects of wind, water, glaciers, waves, and other agents of denudation (erosion) wear away at high mountains. Residual mountain refers to the remaining portion of these mountains.

The top of Ritigala Mountain is a strict nature reserve and visitors are prohibited from walking beyond the monastery ruins in order to preserve rare medicinal plants located near the top of the mountain. One popular version of why the top of Ritigala Mountain has so many rare, medicinal plants is that Lord Hanuman (the Hindu monkey god diety) flew over Ritigala and, by accident, dropped a chunk off a mountain of the Himalaya range he was carrying from India to Lanka for its medicinal herbs. The herbs were needed for Lord Rama's brother, Prince Lakshmana, who had been mortally wounded in battle and only a rare herb in the Himalaya could save his life. And, that is why and how the pocket of healing herbs and plants on the mini-plateau at the summit of Ritigala is distinctly different from the dry-zone flora of the lower slopes and surrounding plains at Ritigala (Wikipedia). Coincidentally, a purple-faced langur looking a lot like Lord Hanuman was sitting in a tree was at the trailhead.

The archaeological site which dates to 1st century BC consists of an Ayurvedic Hospital and a monastery populated by a large group of ascetic monks until the 9th or 10th century. The monks were known as Monks of the Rag Robes because they recycled bits of fabric and shrouds from cemeteries for their robes. The hospital had stone vessels and mortars for grinding herbs, stone slabs for applying herbal oil treatments to patient bodies, cells for patients, and a sauna/steam bath. There was also a decorated stone urinal because urinating on the decoration was a passive-aggressive method of criticizing the less ascetic orders.

The path to the monastery began with a very large man-made polygonal pool (now filled by the forest) for ritual bathing before continuing the journey upwards to the monastery. Along the stone path were circles for resting tired, hot feet. The monastery did not have temples, a Bohdi tree, or a stupa. The monastery consisted of stone cells and platforms for meditation and teaching.

The flora of Ritigala was dense with bushes and huge trees. One tree was so large and old it had buttresses at ground level. Even its exposed roots were huge. Not sure, but it might be a Antiaris toxicaria which as the name implies is poisonous.

Back on flat land, Indika said he had a surprise for us. He and the driver found a place where we could watch the setting sun. Once by the water, Indika set up a small table with snacks and began making G&Ts complete with actual ice. There was even a cold diet coke for Dan. It was a lovely way to cool off and sweet of him to go to the trouble to find a view of the setting sun.

Tomorrow we drive to Jaffna in the far northern part of Sri Lanka where the majority of the population practices Hinduism. Jaffna was one of the places we could not travel to in 2006 due to the ongoing civil war.


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