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Heritage In Sri Lanka

Central Highlands

Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands comprising of Peak Wilderness Protected Area, the Horton Plains National Park and the Knuckles Conservation Forest has been the most recent addition to the UNESCO World Heritage list, and was designated a natural heritage site in mid 2010. These montane forests, where the land rises to 2,500 metres above sea-level, are home to an extraordinary range of flora and fauna, including several endangered species such as the western-purple-faced langur, the Horton Plains slender loris and the Sri Lankan leopard. The area is home to the Bear Monkey – the highland race of the endemic Purple-faced Leaf Monkey. In the Peak Wilderness a small herd of elephants still roam.

The region is considered a super biodiversity hotspot. The avi-fauna diversity in the region is also high with many endemics found only in the hill country like the Whistling Thrush, Bush Warbler, Yellow-eared Bulbul, Dull-blue Flycatcher, Sri Lanka White-eye and the Wood Pigeon.

The site includes the largest and least disturbed remaining areas of the submontane and montane rain forests of Sri Lanka, which are a global conservation priority on many accounts. More than half of Sri Lanka’s endemic vertebrates, half of the country’s endemic flowering plants and more than 34% of its endemic trees, shrubs, and herbs are restricted to these diverse montane rain forests and adjoining grassland areas.

Dutch Fort, Galle

Dutch Fort at Galle, close to the island’s southernmost point, 173km from Colombo, has the distinction of being the best-preserved sea fort in South Asia. A living heritage site, this 90 hectare (222 acre) attraction is a superb blend of architecture, with fortifications that resemble those in the coastal areas of Portugal. The fall of Galle to the Dutch in 1640 saw its fortifications consolidated further along the lines of the fortified cities of Europe. The Dutch and the English colonial styles are evident in the deep verandahs of houses supported by timber or masonry pillars. Originally established by the Portuguese in the 16th Century, it reached its zenith under Dutch rule in the 18th Century, providing spacious housing, wide roads and all necessary facilities within its walls including an intricate sewage system that was ahead of its time.

When it comes to fortified towns, nothing can compete with the Dutch Fort in Galle. This World Heritage Site on the south coast was the main port of call for ships sailing between the East and Europe.  

Today, inside the Fort you will find that it exudes old-world charm. Within the ramparts and stonewalls of the old Galle Fort – which spreads over a 36-hectare peninsula — magnificent buildings remain. The narrow streets are dotted with Dutch colonial villas and there's a welcome absence of vehicular traffic. There are several museums and antique shops that display curiosities from the island's colonial era. Of the many colonial buildings, perhaps the most absorbing is the Dutch Reformed Church, containing ornately carved memorials to the city's Dutch settlers. The original entrance gate to the Fort, on the northeast side of the peninsula still bears the carved insignia of the Dutch East Indies Company (or VOC, from “Vereenigde Oost Indische Compagnie”). The Fort also hosts some of the island's most exclusive boutique-style accommodation in former villas restored to their colonial glory.

The Golden Temple of Dambulla

Dating back to the First Century BC, the Golden Temple of Dambulla has been the centre of pilgrimage for Buddhists and Hindus alike for 22 centuries. It is Sri Lanka’s most popular historic site. The Cave monastery, home to Buddhist monks is covered with exquisite 2,000 year-old murals depicting the life and times of the Lord Buddha. The shrines also house a collection of 157 statues of Buddha in various sizes and poses, including a 15 metre long reclining Buddha and vividly coloured frescoes on the walls and ceiling, making this the largest antique painted surface in the world.

To reach Dambulla’s rock temples, pilgrims and tourists alike must climb barefoot up the sloping ground and several series of stairs almost to the summit, 100 metres above the plain. From here, the strikingly distinctive rock fortress of Sigirya is visible, but the five caves or shrine rooms of Dambulla lie just ahead. All of these house multiple images of the Lord Buddha, either lying, standing or seated. The astonishing frescoes and the sheer size and antiquity of the caves convinced UNESCO that Dambulla should be preserved as a World Heritage Site.

