A photo tour of Sigiriya

The first time I visited Sigiriya is more a memory of my parents than mine, as I was around a year old at that time. They keep recounting the story of how one of my father’s colleagues had offered to carry me up the mountain, during an office trip with family, as my parents had their hands full with my siblings. I think their memory of Sigiriya is associated with the subsequent scare they received when my father’s colleague took off running up the mountain, after I was handed over, and my parents feared that I was going to be dropped.

My own memory of Sigiriya is a more pleasant one as it was a trip I took with my friends during the first year of my undergrad years. It was a fun trip though I remember it being terribly hot and crowded, as we climbed up the rock. I think the climb is best experienced early in the morning.

Sigiriya, the UNESCO heritage site, is a rock fortress built in the 5th century by King Kashyapa whose story is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Macbeth complete with greed for power, murder, revenge and battle. However gory Kashyapa’s life might have been, the ruins of the fortress he built are a marvel to see as are the gardens, which are among the oldest landscaped gardens in the world.

Some of the unique features of the rock fortress are the mirror wall and the frescoes. The mirror wall is said to have been highly polished enough to see one’s own reflection during the King’s time but subsequently became a place for visitors to scribble verses. Some of the earliest verses scribbled on by visiting vandals date back to the 8th century. While those ancient verses have become part of the treasured archaeological site, today’s scribbler could find himself or herself in jail. The famed Sigiriya frescoes are the remains of murals that survived time, exposure and vandalism. Only a handful remain in the cave though it is believed that there had once been thousands of them.

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View of Sigiriya from Kandalama Hotel, 2010

This post is a photo tour of Sigiriya, as seen through the lens of my friend, Nishanie Jayamaha, during her more recent visit. Nishanie tells me that she finds the engineering aspect of Sigiriya a marvel, some of which are still in working condition. She especially mentions the hydraulic technology that was used to pump water from ground water sources up to the pools at the top of the rock.

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View of the rock from the fountain gardens, photo credit: Nishanie Jayamaha

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Photo credit: Nishanie Jayamaha

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Photo credit: Nishanie Jayamaha

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Photo credit: Nishanie Jayamaha

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Sigiriya frescoes, photo credit: Nishanie Jayamaha

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Surviving Sigiriya frescoes, photo credit: Nishanie Jayamaha

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Ruins of the palace at the top of the rock, photo credit: Nishanie Jayamaha

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Photo credit: Nishanie Jayamaha

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Photo credit: Nishanie Jayamaha

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View of the water gardens from the top, photo credit: Nishanie Jayamaha

Despite the dark and ugly history behind the creation of Sigiriya, the ruins of the ancient city remains an architectural marvel and one of the most visited sites in Sri Lanka.

Have you visited Sigiriya? What feature of the ancient rock fortress fascinates you the most?

[I am linking this post to The Weekly Postcard]

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Whale watching off the coast of Mirissa

Just after Weligama and just before reaching Matara town proper, one comes to Mirissa in the south coast of Sri Lanka. The Mirissa water sports club near the Mirissa harbour offers whale watching tours. Some of the best whale watching around this island country is off the coast of Mirissa and is an experience not to be missed.

Staying at one of the cosy guesthouses on the beach, my friends and I woke up early one January morning in 2011 and made our way to the Mirissa harbour. Opposite the harbour entrance was the office of the water sports club. We checked in and were taken to our boat in the harbour. Donning the bright orange life jackets given us, we got on to the boat with much anticipation.

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As our boat left the harbour, it was lovely to see the little colourful fishing boats bobbing against the blue sea. With the wind and sea spray lashing against our faces, we set off to see the elusive whales on a four hour tour.

