Thursday, 16 June 2011


Sri Lanka has been an island divided by a long war of independence, a plan for Tamil secession that ultimately failed but not before 100,000 people lost their lives. The conflict has wrecked much of the island’s infrastructure, especially in the north, as well as severely reducing the number of foreign visitors to the country. The war started in 1983, with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) seeking and fighting to create an independent Tamil state in the north and eastern part of the island. For 26 years, the battle raged, with atrocities and war crimes committed by both sides. The root of the war was that Tamils felt that their cultural heritage, in particular language (Tamil) and religion (Hindu), was being swamped by the majority Sinhalese, who speak Sinhalese and are predominantly Buddhist. 

Despite the differences that led to the civil war (one of the bigger oxymorons in the English language), Sri Lanka remains a multi-ethnic and multi- religious country. While about 70% of the population are Buddhists (Sri Lanka lays claim to having the longest continuous history of Buddhism of any current pre-dominantly Buddhist country), there are large Hindu (15 %), Muslim (8%) and Christian (8%) populations scattered throughout the country. It’s not uncommon on a walk through a Sri Lankan town to pass by a church, then a mosque then a Buddhist temple then a Hindu one. You can hear Muslim calls to prayer, see monks and  hear Buddhist chanting and on occasion you might hear bells ringing from a Catholic church. Its this diversity that makes the recent troubles even more surprising.

Our most hectic day of sightseeing in Sri Lanka meant we had an early wake-up call in order for us take in some of the sights of central Sri Lanka. 5 of the 7 World Heritage sites in Sri Lanka lie in this central plain known as the cultural triangle. After leaving Kandy (home of another World Heritage site, the temple of the Tooth), our first stop was at the Hindu temple in the town of Matale, known as Sri Muthumariamman Thevasthanam (Sri Lanka has a lot of unruly names. A prominent cricketer’s full name is Warnakulasuriya Patabendige Ushhanta Joesph Chaminda Vaas).  Here, the temple is in the style of southern India, quite different from the Hindu temples that we saw in North India. It was built around 1820, mainly by people from southern India, in particular people from the state of Tamil Nadu, many who had come from India to work on tea plantations and the like. Large spires towered above us, covered in deities and sculptures. 

Cool Hindu Temple in Matale.
Inside, a man who may well have been the world’s worst tour guide showed us around. I’m sure he would be very informative if we could understand him but even though we think he was speaking English he may have well have been speaking a long forgotten dialect of Sanskirit for all we could understand him. He was enthusiastic but the only words we managed to catch were “you take picture” at various spots he deemed photogenic, followed by come and at the end, give money. That said, we still tipped him out of courtesy and the temple was distinctive enough to be worthwhile visiting. Of special note were five large colourfully decorated ceremonial carriages that are pulled by people during an annual festival in the town. 

Maybe the world's worst tour guide. Apologies sir if you ever read this blog.
Just past Matale, we passed through a village that our driver said was a pre-dominantely Muslim. Our driver just managed to avoid a wild sow and her piglets. Afterwards, the driver commented that pigs seemed to know which villages were Muslim and hence safer to be around given Islam’s pork prohibition. 

The next stop after our near crash experience was the cave complex at Dambulla, the largest and best preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka and arguably the most impressive Buddhist cave temples left in Asia. This World Heritage site was established in the 1st Century BC by a grateful king who sought refuge here after being driven off his throne in Anuradhapura, founding the temple after regaining his throne as  a way of thanks. Now, it is easily Dambulla’s major tourist attraction. As with many places in Asia, it has been heavily commercialized but it still retains a strong sense of the mystic, in a large part due to its hilltop location and cave functionality. At the entrance to the complex lies a large, golden Buddha, 30 metres tall, finished in glistening gold, built over the top of a garish looking Japanese constructed temple. There are claims that it is the largest Buddha in the world, apparently however, it's not even the biggest Buddha statue in Sri Lanka. Still, it makes for an impressive sight when the sun hits it, serving like a giant golden prism, scattering light in all directions.

