The next phase of our Sri Lanka Experience, in…….Bangkok?

Wait a minute — how did a blog about a Fulbright assignment in Sri Lanka suddenly start talking about Bangkok, Thailand? In late April, when Fulbright decided to temporarily suspend operations in Sri Lanka, we quietly relocated to Thailand while Fulbright pondered the next steps. We had always wanted to visit Thailand (another tropical, Buddhist-oriented southeast Asian country) and were excited at the opportunity to spend some time there, and this was a wonderful break. We ended up spending less than a week in Bangkok, and stumbled into one of the most noteworthy national spectacles of the last seven decades: the coronation of King Vajiralongkorn (King Rama X), the first coronation since 1950!

We traveled east and slightly north to Bangkok while Fulbright monitored the situation in Sri Lanka.
Bridge over the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok.
The famous Thai Mango Sticky Rice. Flavored with sweetened coconut milk and, when served at the peak of mango season, it is an elegant and sublime experience!

 

It was exciting to be in Bangkok — a canal-laced, lively city of over eight million people, spread out along the Chao Phraya River — and filled with lots of things that we wanted to see (and, of course, eat!).

 

But we soon discovered that while we were able to eat very well, the impending four-day long coronation festival and activities actually closed most of the temples and shrines we had on our list of must-sees. Instead, we were treated to the genuine warmth and great excitement of almost everyone we met as the city geared up to host a tremendous, rare and even inspiring celebration of Thai tradition, identity, and nationhood.

The day before everything shut down, we visited the famous Wat Pho temple complex in the heart of the city. Wat Pho — and the name refers back to the Bo Tree (or Bodhi Tree) that saturates this blog — dates back to at least the 17th century and has been renovated and expanded ever since. It is a big site full of temples, monasteries and golden-eaved prayer-halls, but three things stand out — the chedis (the ceramic-covered distinctive, spires that are actually stupas), the collection of historic gold-leaf covered Buddha images, and finally the truly massive, truly impressive Reclining Buddha.

The arresting chedis are a Thai Buddhist take on the traditional stupa (dagoba) mounds that often contain the relics of sacred or important people. Wat Pho has over 70 that commemorate Buddhist religious leaders as well as Thai royal family members.

One of the chedi complexes at Wat Pho.
Close-up of the ceramic work on a chedi at Wat Pho.

They are all different sizes and are often decorated in colorful and elaborate floral motifs. Look closely, and you can see that the patterns and motifs are executed in small pieces of porcelain painstakingly cut and pieced together. One story holds that these bits of porcelain were first brought to Bangkok as ballast in Chinese trading vessels.

From a distance they are stunning, bright and beautiful (like these fabulous examples) and then when you get closer you see how they are joined together mosaic-style to form rich, textured, beautiful floral designs.

I dare you not to try and copy this the next time you break a prized plate!

And while we were admiring the chedis, a small plant growing out of the face of one (near the center of the image on the left below) caught my eye. From the elongated drip-tip to the heart-shaped base of the leaves, you can tell this was a small Bodhi Tree (Ficus religiosa). In fact, it is a free-range offspring of the temple’s resident Bodhi Tree that was itself propagated from the Sri Maha Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, that you saw in our preceding blog post. There’s no other conclusion — this tree seemed to be following us all over Asia!

 

Along with the chedisWat Pho houses a spectacular and important collection of Buddha statues that were gathered from important national historic sites such as Sukhothai and Ayuthaya. They are a cross-section of the different regional styles and show how tastes and changed over time.

At Wat Pho the Buddha exhibit displays hundreds of Buddhas with different mudras (hand gestures), distinctive and mesmerizing interpretations of his supreme enlightened facial expressions, and fascinating treatments of his monastic robes.

The face of each of Buddha expresses a unique vision of what it means to be serene.

 

 

Switching to a larger scale, the most visited part of the Wat Pho shrine is without doubt the colossal Reclining Buddha. At over 15 meters high, 146 meters long, and covered in gold-leaf, it is almost too big for the building meant to house it. It depicts the moment of the Buddha’s death and passage into nirvana (sometimes you’ll see it called nibbana) and it gently projects an overwhelming sense of tranquility and calm. Look for the more “normal-sized” humans in some of the pictures below to get an idea of the dimensions!

The structure just barely accommodates the great Reclining Buddha and the crowds that come to visit and for worship.
Note the scale — the person at the lower right makes the Buddha seem quite large!

 

Like many other depictions of the Reclining Buddha, there are prominent symbols inscribed on the soles of the feet, this time rendered in Mother of Pearl. There are by tradition and teaching 108 “Auspicious” marks or signs (or 32, or 132, depending on who is doing the math) that indicate Buddhahood and at Wat Pho they are etched between the Buddha’s toes and heels.

     

The soles of the Buddha’s feet are inscribed with 108 auspicious signs that indicate Buddhahood.

And finally, as you circle behind the statue, you end with the soothing image of the Buddha resting his head on his hand.

Visitors to the shrine are given the opportunity to purchase a small dish of 108 coins: you then place a coin in 108 different small bowls as you circumambulate the statue. They say doing this helps increase your spiritual concentration but the real merit (or punya, the ‘good’ karma that everyone has heard about) is in the act of giving. The shrine attendants periodically collect the coins and then count out 108 of them  per bowl, and then offer them for sale them again to the next visitor. The coins are recycled and merit is earned — everybody should be pleased!

King Rama X

Right after our visit to Wat Pho, Bangkok started to transform itself for the coronation of King Rama X. Major tourist sites that happened to be downtown or along the processional route were closed to be draped in bright yellow ribbons (the color loyal to the royalty) and large portraits of the new monarch began to go on display around the central city.
Buses and trains began to run for free to transport eager subjects from around the country to the capital for a look at their new king: this extraordinary municipal generosity filled the city with visitors, and kept the transport systems quite busy!

