Sri Lanka

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.

Sri Lanka Wild Elephant

Wild Elephant in Sri Lanka Central Water Reservoir

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.   > Go to Page 2 >


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  • © Sebastian Zelechowski, Moscow 2011
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