February 11, 2013
We wake up to the sound of running water, a heavy tropical rain is falling and has spread a thick veil of white fog over the reservoir. Listening to the sound of raindrops pelting the rooftop, I’m thrilled by the prospect of a lazy day, but Christof, as usual, has other plans. He says we have no time to waste, and has arranged for a driver to take us around the sights of Polonnaruwa, which for two centuries was a residence city. Most of today’s ruins were built under the sagacious rule of Parakramabahu I, responsible for a golden age of unparalleled growth, prosperity and self sufficiency. Intrigued by water conservation, he built ingenious irrigation systems, including the large reservoir the Parakrama Samudra we’ve been looking over from the hotel.
The Sea of Parakrama protected his kingdom from invaders in times of war, and secured a dependable water supply for agricultural cultivation in times of peace.
We buy entrance tickets at the archeological museum, taking in an exhibition set up to provide visitors with an overview of a vast archeological site. A small model of the palace shows how it once looked. Built in the Chinese style, the bottom two stories were fashioned out of stone – and as ruins are still in existence today – while the top five, which were made of wood, have long since weathered away. A room of bronze sculptures depicting various Hindu deities is the high point of the exhibition.
Our driver Aruna ferries us from one site to the next, stepping out with a only a wash cloth on his head to protect him from the pouring rain, to open the van door and unfurl our umbrellas for us.
At the Citadel we see the palace ruins, an audience hall, a temple and the royal swimming pool. Ferried comfortably from site to site, we are overwhelmed by the wealth of ruins that are far more extensive than those in either Athens or Rome. There is a monastery, and a hospital and below them, rows of stone dwellings that once were monks’ cells.
The park is filled with wild monkeys, dogs and birds, and we too, are free to wander at will, without ropes or guards to hinder our explorations.
We visit temples and pad around roofless ruins, barefoot under umbrellas. Although we are in the middle of the jungle, all the visitors respectfully remove their shoes before entering the temple ruins. Exquisite sculptural details meet the eye at every turn, elephant decorated ‘foot mats’ of stone lie in front of massive stone-hewn steps leading up to temples, hand rails of dragon-like beings spitting curling spirals out of their mouths, statues of figures with divine expressions decorate masoned pillars, and couples enjoying private encounters in the raw, embellish round stone
medallions, but the heart-beat-stopping high point of the day, are three over-life-sized Buddhas – a sitting, a standing and a reclining figure – carved directly into the veined granite rock.
After observing their exquisite beauty, and unwilling to dilute their transcendental presence by taking in any other impressions, we return to the hotel; where only a few hours afterwards, it’s hard to reconstruct what we have just seen. The ruins of a city spread across a vast area flow together to form a general impression of a highly developed, civilized culture.
Even Christof is tired when we get back to the hotel, and agrees that racing off on a safari in less than an hour, would be squeezing too much into one day. He made arrangements for us go on one last night, but now thankfully, defers the appointment until tomorrow, which means we will stay on at The Lake for a third night.
Our American friends who arrived in town today, sent us an email asking how we’re getting on in the rain. We suggest they join us for dinner at our hotel, where Joel raises his eyebrows on entering, clearly expressing his disapproval and letting us know that it isn’t his type of place. Later – when we compare accommodation prices, and he discovers that we are paying only a few dollars more than he is paying for a shoddy hostel in town – we see the surprise in his eyes.