Click HERE or on the image itself to join the crowds waiting to go through security eight hours before the actual procession was scheduled to begin!

Street-hawkers did a brisk business in yellow shirts, and  the vibe was contagious as the excitement mounted. Strict security measures meant a very long wait out in the hot sun and steamy streets, and though we joined the crowds early we began to suspect we would probably not see the new king in the flesh; nevertheless, it was  wonderful to experience the joyful enthusiasm of the city, and to see the teeming crowds in their sunny yellow shirts, all ready to be part of a day when history would be made.

Finally, it was time for the main event — the royal processional, with King Rama X bobbing atop a human-powered palanquin, made its way from temple to temple downtown in front of cheering throngs. We were happy to get caught up in the excitement in Bangkok, just before we got our next assignment — this time to Tashkent, in Uzbekistan, along the old Silk Road in Central Asia! Our five days in Thailand flew by, and next time we will stay longer (and eat more Thai Mango Sticky Rice!).

Uzbekistan? Check out the next — and final — blog to see what that was all about!

 

 

 

A Visit to Anuradhapura and Horton Plains, and a Fond Farewell to Sri Lanka

Anuradhapura, in the plains north of Kandy and seat of the first major Sinhalese civilization in Sri Lanka some 2,300 years ago.

It is hard to do justice to the spectacular and ancient city of Anuradhapura, yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site (click here for the webpage) in Sri Lanka. It is where Buddhism landed in Sri Lanka over 2,000 years ago, and the sprawling park-like setting is home to some of the biggest stupas in the world — they say that in the ancient world, only two of the three Pyramids at Giza were larger. These stupas are living religious centers, still venerated, and still inspiring pilgrims and visitors.

Anuradhapura is also famous for the first stupa in Sri Lanka. It was one of the greatest Buddhist cities of its day, and for a millennium housed tens of thousands of monks in massive viharas (monasteries) representing different and competing styles of practicing Buddhism.

One of the many Bo trees (Ficus religiosa) at Anuradhapura; notice the protected next generation sapling at the lower right.

And, since our blog is also about plants, Anuradhapura is also renowned for what some say is the oldest still-living, documented, planted tree in the world — a Bodhi (Bo) Tree that comes directly from the Bodhi (Bo) Tree in Bodh Gaya, India, the same sacred tree that sheltered Buddha when he achieved enlightenment some 2,500 years past. Wesak was just this month — the full moon on May 18, 2019 — that is celebrated as day when the Buddha was born, reached enlightenment and died. By many accounts of the Buddha’s life, it has been 2,550 years since the night Prince Gautama meditated under the Bodhi Tree and became the Buddha.

The Ruvanwelisaya stupa from the first century BCE. According to the Buddhist texts, the relics of the Buddha installed in the stupa are magically concealed from all enemies.
Stupa cleaning at Anuradhapura.    Click HERE     or directly on the image to see if you are right for the job!

One of the biggest stupas in the city is the huge Ruvanawelisaya Dagoba, (the word dagoba might look familiar — it’s where the word pagoda comes from) built over 2,000 years ago by the famous king, Gemunu the Disobedient (d. 137 BC). It’s big — 55 meters high — and one of the most sacred in the city.

Flowers (Nelumbo nucifera) given to visitors so they can make offerings (and earn merit) at the stupa. For some, the unopened flowers signify someone who still has a way to go before they have fully ‘bloomed’ in the faith.

There is a steady stream of visitors — the serious worshipers dress in white — who make merit (think of earning “Good Karma”) as they pray, circumambulate the shrine and leave offerings for the monks and nuns.

Fruit and flowers are very popular offerings, and Buddhist volunteers often distribute them to visitors so that the visitors (and tourists) will have something to give and thus earn merit. It can be seen as part of a Buddhist “revivalism” surging across the nation, encouraging people to worship and perhaps increase their commitment to the dharma (the “teachings” of the Buddha).

One of many ready-made offering “kits” left for Monks and Nuns at the stupa. They contain robes and various personal items, all topped off by a bowl for collecting alms.
Offerings left at the lower level of the Ruvanawelisaya stupa.

 

 

Along with the ubiquitous flowers, it is also common to leave behind a pre-packed “Care” package so that worshipers can help support the Monks and Nuns of the sangha (the monastic community).

 

The Jetavana stupa with over 90 million bricks — now we know how many bricks it takes to fill the Albert Hall! Note the brick ‘ladder’ access built into the stupa going up the left side.

After seeing the Ruvanawelisaya Stupa at Anuradhapura you can’t miss the enormous Jetavana Stupa just a little bit north and east. Almost 1800 years old, it was once 120 meters tall. It was built, they say, on the cremation site of Mahinda, the celebrated semi-legendary Indian prince-turned-Buddhist-monk-and-missionary who first brought the dharma to Sri Lanka. Today it has the distinction of being the largest brick structure in the world — it contains over 90 million bricks, at least according to the British archaeologists/accountants serving Queen Victoria in colonial Ceylon!

On the day we visited, the platform below Jetavana was home to a special temporary construction. This was a hut — beneath a Bodhi Tree  made out of palms and decorated with images woven from more palm leaves. It was probably constructed for an upcoming poya celebration.  Poyas are the full moon in every year, and in Sri Lanka at least each one is associated with an event in the life of the Buddha. Each poya day is also an official government holiday, making Sri Lanka one of the most heavily holidayed places on earth!

Welcome to the Palm Hut!
Woven Palm Artistry!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Peepal Tree on a cylinder seal from the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC), some 4,500 years ago. The elongated drip-tips on the leaves are particularly clear.