The largest and most impressive of the caves, the Temple of the Great King, is 52 metres from one side to another, and 23 metres from the entrance to the back, with the sloping ceiling seven metres at its highest point. The entire surface of the cave is a mosaic of frescoes with so many themes and styles that it is easy to be overwhelmed.The paintings at Dambulla are representative of many different epochs of Sinhalese Buddhist art, although the classical school of Sinhalese painting (which ceased at the end of the 12th century) is not represented. The so-called New School supposedly influenced by the contemporary South Indian Deccan School — is less successful than the earlier indigenous art forms, using brilliant colour schemes with red and yellow predominating. It is not possible to date the Dambulla paintings precisely, since they have been over-painted throughout the centuries. Some, however, were originally done by Kandyan artists during the 17th century. 

Beyond the endless repetitions of seated Buddhas, and red, yellow and black geometric motifs, there are bands of sinuous tendrils and flowers; stories of the life of Lord Buddha including the Jataka tales relating his previous lives in the Temple of the Great King. There are also murals depicting battles, and others showing important events in the history of Sri Lanka. To fully appreciate this unique art, it is advisable to either go with a knowledgeable guide or to wander slowly, focusing on whatever seems to be most fascinating, remembering always that Buddhist art is not designed to be creative or original, but to impart the teachings of Lord Buddha, the Enlightened One.

Sacred Temple of the Tooth, Kandy

The sacred Temple of the Tooth in the historic city of Kandy houses one of Buddhism’s most sacred relics and draws followers of the Buddhist faith from all over the world. The Royal Complex situated around the Temple of the Tooth and Kandy Lake – comprising of the King’s Palace, the Queens Palace, the Audience Hall, the Royal Boathouse and the Royal Summer House, represent the zenith of ancient Sri Lankan architecture.

The last stronghold of the Sri Lankan kings against a series of colonial invaders was at Kandy, at 500 metres in the Hill Country. Now a bustling city, Kandy still remains a sanctuary for traditional Sinhalese culture, with a number of important heritage sites in and around the city.

The Temple of the Sacred Tooth enshrines Sri Lanka’s most important relic of Lord Buddha. Constructed during the 17th and 18th centuries, this temple is surrounded by a deep moat. Nearby are three impressive shrines or devalas dedicated to guardian deities: Natha, Vishnu and Pattini. A fourth devala a short distance away, the Kataragama shrine, is famed for its wooden columns with exquisitely carved panels.

The temple was part of a complex of buildings that included the 16th century King’s Palace (part of which now houses the Archaeological Museum), while the Queen’s Palace, home to the National Museum, has a collection of royal regalia. Kandy’s pleasant Lake in the centre of the old city was created by the last Sinhalese King in 1807.

In the hills around Kandy, many temples feature the distinctive architecture, murals and carving of the late-medieval period. These include two 14th century temples: the beautiful hilltop Lankatilleke and Gadaladeniya, its wooden doors still bearing the original paintings.

Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa was established as the capital after Anuradhapura had been invaded in the late 10th century. Under King Parakramabu, who ruled in the late 11th century, Polonnaruwa became a magnificent walled city. He built the vast reservoir, Parakrama Samudra (the Sea of Parakrama) still in use today, and ordered the construction of monasteries, temples, palaces, bathing pools and Buddhist statues, all set in a forested park surrounded by moats.

The remains of Polonnaruwa  are so numerous that only a few highlights can be mentioned. One of the most striking of the many sites is     Polonnaruwa’s Gal Vihara or Rock Shrine, the reclining Lord Buddha is near another statue showing him seated in deep meditation, his throne adorned with lions and thunderbolts. A second seated Lord Buddha, surrounded by other deities including Brahma and Vishnu, is set within a cave cut into the rock face that still bears traces of the frescoes which once decorated the walls. The fourth Gal Vihara statue departs from the conventional poses by depicting the Lord Buddha as a seven-metre tall standing figure with arms crossed.

While these statues are regarded as masterpieces of Sri Lankan art, other remarkable carvings include a 4-metre-high bearded figure (probably King Parakramabu) holding what seems to be a book. Another dramatic work is an inscribed stone “book” 9 metres long and around 50 centimetres thick.