Garish Buddha in Dambulla.
You need to walk to the left of the giant Buddha to start your journey up to the cave complex proper, which lie about 150 metres above the road. It was a reasonably strenuous but fortunately short walk to reach the cave complex. The day we went was hot; the strong sun reflected off the rock, sweat dripping off our brows to the rocks in a form of energy exchange. Colourful chameleons basked in the sun while vendors tried their luck, selling souvenirs and 'artifacts' on the side of the path-way up. As you got to the top, goats, monkeys and dogs co-existed in a precarious harmony, but it seemed to be generally understood among them that the monkeys were the overlords. At the top, you have to leave your shoes and hope that they weren't snatched away by the monkeys while you were away inside the complex. The lookout from the top was great, allowing a panoramic view of the surrounding flat plateau, and a first look at Sigiriya, the large rock fortress which was our next destination. The main part of the complex consists of 5 caves, covered by a large over-hanging rock, all rich in Buddhist imagery in the form of statues and paintings. There are over 150 statues of Buddha and numerous images of Buddha and bodhisattvas, as well as various gods and goddesses (including a couple from the Hindu pantheon).

Monkey enjoying the view.
The five caves, or shrine rooms, all differ in size and shape, style and feel. The first cave is known as the cave of the Divine King, which is dominated by a large and magnificent 14 metre long reclining Buddha statue, hewn out of the rock, its feet covered by delicately gilded lotuses. It was the first of the caves to be used as a temple. 
Reclining Buddha
The second cave is the largest one, measuring 52 metres long and 23 metres deep. In here are 16 standing and 40 seated statues of Buddha, as well as a statue of Vishnu and some of kings, one who established the monastery and one who gilded 50 statues. The presence of these royal statues gives this cave its name, fittingly “Cave of the Great Kings”. When we arrived, this temple was initially closed as the complex still serves as an active monastery and place of worship. A natural spring drips into a vessel-it’s said to run even in times of severe drought and the water collected is used in sacred rituals. 

The third cave has beautiful ceiling and wall paintings, which are relatively new (dating to the 18th Century). Before then, it was used as a storeroom.  It also has 50 Buddha statues and a statue of the king who undertook the restorations. The last two caves are of a much smaller size and date to a later period. However, being further away from the main caves, they are relatively quiet. Lilly-covered ponds that serve as a haven for frogs are framed by the arches of the complex, giving it a more tranquil feel, a nice place to sit back and soak in the atmosphere. People stand around a tree, offering prayer and burning incense. I’m not sure what they make of the host of foreign tourists who come to gaze upon their place of worship. I guess that they just appreciate that people can see beauty in all things, including in buildings of a religion they have little knowledge of.

Outside the caves.
One of the more endearing things about Sri Lanka is that the locals will come up for a chat and then ask to trade addresses in the hope of maybe establishing a pen-pal relationship. I had a couple of overseas pen pals as a kid (I remember an American called Chad who didn’t write back to me after I asked him why the 4th of July was a big deal and a boy from the islands in the Torres Strait between Australia and Papua New Guinea). Nowadays, with email, I had kind of guessed that people wouldn’t bother writing letters any more. However, Carla has gotten letters in the post from people we met at Dambulla that day. It’s nice to see that that sort of communication can still exist, even in this age of electronic wonder.

Lily covered ponds at the Dambulla caves.
Sigiriya, the large rock fortress we had a glimpse at from Dambulla, was the next destination. The image I had in my head of Sigiriya was Ayers Rock with erotic art, an idea that was sort of right but one that also downplayed the reality of the significance of Sirigiya. The origins and original use of Sigiriya are unclear. Scholarly literature suggests that its primary function was as a Buddhist site, a hill-top monastery. Others, including the locals, deny that it was primarily a religious centre but that it was a rock fortress of a King Kassapa (477-495 AD) who ruled here after killing his father, the king of Anuradhapura, and that the obvious religious manifestations are the consequence of a king seeking forgiveness for his sins. Undoubtedly, Sirigiya has a long human history that would date back well before Buddhist times. The multitude of caves and crevices would have been appealing to all but the most sun hardened paleolithic individuals.

To the roof.
You approach the rock by walking over the old moat (still filled with water) and through the old gardens, that now show the remains of what would have been tanks, swimming pools, islands and pavilions. The gardens here are considered to be among the oldest landscaped gardens anywhere in the world. The multitudes of birds (Sri Lanka is a great place for bird-watching unless you go pay 500 rupees to enter Udawattakele Forest in Kandy, where you will probably see no birds) seem to appreciate the trees that line the way up to the rock, flitting in and out of view. The walk up the rock is relatively steep, although it’s done is stages and much of it is paved. Signs warn visitors of the treachery of coming down and also the presence of hornets who don’t appreciate loud noises.

Beware of hornets.

About half the way up the rock is a new modern staircase that has been built to allow people access to a series of famous wall paintings; bare breasted woman believed either nymphs or concubines. The modern idea behind the frescoes is that they represent Tara- a bodhisattva and one of the more important figures in Tantric Buddhism. 

