Memories of Anuradhapura

29 comments
Asia, South, Sri Lanka

Ruwanwelisaya, one of the most popular dagobas in Anuradhapura

I don’t know about you, but I am one of those people who like to look at their old travel photos to relive the good memories that might otherwise have been forgotten. Images I took at night around Singapore’s Marina Bay remind me of the sheer excitement I felt upon exploring this brightly illuminated part of the city on foot for the first time in 2010. While the photos from Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaew taken in 2011 bring back that feeling of amazement thanks to the visually-arresting architecture, colors and sheen unlike anything I had ever seen before.

A recent dig into my hard drive brought back memories of a country that – despite its natural beauty, impressive cultural sights, and good food – is still something of an off-the-radar tourist destination: Sri Lanka. Relatively unknown to outsiders, to me the ancient city of Anuradhapura at the heart of the northern half of the island evokes particularly fond memories. On my first trip to the Indian Ocean nation in 2012 – also my first time in South Asia – I went all the way from Kandy to the country’s capital in antiquity on a hot, sunny day. The climate in this part of Sri Lanka is semi-arid, yet it was here where the Sinhalese culture began to develop more than two thousand years ago, as did a local form of Buddhism which has now become the predominant religion in the country.

Suresh, my trusted driver at that time, seemed to know all corners of Anuradhapura like the back of his hand. And it was him who advised me not to hire a guide. “They often make up stories,” he said, alluding to a problem that is sadly not unique to Sri Lanka as supposedly local tour guides in some parts of the world often tell tourists exaggerated accounts and unfounded claims just to wow them. He took me from one dagoba to another, through dirt paths under the scorching midday heat in his unairconditioned car. Also spelled dagaba, these gigantic Buddhist stupas that can reach a height of more than 100 meters were a sight to behold and the reason why, despite the oppressive heat, I wasn’t complaining at all. The fact that these thousands-year-old structures are not really known by the world in general made me ponder other monuments out there, in all four corners of the planet, that are not much mentioned in the news or anywhere else but are actually worth seeing.

If you’ve watched Star Wars, the name of these red brick stupas in northern Sri Lanka might sound familiar for Dagobah is that murky planet filled with swamps and forests where Yoda went into exile. However, real-life dagobas are located in a landscape that sees little rain, forcing any plants and trees that grow here to adapt to their harsh environment. This was also the reason why the ancient kings of the island also built water reservoirs so that the city could sustain a large number of people who would then help spread Buddhism and expand the kingdom’s power on the island. Interestingly, wildlife actually thrive here, a fact I only noticed on my second trip to Anuradhapura in 2015, this time with James as a part of our six-month-long journey.

On this visit, Anuradhapura was still very hot, but it looked greener than how I remembered it. This time with Mahesh, an Anuradhapura native who with his wife Achini ran a guest house in Kandy – where we stayed – I also explored places I didn’t get to see three years earlier, those that don’t usually make it to the list of locations people want to check out in Sri Lanka. Apart from getting to stop by sites most tourists skip, we were also able to spot different kinds of bird species thanks to the serene ambiance of these places. Most of them were hidden in plain sight, only recognizable through the sound they made. Some eventually did show themselves to us, although I wasn’t fast enough to take a photo of a beautiful kingfisher with its blue plume shining brightly in the sun. I did, however, manage to capture images of a black-hooded oriole (Oriolus xanthornus) flying from one tree to another. Also a black eagle (Ictinaetus malaiensis) perching on an ancient stone slab, perfectly camouflaged in its surroundings. On the other hand, the grey-headed swamphens (Porphyrio poliocephalus) with their distinctive red marking on their forehead and beak ambled along the shallow part of a pond, making their way through lotuses and other aquatic plants that covered the surface. They were all a reminder that in spite of its relatively compact size and population density, Sri Lanka is teeming with wildlife.

These memories of Anuradhapura were for quite some time supplanted by those created in more recent years from my travels to other parts of Asia. But since international travel is off the table for me right now (although I’m starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel as there is an increasing number of countries that have reopened their borders to those vaccinated with Sinovac – the vaccine that I got), I’ve been revisiting the photo folders in my hard drive and was delighted to realize that there were images from this ancient Sri Lankan city that had not yet seen the light of day. We travel to make memories, and for many people taking photos is our means of storing those memories in a safe place so that they can be recalled whenever we need them. And in a time like this, travel memories also give us hope of a future that can be when this pandemic is over.

