Our Sri Lankan Pilgrimage: Anuradhapura

This part of our trip really began this summer in Washington DC at the Freer & Sackler Galleries. We walked into their exhibit Encountering the Buddha, quite by accident, but Chandler walked out with a desire to visit the stupa Ruwanwelisaya in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. We filed that information away at the bottom of our “to-visit” list and promptly moved to Amman, Jordan a few weeks later.

Fast forward a few months and we started looking for somewhere tropical to spend our two weeks of winter vacation. Jordan has relatively mild seasons, but we knew we’d be chilled to the bone, having spent the previous three years living in Accra, Ghana.

Well…Europe is cold, Africa is expensive, and most of Asia is too far away. And suddenly, Sri Lanka popped up again: Reasonable flights, cheap accommodations/meals, tropical weather. Sri Lanka was checking all our boxes.

And, as Chandler reminded me, if we were going to go to Sri Lanka, we had to make a stop in Anuradhapura.

Which is how I found myself traveling seven hours (in a private car, having opted away from the 9+ hour train ride with a 4:00am wake-up call) to a less visited part of Sri Lanka. The first half of our drive (km not hours) was incredible. The expressway from the beach town Mirissa up to the airport is incredible (176 km). But after that, it got dicey. Our driver (sometimes unreasonably safe) was pretty cautious when it came to passing other cars and after the airport, the expressway disappeared and we were on a one-lane road for the other 169 km.

You might think the traffic would disappear the farther you get from each city you drive through, but in fact, Sri Lanka is nothing but small towns that constantly overlap, meaning very little of what you drive through is countryside. We were in stop and go traffic for the last four-and-a-half hours of our drive. Not great for someone who gets as motion sick as I do.

We finally arrived in Anuradhapura at 3:30pm and tried to eat our first meal since breakfast (I can assure you, the rest-stop food along the way wasn’t enticing), only to learn our restaurant of choice didn’t serve Sri Lankan and Indian food until dinner. In the meantime we could get Mongolian or Chinese food (not very vegetarian friendly).

We decided to check in at our hotel and see the sites before coming back for a late dinner – the sun would set at 6:00pm and you might be surprised to learn, but this was our only night planned for Anuradhapura. The next day we’d set off to hike Pidurangala and Sigiriya before making our way to the Madulkelle Tea and Eco Lodge for the night.

Despite the fact that this was a bucket-list item for Chandler, we were taking the risk that we’d have a clear evening to explore because the accommodations in Anuradhapura didn’t inspire a longer booking.

It rained on our drive up, but luckily clouds parted for our few hours in Anuradhapura.

Our first site was the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi. A sacred fig tree, said to be a branch from the historical Sri Maha Bodhi in India, it was the tree that Buddha sat under when he attained enlightenment. The branch was planted in 288 BC and is the oldest living human-planted tree with a known planting date.

While the tree has an impressive history, it has faced serious threats from wild elephants, storms, vandals, and Tamil Tiger separatists, who in 1985 stormed the site and massacred 146 Sinhales-Buddhists on the upper terrace.

Meaning nowadays, you can’t get too close to the tree itself. Statues, golden fences, and walls have been built around the tree and all that is visible are the upper branches.

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But while the viewing of the tree might have been a bit of a let-down, the surrounding grounds were not. We just so happened to visit Anuradhapura on Christmas Day and while not a big holiday for Sri Lankans, the grounds were quite crowded and there was a festive feel to the air.

Large groups were chanting and everyone (but us) was in white. Colorful streamers filled the air and yet there was a peaceful calm, which may seem odd since I also described the mood as festive, but no one seemed bothered by the juxtaposition. And we were just happy to stand and observe it all.

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The statues were intricately carved. Deities and animals filled the grounds.

And I can find an elephant anywhere I go : )

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We couldn’t stay for long. We wanted to make it to Ruwanwelisaya before the sun set.

Ruwanwelisaya was the temple that Chandler watched a video of, back in DC, six months prior. It’s the reason we made our trek all the way up to Anuradhapura. Honestly, it’s the reason Sri Lanka was even on our radar.

Ruwanwelisaya is a stupa built by King Dutugemunu in 140 BC. It is said to contain the largest collection of the Buddah’s relics anywhere in the world. It is also one of the tallest ancient monuments, standing at 103 meters tall, with a circumference of 290 meters.

If we had done our research a little better, we’d know if Christmas Day is a magical time to visit the stupa or if our experience happens every night. Regardless, it was magical for us.

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Once again, we were the only ones not dressed in white, but as we arrived, a procession of people carrying instruments, offerings, and a piece of cloth long enough to go around the entire stupa entered behind us.

We watched as the cloth was handed to monks, standing on the lip of the stupa. They proceeded to wrap it around the stupa, covering the previous burgundy stripe with a more bright orange one.

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This process probably took 10-15 minutes, meanwhile hundreds of Sri Lankans gathered in groups to pray, chant, and celebrate.

Having watched a video of this event months ago definitely did not prepare us for the enormity of the task. It’s impossible to imagine the size of this stupa until you are standing in front of it (similar to how unfathomable the pyramids are).

We followed the monks around the structure to see the strip of cloth finished. We felt lucky to have experienced the moment.

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Then, it started again. Another procession, more offerings, and a different strip of cloth. This one a more colorful version.

The process was repeated three or four times as the sun set.

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Honestly, it might have been repeated more times than that. We didn’t stick around for the entire ceremony. We slipped away in the darkness, in need of our late dinner, sufficiently happy with what we had traveled so far to see.

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