Frescoes on the rock.

What is left of a once mighty lion.
The views from the top make the walk up worthwhile. The rock (technically a hardened magna plug and an extinct and long-eroded volcano) stands 370 metres above sea level. Looking down over the plains, you can see temples poking out of the jungle. Through my binoculars, I could make out elephants, probably domesticated or tame although I hoped that they were wild. Looking back from where we had walked, the intricate designs of the gardens were apparent. The view at the back was over wetlands and was one of the more beautiful sights I have seen in my life (probably one of the reasons why Sirigiya was used as a location by Duran Duran’s in the music video for their song “Save a Prayer”). It is a little unworldly, which makes sense as it was the inspiration for a mountain in Arthur C Clarke’s book, The Fountains of Paradise (the author spent most of his last years on the island). At one time, there were buildings (probably a monastery up here), although little remains now bar the foundations and what looks like a large swimming pool (but more likely used purely for water storage). It appears that this site, perfect for withstanding siege, may never have served as a palace or as a fort, contrary to local opinion. 

What an amazing view. Photos can never do it justice.
No matter what its original purpose, Sirigiya exists as a testament to man’s ability to work with nature, as well as highlighting that the ancient kingdoms of Sri Lanka were as architecturally capable as any other ancient civilisations (as a case in point, the large lion at Sirigiya would have been more than a match for the Sphinx at Giza and the Jetavanarama Dagoda in Anuradhapura was the third largest structure in the world, ranking only behind the two tallest pyramids in Egypt).

The last haul up.
We walked slowly back to the van, partly because we lost our way, partly because we wanted to linger longer and partly because we were pursued by persistent venders. On the way to Anuradhapura, we drove past a Sri Lankan airforce base that had been attacked by the Tamil Tigers at one stage during the conflict (as recently as 2007, I think). All bar one of the Tamil Tigers died that day, but they killed a similar number of Sri Lankan army soldiers and destroyed a number of planes. Razor wire still surrounds the site, a reminder that this used to be an area of conflict. Our driver said that until recently, it wasn’t always safe for him to do this drive. Tamil Tigers would shot indiscriminately, with attacks happening as recent as 2009. Now, with foreign tourists returning to this South Asian gem, hopefully the future will be brighter for people like our driver.

Sunday, 5 June 2011


Ever since independence and partition which split British India into 2 parts, a Hindu dominated India and a Muslim majority Pakistan, the border between the two has been one of the more disputed and contested borders in the world. At the time of partition, many parts of the subcontinent, including the Punjab area where we visited the border, were rocked by sectarian violence. The Punjab was split leading to the creation of two Punjabs; one Indian, one Pakistani. The partition led to the mass migration of people with Muslims living in India migrating to Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan migrating in the opposite direction. The end result of this was horrific intercommunal violence; Muslims killing Hindus, Hindus killing Muslims and everyone it seems, killing Sikhs. The in fighting among people who were once neighbours cost up to 1,000,000 lives and has left wounds not fully healed today. Add in disputes of the Kashmir region further north of the Punjab, wars (like the one where Bangladesh became independent of Pakistan with Indian help in the early 1970s), nuclear tensions, religious fundamentalism on both sides of the border, terrorist bombings and attacks like the one in Mumbai in 2008 and it is clear that the relationship between India and Pakistan, and hence the border, is still volatile.
We visited the border at the Wagah crossing close to Amritsar, the city famous for being the home of the Sikh’s famous Golden Temple. This crossing has sometimes been called the “Berlin Wall of Asia”, although I would think that the DMZ that divides North and South Korea to be a better fit for that title. It was the only open border for a long time between the two rivals and porters would (and still do) ship goods from Lahore into India and vice versa. Even given all the history between India and Pakistan, it’s still unclear how the Wagah border closing ceremony has managed to become such a draw-card for tourists, local and foreign alike. On average, 8,000 people a day visit the Indian side of the border, a few less on the Pakistani side.

We arranged a trip to the border from Amritsar, about 50 kilometres away, in what turned out to be a cramped minivan, the only foreigners in a van of interested Indians. Indians are never backwards when it comes to talking to foreigners, (especially if you can talk cricket-speak) so it was easy to start up a good conversation with one of the Indian guys who was visiting Amritsar and the Punjab from India’s I.T capital, Bangalore. He was one of the rising Indian middle class that you hear about, with a good, well paying (by Indian standards) job and with materialistic dreams and ambitions that would have been beyond all but the wealthiest Indians a couple of generations ago. He was excited to see the border, witness the pomp and the ceremony. He told me about how Indians feel about Pakistan, the old bitterness and anxieties seeping through although he was one of the new guard of Indian society, with their own independent thoughts that weren’t necessarily linked to race, religion or caste.