A drip ledge, cut by ancient monks to create a dry shelter for them under the rock

The ancient Brahmi script found in Anuradhapura

A pond within the Ranmasu Uyana compound, a millennia-old royal garden

A black-hooded oriole (Oriolus xanthornus)

In Sri Lanka, squirrels are less shy than their cousins in Jakarta

The tufted grey langur (Semnopithecus priam) is commonly found in Anuradhapura

It looks like a black eagle (Ictinaetus malaiensis)

Grey-headed swamphens (Porphyrio poliocephalus)

This looks like an Asian hermit spider (Nephilengys malabarensis)

Common picture wings (Rhyothemis variegata)

Walking to Ruwanwelisaya on a hot day

Stone elephants at Ruwanwelisaya

An ancient round well near Ruwanwelisaya

A beautiful door handle at Isurumuniya temple

Star jasmine (Jasminum multiflorum)

Nagaraja guardstones at the base of the stairs to Isurumuniya temple

An intricate moonstone at Abhayagiri monastery

Abhayagiri monastery with its giant dagoba

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

29 thoughts on “Memories of Anuradhapura”

  1. Wonderful photos and memories—far different from my time there. I was forced into staying in Anuradhapura under 24-hour curfew the day I arrived on the island from India. Luckily, I was in a guesthouse that supplied food. When the curfew was lifted during daylight hours, I was glad to leave for Colombo and it was fortunate that I did as Anuradhapura was taken over by insurgents for a time and no one could get in or out. I’ve written a novel loosely based on my four months on the island that has just been professionally edited and I am presently working through the edits.

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  2. It’s amazing to think that such massive brick stupas like Ruwanwelisaya and Abhayagiri Dagoba were originally built around 2,000 years ago. That was such a memorable day trip from Kandy, even if it was painful to walk barefoot on the paving stones that were baked by the midday heat. I remember waiting in a shaded spot at Ruwanwelisaya while you took close-up photos around the base of the dagoba. You certainly have an eye for wildlife, Bama… it was great to see different kinds of birds thriving amid these ancient sites.

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    • They’re basically as old as many ancient structures in parts of Europe and the Middle East. Yet so little is known about them compared to their contemporaries. I remember it vaguely when I was taking close-up shots of the dagoba and you were waiting for me at one corner. I wouldn’t say I wasn’t tortured by the heat, but I’d experienced something similar to it before so I kind of knew what to do. As for the wildlife, I wish I had a telephoto lens with me at that time, although I find it not really practical to bring multiple lenses when I travel.

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  3. I love your concluding words, Bama: “We travel to make memories, and for many people taking photos is our means of storing those memories in a safe place so that they can be recalled whenever we need them. And in a time like this, travel memories also give us hope of a future that can be when this pandemic is over.”

    I’ve recently also started going through old photographs of trips I did with my husband in search of pictures of the two of us, as I want to put a couple in frames on the wall to bring back some of those wonderful memories I have of our travels. I also sometimes randomly read some of my blog posts to remind me of places, times and people who added so much colour and joy to my life.

    Here’s to a bright future of creating more travel memories in the near future!

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    • I believe those photos of you and Michael, taken in different places, will not only remind you of the good memories you made, but also inspire people who come to your house to explore the world. Like you, from time to time I also like to revisit some of my old posts. And when I do that, I’m usually reminded of little details from my past travels that often put a smile on my face.

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  4. That’s quite some memory to remember so much. Photos do give a rejig and you recall things that you otherwise wouldn’t. Loved the photos. Never been to Sri Lanka and hence no way to Anuradhapura. Would love to but and it’s actually one of those places that I have to visit.

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    • I’m glad I took tons of photos from Anuradhapura (well, I usually take lots of photos wherever I travel anyway), which helped me remember some things I had otherwise forgotten. When the borders are open again, I think you should go to Sri Lanka. You’d enjoy the scenery, and I have a feeling you would find Sigiriya (further southeast from Anuradhapura) interesting.