And speaking of the Bodhi Tree…

People have had spiritual connections with trees, probably going back to when we can first start calling people “people!” Sometimes particular trees were revered (perhaps for their unusual size or age, or if they were thought to be inhabited by a spirit), or sometimes it was the species itself, worshiped and prized for ritual or medicinal uses or other sacred associations). Sacred groves too are common worldwide, whether tied with Druid history (including species such as Yews, Hemlocks, and Rowans), or with the Orthodox “Church Forests” in Ethiopia, or say, in a more current incarnation, with a tree like the 500 year-old Treaty Oak in Austin, TX,  the lone surviving oak (Quercus fusiformis) from a grove sacred to the Comanche and Tonkawa.

Ficus religiosa (sometimes called Sacred fig,  Peepal tree, or the Bo tree, or the Bodhi tree) was sacred in South Asia long before the appearance of anything we can call organized religion, and long before the Buddha found enlightenment beneath it.

Bo Tree leaves. The two gold-colored metal leaves are from a Buddhist shrine in Kandy. The real leaf in the center is from Borobudur Stupa in Java, Indonesia.

Botanically, Ficus religiosa is a spreading, drought-deciduous tree with a smooth light gray trunk. It has distinctive ovate, heart-shaped leaves with an elongated drip-tip — a single leaf looks like a stylized rendition of a flame.  It is a fig tree.  Fig flowers are not easy to see —  they actually grow on the inside of what will become the fruit.  Very tiny clusters of all-male and all-female flowers line the inside of the unfertilized fig, completely out of sight. This hidden inflorescence of flowers is called a synconium.

Figs and their hidden flowers are pollinated in a really fascinating process. First, a specific kind of wasp enters the immature fruit and lays eggs on the female flowers (depositing pollen on the flowers in the process) inside this natural sanctuary. When the wasp eggs hatch and the larvae have come to maturity inside the synconium, it happens to be at the same time that male flowers are full of pollen. The wasps mate and in the process,  become covered in pollen. Eventually the wingless male wasps chew their way out of the synconium, and winged females flit through the tunnels they leave. The females then find another “fruit” to enter, lay their eggs on the female flowers, and the pollination process cycle starts again. Think about that (or not) next time you reach for Fig preserves or a Newton!

The Sri Maha Bodhi Tree shrine at Anuradhapura.

But back to the tree itself. The outstanding Bodhi specimen at Anuradhapura is considered to be a direct descendant of the Indian Bodhi Tree where enlightenment happened for the Buddha. That original tree at Bodh Gaya mystically volunteered a branch to the Emperor Asoka, which was rooted, and transported to Sri Lanka along with other sacred relics, the monastic orders, and the dharmaThe tree at Anuradhapura was planted in a great ritual celebration by the Buddhist nun Sanghamitta, a princess (Asoka’s daughter) and the sister of the monk Mahinda mentioned above.

The tree at Anuradhapura is well-documented and is at the center of a sacred shrine called the Sri Maha Bodhi Tree or the Jaya Maha Bodhi Tree. The Bodhi Tree growing here is known to have been planted in 288 BC and been tended for over 2,300 years old. It is very, very old, and very venerated. (and, for us, a perfect fusion — a sacred icon and a documented living collection!)

The Sri Maha Bodhi is said to have come from the original Indian tree over 2,300 years ago.
CLICK  directly on the image or   HERE   to join the respectful throng at the Sri Maha Bodhi.

Parts of this revered tree are propped up with golden supports, and everyday a steady stream of visitors show up to pay their respects and leave yet more offerings.

 

Horton Plains in Sri Lankan high country. On clear days you can see all the way to the Indian Ocean to the south.

After a visiting the wonderful “Cultural Triangle” of Dambulla, Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura just north of Kandy, we determined to see some more of the natural wonders in the hill country to the south. This is the highland home of Sri Lanka’s world-class tea tea plantations as well as seemingly out of place transplantations of Victorian England country village life, replete with strawberry fields, golf courses, high tea and horse-racing. En route you may pass through the famous ‘new’ village of Nuwara Eliya, most famous now as a stop on the breath-takingly scenic railroad trip snaking up from the rain-forested lowlands to the cloud-forested mountains. It is also where we stayed before we made our next stop: that great natural wonder called Horton Plains.

Horton Plains is an unusual high plateau that is its own ecological zone. It is a high plateau — over 2,000 meters! — and is actually cold in the mornings before it is wrapped in a misty haze every afternoon. It gets plenty of rain (it’s the watershed for three of the largest rivers in Sri Lanka) and it is an enchanting landscape of unoccupied grasslands fringed by cloud-forests. And it comes with a big ending: the plateau plummets dramatically at the appropriately named World’s End  — a place where sheer vertical cliffs plunge for almost half a mile to the lowlands below.

Hiking across Horton Plains National Park, on the way to World’s End.
Sambar Deer on a misty morning at Horton Plains NP.

At Horton Plains National Park you can also expect to see some wildlife in a relatively undisturbed state. In the 19th century elephants roamed the plains, but armed British sportsmen ended all of that by the 1860s.

More Sambar Deer (Rusa unicolor unicolor) at Horton Plains NP.

However, you are almost bound to spot some of the famous Sambar Deer that roam the park and seem slightly curious and mostly unconcerned about visitors like us.

 

What grows on these plains? The Wet Pantana Grasslands’ lower slopes and valley are carpeted with large grass tussocks (Chrysopogon nodulibarbis and Andropogon polyptycos)  with an occasional scattering of Rhododendron arboreum ssp. zeylanicum a striking and shrubby Rhododendron with clusters of scarlet blossoms.

We were just lucky enough to catch a few of these Rhododendrons in flower.
A beautiful scarlet bloom!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The plain is cut by meandering streams and the occasional waterfall, as well as slow bends that are a perfect home for a Lace Plant (Aponogeton jacobsenii).