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All our eyes scanned the surface hoping to catch that first glimpse of spray spouted out of the water, the tell-tale sign of a whale in the vicinity. The boat crew did tell us stories where not a single whale had been sighted and of other expeditions, where so many had been. They mentioned that luck played a key role in whether we would be able to see any whales that day as did the weather conditions. One by one, the passengers started succumbing to either sea-sickness or plain boredom and by 10.30 a.m., the time for the tour to end, most were ready to simply return to land even though we had not spotted anything.

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However, thankfully, our boat crew were whale enthusiasts and were determined to search for the whales and they decided to move further out to the sea so our boat headed further south. It was nice to imagine that if we continued in that path, we would end up on the Antarctic continent, a region that I have long dreamt of exploring.

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As the sun continued to mercilessly beat down upon us, one of the crew suddenly shouted out an alert. A water-spout had been spotted in the distance. Everyone rushed to the rails hoping to catch a glimpse and those who brought their binoculars were lucky to see a bit more than those without. One of the boat crew explained to us that the whale we had spotted was a Byrde whale. Byrde whales – a type of Baleen whale (the toothless ones, as I refer to them) was common around the southern coast of Sri Lanka. These whales had been named after Johan Byrde, the Norwegian consul to South Africa, who set up the first whaling station in Durban.

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We spotted a couple more of the Byrde whales or perhaps it was the same set occasionally appearing along our path.

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Then, suddenly, the boat crew excitedly pointed to one direction and said that it was a blue whale. Given our own lack of awareness on the shape of the tail flukes, we couldn’t confirm it. However, I felt something powerful within me – a feeling of awe and great respect of being in the presence of such a magnificient whale. I was very much moved. The boat crew handed around cream crackers to celebrate the moment as well as the fact that most of us had not had any breakfast. The huge whale then suddenly dived into the ocean’s depth.

We then had some visitors as pods of dolphins, which I learnt is actually a type of toothed whale, came to meet us or rather our boat and swam alongside the boat.

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The reaction of all the human beings in the boat to the arrival of the dolphins was quite touching. Everyone instantly had a smile on their face and were responding happily to the carefree abandon of the dolphins who were joyfully playing around. At one point, the boat stopped at the request of some passengers who promptly jumped off the boat, in their enthusiasm, to swim with the dolphins. I felt it was a bit irresponsible of both the swimmers and the boat crew as we were in the middle of the ocean and the marine life was not habituated to humans as in aquariums. The dolphins vanished within seconds as quickly as they had approached us. The swimmers climbed back on board and the boat turned landward as we started our trip back.

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Our adventure did not stop with the dolphins and our ever watchful boat crew started shouting excitedly pointing to one direction. We all looked and sure, we could see a couple of whales lounging on the surface. The boat headed directly towards the pair and I worried that we were either disturbing the whales or that the whales might get annoyed and attack our boat. The pair of whales however did not seem bothered by our approach and actually allowed us to approach them.

Our boat guide informed us that this was a sperm whale. The whale was looking at us as we drew close and there was a stench emanating from the whale.

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After a few minutes of continuing to float on the surface, the whale decided to dive back into the ocean and we were treated to a spectacular close up of the dive and tail cutting through the water.

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Happy, tired and sun-burnt, we headed back to the shore around 1.30 p.m., our whale watching trip having been extended in our collective enthusiasm. A remarkable day and experience and most recommended during a visit to the southern coast.

Since that trip, I saw a documentary by a marine biologist studying the seas off Sri Lanka’s southern coast. According to the researcher, this area is a permanent residence habitat of whales, and other marine life, as the conditions are just right for them there in terms of feeding and water temperature. While I do worry that reckless whale watching tours will disturb the whales, I do think that responsible marine tourism is important. For me, that whale watching experience created a lasting interest and concern about marine life and how shipping lines, fishing and other human being induced factors disrupt and harm marine life.