Indian guards.
The draw-card at the border is the flag-lowering ceremony each evening, which is preceded by an energetic and over-zealous parade. We arrived at the border carpark a little late, so we had to walk the kilometer or so to the actual border quickly. Our new Indian acquaintances bid us a cheery farewell, warned us to stay vigilant and then took off into the crowd. Security was tight along the road but not overly so, certainly less than what I thought and much less than at the cricket game we would attend the next week in Mohali. The road was hemmed in by barbed wire on both sides. I guess this was to prevent curious tourists wandering off (the area may be mined) as much as to prevent terrorists from getting in. We rushed to the border, dodging people selling and waving Indian flags, vendors selling corn, running past women dragging children along to get a good spot at the paradet. However, when we arrived at the border, our rushing was for nought as foreigners are automatically sent to the front. We were gifted front row V.I.P seats to the spectacle.

Full crowd for the show
It is a spectacle. On both sides of the border, grandstands have been built. The atmosphere was comparable to the tension you feel before watching a rugby game. Maybe even more so, because both sets of fans if you carry on the analogy, are there and represented in force. On the Indian side, people had painted their face in orange, white and green, large Indian flags were being waved, cheers were raised. The grandstand was a cacophony of colour, the green, white and orange against a colourful backdrop of saris. On the Pakistani side, things were less raucous. Men and women were divided, with separate grandstands for both genders. Both sides had loudspeakers that were used for the purpose of distilling patriotic measures. On the Indian side, they were loud cheers in response to “Hindustan Zindabad” (which means Long Live India) and Bharat Mata Ki Jai (Hail Mother India). On the Pakistani side, the announcements managed to sound sinister and rousing at the same time. It had cries of Pakistan, Pakistan and what I think was God is great, Pakistan is great as well as a similarly themed “Pakistan Zindabad”. Of course, it was hard to hear what was going on over on the Pakistani side as the noise was deafening on the Indian side. Periodically, they would play Bollywood songs over the loudspeakers, no doubt expressing some form of patriotism.

Pakistani and Indian guards: I can kick higher than you.
It got louder still when the parade started. After all, national prestige is on the line. It’s hard to explain the parade. Part farce (recalling Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks), part menace (Michael Palin described it as “chauvinism at its most camp”) and a large dash of pomp. It is a kind of high-stepping dance-off as members of the Indian Border Security Force and Pakistan Rangers (generally very tall men) march towards one another, snorting and stamping like a crazed and drugged rodeo horse. They wear turbans topped with huge fans, strutting up and down the tarmac in shiny black platform boots, crazed eyes blazing, waxed moustaches twitching. The high kicks they do where they touch the turbans with their boot in a remarkable display of dexterity are pretty amazing, although I would have to take a guess and say that a few pairs of trousers have probably been split in the process. Bear in mind that as the Indian soldiers go through this bizarre parade, basically, the same thing is happening on the Pakistani side of the border. I didn’t know this until later but apparently; the participants are imitating the pride and anger of a rooster. All of this cockiness is in the name of a ceremonial lowering of the flags, a tradition that started in 1959. After the strutting ends and the sun is about to set, the iron gate on the border is opened and the flags are slowly lowered with great cheering, at exactly the same speed, so one is never higher than the other. The flags are then folded and the ceremony ends with a handshake.

Lowering the flag ceremony
That handshake, as well as the co-operation between the guards, serves as a barometer for feelings between the two countries. The repercussions of the decision to divide India are still felt now (I’m not saying that one country would be better, just that there are still a lot of disagreements between the two). The partition of India was opposed by most senior members of the Congress Party, including Gandhi, who believed that Hindus and Muslims should live together in harmony (ironically, Gandhi was assassinated shortly after the partition by a Hindu nationalist who believed that Gandhi was appeasing Muslims at the expense of Hindus). Whatever the feelings, the fact remains that Indian and Pakistani soldiers are able to come together, plan and synchronize a bizarre dance-off. If they can do this here, at one of the world’s most contentious borders, there is hope that India and Pakistan can share better relations. Maybe all we need for peace is for the head of states of India and Pakistan to dance like roosters.