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The new galle

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When we think of Galle, we think of the Fort. The massive walls, the narrow streets with potholes in them, the beautifully carved wood over dilapidated doors, the old law courts, the dark entrances leading out to the sunlit meda midulas and above all, the ramparts looking over the sea. The Dutch church, the square mosque, the lighthouse. It is a place where time has stopped.

Now the face of Galle is changing. The narrow streets are paved, the dilapidated homes are being restored and the old wooden and white washed look is giving way to bright multi-coloured cafes. But suddenly you turn a corner and the old Galle is still there.

This note and photos are from our visit in 2011.

My 5 most favourite things at the National Museum, Colombo

Museum2The tiny image of the Buddha sitting with his legs hanging down (aka in the pralambaasana). The only known image in this posture to be found in Sri Lanka.

The stunning gold plates on which a Mahayana sutra is written in Sanskrit discovered at Jetawanaramaya

Statues of the voluptuous but serene looking goddess  Tara

The collection of beautifully decorated swords

The Avalokiteshwara Bodhisattva sitting at ease in his soft garment*/

A church turned temple

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Sri Pushparamaya is briefly mentioned in a travel guide produced by the Ruhuna Development Bank as a temple showing signs of ‘having been a church’. This brief mention doesn’t prepare you for the sight and you wonder why you never noticed it before on your drive down Galle road. The temple is on the land side of the road, just after the 77th mile post in Welithara. The entrance and driveway ends at a building that was once a small church but is now the bana maduwa. A set of buildings (similar in style to other 19th century temples in the coastal areas, such as the Angurukaramulla temple), lie to the left of the church/bana maduwa.

We were told by a young priest at the temple that this Dutch colonial building was taken over by the temple after a court case. The state of the building shows little appreciation of its historical and cultural value. The lovely pointed-arch doors and windows are old and decaying. Two narrow staircases lead to what may have been the choir loft but is now a resting place for dust-covered Buddha statues. The floor boards of the loft are decayed and dirty. But the saddest part was the palpable sense of lethargy and ignorance about the value of this small building.

The Bolawalana Kanikka Church

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St Mary’s Church in Bolawalana is a pretty church on the outskirts of Negombo town. We went there just a day after the feast and found the road decorated with blue and white flags and symbolic gok pandals. The church is better known as the Kanikka Church, (kanikka meaning ‘collections’ or ‘gifts’ – a Tamil derivative).

This church struck our fancy because of its history. It is believed to have been built by the Portuguese on a site where a Hindu temple or devalaya once stood.

The Kanikka Church still bears touches of the mixing of faith. To the side of the main building stands a smaller room which is primarily for the purpose of blessing babies. An array of slippers and shoes were piled outside the room and barefoot women were holding up their babies for blessings. The little shrine room housed statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, as well as a small receptacle for placing strands of baby hair…

Its curious history makes the Bolawalana Kanikka Church an interesting place to visit.

Siddhi Vinayagar Kovil Negombo

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When we think of Negombo, we think of churches, not kovils.  The small entrance to the Siddhi Vinayagar Kovil, (dedicated to the elephant god Ganesha), near St Mary’s Church on Sea Street caught our eye for this very reason. The insignificant gate to this kovil doesn’t prepare one for the sprawling kovil complex inside, sections of which are still being constructed as expansions to the original building.  Piles of timber and bags of cement lie outside the main shrine and cloth banners featuring architectural drawings are hung all over the temple. On inquiry, we were told by an elderly gentleman at the kovil that the priests and the builders had all arrived from Jaffna to work at the Siddhi Vinayagar Kovil, the Ganapathi kovil of Negombo town.

A stylized statue of the Mouse, the vehicle of Ganapathi, faces the inner chamber where the statue of the god resides. At the back of the kovil there are other smaller places of worship for several other deities. In one corner is a statue of Gajalakshmi, dressed in green and flanked by elephants. The separate shrine for Naham or the cobra to the right of the Gajalakshmi shrine, could be due to the importance of the serpent as one of Ganapathi’s incarnations. All this together with brilliantly colourful carvings and statues on the dome,  the smoking incense, the fiery lamps and fragrant flowers set out in the main hall as offerings, make this kovil a vibrant place to visit.

Angurukaramulla Temple, Negombo

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Not far from Negombo town, just past a predominantly Muslim area and a little way down Temple Road, lies the Angurukaramulla Temple. The garish exterior décor of multicoloured tiles, pillars and arches above and around the massive seated Buddha and the gaping maw of some fantastic creature that forms the entrance to the temple, are visible from the road, leading the visitor to expect more of the same. This first impression of art gone mad continues – the entrance is tiled with more eye-searing colours and the garden is ringed by a motley collection of Buddha statues in different styles, gifted by visitors from overseas.

Notwithstanding (or maybe because of) its unusual design, it is an intriguing temple. Walk a little further in and discover the Shrine Room housing a series of ornate statues of gods attending the Buddha, as well as graphic wall and ceiling murals of scenes from Hell.

Outside and to the right of the Shrine Room is another smaller building housing wall paintings of the kings and queens of Sri Lanka…stories drawn from the Mahavamsa. Unfortunately, this building is broken down and neglected, the paintings cracked and faded with large sections of the drawings missing altogether.

