Sri Lanka, the country of reclining Buddhas


Polonnaruwa reclining Buddha

I had a prejudice I believe many had before coming to Sri Lanka. I thought it was a sort of Indian Corsica. Sri Lanka is very different actually from its Indian big brother. The majority of inhabitants are Singhalese and they are Buddhists. However, a second ethnic group, the Hindu Tamils lives in the north of the island. Sri Lanka is recovering now from a civilian war between the two populations that “finished” only in 2009. This conflict was actually the result of century-old tensions that are still felt sometimes. Sri Lanka was also severely hit by 2004 tsunami,which kills 30, 000.

When visiting Sri Lanka today, you hardly see any remains of this period of trouble. You are stunned by beautiful landscapes, rich wildlife, friendly and well-educated population. Sri Lanka has a very ancient and rich culture, so I would just limit myself on what struck me more at a first glance, that is Sri Lanka’s historical monuments, Buddhism, wildlife, and tea.

Wild Elephant Sri Lanka

Wild Elephant Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka had several names. The current name Sri Lanka is “artificial” and dates from 1972 only. It means in Sanskrit “Resplendent land”. Before the island was called Ceylan, derived from Ceilao, the name given by the Portuguese sailors, the first Europeans to settle on Sri Lanka in 1505. Portuguese discovered the island by mistake, blown away from their route to the Maldives Islands. Before Portugueses, Sri Lanka was already connected in the 12th century with Arab traders, who brought Muslim religion to the island. Arab name for the island was Serendip, which means “found by chance” and gave the English word “serendipity”.

The natural beauty and the drop-like shape of Sri Lanka gave it the title “The Pearl of the Indian Ocean”. Nostalgic Dutch burghers compared the island to their favourite ham.

Sigiriya bare-breasted women

Sigiriya Bare-Breasted Woman

Most of Sri Lanka historical landmarks are situated in the so-called “Golden Triangle” in the middle of the island. The most touristic place is undeniably Sigiriya. Also dubbed “Fortress in the Sky”, it is a huge 100 meter high rock with imposing ruins and water reservoirs dating back to the 5th century AD. The site is famous for a wide fresco in the middle of the rock walls at 50 meters high, representing hundreds of beautiful bare-breasted women. A vandal destroyed many of them in 1967. No final conclusion has been made on site real function. Local legend says it was the palace of the King Kashyapa and the fresco represents its concubines. Recent archaeological findings say it was a monastery and these women represent heaven’s Apsaras. Personally, I find weird to build such a well-engineered systems and painting half-naked women for the delight of the monks, so its monastery functions may have existed after King’s death.

Another gorgeous site to see is Polonnaruwa, which was an ancient capital city in the 16th century. The city is almost as big as Angkor Vat, in Cambodia, and it has several temples scattered in the jungle. The most famous part of Polonnaruwa is the cliff where 4 giant buddhas are sculpted. One is 7 meters (23 ft) tall and the most massive is a reclining Buddha 6 meters long.

The cave monastery of Dumbulla is less famous, but without any doubt the most mystical and impressive site. Situated atop a mountain, several caves hide thousands of frescoes and 7 giant reclining buddhas statues.

Polonnaruwa and Dumbulla are two among the numerous Buddhist sites in Sri Lanka. Buddhism arrived from India in the 3rd century BC. Sri Lanka Buddhist school is fully Theravada. the oldest and the most traditional form of Buddhism. Theravada is found mainly in Sri Lanka, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand and thus, is known as the Southern Traditions of Buddhism. It means in Sanscrit “School of the Elders”, but pejoratively also known as Hinayana or Lesser Vehicle by the Mahayana school of Buddhism. Mahayana meaning Greater Vehicle, is found mainly in China, Korea, Vietnam, and Japan and thus, is known as the Northern Traditions of Buddhism.

Explaining the many difference between Theravada and Mahayana schools is too controversial. You can remember that Theravada school says human beings have a temporary stay on earth and are bound to be reborn perpetually, unless one understands his nature of existence by mediation. Then with this wisdom, a Theravada Buddhist can reach nirvana. In the Theravada school, people can find nirvana only for themselves. Unlike Theravada Buddhism, a Mahayana Buddhist can and should help others to enter nirvana. Mahayana school also state that every believer has the possibility to reach Buddhahood in his life.

Lili Sri Lanka

My contact with Sri Lanka people was unexpectedly pleasant. People sincerely respect you, smile to you, they don’t bother you if you ask them not to. The majority population in Sri Lanka is Sinhalese, who have Indian, and also South-Asian origins. Many look like a mix of Indians and Thais. Sinhalese language, however, is purely of Indo-European origin.

Sri Lanka Family

In Sri Lanka, there are also other communities such as Hindu Tamils, Arab Moors, descending from 12 century traders, Burghers (of Dutch descent), Malays and about 3,000 aboriginal Vedda people living from hunting in the tropical forest.

Sri Lanka Tamil Girl

A Tamil woman

The Tamils are the Indians that were brought from India to work in tea plantations. To work is to put it smoothly, as even today, it is more of a slave job. Workers, almost all women, gather tea leaves under the burning sun. They forget the roughness of their work by chattering together, laughing, singing…

Sri Lanka Tea Picker

Sri Lanka tea is called till now Ceylon tea. It grows mainly in the middle of the island above 1,000 meters high, on the slopes of the Hill Country. It is a tall tree in its natural state, up to 20 meters high. Pretty much like grapes, it must be cut to concentrate its flavor in the leaves. Sun exposure, altitude and soil greatly influence its taste. The higher it is grown, the more expensive it is valued. A bush lives 4 years, and then it must be cloned.

The same bush can produce green tea or black tea. The only difference lies in processing. Black tea is made by cutting, then bruising the two upper leaves (only) on a bush. Fermentation will ensue; the tea will get a tobacco-like brown color. After that, tea is roasted in a petrol-fueled oven to make it black.

Andrew Taylor

Andrew Taylor

Green tea, on the other hand, is first steamed to kill fungus and to halt the oxidizing and fermentation action of enzymes. Thanks to this process, green tea has more caffeine and anti-oxidant polyphenols (prevent cell aging) than black tea.

Tea factory Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is really a land of opportunities for photographers. People are always happy to pose in front of my camera. Furthermore, wildlife in Sri Lanka is extremely rich. There wasn’t a day without seeing a wild elephant, a varan, a monkey, a flashy-blue kingfisher, a cobra, to name just a few among many other species.

Sri Lanka monkey

My one and only painful experience was the night ascension of the mountain Adam’s Peak to see the most sacred Buddhist monastery of Sri Lanka. The tour was advised by many guide-books so you can see the sunrise on the mountain. Imagine
yourself climbing an abrupt staircase 4 hours in a row. Arrived at the top, for sunrise time, it was pouring glacial showers. Going down was still a torture as other muscles of my legs were solicited. It took me 3 days to walk normally. However, the reward of “making it” was well worth the efforts.

Tea field in Sri Lanka

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  • © Sebastian Zelechowski, Moscow 2011
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