01.04.2014 - 03.04.2014
After Sigiriya we continued to Polonnarwu, stopping first at Ritigala.
This is one of the more remote and less touristed sites on the cultural tour. And, because it is far less developed, it is free.
Former site of an ancient Buddhist monastery dating to 100 BC, it is the highest mountain (2500 feet) on an otherwise flat and dusty plain. Rumor has it that Hanuman, the Hindu Monkey God, dropped a small piece of the Himalayas as he was delivering medicinal herbs to Lanka. As in India, the rangers told us we could only go part way up the mountain because of wild elephants and leopards. Too bad, as it was a nice place for a hike and blissfully, there was no one around.
After a half hour or so, we got to a place with a fence and a big sign telling us to turn around. Nearby there was a trail off to one side, and so we went a bit further. Not long after, Nanette heard some rustling noises in the trees. Then a monkey threw a small stick at her. We continued on, but then one of the monkeys with consummate aim, maybe Hanuman, pissed on her head. That's it, she said. I'm turning back. Leopards and elephants are one thing, but monkey piss, that's another thing altogether. And so we walked down the we had come.
Polonnarwu was another 2 hours, but when we got there it was just too hot, and we didn't feel like shelling out another 50 bucks for the ruins of an ancient city that is not as old as Anuradhapura, our final destination. Instead, we spent most of the rest of the day lounging about the pool of a nearby hotel. Our guest house, Seyara, was small and comfortable, but no pool. They served some excellent food however, and it turned out that the daughter of the owner, our server, had recently returned to Sri Lanka after living in Staten Island for 7 years. She plans to go back to the states when her daughter, age 3, is older. In the meantime, she seems pleased to be spending time with her family, and acquainting her American daughter with Sinhalise culture and language.
In the morning when it was a bit cooler, we walked around the parts of Polonnarwu where we didn't need an admission ticket.
We ran into this group of very friendly Chinese women. As always, most of them were hiding from the sun.
And then we drove on the remaining distance to Passikudah beach, a bit of a detour from our cultural tour. We passed the time chatting with Lalinda, our driver, who we have gotten to know fairly well by now. He is an easy going and educated chap who has told us a bit about his own background. Unfortunately for him, he married a Tamil, and he is Sinhalise. His wife is a lower caste Tamil as well. His relatively well to do and high caste parents, have more or less disowned him ever since, and his sister, now studying business in Japan, has become their favorite. We were surprised to learn that Buddhists, at least in Sri Lanka, have their own caste system, and we thought Buddha broke away from his royal Hindu background to free others from this repressive custom.
Belly to belly: the author with Lalinda
In Passikudah expensive hotels and some restaurants are going up on one side of the bay,
while on the other side, not much is happening, at least not yet, and it is still a largely wild beach.
The sea is dead calm, in contrast to our time in northern Kerala. Our hotel, while not right on the beach, is spanking clean, with a nice pool. It is empty, as is every other place, as the season doesn't start for another week when school lets out for a month. The owner is quite chatty, and divides his time between here and Colombo. He is a Tamil, but converted to Jehovah Witness. When he found out we are Jewish, he seemed quite pleased, and told us all about the connections between Jehovah, and Yahweh. We of course, know far less about this than he does We assume his family must have money, because they all scattered when the civil war came to his home town,Jaffna, in the far north, which it did early on. Several of his siblings live abroad in the West, and are highly educated.
For two nights now we have eaten alone in the dining room. The staff is almost too attentive. They seem to hover over us, very anxious to please, but not that understanding of our need for space. Perhaps if there were more people here, they would have more to do and pay less attention to each individual guest.
Aside from lounging around the pool, and taking afternoon dips in the ocean, which feels like a bigger pool, yesterday we took a trip to Thoppigala Heritage Park. This was about an hour drive away through several small villages. It is essentially a small mountain, that overlooks a vast flat area of rice fields and forest, and was the site of several ferocious war battles.
The LTTE, or Tamil Tigers, took over the hill early on because of its strategic significance. They stationed a garrison of 5000 men nearby, and a much smaller force on top of the hill. We climbed up, accompanied by Lalinda and Franklin, a staff person at the hotel, as well as a park ranger. It was steep and hot, though short. On top, there was a bunker, now filled with solar powered batteries.
We asked questions about the war, which went on for more than 30 years. They said it was started by an uneducated Tamil, who wanted a separate country for the Tamils, who are Hindus, and speak a different language than the Sinhalese. We climbed down and went to the war museum at the bottom. There were few pictures of the LTTE members who are portrayed as terrorists by the Sri Lanka government. The museum clearly presents the government point of view.
From what I understand, many atrocities were committed by both sides, and in fact there is a debate now going on in the UN, whether to look into the war atrocities more closely in order to prosecute those involved. Lalinda, and the other two men we were with grew up with the war, although it was mostly fought in the east, where we are now,and in the north. For the last five years there has been peace, after the government forces decimated the LTTE in Jaffna, and if memory serves, killed many innocent people in the process.
Other people we have discussed this with, both Tamils and Sinhalese, say that the two groups lived in peace, and that the war was started by opportunistic politicians. Quien sabe? My understand is that the war was a result of years of hostility between these groups, started because of the colonial legacy employed by the British of divide and conquer. They apparently favored the Tamils, and later, there was the predictable counter-reaction from the Sinhalese, who far outnumber the Tamils.
On the way back from Thoppigala we saw this man, going about the chore of gathering firewood for cooking.
Tamil or Sinhalise? You decide.