May 27, 2020

Colombo, Sri Lanka

Oct 2014
Sri Lanka is an island country; 65,600 square km in size (90 times as large as Singapore); with 21.7 million people (4 times as large as Singapore); and GDP of $ 305 billion pa (half as large as Singapore).  Big, not dense, and not rich.

Sri Lanka has evidence of pre historic human settlements dating back 125,000 years; and gets mentioned in Indian epics written 2,500 years back.  Its recorded history starts with the arrival of Prince Vijaya in VI century BC with followers expelled from Bengal in India.  

Indian Emperor Ashoka’s son Mahinda brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka.  

Barring 60 years of rule by Cholas of South India, Sri Lanka was ruled by its monarchs for over 2,000 years.  The Portuguese colonised Sri Lanka in 1504; Dutch in 1658; British in 1796.  Sri Lanka became an independent country in 1948.

Sri Lanka has 103 rivers, 45 estuaries, and 40 lagoons; and claims a sea zone that is approx 6.7 times its land area. 

Sri Lanka is 75% Sinhalese, 15% Tamil, 10% Muslims.  Sri Lanka suffered a 26 years civil war (between Sinhalese and Tamils) that ended only in 2009.

Colombo is the capital of Sri Lanka.  

Colombo (means “port on the river Kelani”) is 223 square km in size; has 5.6 million people and has been an important maritime trading post for centuries.

The Independence Square is one of the most celebrated public places in Colombo.  This is where Sri Lanka celebrated its independence and commencement of self rule in 1948.  It is also the venue for celebration of annual National Day and other public events.  It houses the Independence Memorial hall and the Independence Memorial Museum.

Independence Square

The Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall is another celebrated venue where global and national conferences are held.  Quite close to it is the famous replica of Avukana Buddha statue.  The original, sculpted in 5th Century, is located in Anuradhapura.  The statue has Buddha holding a variation of Abaya mudras.  

Replica of Avukana Buddha Statue

The Beria Lake was originally built as a huge moat around the colonial fortress to prevent other colonisers invading Colombo.  Later, the lake became smaller and a much needed lung space in the centre of the city providing awesome photo spots for tourists.

Beria Lake

Quite close by is the Viharamahadevi Park (known during colonial days as Victoria Park).  Someone worked quite hard to ensure the new name reflects national sentiments and yet is not quite dissimilar to the old one.  

Viharamahadevi Park

Located on the banks of Beria Lake is Colombo’s much celebrated Gangamaya Temple (built in XIX century) for worship of Buddha.  The Hindus too have various colorful temples in Colombo.  One eye-catcher is the Arulmigu Subramania Swamy Temple (built in XIX century again) for the reigning deity “Kathirgamar”.  The tower is 24 metres tall with seven tiers.

Arulmigu Subramania Swamy Temple

Technically speaking, Colombo is not the capital of Sri Lanka.  One of Colombo’s suburbs, “Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte” is the capital of Sri Lanka.  Colombo is the commercial capital of the country; and the town hall is the prima donna of public buildings in Colombo.  It has been serving the city from 1928.

Town hall

Madu Ganga (a water course that widens into Madu Ganga Lake and eventually drains into Indian Ocean) has more than sixty four islets near its estuary providing an excellent wetland ecosystem.  A boat safari through the water course and marshlands is an awesome experience.

Boat cruise in Madu Ganga River through mangroves

Boat cruise in Madu Ganga River through mangroves

Boat cruise in Madu Ganga River through mangroves

This retail business in wetlands would not sink and go under

Budhvihar in its own islet in the river

Seemingly motionless Water Monitor Lizard keeps an eye on things

Sri Lanka suffered a massive Tsunami wave in 2004 that left over 35,000 dead and property worth billions damaged.  The Tsunami Honganji Viharaya was built at Paraliya in memory of the dead.  The statue of Buddha in the memorial is an exact replica of the 5th Century 175 feet Bamiyan Buddha State destroyed by Taliban in Afghanistan.  The replica was created using well known sketches of the original. 

Tsunami Honganji Viharaya Buddha Statue

 Sri Lanka is probably the only country in the world where you can see an elephant (the land based giant) and a blue whale (the sea based giant) on the same day.  The town of Pinnawala has a 25 acre orphanage for elephants that takes care of more than a hundred elephants (across three generations of the animals).  It is fun to see the elephants march to order every mid morning to have a bath, and play in the nearby Maha Oya River.  

Pinnawala:  Young adult checking us out for bananas

Bath and play time in Oya River

Bath and play time in Oya River

Bath and play time in Oya River

Nuwara Eliya is a picturesque colonial hill station about 175 km from Colombo referred to by locals as “Little England”.  The drive from the base of the hill to the top is quite picturesque.

