He sits with his back to the mountain, surveying the countryside from the lotus position, legs knotted and palms resting with fingers posed in an abstract imitation of a lotus flower. That pose we have all come to know and admire but mostly can't do, gifted to only the most flexible among us. This Buddha is gold from his toenails to the last little snail on his head. Another revelation, what I have always thought to be tight little curls are actually snails. Here’s the story; At his birth it had been predicted that he would either become a great king or a great holy man. Naturally his father wanting to keep the family dynasty going decided that he would protect the child from any knowledge of everyday suffering, sickness, imperfection or inequality. The child grew up in this very cosseted world but at the age of 29 he decided his life was boring and meaningless. He left the palace late at night and against his fathers wishes to wonder out and see the world. He saw for the first time an old person, a sick person a dead person and a holy man all of which were revelations to him as he had never encountered these elements of life before. I agree its a stretch I assume his father had aged over the years so he either had a great plastic surgeon or he veiled himself all of the time. But lets be honest, here christians have and still believe stranger things so I will put my cynic back in the box. These were named the four sights of Buddha and the final one being the holy man was the most inspirational for him. So Buddha set about his search for understanding, I think, the human condition. So he abandoned his wife and young son...not very holy!
He became a holy man. I have to say, has there ever been a time when a woman could abandon her children and not have to hide herself away? Anyhow, he became a holy man and learned the way of a holy man. He learned yoga and meditation to the level of a teacher. He fasted to understand suffering but decided starving to death would be of no use to anyone. He became a bit of a philosopher and sat around thinking great thoughts. The final achievement was the elusive ‘Enlightenment’. He sat under a Bodhi tree to meditate. He did not move but people brought him food and drink just enough to stay alive while on his journey of enlightenment. This is where the creatures come into the story. During his fasting the heavens opened and for seven days a deluge of rain came down. A cobra came behind Buddha and opened up its fanned head leaning over Buddha to protect him from the rain. Next came the scorching sun, this time 108 snails crawled up onto Buddha’s head. Their bodies and their slimy trail protected Buddha’s head from the sun. The snails apparently had realised that as Buddha sat in the sun trying to achieve the ultimate enlightenment the heat would become a distraction. So selflessly they crawled up onto his head so his journey would not be interrupted. This brings about today's traditional image of Buddha with the 108 snails on his head. All the sails died for the cause of Buddha’s enlightenment. I have to say I do love this aspect of Buddhism where every creature has a place and respect. They don’t appear in stories as inferior to man but we all have a place and a value. I can hear you Veronica “she’s losing it, talking snails!” Ha ha, but I know you love me.
Giant Golden Buddha in Dambulla Temple
Róisín and I left the taxi to climb the hill to the Buddha. Well Róisín climbed the hill, I couldn’t bare the thought of taking off my shoes to go into this or any other temple. The ground tends to be very rough and my soft lazy feet can't take it so I walk like someone on hot coals. Not a good look and reminiscent of every soft colonist depicted in the ‘The Jewel in the Crown’ and other such populist dramas. Not an image I want to inhabit. So Róisín goes to the temple at the top of the hill while I find my way, with shoes on, to the restrooms. No rest here, it was grim. There must have been about a hundred cubicles and some with doors hanging off. Clearly, per Covid, this place drew a big crowd. Unfortunately for me there were no western toilets, only the now very familiar hole in the floor and a grubby bucket full of water and a jug standing beside it. I can only imaging what the bucket was for but I can tell you for certain that I had no intention of touching it. Luckily my training as a mother had trained me for every eventuality and I had wipes and tissues the full shabang to be self sufficient. The sinks were filthy so although etiquette may require hand washing after using such facilities I figured the sinks were likely to make my hands dirtier. Covid had equipped every traveller with alcohol gel so hygiene standards were maintained. No need to think twice about shaking my hand but I’m only speaking for myself, I'll leave that little nugget develop in the back of your mind. Once planted you’ll never pull that weed out, only messing with you...or am I!
This is a major tourist attraction and it still is an active temple. I don’t think I will ever get used to being allowed to wander around such sights while people are praying and allowed to take pictures as if observing aliens from another planet. I'm confident if tourists did that at home they would be told where to go with the addition of expletives even on those sacred hallowed grounds. I have asked many people if the locals mind when tourist take photos while they are praying and without exception I have been told they don’t mind at all. Personally I think they are just too polite to say "Eff off". Anyhow I don’t like it and I don’t do it.
