Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Faded Splendour

North of Kandy Sri Lanka reverts to wide plains of paddy fields, banana plantations and palm trees. It was here that the first Sinhalese kingdoms were established some 2500 years ago. The first major capital was Anuradhapura. It's positioning in the plains, however, proved to be its downfall, as, during the next 1500 years, successive South Indian invaders conquered the hard-to-defend city time and again. The city was finally abandoned and the capital moved to Polonnaruwa, which was also in turn abandoned after another South Indian invasion several hundred years later (early Sri Lankan history is rather repetitive: Indian invasion, repulsion of invaders, Indian invasion, repulsion of invaders, Indi...).

Both sites, however, are very extensive and show that the early Sri Lankans knew their stuff. In fact the ruins are larger than any of today's Sri Lankan cities with the exception of Colombo and perhaps Kandy. Anuradhapura's ruins especially just sprawl for miles and miles with umpteen stone foundations and pillars dotting the surrounding jungle. It's great fun exploring them by bike, pedalling where the fancy takes you (though not too far because I'm lazy) and just stopping to watch the kingfishers flitting from tree to tree or the egrets jabbing at frogs in the ponds. I've discovered on this trip that I've grown rather fond of hiking and twitching (for you non-Brits, twitching is British slang for bird watching, which is rather alarming as it appears that I am growing prematurely middle-aged!

In Anuradhapura there are also the remains of about 5 massive stupas, each in excess of 50m, that can be seen from many miles away, towering over the jungle like spiky bubbles (modern-day Anuradhapura has no buildings over 4 stories). But Anuradhapura's crowning glory is Sri Maha Bodhi. When Buddha attained enlightenment he was sitting under a tree: the Bodhi tree. The original Bodhi tree does not exist any more, but the one in Anuradhapura has grown from a cutting of the original and was planted in 288 BC, which makes it, apart from being a very holy tree (and as such it has security that most heads of state would be jealous of), also the oldest human planted tree with a known planting date, which means I can add another superlative to my list (along with one of the stupas which happens to be the tallest brick structure in the world). Even more bizarre is the fact that the tree is tended by a family of keepers whose position is hereditary. So for the past 2294 years this family has kept watch of the tree without interruption. At least they have job security!

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