Category Archives: Travel

Travel to interesting places

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.

Magnificent Angkor Wat – A trip of a life time

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The masterpiece of Angkor Wat is Cambodia’s most beloved and best preserved temple. The 500-acre site is one of the largest religious monuments in the world and represents the architectural pinnacle of the Khmer Empire. Originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, it has remained a place of worship since its founding in the 12th century. Later additions done in the 14 century included inner chambers dedicated to the Buddha. Who in Cambodia is also considered a god.

Thought to be a miniature replica of the universe, the Angkor Wat composition of towers, moats and concentric walls reveals an architectural sophistication, and the bas-reliefs with their plump figures and triumphal battle scenes reflect a robust, healthy and wealthy period of history.

Angkor Wat is located about six kilometers north of Siem Reap, south of Angkor Thom. Entry to Angkor Wat can only be access from its west gate. Arriving there early morning it took almost the entire day to explore the different sections . The huge temple complex is surrounded by water. In the evenings the temple is glowing in the soft pink light and is reflected across the moat forming a beautiful picture.

My friend Cedric, who guided me on the tour said the temple was built by King Suryavarman who wanted to please God Vishnu and expand his kingdom. They say the place was built for over 30 years. Hundreds of peasants were tasks to it. Eventually there were no one left for farming. The peasants became weak and frail and very poor. When the Khmer empire fell, the Thais took over and promoted Angkor Wat as a Buddhist place of worship. They too left and the temples were taken over by forest. They lay hidden for many years before been discovered by the French in 1860.

Interestingly many of the temples are featured in the family adventure The Two Brother (2004) directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. Although the movie focuses on reuniting two lion cubs that got separated from their mother, it also highlights temple looting and plunder that happened when the French discovered them.

The Archaeological Park includes the other famous temples at Angkor Thom, the Bayon Temple with its countless sculptures of enlightened bodhisattva faces, Ta Prohm with most of the temples found in an entangled mess and a little further away Banteay Srei has intricate carvings of sensuous celestial dancers. If you visit Siem Reap then you must spend a few days and visit all these places.

For me the experience of Angkor Wat is stupendous. It stands out etched in memory – a beautiful still life painting. Like the Taj Mahal, Borobudur or the Great Walls of China it is a visit you need to do in a lifetime.

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.

Lankathilaka – a Magnificent Architectural Edifice of Gampola Era

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Murals, sculptures and architecture makes the Lankathilaka Viharaya a sight to behold. The last of the three historical sites visited enroute to Kandy, this place tops the list.

Taking off the Colombo – Kandy route at Pilimathalawa junction we come 4 kms along the Dualagala road and past the Gadaladeniya temple to reach the Lankathilaka Viharaya. The approach to the temple is an upward climb using steps cut on the rock. As you stop a bit to catch your breath on the ascend, you can take your time to enjoy great views of the lush green valleys below.

Lankathilka which is considered as the most magnificent architectural edifice was created during the Gampola era. Built by Parakramabahu the Great, who took to throne from 1153 AD and remained in power till 1186 AD, the Lankathilaka Viharaya, is characterized by the best features of Sri Lankan architectural style. The temple also underwent subsequent renovation during the reign of Dabadeniya in the 13th century.

According to the Professor Senarath Paranavithana, South Indian architect Sathapati Rayar designed this temple using Sinhalese architecture of Polonnaruwa era combined with Dravidian and Indo Chinese architectural patterns.

The most striking feature about the Lankathilaka it that it is built on a natural rock called Panhalgala Rock. Among the buildings the image house is outstanding with pillars endowed in intricate sculptures of vines and flowers. This structure is done in rock and covered with white plaster.