[I am linking this post to:

*Wanderful Wednesday, hosted by Snow in Tromso, Lauren on Location, The Sunny Side of Thisand What a Wonderful World

**The Weekly Postcard, hosted by Travel Notes & BeyondA Hole in My Shoe, As We Saw It, Eff it, I’m On HolidaySelim Family Raasta]
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Special Six: London Surprises

Walks around London’s numerous historic streets and avenues, visits to interesting museums and palaces, cruises on the Thames, picnics in the numerous, lovely parks are must-try experiences in London. Often though, it is the unplanned or unexpected experiences that become the most memorable. So here are some of my favourites of the pleasant, diverse surprises that London welcomed me with. Perhaps you might want to try out one or more of them?

  • Clipper Round The World Race:

My friend liked the restaurants at St. Katherine docks and suggested we go to the Turkish restaurant Kilikyas for lunch during the last weekend of August 2015. We noticed that there was a huge crowd, loud music and a carnival spirit outside the restaurant. Since it was the first time I was going there, I initially assumed that perhaps this was a vibrant spot in London which celebrated each weekend. It was when the drum beats started and announcements were made that I realized that some special event was going on. So once we finished lunch, we decided to go and have a look and realized that it was a race, the launch of the clipper round the world race. We managed to find a little spot where we were able to view the dock area from where the clippers left one by one.

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It was so much fun cheering the boats as they left for the 8 leg, 14 race, 11 month journey of over 40,000 nautical miles around the world. Apparently, the race does not require team members to be experienced sailors. The selected teams undergo a four level training in the UK or Australia.

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Our favourite was Team Britain’s beautiful clipper, with its 54 member crew, participating in different legs of the race and sponsored by the UK government’s ‘GREAT Britain’ campaign since 2013.

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Photo credit: Bindu Nanu

We then walked over the tower bridge to see the parade of the sails as the twelve clippers waited for the Tower bridge to open. Qingdao sponsored by the Chinese city of Qingdao, which is the longest serving team sponsor and host port since 2005/06, led the parade.

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The race of the Americas from Panama to USA, race 11, was completed last week and the teams arrived in New York with Team ClipperTelemed+  winning this race. The website has a page for viewing where the clippers are in the ongoing race as well as a table with the team positions for the overall race. Currently, Team LMAX Exchange is in the overall lead and Team Britain in the third.

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Race 12 from New York to Londonderry will start on June 20th. The final race, race 14, is expected to finish at St. Katherine’s docks in London on July 30th when the teams sail in from Den Helder, The Netherlands. So, if you are in London that saturday, do visit St. Katherine docks, enjoy a meal at one of the numerous restaurants there and welcome the returning clippers.

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Photo credit: Bindu Nanu

Don’t you find the clipper race exciting? If you want to participate, you can actually do so by sending in your application to join a team in the 2017/18 or 2018/19 clipper races.

  • London School of Economics (LSE) Public Talks

Universities do have a tradition of hosting public talks but while at LSE, I found that the LSE calendar for public lectures was packed each term. I found it amazing that so many interesting leaders and influencers from around the world were invited to give a talk almost each evening. The lectures are free and usually on a first come, first served basis, so generally there are long queues. For some talks, registration and collecting the free tickets prior to the day of talk is required.

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So, why not check the public events page of a universit(y)ies specializing in your areas of interest and go for one of the lectures? I liked the LSE public events the best and I am somewhat biased here.

  • Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club

Inspired by the New York jazz scene, Ronnie Scott and his friend Pete King, both tenor saxophonists, opened up the jazz club in 1959. The club moved to its present location on Frith street in 1965. Jazz legends Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Stan Getz, Wes Montgomery and many more have played here and contemporary ones continue to drop by. The jazz club was recommended to me as the best place in London for some great, live jazz music by one of the baristas, at my favourite coffee shop in London, who is a part-time jazz musician.

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Photo credit: Kat Arney@ Kat Arney

I went there twice to try out both the jazz bar and club. The main club venue downstairs hosts ticketed jazz events and it is a special experience where you can enjoy some wonderful, live jazz music while dining on some delicious food. Upstairs @Ronnie’s is a bar where live jazz music is played every evening. While the doors to the bar opens at 6pm, and you can enter free till 7pm after which there is a small cover charge, live music only begins at 9pm. Upstairs bar is a place which you can go to regularly with friends or on your own.