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  5. You’re so right about going back through photos to jog memories and feelings from our travels. Sometimes I read some passages from the blog aloud to Don and we both remember how much fun we had. These are wonderful photos. I especially like the one of Ruwanwelisaya. Sri Lanka has been on my list for so long!
    Alison

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    • I learned from my mistake in Europe. Back then (it was 2007), I only brought a pocket camera with a very limited storing capacity. When the memory card was maxed out (only in a few days, while the entire trip lasted for a month), I thought to myself, oh well, I can store the visual memories in my head. You can say I was overly optimistic 😀 When the situation has improved, you should make a plan to travel to Sri Lanka, Alison. It’s relatively compact in size, yet there are so much to see in this country.

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  6. Bama I am always so grateful to have photos to remember our adventures by. Sri Lanka sounds like an extraordinary and lesser known destination. I’m not sure if you follow Peta and Ben from Green Global Trek but they spent a couple of years I believe in Sri Lanka. Until then it had not even been on my radar. I enjoyed your memories and beautiful photos.

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    • I have been following Peta and Ben for quite some time now, and I remember reading their stories in Sri Lanka. If I remember it correctly, they visited the country right before the pandemic wreaked havoc all across the globe. You should visit Sri Lanka when the situation is a lot safer to travel, Sue. Due to its size, I think it’s actually possible to cycle around the country — or at least to cover its most impressive sites.

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  7. My photos and memories have kept me sane all these past months Bama.

    Your recollections bring back such fond memories. Ravi and I loved Anuradhapura. The ruins have the feel of ancient Greece, so much atmosphere even though little is intact. We went on a day-trip too and wished we’d made time for an overnight stay.

    I fully agree with your comment about guides, but for a change it was our guide who brought Anuradhapura alive for us! He was passionate about history and insisted on drawing diagrams on the dirt and explaining things in detail. Our equally wonderful driver hired him and was supposed to send me his contact details. He never did and I have been unable to contact him in over two years.

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    • We’re both visual people, which explains why keeping photos from our trips is important for us.

      After my second visit to Anuradhapura, I was actually wondering whether staying overnight there would be better to get the ambiance of the place when most tourists and pilgrims have left the ancient city. Exploring the ruins by bicycle would probably be nice, which makes me think of my own experience in Angkor when I took a leisurely ride on my rented bike and stopped at whatever spot I found interesting.

      It sounds like you were really lucky to meet a guide who had a real passion in the history of his country and wished to share it with foreigners. You being unable to contact your driver in Sri Lanka reminds me of my own experience in Bhutan. James and I had this very polite and kind driver to take us around, and we were also accompanied by an equally wonderful and informative guide. On our last night in the country we gave them our email addresses, but we have never heard anything from them since then.

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  8. Ah…the name that continues to be a tongue-twister for me. Anuradhapura is one of the few top sites that we did not visit on our Sri Lanka trip in 2019 so it’s wonderful seeing it through your eyes. It’s definitely a lot greener than our visit to Pollonawaru, which was super interesting but scorching hot and dry (in April). I too was taken by the amount of wildlife in this relatively small country. We were amazed by the birds in Bundala National Park, on the south coast. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve posted about Bundala. Like you, I’m very happy to re-live some of our travels through old photos.

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    • James also said the same thing once. He found names of places in Sri Lanka hard to pronounce. I guess it’s easier for me because Indonesian has a lot of loanwords from Sanskrit, an ancient language that has left a deep influence in South Asian languages. I think my first visit to Sri Lanka was also around April, so I know what you mean about Polonnaruwa being so unforgivingly hot. I’d love to read your stories and see the photos you took in Bundala, a part of the island I have yet to visit.

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  9. Great post, Bama. I went to Sri Lanka once and while I did know about Anuradhapura, I wasn’t able to make it there. It’s really remarkable how for such a small country, Sri Lanka boasts such long history and impressive historical sites. If I ever go back, I would go there as well as Polonnaruwa.
    I also find looking at old travel photos to be pleasant and brings back good memories. For now, and perhaps the near future, it’s as close as we can come to travel.

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    • Thank you, Hilton. The fact that there are so many places to see in such a relatively compact island is one of the reasons why I find Sri Lanka very alluring. I hope when you’re able to do international travel again you’ll get the chance to revisit this country and see those ancient cities.

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    • The pleasure is mine, Maggie. Next time I visit Anuradhapura I think I should stay there at least one night to feel the ambiance of this ancient city when the day-trippers are gone.

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    • Thank you, Liz. I had probably seen this kind of spider somewhere else, but I didn’t know its name until recently.

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