At the entrance is an impressive Makara Thorana above the giant doorway, the workings of which trails down is held by two lions. The steps that make way to the entrance is entirely done in rock with the traditional welcome of a Sadakadapahana (half-moon structure) at the base and Gajasinghe sculptures on either side of the balustrade. A magnificent 12-foot image of Buddha takes center place in the interior. Some of the other sculptures are showing signs of decay. However the murals covering the walls and the ceilings of the image house are amazing. One has to have hours to spare to observe the detailed embellishments lovingly crafted by the masters in these paintings and murals belonging to the Kandyan era.

According to the facts recorded in the Lankatilake copper plaque, this image house was construct as a four storied mansion with height of eighty feet, but today only three stories can be seen. The image house has five devales devoted to four deities with separate entrances.

There are many other features in the temple premises including a large imprint of the Buddha’s foot, (Sripathula) found near the Bo tree.

As you stroll in the ample space of tranquility you can almost feel the pulse of the men and women of yesteryear – those you came for peace of mind like anyone of us.

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.

 

Harpos Colombo Fort Cafe at the Fort Dutch Hospital – Eat, Share & Connect

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An ideal place to chill out after work, to catch up on an old friendship or make it a family outing. during the weekend. A choice of mouthwatering and delicious combinations of Italian food will help you enjoy your night. Eat, Share and Connect is what they profess.

The Colombo Fort Café by Harpos is a popular restaurant among the dozen of restaurants available for choice at the Colombo Dutch Hospital. When you say Dutch Hospital it may sound strange to a foreign visitor but not to the local clientele who frequent the place. This colonial building complex that was once actually a hospital serving the foreign occupied forces Dutch, Portugese and British. It was beautifully renovated and elevated into grand scale a few years ago. Every attempt was made to retain the original Dutch architecture. As a visitor enters the Dutch Hospital and walks into the stone paved courtyard you automatically begin to relax.

The ambiance was wonderfully set for dinner with my colleague facing the open courtyard at the restaurant. A candle was at the center of the table adding a glint of romance to the evening. Inside the restaurant consisted of dim lit space with rows of tables lining the room. The whole place had a rustic feeling. However seating outside under the patio I felt was a better choice. The open space with the wind blowing in your hair was relaxing.

We were actually their to review the food . So to get down to business we politely requested for the menu. The food selection was made easy with a menu that carried detailed descriptions of items. The full spread of selection included roast meat, batter fried sea food, a range of pastas, tapas, pizzas and lots more.

Accompanied by a glass of red wine that was specially selected by the Restaurant Manger, Winslow Quyn we were served batter fried Calamarie and hot chillie sauce as a starter. The Calamarie was fresh and succulent, the crispy golden coating added spice to every bite. The main course was roast beef steak by choice because a restaurant that gives a good roast will most likely get everything else right.  My colleague selected chillie prawns accompanied by long-thin pasta.

The steak was wonderfully done, tasted so good I thought it was the best I’ve had in town. Two-thumps-up for getting the roast right. We enjoyed every bite. This was accompanied with vegetables and French fries.

So to comment about the rest the chillie prawns sitting on a bed of vermicelli, stirred in a thin sauce was both a simple and elegant choice of food. The prawns tasted delicious wrapped in rounds of pasta dripping in the sauce. Having been served large prawns made it easy to handle the crust.

The choice of dessert was far too many each sounding equally delicious. We selected Chocolate Mouse which was a wonderful chocolate cream melting in the mouth and a mound of passionfruit-cheese cake dressed with fresh strawberries and sweet caramel sauce. The creamed cheese blended well with deep sour taste of the passionfruit, tiny black pip scrunched with every mouthful – I was actually sorry when the dessert was done. The dinner ended with a hot cup of cappuccino which helped us relax further in the comfort of the courtyard, chat and watch other customers at their tables equally enjoying their dinners.

Colombo Fort Café by Harpos goes well recommended for those seeking a long meals to catch on an old friendship.

Location:
Harpos, Fort Cafe

Old Dutch Hospital Complex Echelon Square, Hospital St, Colombo
T:011 2 434946

Open: 7 AM – 10 PM

How to get there: Google Map