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Photo credit: Chelsea@ Chelseas40before40

  • Taiko Drumming

This activity will definitely not be something you think of when considering a London experience. However, given the multicultural essence of the city, it was fitting that I was able to try it out while in London. My friend and I had gone to Festival Asia at Tobacco dock in Docklands. While there, we tried out a mini taiko drumming workshop by Mark Alcock. Mark taught us to play a short, original composition as a group. Not only did I find it so much fun to try out the drums, I found it such a wonderful team-building/ de-stressing activity that I contacted Mark at Taiko Meantime, and organized a workshop for a group of friends at university to celebrate the end of exams. Taiko Meantime conducts regular classes as well as special workshops, at their premises or at a location of your choice, if you are in a large group. So, do contact them if you want a taste of Japan, in London, through some Taiko drumming.

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Photo credit: Riddhi Shah

  • Pottery café

I came across the pottery café when I was searching for a special fun activity to enjoy with my friend and her daughter – something that both adults and children could participate in. The café offers group sessions, where you are given instructions, before you paint the pottery using child safe, water based, non-toxic paints. There is a studio fee of £5.99 per person, for the use of the materials, plus the cost of the hand-made pottery that you have selected to paint on. The cafe also serves hot and cold beverages, as well as some cakes and cookies, to enjoy while painting. I booked us a session at the Fulham cafe branch one weekend. Once you finish painting, you hand it in so that the painted pottery can be sent to their workshop to be finished in the kiln. You will receive a collection receipt and you can collect the finished pottery, normally a week later.

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Photo credit: Bindu Nanu

  • Crown Court Church of Scotland:

This church has been active in London since King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England in 1603. The church has been at its present site in Covent garden from 1719, though the present building was built in 1909. I came across an online article mentioning the Crown court church of Scotland in Covent Garden as the place to celebrate St. Andrew’s day in London. I looked up St. Andrew’s day and found that it was the day of the patron saint of Scotland, Greece and a few other countries. From the what’s on calendar on the church website, I also found the Rambling and Social Club entry mentioning a St. Andrew’s night party on November 29th and that all were welcome.

Since it was indicated that all were welcome to the party, a small group of friends and I decided to drop by the church that evening. What we came across was not quite what we had expected, something in the lines of a church service for St. Andrew’s day, and neither were we what the endearing group of elderly church members expected. Though surprised, they warmly welcomed us to join in for the tea and shared a little background about the church history as well as gave us a quick tour of the church chapel upstairs. We were also invited to join in for their future monthly club gatherings, especially for the Burns night celebrations. I was touched by their warm hospitality and wanted to make them something for one of their monthly gatherings as I noticed that each person had brought some homemade food to the tea party. So, I made a Sri Lankan semolina sweet dish and revisited the group for the club’s christmas party at the church in December. It was a lovely tea party with a trivia quiz at the end.

I found the experience delightful, not only because it was unexpected, but because it provided the space for meaningful interaction. I also received suggestions of places to visit in Scotland.

The church is definitely worth a visit, when you are in London, and as the Rambling and Social Club page mentions, all are welcome to attend the activities mentioned in their calendar.

Which of these surprises would you want to try out, during your next visit to London? What is one of your favourite travel surprises?

[I am linking this post to Wanderful WednesdayThe Weekly PostcardCity Tripping #36, and Weekend Travel Inspiration]

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Galle Fort and the Literary Festival

The Galle Fort on the southwest coast of Sri Lanka had been a place that I visited on an annual basis for a few years. The Portuguese first built the fort in the 16th century to defend themselves against the locals. It was later improved upon greatly by the Dutch in the 17th and 18th centuries with some additions by the British when they took over in the 18th century. It is now an UNESCO world heritage site and is maintained quite well. To this day, it has both a residential and commercial area with one section housing Government offices and the bulk of it, a crisscross of symmetrical streets with houses and small businesses interspersed with historical landmarks such as the lighthouse, the Dutch Reformed Church etc.