Warmed up from hiking 6 kilometers or so across the plain, the stream started to look cool and inviting.
A happy Lace Plant (Aponogeton jacobsenii) in the stream.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While much of the hike is across the stark, evocative plain itself, the trail occasionally winds through the cloud-forest along the way. There is a hidden world of wildlife there too, and we found this giant (as in an over-stuffed house cat) munching happily — if creepily — in the trees above. 

The Sri Lankan National Animal — the Grizzled Giant Squirrel (Ratufa macroura).

What was it? The famous Sri Lankan Grizzled Giant Squirrel, making that unnerving squirrel-cheek chewing face that many people find not so pleasing. We were later told that it is the National Animal of Sri Lanka, but we didn’t linger!

 

 

 

Here are some of the botanical beauties we saw as we hiked along the shady cloud-forest trail.

Arisaema leschenaultii ” Kerala Cobra Lily”
Disporum leschenaultianum “Fairy Bells”
Once we got clear of the forest, the trail opened up again on the way to World’s End and we found this Hypericum mysorense enjoying the sun.
The cheery Hypericum mysorense flower, sometimes called “Mysore St. John’s Wort.”
And here we are at World’s End, with a sheer half mile drop right behind us– you’ll note we are not standing to close to the edge! We’ve decided that this time World’s End is Blog’s End — at least for this installment! Hope your summers are off to a great start!

 

 

How the World Can Change in a Single Day (Updated May 29, 2019)

How one day can change everything.

Downtown Colombo on Saturday, April 20, 2019. The Shangri-La Hotel is the tall building on the far right. Just beyond it, out of the picture, is the Cinnamon Grand Hotel. Behind from where this photo was taken is the Kingsbury Hotel. All three hotels were struck in the tragic attacks the next day, Easter Sunday.

We still grieve with all Sri Lankans the terrible pain and loss that aches through this country since Easter morning. At least for now we will suspend the blog until and later, if it seems appropriate, we’ll go forward again. In the meantime, we are very grateful for your kind thoughts and concern about the people of Sri Lanka and about us   — we are well and safe, and like everyone here still processing the grief and waiting to see what will happen next.

with peace,

D & D

UPDATE: May 29, 2019

It has been over a month since the heart-breaking tragedy of April 21, 2019, and today Sri Lankans are struggling to recapture the fleeting, promising glimpse of what Sri Lanka hoped to become before that awful Sunday. It was a nation healing after a civil war that had visions of development and positive, progressive engagement with the world on the way to building a brighter future. That sense of optimism and warm-hearted openness was something that we came to know and love in our few months in Kandy.

About a week after the attacks, the US State Department decided to pull US Fulbrighters out of the country until the security situation improved. With deep regret we quickly packed up and made our hurried good-byes to colleagues, friends, students and neighbors and traveled to Bangkok, and from there on to where we are now, in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. More on that in future blogs.

We left with the feeling of of having unfinished business, but have decided to resume the blog about our experience in Sri Lanka over the weeks just before we had to leave. The country and people left a deep impression on us, and one day we hope to return.

The Amazing Haylee — the 4 year-old daughter of our wonderful landlords, Chaminda and Ishani — drew us in a going-away card that she made for us the day we left Kandy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stepping Out the Door in Kandy, Polonnaruwa and a quick trip to Kerala

A walk down Pahala Eriyagama.

Every day life in Kandy is often an adventure — once you look out a window or step out the door, anything can happen! Our street is more like a little lane that leads down to a busier road. It is verdant and steep on one side and lined with houses on the other. It is a great place to see planted fruit trees — Mangos, Avocados, Jackfruit, Papayas, Bananas, Coconut Palms, Pomegranates and others — and also for an encounter with some of the local wildlife. Of course, sometimes you don’t even have to leave the house to experience the wildlife.

Our turn to be visited by a Peeping-Tom primate!

 

 

The Elusive Bluebird of Happiness (in this case, a White-Throated Kingfisher) poses briefly to tease us!
Our camera-shy neighbor!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Almost everyday we see this White-Throated Kingfisher darting up and down our street. He follows us down to where we catch our Tuk Tuk, or soars past us when we make our way home back up the lane. But he never gets close enough or stays still long enough to let us get a good photograph — he seems to enjoy taunting us! Even worse, this shy bird lingers whenever we didn’t bring the camera, and then struts as if to pose! The blue on this bird is absolutely stunning, and it is breath-taking when it flashes in the sun, and we’ll keep trying to get picture that we are all happy with!

Calotes lizard, “Crested Garden Lizard,” enjoying a warm wall.

This neighbor was much easier to photograph! On our way home one hot afternoon, this Calotes lizard (“Crested Garden Lizard”) was sunning on top of a wall a couple of doors up the road from us.

 

This cloisonne dragon can get big (up to about 2 ft. long) and this coloration — the stripes and the showy collar — identifies him as a male. His head will turn bright red during mating season (later this spring), particularly after a successful battle with rivals! Sometimes he is called a “Bloodsucker” Lizard (after his redneck) but that has nothing to do with what he eats.

 

 

 

 

Life (often) Outside the Fast Lane

A proud driver and his Tuk Tuk, posing near Sigiriya. These auto-rickshaws boast “Twin Spark Plug Power,” more than enough to mow a front and back yard!
Flying Skull & Crossbones — you are definitely in a Tuk Tuk!

Where our lane meets the busy road is where we will often catch a Tuk Tuk into town or to work. When you need to get somewhere, at least for our purposes, the Tuk Tuk — sometimes called a Trishaw — is the way to go.  These ubiquitous 3 wheelers can take you almost anywhere, often defying traffic and conventional ideas of lanes and going where full-sized cars, trucks and buses dare not go! Drivers decorate them according to their own tastes, and everyone is unique.