To the back of the temple is the most fascinating section of the complex…the Siddha Sooniyam Devale, which seems to be more popular here than the areas dedicated to the worship of more traditional Hindu gods.

And finally, in another part of the garden altogether is a (once) white painted building with intricately worked eaves and balconies with beautiful fretwork like lace, carrying a little plaque identifying it as a library, declared open by the Governer of Ceylon at the time – Sir Andrew Caldecott, in 1941. This building too has long since fallen into disrepair although the original plaque remains.

A place called Migamuwa

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“King Kavantissa had no other warriors but Velusumana at that time. Accordingly, Velusumana was summoned and was informed of the longing [of Queen Viharamahadevi]. The warrior Velusumana went in search of honeycombs and found in a boat hauled ashore by the fishermen in Migamuwa, a honeycomb sixty cubits in length. It was taken with him and the queen’s longing satisfied. From the day the honeycomb was found, the place was called Migamuwa” (Rajavaliya)

When we got to the Negombo Fish Market it was already 8.30 a.m. No sign of the frenzied action that had occurred two hours before. But the fishy smell remained, together with the white kitten accompanying a few women still busy clearing up. In contrast to the deserted Lellama, the canal near the prison was a hive of activity. Many colourful boats, men and women unravelling and repairing fishing nets and white storks everywhere.

Right next to this scene were the remains of the fort. Popularly known as the Dutch Fort of Negombo, it was originally built by the Portuguese (late 16c) and is a reminder of the town’s importance for the Portuguese and the Dutch. They fought several times in and around Negombo which was known for its cinnamon and its strategic position near Colombo.

When the Dutch finally gained control over the area, they revamped the fort into a pentagon-shaped one with space for cinnamon storage. But when the British occupied it in 1796, they turned it into the prison which it still is. Sadly, the only remaining architecture to be seen of the original fort, is a small part of the wall, the entrance archway and the clock tower.

Pulasthinagara

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Polonnaruwa or Pulasthinagara as it was known then, was a very important second city when Anuradhapura was the capital. When its various mighty invaders were not occupying it, the city served as the residence of the Prime Minister or Chief of Armies. The Rajavaliya describes Dutugemunu’s battle near a Chola-occupied fort near Polonnaruwa. The Chulavamsa gives a detailed account of Vijayabahu I’s war with the Cholas in Polonnaruwa, making it his capital at the end of that war.

In present day narratives of history, these events are glossed over in favour of descriptions of the city’s time of glory during the reign of King Parakramabahu I, one of the few kings who had control of the entire island at one time.

With its beautifully carved walls and pillars, the Raja Sabha Mandapaya is symbolic of the brief but colourful period when warriors, priests and envoys came from places as near or as far as Mannar and Burma to “splendid Pulasthinagara”.

Ibbankatuwa

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Unless you have your eyes peeled for this on the Kurunegala-Dambulla road, you’re going to miss the black and white Archeology Department signboard. It’s on your left when you travel from Kurunegala. Just before you reach Dambulla, the small signboard appears signifying the road that leads to the ancient burial site. The road doesn’t lead to the site directly, but lies behind some houses not very far from the main road.

What you will see when you do arrive is a small open grassy space about a foot lower than its boundary. The slabs of rock placed in geometric shapes would probably puzzle visitors who stumble on it unwittingly. There is nothing to show you that it is a rare historical site. No explanations for visitors who haven’t read about the ancient burial site on the internet, no statements on the value of this location and nothing to stop anyone from building a house on it!

While it is commonly designated a burial site from the pre-historic era (6th-4th c. BC), historians say that it was also a place where people lived and worked. Not surprising, given that Sri Lanka was part of the Asian trade network of that era and some historians have suggested that the Ibbankatuwa community was part of such a network.

It was a strange feeling to sit at the edge of this site. A couple of thousand years ago, in this same place where we were sitting there were people burying their kin. Did women walk over the same place? Who did they trade carnelian beads with? What were they wearing? Where did they come from and what language did they speak?

Ritigala forest monastery

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Ancient and magical

Galapitigala (off the Habarana Road)

Now an archaeological site covering about 366 acres, the Ritigala Forest Monastery lies in a strict natural reserve. It is an ancient and magical place of myth, fact, history and legend and while numerous theories have been advanced as to the exact purposes of the buildings now ruined, they remain mostly speculative. This remote forest area is said to have been used by hermits since the 3rd century BC – around the 9th century it was occupied by the extremely ascetic ‘pamsukulika’ monks for whom the now ruined monastery was built by Sena 1 (835 – 851 AD).

The Ritigala Forest Monastery is entered by way of a long stone paved ‘street’ with steps, leading through the forest, passing a series of ‘roundabouts’ or cleared circular spaces on the way up. The ruins of the ancient buildings include double-platforms raised on big slabbed stone walls connected by small stone bridges, an old stone tank or bathing place (Banda Pokuna) and so deeper through the trees, to the ruins of the monastery itself.

Further up, through the thick forest a steep, rough path keeps leading up to where around 70 rock caves used by the hermits and monks of the area, are located across the mountainside.

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