The trip to the fort was a tradition of sorts, my mother and I visiting the Galle Fort annually on a day trip in January during the Galle Literary festival. I would choose the day and the key session that we would be attending and perhaps, another fringe event and we would be off at 6 a.m. on the Colombo to Galle bus. My favourite two sessions from the years that I attended the literary festival were the conversation sessions with my favourite playwrights, Michael Frayn and Tom Stoppard.

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I had directed and staged Frayn’s Copenhagen, while at university, so listening to him talk about how he went about constructing it was moving. It was like hearing a much loved story again through the person who has not only experienced it with you but was also the one instrumental in bringing that experience to you. I took my old, well thumbed copies of plays by both and got them autographed by the authors.
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Besides the sessions with writers, there were film screenings and other fringe events, including children focused workshop activities, heritage walks and culinary tours, during the literary festival. One of the film screenings that I attended and very much liked was the screening of Tropical Amsterdam, a documentary sharing the perspectives of some of the well-known elderly Burghers, the Eurasian ethnic community in Sri Lanka. There is a sense of resignation in the documentary that there will be no ‘Burgher’ identity left in Sri Lanka and I felt it would have been good to include the perspectives of the younger generations as well to see if they too shared the same sense of resignation.

Until our particular session time, my mother and I enjoyed walking around the Galle Fort though the amount and distance we walked and explored gradually declined in par with my mother’s declining health. Despite my concerns over her physical fitness to withstand a full day’s trip which included a three hour bus ride each way and sitting in hour-long sessions, her resolute nature was keen to continue this annual mother-daughter ritual. So, we continued our day trips, my mother in her neck collar, and we would walk around exploring the fort.

The gate to the fort was a fortified structure with space within its walls. Probably offices and quarters of the Dutch in the past, it now housed the Maritime museum as well as spaces for hosting art exhibitions.

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Turning right after entering through the gate and walking along the walls of the fort, one would come to the street with the 18th century Dutch Reformed Church (the oldest Dutch built church in Sri Lanka) as well as the 19th century All Saints Church.

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Tombstone inscriptions on the floor greet you as you step into the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC). The church is simple and practical in its construction and is built to keep out the heat of the city. The organ from 1760 still maintains its place in a corner of the church.

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Adjacent to the church, a small library had been constructed in 1832 and functions to this date. It is considered the oldest public library in Sri Lanka.

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The All Saints Church, a pretty church consecrated in 1871, maintains the same concept of simplicity and practicality in its design as the DRC.

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Walking further past the Dutch Reformed Church, one comes to the Government office section and eventually to the public square. The fort was very much a self-contained mini-town during the days of the Dutch and the British.

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It was lovely to walk through the old streets – the Leynbaan street – a street that according to one of my Dutch friends could have been similar to the rope maker’s street in old Netherlands where the ropes were made and soaked along drain lines that ran along the length of the street. Indeed, during the Dutch period, Galle became a rope making center. Lace making was also introduced and to this day, both crafts are prevalent as a cottage industry in that town.

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The Pedlar’s street was the area where the Moor traders had their businesses and again to this day, small businesses run by Muslim families form the bulk of the enterprises within the Fort complex. While there were several inns and cafes around the fort, we kept returning to our favourites – Pedlar’s Inn and Heritage café, which was the former Old Bakery.

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After our coffee or meal, we would continue walking till the end of the street to a section of the ramparts of the fort. The ramparts are a lovely area to walk across in the early mornings or evenings but not when the sun is directly blazing over you.

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If you walk along the ramparts, you eventually come to the lighthouse which you anyway see from a distance and the early 20th century mosque, which is a few metres from the lighthouse.

