At four forty-eight am, a strange rasping sound – zah-Zah, zah-Zah – woke me from an already restless sleep. Bird song, or so I thought, the winged denizens of the beautiful Giritale Tank opposite greeting the new day. But as the sound went on, uninterrupted, unnatural, and spiking – ZAH, ZAH, ZAH – I wondered if it might be something else: a particularly unusual alarm call, a fire drill, maybe even a fire. Then as suddenly as it had started, it stopped. Silence again. Another forty minutes before we had to get up, wash, dress, breakfast, then travel in the bus to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, founded eight hundred years ago in the eleventh century.
Today the city is mostly ruins. Yet important ruins all the same. A UNESCO site nonetheless and – after Anuradhapura of the first kingdom – the centre of Sri Lanka’s second kingdom.
We drove along Parakrana Samudra (the Sea of Parakrama), another lake or “tank”, and created by King Parakramabahu I who ruled and built much of the city between 1153 and 1186. As the bus stopped for photos, we spotted a tiny island midway across dotted with birds. This island was the site of a summer house back in King P’s time.
Then onto an onslaught of history, in turn the archaeological museum, the ruined city, a giant stupa, and finally a well deserved lunch.
The archaeological museum was undergoing renovations of its own, with scaffolding and a team of workmen hammering by the entrance. Inside a huge polystyrene and wood model showed the layout of the entire city. Various stone artefacts stood on pedestals, and a collection of cryptic photographs hung from the walls. Then a large group of men in identical blue shirts and ties surged in front of us towards the souvenir shop. They accumulated so tightly around the cash desk, it was impossible to get through. Not security guards foiling a relic heist though, but novice guides on a training session.
Next, onto the Royal Palace group, most prominently the Royal Palace itself. Once this building had been seven storeys high, but now only the lowest three brick layers remained. In ancient times, King P would have lived here, no doubt planning all his other constructions, such as the Audience Hall with its frescos of elephants, and a bathing pool with crocodile mouth spouts.
Back on the bus, it was a short ride to the Polonnaruwa Quadrangle, where several buildings clustered together. One was the Vatadage – a circular relic house where we had to remove hats and shoes, and walk barefoot on the gravel. No shade inside and the sun beat down with ferocity. A magnificent moonstone (the ancients’ equivalent of a doormat) paves the way in. It has semicircles of elephants (birth) and horses (death) and makes a fine photograph. And inside, everything else comes in fours: four moonstones, four relic compartments, four Buddhas. Meanwhile, the number of tourists increases to four hundred, all of them holding cameras or phones at arm’s length and taking photos of everything. Some seem so preoccupied with taking images (virtual relics of a kind), they forget to look with their eyes.
The people who once built this city may no longer live here, but there are plenty of modern inhabitants. The monkeys who climb walls and trees, gazing at us with solemn wistful expressions. The dogs too, mostly lazing in the sunshine. And all the local vendors who sell postcards, plastic replicas of the moonstones, and multicoloured elephant jigsaw puzzles.
We came to an enormous brickwork dagoba, the Rankot Vihara, and at fifty-five metres tall, a quarter of the height of Lion Rock. Not that anyone can climb this. The structure is the shape of an inverted cup, with a large pointed cone on top. There is nothing inside it. Apart from a number of tiny buried treasure houses, it is solid earth within.
By now, we’d had enough. This site has an enormous amount of history – far too much to take in within the space of one morning. The sun was growing hotter too, and our sometimes bare feet wearier. After a stroll to the Gal Vihara (a very important set of images all cut into one long slab of stone) and then around the nearby small lake, we boarded the bus again and headed for lunch.