The Quadrangle, with 12 superb buildings standing on a platform in the centre of the ancient city, and the Lankatilleke image house, a vast brick building with a standing Buddha at the rear, are also among the many magnificent remains.

Anuradhapura

Founded around 5th Century BC, Anuradhapura is the oldest city in the Cultural Triangle and Sri Lanka’s first capital. In its heyday, tens of thousands of people lived in a city of royal palaces, monasteries, temples topped by glittering jewels, houses of two or three storeys, shops, pleasure gardens, bathing pools and wooded parks. 

Today, the restored remains of ancient Anuradhapura are dotted amidst peaceful parks to the north and west of the modern city. Among the many bell-shaped dagobas or temples are Thuparama (which enshrines a relic of Lord Buddha), and Ruwanweli, rebuilt to its original 2nd century BC bubble shape. 

Other dagobas include the 1st century BC Abhayagiri and 3rd century BC Jetawana, both around 120 metres high and second in height only to Egypt’s mightiest pyramids at Giza. Excavations have unearthed jewellery, sculptures, coins and other rare artefacts including seven Buddhist scriptures etched into sheets of beaten gold. Soaring towards the sky, the magnificent dagobas reached monumental proportions during the period of the kingdom of Anuradhapura, which lasted for about 1,500 years, until the 10th century AD. 

Stone pillars are all that remains of the 1,000-room monks’ residence or Brazen Palace, near Sri Maha Bodhi or the sacred bo tree, a slender fig or Ficus religiosa supported by iron crutches. The oldest historically documented tree on earth, this grew from a sapling taken over 2,200 years ago from the very same tree under which Lord Buddha gained enlightenment. 

The finest of the carved stone figures protecting gateways (guard stones) at Anuradhapura is at the pavilion of Ratna Prasada. Nearby, at the Queen’s Pavilion, is a superbly crafted semi-circular stone moonstone set at the base of the stairs.

The Isurumuniya Rock Temple is renowned for its ancient bas-relief sculptures, including those known as The Lovers, The Horseman and a group of elephants playing in water.

No less than three vast irrigation lakes, which remain to this day, nourished the agriculture of ancient Anuradhapura, which offers numerous other fascinating sites.

Sigiriya Rock Fortress and City

Built by an obsessed monarch in the 5th century, Sigiriya or Lion Rock is an astonishing feat of engineering and construction. The most striking portion of Sigiriya, a terracotta and grey core of rock set in the cultural heart of Sri Lanka, rises a sheer 200 metres above a forested plain, its flattened summit sloping gently. A series of moats, ramparts and water gardens — remnants of an ancient city — spread out on two sides of the rock, with the remains of a pair of giant stone lion’s paws still guarding the staircase that leads to the summit, once occupied by a royal palace. 

Designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1982, Sigiriya is Asia’s best preserved city of the first millennium, showing complex urban planning around the base of the rock, combined with sophisticated engineering and irrigation skills in the palace perched on the summit. It is considered it to be one of the oldest tourist attractions in the world with visitors recording their impressions in some of the earliest-known graffiti.

For just two decades in the 5th century AD, Sigiriya rose to prominence following a power struggle between two brothers, and an act of patricide that saw the then king walled-up alive by his son, Kasyapa. Fearful that his defeated brother would return from exile to extract vengeance, Kasyapa shifted the capital to Sigiriya and in 477 AD, he ordered the construction of the magnificent city around the base of the rock, and decreed that his palace should stand on top, a fortress that would keep him safe from retribution. Just seven years later, his astonishing palace in the sky was ready, complete with terraces and a complex system of irrigation. 

Kasyapa clearly had an eye for beauty. The pleasure gardens include a series of symmetric pools, channels and fountains that still spurt water after 1,500 years. Partway up the rock are the famous Sigiriya frescoes, featuring 21 bare-breasted damsels that may represent celestial nymphs, but were surely modeled on Kasyapa's own consorts. Halfway you'll encounter a pair of giant lion's paws, part of the original entrance, which required visitors to pass through the open mouth of a lion. The summit yields a dramatic vista of the surrounding jungle and contains the foundations of the palace complex, replete with bathing pools.

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