 

View from the backseat of a Tuk Tuk. Our driver stopped en route to make a quick offering at Getambe (a major roadside Buddhist shrine in town) and we took some photos inside his rig. Check out the rice and the garland hanging from the left side of the window.

That said, there are definite trends among the more fashionable drivers.  Pirates of the Caribbean is, inexplicably, a wildly popular motif here, along with Bob Marley and Native American images and Che Guevara and Captain America (sometimes sharing the same ride!), interspersed with cute babies, puppies, a mysterious man with a big beard, gurus, and scripted with all sorts of modern folk sayings that the newspapers here call Tuk Tuk Wisdom  — deep sayings like, “Peace comes from within,” or “If You Bad, I’m Your Dad,” and “I am not cute — and I know it!” and worse.  There’s nothing more bracing than a Tuk Tuk ride to work, enjoying the Tuk Tuk AC blowing in (as long as you aren’t stopped next to a bus or truck).

Double click the image and tag along for a relatively tame Tuk Tuk ride on the highway.
Almost every Tuk Tuk will have religious icons — often very eclectic! — for mobile worship and, perhaps, travel insurance.

 

Lime Juice and Hoppers and fine dining at the Hela Bojun on the campus of the University of Peradeniya.

After you get to work at the beautiful campus of the University of Peradeniya, and put in a busy morningit’s time for lunch! Right on campus — on the way when we walk home — is a restaurant called the Hela Bojun. It is one of a chain of inexpensive, socially-woke open-air restaurants — big covered food halls, really — found across the nation and run by the Ministry of Agriculture. There is a long counter separating the “dining area” from a line of nine or ten food stalls, and each food stall offers different rural specialties. Women manage each stall, and the whole concept behind the restaurants was to give rural women a chance to earn some money based on their skills — in this case cooking — and some experience managing their own enterprise. The food is vegetarian, fresh, and delicious!

Tasty Halapa, steamed in a Kenda (Macaranga peltata) leaf. Note the distinctive pattern of the leaf veins.

One tasty offering at the Hela Bojun is a very Sri Lankan delicacy called a halapa. It is a mixture of ground rice & red finger millet (Eleusine coccaran), grated coconut, jaggery sugar from Kithul (Caryota urens, Fish-tail Palm), all flavored with cinnamon & cardamom. This heady mixture is pressed & folded (taco-style) into a Kenda leaf & steamed. It is the perfect accompaniment with afternoon tea.

Often a shrub, but in this case a tree, Macaranga peltata is a common component in secondary successional growth here.

The Kenda leaf, which imparts a fresh leafy flavor, is from Macaranga peltata, a common shrub/tree of secondary successional growth. It’s in the Euphorbiaceae (spurge) family — known for having toxic properties. Other than Casaba, which is very well-processed, it is hard to recall another plant in that family with edible uses. Being a culinary cautionary, I‘ve gone online to find information on the hazards of Macaranga peltata, without much luck. No dire warnings, and instead found that the leaf has other food associated uses, such as natural “plates” and “wrappers” for jaggery sugar. Dave walks home past the Hela Bojun almost every day, and usually brings home a couple of halapas!

Macaranga peltata leaves on a growing “tree”, with staminate (male) flowers in bloom. The leaf stalk connects to the center of the blade surface (like a parasol).

Besides the halapas, the HB almost always has someone selling HoppersHoppers are a kind of very thin crispy-fried bread, where the Hopper-er will pour a thin layer of batter (fermented rice & coconut milk) into a frying pan that is shaped like a round shallow dish. The Hoppers come out like small bowls, with the edges thin and crisp and the base puffy, soft, and doughy. You fill them with almost anything (like eggs or cheese) but we like the spicy red chili pepper and onion paste or sambol called Lunu miris: it is so good!

Following the Fulbright mandate to get out and explore the country, we’ve continued to try and use the weekends to visit some of the terrific cultural and historical sites around us. One weekend we took a bus out to Polonnaruwa, a city about four hours northeast of Kandy and the location of the UNESCO World Heritage site (just click here) also called Polonnaruwa.

Polonnaruwa is a dreamy landscape of 12th century Stupas, ruined palaces, and Buddhist monasteries, laid out along quiet leafy paths in a beautiful ‘garden’ through the ever-present rain forest.

It was the seat of the ancient kingdom of Polonnaruwa that peaked sometime in the 12th century, when the kings built a massive series of reservoirs and catchment basins, and canals that are still in use today. They built thousands of these tanks across the island to harvest the monsoon rains (the great hydraulic king Parakramabahu, d. 1186, is supposed to have said “not one of drop of water must flow into the ocean without serving humans first”) to last them through the dry season. And when is the dry season? Right now! And because it has been so dry lately — and because Sri Lanka depends on hydroelectric power — the government has begun rolling power cuts all across the island to conserve electricity. The power typically goes out right in the middle of working on this Blog!

This is the stupa at the Rankot Vihara, about 55 meters high and dating from about 1200. It is giant, and the 4th largest on the island. At almost all the royal cities the rulers built massive stupas to show their piety and their power, and they dominate the landscape. A stupa is typically an hemispherical artificial mound (usually covered with bricks and then often plastered with white lime) that covers a relic or objects associated with either the Buddha or, more often, Buddhist monks and nuns. Sri Lanka has some of the largest stupas in the world.

From here the Rankot Vihara stupa looks big, but maybe not that big.
Okay, from here it is starting to look pretty big!
This man is climbing on the Rankot Vihara stupa to clear out some of the grass that grows between the bricks. DOUBLE CLICK  the image to see just where he is.

Along with visiting the stupas, people have been coming to Polonnaruwa for centuries to see the stunning Buddha sculptures carved out of the striped granite cliff at a place called Gal Vihara. These are three iconic 12th century images that show Buddha seated and meditating, Buddha standing thoughtfully, and a massive reclining Buddha.  They are strikingly beautiful, with graceful forms and such wonderfully understated looks on their faces.

