Category Archives: Nature

Exploring the Amazing Borobudur in Java

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Boro-budur meaning great Buddha in local language, is both a shrine to Lord Buddha and a place of Buddhist pilgrimage to Asians.

The monument is placed in the sacred Kedu plains, a high fertile area dubbed as the ‘garden of Java’. This elevated area is between two volcanoes SundoroSumbing and MerbabuMerapi, and two rivers, the Progo and the Elo.

To witness the sunrise at this amazing temple in the heart of Java is to be living a dream. Coming into view of the statue of Buddha seated cross legged inside a perforated stupa I was enjoying that dream. A dozen other stupas scattered in circles on top are identical, but only one has the walls coming up half way allowing us to view the serene face of the Buddha etched in molten rock. Through the diamond shaped openings on the sides of the many stupas I could view the statues found inside.

The views are amazing from the top – large expanse of open plains surrounded by emerald jungles. Volcanic mountains peak and pale blue rivers meander like brush strokes. The mist is rising in thin strands like steam to meet a warm glowing sun.  The dome or peak of the temple is not very large. It sits on top of three circular rings that conforms to Buddhist cosmology and nine stacked platforms.

The temple is in pyramid form closely resembling ancient Mayan temples found in South America. The temple is said to be decorated with 2,672 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues. The relief panels demonstrate the influences of Gupta art that reflects India’s influence on the region. Yet there are enough indigenous scenes and elements incorporated to make Borobudur uniquely Indonesian.

I proceeded up following a set of steep steps to reach a different platform. Walking along the corridors I followed the trail of a story the craftsmen had etched. Plump figures in the reliefs sculptured in minute detail show strands of pearls around their necks, thick anklets on their dancing feet, women fanning the royals and men standing guard. The stories are related to the life of Buddha. A few stories are on Javanese royalty belonging to that period and the peasant workers who pleased them.

Reaching about the fifth platform I was pleasantly surprised to find young children flying tiny kites in the wind. Entire families come here on a day outing. I heard that Javanese people journey to Borobudur atleast once in a lifetime.  The elderly with bowed heads and pious hearts make it a pilgrimage in hope of reaching inner peace. The young quick and light on their feet, the children in a playful riot and the seniors helped by others – all reach the dome

The Borobudur has entered the Guinness Book of Records as the World’s largest Buddhist archeological site. Built in the 9th century during the reign of the Sailendra Dynasty, the temple is designed in Javanese Buddhist architecture and laid in the form of a Mandalaya.  Evidence suggest that the temple complex was abandoned in 14th century during the decline of Hindu kingdom.

The honour of discovering this great monument goes to Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, then the British ruler of Java (1814). Borobudur has since been preserved through several restorations. The largest restoration project was undertaken between 1975 and 1982 by the Indonesian government and UNESCO, following which the monument was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 

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Lion’s Rock in Sigiriya where Kassapa built his Fortress

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Sigiriya – Sinhagiri or Lion’s Rock an ancient rock fortress locate in  Northern Matale district close to Dambulla, can be reached by travelling along Colombo-Habarana road.

Even before King Kassapa having usurped his father made it his kingdom, Buddhist monks lived in the caves on the rock base of Sigiriya.

In the plateau surrounded by jungles and lakes is a large column of rock rising to 660 feet in height. Arriving there we passed the fortification by parapet walls and the moat to come to the royal gardens beautifully laid with many terraces, ponds and fountains. The first bit of the climb was easy through the belly of the rock, up neat rows of steps. Then we reached the large terrace which marks the half-way point on the ascent to the summit of Sigiriya Rock. Before continuing, we took a break and surveyed the remaining path in dread and awe. The next flight of stairs was framed by an enormous pair of stone paws. Because of its profile, Sigiriya had long been referred to as the “Lion Rock”, but King Kassapa decided to make the nickname somewhat more literal.

During Kassapa’s reign in the 5th century AD, a massive, 60-foot lion was chiseled out of the rock. The steps which continued up to the royal palace started at the lion’s feet, wrapped around his body and eventually entered his mouth. Today, all that remain are the paws, but they give a good idea of the statue’s scale. It’s hard to appreciate how impressive it must have been 1500 years ago.

The final flight of stairs, hugging tightly to the stone wall, is definitely not for the fainthearted. The wind whipping about madly I clung on to the steel railing, for dear life. If climbing the stable steps of modern steel is terrifying how must they have it been during the time of Kassapa? Notches in the wall indicated where the ancient brick steps would have been placed and the thought of climbing them of all too much for me.

