Monkeys, Cave Temples and a Fortress in the Sky

This first leg of our Sri Lankan adventure had my husband and I venturing into the center of the country. The roads winded like blood vessels, carrying us closer to the beating life force of Sri Lanka’s ancient history. To Dambulla, where monkey’s danced within arms reach, caves were carved into temples, and rock fortresses dominated the sky. To Dambulla, a place that contained the magic, heart and mystery of Sri Lanka itself.

We whizzed along rice paddies and foxtail palms on flat roads, drifted into the jungle’s mist and unruly overgrowth on hilltops, and passed cragged red rock and indigenous communities on our descent. The scenery blended into an infinite panorama of life, our destination a single star in a constellation of biodiversity.

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A drizzle crept overhead as we inched along the outskirts of Kandalama Reservoir. It felt like the car was tiptoeing, so as not to disturb the adjacent wildlife. We slowed to catch a glimpse of the illusive black water monitor, who would have blended in with the pavement were it not for the incessant flicker of her rosy pink tongue.

A rustle in the brush motioned us from ahead. Curiosity even found its way to our driver, and as we drove towards the commotion’s source, none of us could hide the smile on our faces. A small group of scavenging monkeys had found a stash of ripe fruit within the shrubbery, and at this point they looked more like chipmunks than primates.

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The Toque Macaque is endemic to Sri Lanka, and these little buggers happened to frequent our hotel as often as the tourists do. With a monkey see no evil, monkey hear no evil, monkey do no evil lineup on our balcony every single morning. Being only a stone’s throw to the watering hole meant the surrounding area bursted with life. We darted through bats in the hallways, stopped for crossing frogs in the common areas, and listened to the birds rise and fall with the sun.

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The next morning we met the Golden statue who greeted us with inquisitive eyes. Gatekeeper of the mysterious cave temples, the enormous Buddha had a stare that never left your side. We paid homage to its brilliance and began our ascent, darting between feral cats and spunky macaques up what felt like the world’s longest staircase. The brimming hedges masked the secret heritage carved within the rocks, until the pathway deposited us into a galley-style courtyard that revealed a sanctuary built within the mountainside.

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Our bare toes crossed the threshold, brushing against the very same steps the solitary Buddhist monks used during pre-Christian times. Although the actual number of caves reaches close to eighty, five of them are open to the public. A contrast of complex white against natural stone. We ventured into the damp portals, the interiors shrouded with over 150 Buddha sculptures and paintings, blues and reds so vibrant it was like the walls opened to the heavens.

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Sigirya loomed in the distance, a masterpiece of an ancient bloodline that truly ruled from the clouds. Tempted to spend our day wandering the caves like a monastic recluse, we almost watched its glory from a distance, but this towering piece of history was just too fascinating to pass up. We jumped in a cab, the only hint of urbanization we’d felt in hours, and 30 minutes later arrived to a page straight out of the Jungle Book. Monkeys chased each other to our left, deciduous forest swayed to our right, and a prehistoric citadel lay ahead.

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Something magical happens when you lock eyes with Sigirya. Weaving closer through its vast network of gardens, lily ponds and pebbled pathways, the undercurrent of possibility dances with the pollen in the air. It’s like a volt of electricity strikes your veins, and no matter that she’s 660 feet tall and 1,200 steps high, Sigirya grants you the power to conquer. As if her beckoning runs wild with the wind, she coaxes you closer:

The Lion’s Gate is the entrance which you seek. It is there that leads you to the palace ruins along the highest plateau.

Beyond the Lion’s Gate, now crumbled to nothing but two enormous lion’s paws, lies the entrance to King Kashyapa’s world. A once flourishing monarch that reigned from the highest tier, this vantage point provided 360 views of the surrounding territory, a true advantage for any undesirable ruler.

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Like all great pieces of art, the beauty lies within the details. The climb up Sigirya is littered with defining moments, ones that you cannot witness unless you explore every curve. A Mirror Wall that in the old days was polished so thoroughly the king could see his reflection in it. A gallery of frescoes with over 500 depictions of women, their presence as mysterious as the artists themselves. A fully functioning hydraulic system that feeds from a man-made reservoir atop Sigirya’s summit.

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Dambulla blends the gift of raw nature with man’s gift of urban planning, creating a world both striking and terrene. As we descended in the footsteps of the ancients, the watermarks splayed against a hot November sky, our pulse joined the capillaries that beat into the heart of this ancient metropolis.

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