Róisín and I return to the car and are promptly brought to our hotel. It's a beautiful hotel in a kind of post colonial style with verandas outside every door. The view from our room looks directly onto Sigiriya rock, another of Róisín’s bucket list items. I should say I don’t have a bucket list, I’m happy with all the little treasures that come my way, and but for Róisín I wouldn’t be here now and would have no understanding of what I was missing. There is an elephant that walks up and down the road all day giving rides to tourists. I half hope they will fall off as clearly the animal is miserable. A man with a hook shouts and prods the elephant along with paying customers on top. I have to wonder at how thick some people are. They clearly see this animal is not enjoying it's work but simply don’t care. As long as tourists keep paying, the elephant will have to plod up and down this road. Daily we see tribes of monkeys run along the electricity poles on the road and sometimes we can hear them on the roof of our bungalow. I love them, don’t want to pet them or get too close but I do love watching them. The plus side of taking this trip while Covid is still an issue is unhindered access to all major attractions. The down side is that businesses are desperate for tourists to return en masse. We are the only guests in this hotel yet they pull out all the stops and look after our every need.
Stairs leading to the top of Sigiriya
The only thing happening in this area was the big rock. It is the ruins of an ancient palace which sat on top of the rock. It stands 200 meters tall and has a 360 degree panoramic view out over the countryside. Its surrounded by old monasteries dating back to the 5th century BC and with gardens and temples included. Our hotel is just at the entrance path and here the tuk tuks wait to catch a fare. We didn't realise how long it would take to get to the rock so we refused all offers of a lift. We walked the dirt track for about half a mile before we came to the check point and the payment desk. It cost $25 each to get in which is a lot in these parts. After the entrance there was more walking but it was now through the old gardens. It wasn’t difficult to imagine what it was like in its heyday. Acres of raised beds and steps leading onto more raised beds before the ascent onto the rock. As we were about to go up I discovered once that decision was made there was no turning back. I very much doubted if I would be able to make it to the top and discovering that the return was on a different route I coward out letting Róisín go on her own. I found a shady spot under a tree to sit and wait.
After a bug fell from the tree and down the back of my shirt to bite me I decided perhaps it would be best to make the journey, anything was better than being eaten by bugs. I started up the steps taking breaks at each platform before venturing to the next flight of steps. I got about quarter of the way when the steps became like rope ladders clinging to the face of the rock. That was enough for me so I made a handy exit and was directed to a side series of steps by a guard. It was okay to start with but near the bottom there were two staircases with deep steps of unequal height and no hand rail. I thank the Gods that I didn't tip head over heels making that descent but happily on got to the bottom uninjured. There was a collection of stalls selling all kinds of souvenirs and trinkets. I declined all enticements and was left alone, quiet and quickly. There was an air of hopelessness about the place as if the people didn't have the energy to be refused by any more tourists. I made my way to the on site museum and text Róisín to meet me there, it was a joy to get out of the heat. She wasn’t long behind me which will give an indication as to how slowly I took those steps. She recounted with excitement how she nearly turned back when it came to the steps that were hammered into the side of the rock with no other support. She was on the verge of tears when she met another group of people who asked where her group was and admitting it was just her they gave her endless amounts of encouragement. She said at one point she imagined telling me that she wasn’t brave enough to do the floating steps and she imagined me saying “what an eejit to come so close and not finish it”. I would not have said that. Róisín has respected my fears of train tracks, caves to name a few, and she would always take the long way around just to address my issues. The miracle here is that she didn't cut ties weeks ago but instead patiently put up with my slow pace and any other foibles I hooked onto to hinder our progress. Thanks Róisín don’t think it went unnoticed but perhaps I didn't tell you often enough, love you darling and will never forget our time together, it's been magical.
The top of Sigiriya
We moved very slowly through the museum not wishing to complete it too soon and end up out in the belting sun. When we had seen our fill and security guards following our every move (I think they thought we might have been hovering so as to sneak any some antiquities) we quickly left the building and made our way out of the park. It started to pour rain and even sheltering under a tree did nothing to stop us getting drowned so we gave up on that and kept walking. We didn't care, well used to rain and would dry off quickly in this heat. Down the long path and out onto the road we went, everyone except the two Irish ladies were sheltering and were greeted with looks of astonishment as we strolled through the rain. It was really very cooling and we figured we could dry off at the hotel when we got there. We pass through the town having started our expedition at the opposite end. We had now done a full circle. We happened upon the field where the elephant was kept while not working and no one wanted to be on the elephant in the rain. She was on the banks of the river clearly having a grand old time sucking up the water with her trunk and flicking it either side and over the top. We stayed a while and chatted with her before moving on. We would be gone in the morning and would not see her again. But her plodding up and down on the road outside my hotel would be a lingering and not a pleasant memory.
Our Beautiful Elephant Friend playing with a Sponge
Hi, I'm Olive and I am the writer of this blog. I am traveling the world with my 22 year old daughter, Róisín, who has just graduated University. I wanted to document this journey because it is unusual for a woman of 58 years old to go on adventure that most students do on a gap year. I will try to share my insights into this epic journey with you along the way and maybe inspire more people my age to go on these crazy adventures too.