I was relieved clambering up the final bit and having made it to the summit and I thought this to be the highlight of my journey. But I was wrong. The panoramic scenes all around was stupendous – breath holding beauty of lakes and shrub jungles and blue mountains merging into the horizon.  At the top of the rock was layered terraces where the palace once stood, complete with a throne carved in stone. Below the rock ledge are caves where the king’s men stood at sentry points vigilant for enemy troupes.

On the western face of the rock are beautiful frescos of ladies (Apsara) naked up to the waist and adorned in jewelry. The women are picking flowers. Some claim they are the royal ladies and others say they are celestial beings floating among the clouds.  John Still in 1907 suggested the whole western wall had been covered with paintings of around 500 ladies. Although they appear to be paintings done during the Anuradhapura period they also hold close resemblance to paintings found in the Ajanta caves of North India.

When the enemy invaded the rock fortress, the king who thought it to be impenetrable took his life. After the fall of the kingdom Sigiriya was used as a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century.

According to historians it was Major Jonathan Forbes who in 1831, discovered the jungle covered summit of Sigiriya on his way back from Polonnaruwa. However serious archaeological work did not begin until 1890s. It was H.C.P. Bell who conducted extensive research on Sigiriya.

Considered the 8th Wonder of the World Sigiriya Rock Fotress was listed under UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1982.

Theo & Layla – Partners in Crime

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Tracy recalls bringing up her two lovely daughters in Sri Lanka and dog were always part of their life. She would be the one to feed a litter of stray pups found on the wayside. Tracy would even bring them in a box to her home along with the mother, if she could be found. It is only after the pups are a little fuller and grown-up that they are sent to kind homes. Moving to Australia the family continued their love for dogs.

“We’ve always had dogs growing up and loved their loving, affectionate nature. We feel dogs understand humans and are loyal creatures with loving hearts” says Sarah the younger of the two teenagers. Theo and Leyla are the names we all agreed on- Theo is little male Terrier who is two and a half years and Leyla a female, Husky cross German Shepherd who is just two.

One day Tracy and her daughters were doing their weekend shopping when they happened to spot a beautiful Terrier gazing through the Pet shop window. Tracy stopped by to give him a cuddle and the puppy had her hooked right there. “It was hopeless” says Tracy, “I knew I had to take him home”.

So there was this little ball of fluff just 3 months old when Leyla joined in. Initially we had to be careful how we treated the puppies since Leyla was a larger dog. Later the two got along well – actually they got on very well and became partners in crime. The three of them had to make an attempt to use stern voices to put a stop to their pranks. Chewing the girls’ favorite items was not done! Each time the puppies had to be reminded it was wrong. Through tough training and discipline some authority was regained by the humans.

But then in March, when all had gone out on Mother’s Day they returned to a house of chaos. “It was like snowing inside the living room, the couch and the floor was covered with white feathers. My heart sank” said Sarah. On one hand what the puppies had done is wrong on the other hand it might be the last straw that broke the camel’s back and the puppies will be gone she thought. Holding the remnants of her favourite quilt, Sarah valiantly put on the act and demanded from the two culprits “Who did this?’ Two guilty faces looked up with a few feathers stuck on to their furs.

Even with all these mischiefs we don’t complain says Tracy, they are a good stress reliever. At the end of the day they are always there to greet us at the door. I don’t know what we would do without their company.

“Dogs do speak but only to those who know how to listen”

Pahiyangala caves – a trip down the corridors of time

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Pahiyangala caves lies in Yatagampitiya, which is a remote village about 5 km away from Bulathsinhala, in the Kalutara District. Two mountains, Pahiyangala and Thibottuwawa in this area was affected by the recent rainfalls and resulted in earth slips. There was also rumours of possible cracks in the rock surface of Pahiyangala.

Two weeks later the ban on visitors to Pahiyangala caves was lifted and we were able to climb up and explore it with barely anyone else in the precincts. At the foot of the hills is a small monastery that supports the priests practicing meditation and living in isolation.

Some call it Fahiyangala however, in the absence of a letter ‘f’ in the Sinhala alphabet Pahiyangala is more commonly used. The place is actually named after the Chinese scholastic monk Fa-Hsien who is supposed have stayed abode the rock cave in the 5th century. Fa-Hsien having explored many parts of Asia was enroute Bulathsinhala, Kalawana, Nivitigala, Ratnapura and Gileemale to reach the Sri Pada when he had stayed at the rock caves in Pahiyangala. Archaeological excavations of recent years unearthed a vessel used by the monk for his travels.

