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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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!
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.
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!
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 dharma. The 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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.