Monday, 6 October 2008

A day ruined?

The driver took his foot off the accelerator and gently braked. The vehicle slowed as it crossed a narrow bridge. I was looking out of the side window, everything was

looking 'out of the world' beautiful. The water was sparkling, dotted by small islets covered completely in tall grass dancing in the wind. Trees entwined by symbiotic vines looked like nothing I had seen before. As my vehicle slowly inched forward, two fishermen came to view, working under the parallel railway bridge, hooking their net onto it, cleverly innovating. A little further, under the same bridge, an army patrol - the soldiers looking dapper in their fatigues moved stealthily.

Some of you who know me must have guessed it already - I was having one of those moments. When everything seems incredibly beautiful. It usually happens when I wake up from a good dream. Or when I have had some good beer. Today it was a combination of both. I had spent the day exploring the ancient ruins of Polonnaruwa, the medieval capital of Sri Lanka. The experience had been nothing less than a dream. And I had celebrated later with a couple of Lion Lagers! I was on my way back now - having one of those moments!

Just a little while back, I had been sitting on the terrace of the Polonnaruwa Rest house, sipping my beer. The terrace overlooks the magnificent Parakram Samundra which shimmered in the late afternoon sun. There is something about the beer that you have after a hard day of sight-seeing in a new place. Almost as good as the shared cigarette after making love. Weird analogy for me to be making though, since I have been celibate for almost as long as I have quit smoking. Or is it the other way around?

The rest house is the perfect place to finish your days sightseeing in Polo. It is close to theArchaeological Museum which must be visited after you have done all the ruins - you can then actually admire the reconstructed models and put things in perspective. Most likely you will also be starting here. That's what I did. I had started early from my team site and was at the museum shortly before eight in the morning. The tickets for the ruins have to be bought here. The timings on the gate said 7 AM to 6 PM - but the ticket office was closed. It would open only at 9 I learnt from a person hanging around there. He wanted to know what I thought of the entry fees of US$27 and agreed whole heartedly when I said it felt like robbery. He offered to take me around for two dollars less on his tuk-tuk, the onomatopoetic name for what we so staidly call the auto-rickshaw back home.

I politely declined and told him that I looked forward to do that by myself on a bike. He immediately offered to give me the best bike in town for only LKR 500. I am usually not good at bargaining but I blurted out that someone had offered me one for LKR200. He seemed to buy that and brought his price to LKR 350 - I felt I could have gone in for the kill then, but gave up and agreed. Bandula, my newly appointed friend, said that he would take me to the place where he kept the bike on the tuk-tuk and seeing me hesitate added, "At no extra charge!" I jumped in! His place was to the south of town and was the ideal place for me to start before the museum opened as it had two sites that did not require a ticket to enter. ThePotgul Vihara and the statue of King Parakramabahu the Great. I got a good geared bike - a must as at the end of the day you are really thankful for the gears when negotiating some of the climbs.

Polonnaruwa has quite a linear layout. It is best to start from the south as I did and move up north. After seeing the statue of the solemn king holding a papaya (the serious sounding sign there had said he is holding a book or a yoke symbolising sovereignty, but I liked the papaya explanation that I had read online) I biked up to the museum. The path goes along the lake built by the 'manically obsessed with irrigation' king, Parakramabahu. I reached the museum soon after it opened and a busload of Indian package tourists were filing in. I was pleasantly surprised to find that all Asians have a 50% discount on the tickets and I only had to shell out LKR 1350. I had picked up a detailed guide book written by Jayasinghe Balasooriya earlier for LKR 250 from a vendor near the statue. I was now fully equipped to hit the main archaeological sites. The entrance to it is just a little distance away on the Habrana road.

The ruins of the medieval city of Polonnaruwa dates back to the 11th century AD, around the time when the Cholas were ruling in South India. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and is extremely well maintained. The entire ruins are spread over a large area and a bike is essential to get around. It can also be done if you have a car but it will not be as much fun. Biking through the tree lined gravel tracks is a whole lot of fun and it actually is a great way to beat the heat too. The vast spread of the ruins ensures that you don't feel the crowds at all - and can enjoy the spectacle of magnificent ruins set amidst verdant forests. As you bike around you can actually feel the thrill of the explorer who had first discovered these ruins. You can spend hours taking in Dagabas (Stupas), palaces and temples, trying to recreate the life that was. That is exactly what I did. A magical day amongst the ruins.