From the road we saw a mountain where the sides were ripped open exposing brown earth that had washed down. A large monumental rock face rose up amid this range of mountains, trails of Manna hanging from pockets scattered across the flat rocky surface. In the ledge of this huge hooded formation is found Sri Lanka’s biggest cave. As we start an upward trail the incline was stupendous along the sloping road and up the concrete steps. Signage pointed out rare species and plants that are found in the surrounding.

As we reach the high abode a large cave with a wide breadth came into view. The cave is supposed to be of four parts, but only two was in view. On the right is the first of the caves where easily one thousand could fit in. Excavations done by archaeologists deep into the floor of the cave are supposed to be linked with the underground tunnels. Layer and layers of granite is exposed. A level above this the cave that reaches gigantic proportions. In the intersection of the two is a newly erected image house with a statue of a reclining Buddha. At the center of the cave is another gaping hole and a stairway leading down.

Although the site was discovered in 1968 it was much later that attention was draw away from Fa-Hsien and discovery of the early man was made. During 1986-87 Archaeological department has unearthed remains of a pre-historic man dating back 58,000 years. The ancient man is supposed to have a short vertebral structure, wide jaw bones, a large palette and big grinding teeth. Monolithic stone and bone tools used for hunting as well as remains of wild fruit used as part of his diet had also been uncovered. Since then this cave dweller is known as Pahiyangala Manawakaya (Pahiyangala Man).

Just before we left the caves one look at the beautiful scenery that has always captivated my heart in this region. As much as it’s a wonder of nature, this great edifice rising from the forest covered hills of Sabaragamuwa the recent wreckage has opened our eyes to changing times. Battling with impacts from Climate Change – extreme weather conditions. During the ravages of floods and earth slips ancient caves such as those found Pahiyangala is in danger of been destroyed.

Enticing Wood Carvings at Embekke

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Embekke Devalaya, 14th century complex where every roof, pillar and post is covered with intricately crafted flower vines, dancers, animals and birds pays silent tribute to the craftsmen of the past. Among the carvings, there are 125 series of decorations, 256 Liyawel, 64 lotus designs in Pekada, 30 decorative patterns on timber, roof members, making a total of 514 such exquisite carvings.

This historical site is one of the three been explore en-route to Kandy and is located close Daulagala, some 12 kms from Kandy.

Many a legends tell an interesting tale of the origin of this splendid place. So according to the epic Embekke Varnanawa composed by Delgahagoda Mudiyanse, it was built during the Gampola period of King Wickrema Bahu II (1371 AD). One of his consorts named Henakanda Biso Bandara, in association with a drummer named as Rangama, as told in a miraculous dream, is supposed to have built this Devale dedicated to God Kataragama. The building complex at that time was three-storeyed. Which is not surprising given other architectural feats achieved during that time.

The entrance to the Devalaya is through a waiting room with half raised walls and a sloping roof with flat tiles and tell-tale embellishments atop. The Devale is in two segmented buildings, the Digge (Dancing Hall) and Drummers Hall (Hewasi Mandappaya).

The wooden capital pillars have assumed varied shapes moulded skilfully into these intricate wood carvings. The bottom square is octagonal with carvings, while its top terminates in a leaf emanating from square. The other intricate but unique piece of woodcarvings rest on the Pekada.

Enticing woodcarvings are also carved on some beams, rafters, doorways, and doors as well. Among the best masterpieces on the capital pillars are thus: Hansa Puttuwa (entwined swans) double headed eagles, and entwined rope designs, mother breast-feeding child, soldier fighting on horseback, female dancing figures, wrestlers, women emanating from a vein, bird with human figure, combination of elephant-bull and combination of elephant-lion. Among such wonderful carvings, what attracted me most was the elephant-bull carving and that of the elephant with its elongated trunk which is mystically manifested.

The roof of the Embekke Devale bears some ingenuous carpentry in fixing the rafters. The ‘Madol Kurupuwa’ is one of the finest examples of medieval carpentry excellence. It is a wooden pin (this Madol Kurupuwa) which holds together 26 rafters at the hipped end of the roof of the Digge of Embekke Devale. The giant pin is carved with Pathuruliya, Patha motifs.

A little distance away lies another assembly of stone pillars on which are carved the very replicas of the wooden pillars of the Embekke Devale. It is believed that the wooden beams of the roof had rested on carved wooden Pekada, which are no longer to be seen in the site. Rope design, entwining swan, berunde bird, dancing girl are some of the creations found on these stone columns, quite akin to the woodcarvings at Embekke Devale.

The villagers still remember the existence of this Ambalama with the wooden roof about 100 years ago. This building is also called Sinhasana Mandapaya. In ancient times, the king and his royal entourage used to rest here and watch the Perahera when it was held.

 

Embekke  Devale is part of three ancient sites closely located Pilimathalawa enroute to Kandy, others been Gadaladeniya and Lankathilaka temple complexes.