The Buddha seated and meditating in front of a stone-carved image of an Indian shrine, perhaps Sanchi.

 

Just along the cliff-side from the meditating Buddha are these two fine carvings of a standing Buddha and a reclining Buddha, both objects of veneration and offerings from visitors.
The Gal Vihara Reclining Buddha.
The Buddha in repose.
Yes, from his head to his toes!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And finally, the famous and highly unusual Standing Buddha.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nelumbo nucifera (Sacred Lotus) growing in a pond at Polonnaruwa.

Right beside the sculptures at the Gal Vihara we found a lotus pond full of  Sacred Lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) in bloom.  The life-cycle of this plant — how it improbably seems to emerge from murky, even foul origins and then grow into a thing of pure beauty — embodies Buddhist, Hindu and Jain understandings of how a person can become something greater than they were. Often, in Asian religious painting, this flower is seen as a dais or a platform bearing a deity, or Buddha’s throne. Spiritual references aside, Nelumbo nucifera is an extraordinary plant for more than a few reasons. Some of you venerable ones may remember that it made the news when, in 1994, seed excavated from a dried lake bed in northeastern China — and dated to be 1,300 years old (give or take about 275 years!) — was successfully germinated! Perhaps this spurred fresh scientific examination of this plant.  In asking how Nelumbo nucifera can arise from a muddy lake bottom and yet emerge from the water as a pure, clean and spotless creation, morphologists have discovered that the cuticle of the plant (which provides protection for most plants and prevents water loss) is covered in an extra layer of waxy crystalloids. These additional rough crystalloids on Nelumbo are so tiny and so fractile, that dirt and water molecules  can’t adhere to them — like Teflon on steroids. That’s the secret of its immaculate purity!

The cone-like receptacle in the center holds the seeds and can also generate heat to maintain a steady temperature between 30-35 degrees C (86-95 degrees F).

 

Another remarkable trait of the  Sacred Lotus (and rarely seen in plants) is that it can regulate the temperature of its own flowers!  The center of the flower has a cone-like receptacle which holds the seeds. This structure produces heat, and, depending on the ambient temperature, keeps the flower between 30-35 degrees C (86-95 degrees F). This is thought to make the flower more attractive to its insect pollinators (bees, thrips, flies and beetles). The petals even close up at night and form a warmed tent for beetles that dally for a nocturnal stay. So much more could be said about this  plant (it’s culinary uses, its medicinal value, and more); for me, discovering the natural science behind its perfection even further enhances its sacredness.

 

One thing about Fulbright — they will keep you busy! We were so fortunate to get to travel to Kochi in Kerala state in south India in February and attend the Fulbright South and Central Asia Conference.

Colombo to Kochi — a quick trip!

It was fun and informative to meet Fulbrighters from all over the region, and we learned so much from the presentations and conversations over the three days in India. It was amazing to us how much good and important work Fulbright scholars and researchers are doing in a territory stretching from Kyrgyzstan as far as, well, Sri Lanka! The event was organized wonderfully and efficiently, and at the end of the formal presentations there was an awesome talent show– it was really, truly impressive!

The Chinese Nets are lowered from the pier and then, with lots of human power and the help of counter-weights, are raised again, this time full of fish!

We also got the chance to explore Kochi a little bit. Kochi (Cochin in the old days) is an ancient seaport dubbed “the Pearl of the Arabian Sea,” with well over 2,000 years of history. It is the biggest city in Kerala state, and Kerala is in turn one the wealthiest and best-educated states in India. The town has a fine deep harbor but also sits at a confluence of rivers, streams, lakes, ponds and backwaters: there is water everywhere! A walk by the seaside downtown takes you past the Chinese Nets — a fishing technique said to have been introduced by Chinese sailors visiting Kerala back in the 1400s.

Kochi also has a very old and very small Jewish community, with the present synagogue dating back to the 1500s. the current Jewish community is quite small, but the Paradesi Synagogue is a popular spot with tourists.

Hebrew and Tamil and English in the Jewish quarter of old Kochi.
Gates opposite the Paradesi Synagogue in Kochi.

The area is famous for embroidery & stitchery, as well as perfume!

Perfumes, incense, and heaped colored powders for Holi for sale in old Kochi.

And of course there are always unexpected and gratuitous photos! First, here’s a “Schoolboat” dropping off Muslim schoolboys on their way to class early one day. We saw them one morning from our own boat while we were chugging our way to the conference.

And here’s what we discovered when we arrived in Kochi’s ultra-modern International Airport — elephants!

Kochi Airport elephants strike a pose for DZD.

And finally, a New Year’s shout out to all our families, friends and fellow Fulbrighters! Saturday, April 13 marks the end of the present Sinhalese year, and Sunday, April 14 is the start of the new one! There are a few hours between the end of the old year and the start of the new one, and these few hours are inauspicious! Don’t do anything too serious in them — Sinhalese and Tamil Sri Lankans like to take it easy and visit temples then!

Fulbright Participants in Kochi, February, 2019. We’re in there somewhere, next to Waldo and Flat Stanley!

To everyone — Happy New Year and look for another post soon!

Blog Post #2 — A Little Bit of Culture: Dambulla & Sigiriya

Three meditating Buddhas from the Dambulla Cave Temples. The caves were first used for Buddhist worship circa 100 BCE, and have been repainted often over the centuries.

I guess our blog about Kandy really is like a box of chocolates, if you don’t mind mangling the saying — you never know exactly what you are going to get! It is a beautiful city that dates mostly from the 13th century, laid out out along some steep hills at the start of the serious hill country that is at the heart of Sri Lanka.

But it is also a gateway to some of the spectacular Buddhist monuments in the north of the island that rank among the best in the world.

