For those that want to head off the main busy tourist paths of Sri Lanka why not slow down and follow in the footsteps of our newest A Magazine contributor, Rakhee Ghelani, as she takes us on a journey along Sri Lanka's Buddhist trail, that includes ancient ruins, temples of peace and tranquility and climbing a rock fortress. While many now flock there for its golden beaches and relaxed feel, the real jewels of Sri Lanka are hidden deep in its centre. With ancient cities, sculptures abandoned in the jungle and treasured religious relics, it's the Buddhist trail (known as the Cultural Triangle) that has made Sri Lanka a destination for the spiritual and adventurous alike.
The star attraction is the Sacred Tooth Relic, located in the beautiful lakeside town of Kandy that was also the last capital of the Sinhala kings and has withstood the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune for the past 500 years. Legend has it that this tooth was saved from Buddha's funeral pyre, and has travelled a long path to finally settle here in The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. The Temple is situated in a quiet corner of the lake, and despite the thousands of pilgrims who flock to visit each day, it's an idyllic place of peace and tranquility. The tooth can be found in a well-preserved gold casket, but be quick as it's only open for a short period each day.
Kandy Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic
The lesser known Kandyan Devales are nearby and depict gods who protect the Sri Lanka. While they have some fine examples of stone sculpture, what really makes these interesting is how they include Hindu Gods, demonstrating the harmony between the two religions, something that's also seen in parts of India, such as the renowned Ajanta and Ellora Caves.
The region surrounding Kandy is a verdant mix of carefully manicured tea plantations and dense forests. It's easy to get lost amidst the ambling roads, but the view is so enchanting that the diversion is of little concern. A few hours north, the dusty town of Dambulla jolts you quickly back to reality. While the town itself leaves little to be desired, the steep path that heads up to the Royal Rock Temples is not to be missed.
Sri Lanka Tea Plantations
Dambulla Royal Rock Temple
There are five caves that were the site of a Buddhist monastery and contain some of the religion's most important murals and statues, dating back to the1st century BC. There are still over 150 statues of Buddha that show him in a variety of poses, including a 15 metre reclining Buddha with magnificent paintings on the soles of his feet. Each cave has its own treasures, from detailed murals depicting the life of Buddha to rows of identically carved statues that make you feel like you're staring at a mirrored kaleidoscope.
Nearby is Sigiriya Rock Fortress, famous more for its guard than its Buddhist imagery, but no visit to the region is complete without at least attempting to climb this beast. Standing at 180 metres tall, and with a shear drop on all sides, it is a bit overwhelming as you set out to climb the 1200 steps to the top.
The harrowing journey is broken up by lovely gardens, viewpoints and stunning frescoes that line the rock face. But the true moment of achievement is when you first catch sight of the paws; paws of a giant lion that once crouched here ready to pounce. The imagination runs wild at the thought of how grand this must have looked, and wonders in amazement at how this was conceptualised let alone created in the 5th century. It's a fitting reward for the long trek.
Thankfully the remaining sites in the cultural triangle are far less strenuous but just as spectacular. The ancient city of Polonnaruwa was a thriving metropolis in the 12th century, and walking through the town today you can almost feel how marvelous it once was, from the detailed carvings on the imposing Lankatilaka that stands 60 metres high, to the city streets, monasteries, tombs and stupas that were all part of this walled royal capital. This town also once housed the sacred tooth relic of Buddha that has since moved to the protection of Kandy.
Polonnaruwa was built after the first capital Anuradhapura was invaded, but many still believe that the original capital is the highlight of the Sri Lankan Cultural Triangle. Founded in the 5thCentury BC, Anuradhapura is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Many of the sites are dotted amidst peaceful parks, including the iconic white domed stupa Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba, making this a great place to wander around and soak up the serenity.
Polannaruwa Sacred Quadrangle
There are many other monuments here, from the bas-relief carvings of Isurumuniya Vihara depicting elephants to the Samadhi Buddha that is considered by some to be the most peaceful statue of Buddha created. While it's primarily an archaeological site, some of the temples are still in use today which means you're not walking through museum, you're walking amidst spirituality.
Anuradhapura Isurumuniya Vihara
It's this living history, coupled with the sense of calmness that makes Sri Lanka's Buddhist trail such a joy to visit. Spanning over 25 centuries, the sites show not only the way spiritual life was, but also how it has evolved past its troubles of years gone by, into the friendly and composed place that you see today.