 

Whimpy Dog Tales – Counting the blessings

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Taking a walk down the main road was a new experience for me last Saturday. I have thus far strolled in the safe vicinity of my neighbourhood and never actually ventured out into the streets. To do the entire route from home to the town and back crossing the railway lines twice, was quite a feat.

Sporting a red harness, a new accessory bestowed on me by Uncle Chucks I was walking side by side with mommy. As momentum picked up I was expected to keep up pace even if it was an up-hill stretch. Hullala, boy! was I not panting? I have never done something rigorous but always managed to carouse in the backyard. I was in the army today marching at the heels of my leader. Many a mangy street-dogs came barking probably out of sheer jealousy of my new harness. They came yapping at me as if we were rogues trespassing into their territories. But mommy held on to the leash tight and carried on unperturbed. The dogs retreated. They were careful not to over-step their owned marked territories. We are just passing by chaps you will soon get used to it I said as we made our way through the busy city center.

Buses were turning in all directions, colour lights blinking motor vehicles to ordered lines, men and women and also children with bags in their hands crisscrossing the lanes in spite of their numbers. Horns honking irritably and urging the lanes to push forward, commuters shouting to bring moving buses to a halt to get in, crazy tuk-tuks swerving with ease to change directions.

We cross the railway line and take a turn down a lane that meets up with familiar grounds through a short-cut path. Soon the noises of the town subside. Children were playing on the road, on and off they would pass a remark such as Look! nice doggy and then mommy would stop for a while and let them pet me. And we moved on to get home before dusk.

I was amazed by the number of dogs that I met along the main streets who had no home or a person to call its own. They were of ragged skin over bony structures, tired, oppressed and sullen faced. They were sunbaked and weathered by many-a-storms, taking cover under whatever nook and corner found. It is then I started to realize how lucky I was. I counted my blessings of having a family, a place I can call my own and all the love bestowed upon me.

The Temple of Tooth in Kandy

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Kandy city remains a bastion of Sinhalese culture and religion, home to the island’s most revered Buddhist temple and its most sacred relic in the Temple of the Tooth.

The best way to reach this beautiful city tucked in the central hills of the island is by railway. The early morning train from Fort, Colombo reaches Kandy before 9 am. This incidentally was the first rail route done by the British. It was done in 1864 to transport loads of coffee from the plantations in the hill country.

Just 3 kms away from the station and into the city is the sprawling temple complex overlooking the Kandy lake. During the month of April and May the rain-trees along the Kandy lake are in full bloom. Around the lake is a distinct and unique low white stone wall patterned in the shape of clouds with triangular carvings giving it a filigree effect.

The main entrance to the 17th century Temple of the Tooth is through an ornate archway and across a semi-circular moonstone. Surrounding the front entrance of the temple is a moat and the same low white cloud wall found around the lake.

Buddhist from all parts of the country arrive to pay homage and respect. Young parents are seen cradling their tiny babies whom they have brought to receive blessings. They stand in long queues to make offerings of thanks in hushed tones at the inner chamber. As you reach the main hall taking a series of elaborate archways adorned with frescos of Buddhist tales, an unmistakable calmness settles in. The entire gallery is done in wood. Wooden pillars inlaid with ivory and intricate carvings hold elaborate roofing. The floors seem to be well-polished by the feet of a thousand visitors. Occasionally the whole place reverberates with the sounds of virtuoso drummers and ringing of bells. The staircases at the end of the hall leads downward to the drummer’s courtyard and the Reception hall.

Apart from the two-storied building that holds the sacred tooth of the Buddha, there is the octagonal shaped Paththiruppuwa or viewing balcony used by royalty to address crowds of people, the royal palaces, and small shrines at the four corners for the veneration of Hindu deities protecting the temple.

The tooth relic is said to be encased in a jeweled casket and kept in an inner shrine on the second floor.  The relic is removed only once a year during the Esala Perahera in the months of July-August. This ten-day ritual procession with elaborately dressed elephants, dignitaries, torch bearers, whip-cracking porters, drummers and dancers is perhaps the biggest festival in the whole of Asia.  Throngs of pilgrims and tourists gather around the temple complex and long the lake en-route to witness the colourful pageant.

During the ancient times, the relic played an important role in local politics because it is believed that whoever holds the relic holds the governance of the country. While other areas were falling into the hands of foreign invaders the Kingdom of Kandy stubbornly held through till 1815, until that too fell into the hands of the British.  Kandy the last capital of Sri Lankan kings was declared a World Heritage Site in 1988 mainly due the high importance given to the Temple.