Drive to Nuwara Eliya:  Knuckles Mountain Range

Drive to Nuwara Eliya

Nuwara Eliya:  Gregory Lake

Nuwara Eliya: Tea estate

Kandy is about 120 km from Colombo.  The “Sri Dalada Maligawa”, a Buddhist temple in Kandy houses the relic of the tooth of the Buddha.  The tooth relic was originally held in Kalinga in India.  The relic was smuggled into Sri Lanka in IV century by Princess Hemamali and her husband Prince Dantha at the request of the then Monarch of Sri Lanka.  Since then a legend has sprung around the relic suggesting whoever is in possession of the relic would get to rule Sri Lanka.  The relic was housed in various places in various centuries and moved to its current location in XVIII century.  

Sri Dalada Maligawa

The Sacred tooth under the Dome

Galle the coastal town at the southern end of Sri Lanka is about 150 km from Colombo.  The Galle Fort was built with twin walls (and a gap in between) so that invaders who manage the tough climb from the sea would end up facing well rested soldiers atop another wall a few feet away and a deep chasm to navigate through; vulnerable targets with no ability to offend.  The Portuguese thought this would keep the Dutch away; the Dutch hoped this will keep the English away;  The English hoped this will keep the Japanese away; and modern day Sri Lanka hopes the fortress will bring tourists in unhindered.  The last alone has been fulfilled.

Galle Sea wall

Galle Fortress, light house, clock tower, and watch tower

May 24, 2020

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Nov 2017

Siem Reap, in the North Western part of Cambodia, about 200 km away from the border with Thailand means literally “Defeat of Siam” (so named, as the folklore goes, by a XVI century Cambodian King after repulsing an invading army from Siam (modern day Thailand) 

Sime Reap was just a village until French explorer Henri Mouhot’s visit in 1860.  Henri “discovered” an ancient temple that he described as “grander than anything left to humanity by Greece or Rome”:  Angkor Wat.  Since then, Siem Reap has been attracting tourists from afar for the various Khmer temples in its vicinity.

Angkor Wat is the star attraction in Siem Reap.  Angkor Wat is a temple complex (in fact, the largest religious monument in the world) built by Khmer King Suryavarman II in early XII century.  

Angkor Wat is quite large; set in a square plot (3 km x 3 km) surrounded by a moat and designed to represent Mount Meru (the home of Devas in Hindu mythology).  It has an outer wall, a middle wall, and an inner wall (each at an increasingly higher level) all surrounding a central area with four towers in four corners and a taller tower in the centre.

Angkor Wat Temple Complex as seen from a helicopter

Angkor Wat at sunrise

Angkor Wat: Third perimeter wall

Angkor Wat:  Central Area with its towers

The early Khmer Kings were Hindus.  The temple was built for Hindu God Vishnu.   The temple has extensive bas reliefs depicting scenes from Hindu mythology:  Kurukshetra war (of Mahabharata), the Battle at Lanka (of Ramayana), the Churning of the ocean of milk for ambrosia (of Bhagavat Purana)  etc, every inch carved to depict intense emotions.  Poetry in rock, really.

Angkor Wat:  Bas Relief of Battle at Lanka

Siem Reap has several other temples too.  

The Bayon is one of them; built in early XIII century by King Jayavarman VII.  The temple has 54 towers and 216 giant faces of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshwara.  

The Bayon Temple

The Ta Prohm temple was also built by Khmer King Jayavarman VII as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university.  It was built in a jungle environment by the King to help its inhabitants focus on meditation and acquisition of knowledge.  Little would the King have known that the silk cotton trees would grow to gigantic size and their roots spread all around the temple.  These days, the temple is known as “Angelina Jolie Temple” for the role it played in the Laura Croft movie.  This is probably the most photographed temple in Cambodia.

Ta Prohm Temple

Ta Prohm Temple

The Banteay Srei temple (“Citadel of Women”) was built in X century by two counsellors to the Khmer King.  The temple is relatively small in size but has very rich carvings in hard red sand stone.  Again, the carvings represent stories from Hindu mythology.  The temple has extensive carvings of Apsaras (the beautiful women in heaven as Hindu mythology goes).  

Banteay Temple

Banteay Temple

Banteay Temple:  Rich carvings in hard red sandstone

Angkor Thom is the gateway to the complex that houses more than thirty temples.  The gateway is guarded by stone warriors; and the complex is surrounded by a wide moat.  One can do a 2 hour scenic boat ride on the moat.

Angkor Thom is to the north of Angkor Wat.  Houses more than 30 temples.  Built by various Khmer Kings.  For Vishnu and Buddha.  The gateway is guarded by stone warriors.

Angkor Thom Gateway to Temple Complexes

Angkor Thom Moat

Siem Reap is located on the shores of Tonle Sap Lake.  The lake has two odd behaviours:

One, the lake expands four times its size during rainy season.  The lakeshore villages float and move base as the lake expands or contracts.

Two, River Tonle sap that connects the lake to Mekong River flows one way in normal times and the opposite way when Mekong overflows with glacial melt from Himalayas.  

Floating village on the banks of Tonle Sap lake