So this time around we’ll head out of Kandy and start at looking at some of the sites that make Buddhist history in Sri Lanka so rich and deep.

A sketch of Kandy by a British artist from the early 1800s.

Kandy itself has some real Buddhist gravitas (the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic comes to mind) and showcases what they mean when they say location, location, location — for over a dozen centuries, as the great cities of the north and the coasts were conquered one after another by invaders (first south Indians, and then the Portuguese, and then the Dutch and then the British), local rulers kept retreating further into remote and remoter hill country. Kandy was the last kingdom to fall — to the British in 1815, just a year after the they had finished burning down Washington, DC — and today Kandy somehow still seems a little bit different — in a wonderful, laid-back way — from other parts of the country.

If you take the train south from Kandy you’ll end up in the high tea country, where people like Sir Thomas Lipton made their fortunes and made Ceylonese Tea so famous that here they still call it Ceylonese Tea — even after Ceylon became Sri Lanka! That’s for another blog. But going north from Kandy you are en route to some of the ancient ruined capitals of the island and some of the finest and most evocative Buddhist art to be seen anywhere.

Puppies napping in the afternoon in Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka.
Monkey in repose among offerings at a stupa in Polonnaruwa.

Today we’ll cover some of these world-heritage sites, including Dambulla and Sigiriya. But first, we need to talk about …..puppies!

And, of course, monkeys! Sri Lanka is a mostly Buddhist nation, and as a result people are loathe to actually mistreat animals. You’ll see ‘street dogs’ all over the country, and at all the major public religious and archaeological sites. No one really takes care of these dogs, but no one actively seeks to control or harm them either (this is not the case in too many other countries around the world, unfortunately). The dogs then are mostly shy and deferential; for their part, Sri Lankan drivers are always alert for dogs roaming the streets, and even patient – to a degree – when the dogs want to rest in the middle of the lane.

Polonnaruwa has three kinds of monkeys — the purple-faced leaf monkey, the toque macaque, and this Grey Langur.
Double-click the image to see this toque macaque at work on some offerings in Polonnaruwa. They seem to prefer Tagetes!

Monkeys get the same treatment. You’ll find them tolerated almost everywhere, and there is the constant threat they will take a liking to an unguarded lunch or package. Most of the time they seem only slightly curious, or even a little bored!

And what about other animals roaming the environment, say elephants? That’s a very different story, and you can learn lots about what the professionals call Human-Elephant Conflict from this blog (cladue.org) maintained by our friend and fellow Fulbrighter Chase Ladue.

Dambulla is a busy, relatively small town dominated by a massive rock outcropping where you can see the World Heritage Site (check out this link) known as the Dambulla Cave Temples or the Dambulla Rock Temples.

This is the very modern, all-consuming Buddhist “museum” you’ll find at the base of Dambulla Rock. It is not part of the historical site. Enter if you dare!
Some of the life-sized plastic mannequins at the “museum,” representing some of the early Buddhist monks who followed the Buddha throughout northern India 2,500 years ago.

These painted caves date from over 2,000 years ago when a king from Anuradhapura fled from Indian invaders and took refuge in the Dambulla caves with Buddhist monks. When he finally re-conquered his kingdom he rewarded the monastery by sponsoring a stunning array of sculptures carved from the living rock, along with murals and paintings throughout the interiors of the caves. They been adding to them for almost 1,500 years.

Inside the five caves you will see lots of the classic depictions of the Buddha, including the image of the Reclining or Sleeping Buddha found everywhere in southeast Asian Buddhism.

This is one of several  Dambulla versions of the “Sleeping Buddha,” who is spending his last moments before death meditating. It’s carved out of the cave walls and the work is so fine that even the stone pillow looks comfortable!
The Buddha’s feet, from a cave in Dambulla. Early Buddhists resisted depicting the Buddha, instead using images (like foot-prints) to represent him. By the time of Dambulla, Buddha was being portrayed in full form.
An unusual expression from a Reclining Buddha. Note the traces of gold leaf still clinging on the right elbow.

Other scenes in the caves elaborate on this theme, with a focus on Buddha’s feet, or on his face, with the flame of enlightenment jetting from his resting head.

A stupa in a cave in Dambulla, showing the billowing murals covering the rock surface of the cave. At the top-center of the image you can just see part of a depiction of the planting of the Bodhi-Tree at Anuradhapura.
The flame of enlightenment crowning a recumbent Buddha in Dambulla.
More of the painted ceiling in Dambulla.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The same day we saw Dambulla we took a Tuk Tuk a little further north to visit Sigiriya, the city-palace built on top of and around an iconic outcrop that figures in almost all Sri Lankan tourist literature.

Approaching Sigiriya through the gardens and monasteries at the base.
One of the water gardens beneath the mountain palace.

The place dates from around the 5th century, and is carved out of the living stone on the top.

 

 

A Water Monitor Lizard at Sigiriya that is, well, monitoring the water (or at least the aquatic plants, Salvinia, Azolla, & Aponogeton).

At the foot of the mountain are all sorts of tanks and reservoirs and pleasure gardens, and of course wildlife!

Massive Lion claws carved out of one side of the cliff. Lions were and are important royal and national symbols in Sri Lanka.

And speaking of the foot of the mountain, Sigiriya is famous for a pair of titanic Lion claws carved out of one side of the cliff. Archaeologists speculate that the claws are all that remain of what was once a colossal structure that adorned the sheer stone face — it is thought that much or some of the mountain was fashioned to resemble a massive lion. Some of the speculative “reconstructions” — shown below — get a little fanciful!

  

And finally — we’ve been traveling a bit lately, and that is one of the reasons we’ve been slow to update the blog. We’ve been getting familiar with the rail system here, that connects Kandy with so much of the rest of the country. Here’s a little clip from when we were waiting at Kandy station last week. The soundtrack that you hear is nothing that we added — it’s the muzak piped in over the platforms that was playing in real-time. Next time more Buddhist architecture and more plants!