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These two landmarks usually form the iconic photographs of the Fort and basically characterize the Fort legacy – the Moor traders who made Galle an important port city on the spice trade route and the later European colonizers who built fortifications to protect their interests.

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The Galle fort and literary festival was therefore a special experience for me as it was a travel experience shared with my mother and experiencing together the heritage site full of culture and history as well as interesting conversation sessions at the literary festival made each visit a treasured memory. As the 2012 literary festival dates approached, my mother informed me that she did not feel well enough to travel out of Colombo. So, I decided not to go that year. As it turned out, the Galle literary festival was suddenly discontinued that year. It resumed this year, after a four year hiatus as the Fairway Galle Literary festival, under a different management. However, as the fort and festival are linked with the day trips with my mother, I prefer to go with my mother if and when she is able to.

[I am linking this to City Tripping #30, The Weekly Travel Postcard, the new Monday Escapes #43, and the newly started link-up Cultured Kids]

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Meditating above water

Whenever I pass Beira lake in Colombo, I am always drawn to the wooden bridge and temple in the middle of the lake. However, it was often a place I usually hurried by on the way somewhere, as it  was in the midst of the commercial part of the capital. Then, one day, my mother asked me to take her there during her birthday week. I think she realized that unless she requested, I might simply go on passing the place without stopping there. Whatever the reason, we finally visited the lovely Seema Malakaya early one morning.


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According to the Gangaramaya temple website, the area was once a swamp before being converted to the picturesque spot that it is now. The Seema Malakaya is part of the Gangaramaya temple which is famous for its annual ‘perahera’ (festive Buddhist temple religious procession) during the months of February or March. What I found fascinating is the aesthetic sense of the place, designed by Geoffrey Bawa. Bawa was a renowned Sri Lankan architect whose signature trademark was his emphasis on spaces and natural light.


The meditation hall was surrounded by statues of Buddha by the edge of the water, which was what had attracted me in the first place. There is something very peaceful about being in the midst of water. The pavilion felt like a calm oasis despite its bustling commercial neighbourhood.
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For me, what I found most intriguing was that the Seema Malakaya combines aspects of different religions. Built through a donation by a Muslim couple – S.H.Moosajee and his wife – in memory of their son, the pavilion itself combines Hindu deities together with the statues of Buddha.
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The smaller pavilion on one side of the meditation hall has a Bo tree, which is from a sapling of the Sri Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura. The Sri Maha Bodhi is an ancient Bo tree, that is the most important Buddhist pilgrimage spot in Sri Lanka, because it is a tree grown from the sapling of the Bo tree under which Buddha obtained enlightenment. The sapling was brought to Sri Lanka by Sangamitta, the daughter of Emperor Asoka. Surrounding the tree at Seema Malakaya are more peaceful Buddha statues.


At the four corners of the smaller pavilion which has the Bo tree and the chaithya, are the shrines for Hindu deities including Pillaiyar and Murugan.


When one walks across to the other side of the meditation hall, one sees a tiny pavilion with a small wooden house marked ‘Treasury of Truth.’ I was curious about what the truth treasury held and found it locked.
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Perhaps it is fitting that the place is always kept locked. Where would humankind be if truth became a way of life for all.

Sometimes, you pass by something beautiful in your own city so often that you hardly bother to take a moment to pause and appreciate its beauty. Something which you would do automatically when you are a traveller exploring another city or country. I am glad my mother requested me to take her there for her birthday because not only did I finally get to explore the place but also create a special memory there with my mother.
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[As I am merging my Sri Lanka-focused travel blog with my Perspectives Quilt blog over the course of the coming months, I am transferring some of my favourite posts from there to here]

I am linking this post with City Tripping #29 hosted this week by Clare@Suitcases and Sandcastles and The Weekly Postcard, hosted by Anda@Travel Notes and Beyond.

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