Double-click on the image for your train of the day!

 

 

 

 

 

Welcome to the Kandy Kingdom!

ආයුබෝවන්
Ayubowan! May you live long!

Welcome to our blog about our Fulbright experience in Sri Lanka! We’re Dave and Dixie Damrel, resident here in Kandy at the University of Peradeniya for spring, 2019. Dave teaches Religious Studies at USC Upstate in Spartanburg, and Dixie is the curator of the Clemson University Herbarium. Here’s where you can get your Botany and Religious Studies needs taken care of in one handy blog!

19th century British Map of Ceylon
An early 19th century British map of Ceylon, with the Kandy Kingdom highlighted in the highlands.

What about Sri Lanka? It’s an island just slightly larger than South Carolina and with a population of over 23 million people. Since 1972 it has been called Sri Lanka, but before that it was Ceylon and even before that it was Sarandib. That’s where the word serendipity comes from, and we hope this blog will be serendipitous for you! Sri Lanka has a very old Buddhist community, and today over 70% of Sri Lankans speak Sinhalese (that’s where Ayubowan comes from) and follow a form of Theravadin (Hinayana) Buddhism. Mostly Hindu Tamil-speakers make up the rest of the population, and there are significant numbers of Muslims and Christians here too. The backgrounds of the people we’ve met don’t seem to matter — this is without a doubt one of the friendliest places you could ever hope to visit!

Floristically, it’s a dazzling mash-up of endemic tropical species combined with everything else south India, the Portuguese, the Dutch and then the British could add to the mix. There are over 4,000 native and naturalized flowering species of plants here (not even counting ferns and gymnosperms).

Pilgrims visiting the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy.
On the way to visit the Sri Dalada Maligawa, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy.

We’re based in the cooler, higher climate of Kandy, a beautiful green city often called the cultural center of the island. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site of about 130,000 people and also home to the Buddhist pilgrimage shrine of the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. We’ll talk about Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity here later on.

Kandy is also home to the fabled Royal Botanic Garden at Peradeniya, one of the finest botanical gardens in Asia. Set in a crooked bend in the Mahaweli Ganga, the site had been pleasure gardens for centuries before British colonial authorities began to create formal gardens here in 1821. This is where Dixie will be working during our months here.

Couroupita guianensis, the "Cannonball Tree."
Couroupita guianensis, the “Cannonball Tree,” with its arsenal of fruit in the Royal Botanic Garden at Peradeniya.
Flower of Couroupita guianensis. The ring and hood formation of the stamens evokes for some a throne and canopy of hooded cobras, often depicted in Buddhist and Hindu sacred art.
Meditating Buddha, protected by a “hood” of nagas, at the Dambulla Cave Temples.

We’ll look at the gardens in much more detail later, but for now check out these magnificent “Cannonball Trees” (Couroupita guianensis) going great guns at this time of year in the garden. The flowers are beautiful and striking, and the fruits hang on racemes born directly on the trunk. This tree is considered sacred, due to the extraordinary structure of the flowers: two sets of stamens — one a ring in the center, and the other set forming a modified hood which some say resembles the hood of nagas (snakes) shading Lord Shiva’s head.  It is grown in Hindu temples dedicated to Shiva, but also planted in many Buddhist temples and monasteries in Sri Lanka and other parts of Southeast Asia. In Buddhist tradition, Lord Buddha’s mother, Maya, held onto a blooming branch of a Sal tree (Shorea robusta), a tree native to Nepal, Burma and parts of India, while giving birth to him.  For reasons now unclear (perhaps due to the flowers’ stunning beauty, or its “doctrine of signatures-like” naga hood stamens?) a Couroupita tree, introduced from South America into the Royal Botanical Garden here in 1881, was somehow mistaken for the Sal tree. This species then was planted in many temple courtyards in Sri Lanka, and can be seen today all across Buddhist Southeast Asia.   Dr.  D.S.A. Wijesundera, botanist, taxonomist and  Director General of the Royal Botanical Garden in Kandy , recognized the mistaken identity and was instrumental in acquiring genuine Shorea robusta seeds to introduce into Sri Lanka. In 1980, visiting King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya of Nepal brought a Sal tree from the Buddha’s traditional birth-place and planted it in the Royal Botanical Garden here in Kandy.  (We hope to have that image for a future blog!).

Click the image to learn about Wood Apples and Elephant Apples!

Using the “common” names to identify plants can often pose a perplexing pickle for a botanist. We just saw Exhibit A — the sacred Sal tree that was still sacred, but wasn’t a Sal Tree. Here’s Exhibit B. Two completely different plants commonly found in the markets here, and both are called both Wood Apple and Elephant Apple!

Aegle marmelos on the left, and Limonia acidissima. Both also known as Wood Apples, both also known as Elephant Apples!

 

 

Here’s what they look like on the outside!

 

 

 

Aegle marmelos. Rind light green, inside a golden peach color. Fragrant!
Limonia acidissima. Rind light gray; inside brown pulpy, seedy flesh. Smoked cheese aroma.

 

 

 

And here is what they look like on the inside!

 

 

Bats at dusk, accompanied by Buddhist chanting. Click the image for both!

And finally, the bats! Every evening just at dusk the sky over our house fills with thousands of swirling fruit bats, pouring out of the forest and the Botanical Garden and passing over us on their way to eat. It coincides with the nightly pre-recorded hour-long broadcasts coming from the local Buddhist temples. Every night the amplified chants from the loudspeakers broadcast prayers calling for protection for the neighborhood, the nation and all sentient beings. Click on the image for a taste, and stay protected until the next blog post!