Sunday, December 24, 2017

Sri Lanka - day 2

We woke up, refreshed and ready to set off for the day, for we had many many things to see and do in and around Habarana. (By the way, I kept mispronouncing it as habanero, a variety of chilli pepper, till Viv firmly corrected me.) 

But first things first, of course...

Morning chai-coffee time! 

There was quite a lot of confusion over the tea-coffee orders -- tea with milk, tea without milk, coffee with milk and sugar, tea with milk but no sugar, coffee without milk, etc. etc. Even I had no idea what we ended up ordering, so I don't blame the housekeeper for bringing us some combination of drinks, which we just randomly distributed and drank. I'm not a regular tea drinker, but I absolutely LOVE having it when I have company. 

Xena was so thrilled about being matchy-matchy with grandma. 

When booking the accommodation, I'd read in one of the reviews that wild peacocks and peahens lived in the forest nearby! In fact, we could hear their loud cries early in the morning. We asked the housekeeper about them and he said he could take us for a short tour before breakfast.  

And we set off on our 'Yeh dil maange MOR (and MORNI!)' mission. 

On the way, we stopped by a craftman's hut, where we saw blocks of wood and chisels... 

...and some finished works of art.

Soon, we were crossing stretches of wild grass, scattered with cobwebs like this. 

The walk was not so short after all, and we paused for a photo break!

At one point, we ran into a calf. No big deal for the rest of us, but Xena was terrified-fascinated.

After about 15 minutes of walking though grassy paths, we reached a clearing where we could hear the peacocks VERY loudly. And then we saw them. Gazillions of them. Wild peacocks and peahens everywhere, on the grass, flying from branch to branch and perched high on the trees (I didn't think they could fly that high, but they did!). They were incredibly difficult to photograph though. 

Can you spot one in this tree?

Ooh, three of them!

We also saw some weaverbird nests high up in the trees. 

Soon, we'd had enough of peacocks (NO MOR, please! *sorry*) mainly because of our grumbling tummies, so we headed back towards the bungalow to our breakfast.

On the way, we saw quite a few monkeys. Yikes. Not a fan, obviously. 

As we neared the bungalow, we spotted an elephant walking through this canal.

It was a group of tourists taking an elephant ride. The handler was walking behind them, sloshing his way through the water, with their DSLR casually slung around his neck. I freaked out at the thought of the camera falling off into the muddy water! 

Soon, we were home, digging into our hearty breakfast.

 On the menu were roti (much thicker than the kind we are familiar with), egg curry, dal and the much-loved sambol (top right). 

Our super-punctual driver was ready and waiting for us. We had planned to start the day with the Ritigala forest ruins and monastery. It was a short drive away, and soon we were at the entrance, buying the tickets. Like many tourist attractions, the difference in the entry fee for locals and foreigners was huge. In fact, one of our guides actually said that he could probably sneak the rest of us in as locals, but not my mom-in-law because "she's too fair"! Hilarious!

Ritigala forest monastery, situated on the slopes of a densely wooded mountainside, has a rich history. According to legend, Hanuman flew over Ritigala while he was ferrying the Dronagiri mountain from the Himalayas to Lanka to deliver the sanjeewani herb that would save Lakshmana's life. Along the way, chunks of the mountain fell in places such as Ritigala, Unawatuna and Hakgala. 

And now some non-fiction. Around the 3rd century, many hermits who were seeking solitude and serenity discovered the Ritigala forest. By the 9th century, it had become home to an order of monks called pamsukulikas, who lived an extremely austere life. (In fact, the word pamsukulika means 'rag robes', as these monks had vowed to wear only clothes made from rags.) Impressed by this, King Sena I built a monastery for them in Ritigala, with many sections meant for different purposes. Interestingly, there were no residential quarters, as the monks preferred to live in caves scattered around the forest. They would come down from their caves only to accept food brought by visitors. 

When the Cholas invaded Sri Lanka around the 10th and 11th centuries, the monks abandoned Ritigala. The invaders destroyed the buildings and the site was deserted and forgotten for centuries. In the late 19th century, it was rediscovered and excavated by British surveyors. The ruins cover an area of about 24 hectares (59 acres). 

Map of the monastery ruins, showing the different sections, such as the pond, library and stone bridges

We had decided to take a guide along with us as I had read that there were very few signs inside. Here, he is telling us all about the history of Ritigala.

It started off with an easy hike, and even the seniors were able to do it without any problems. 

Then came some steep steps, and at times, the mommies needed a hand going up...

...taking breathers as and when needed.

This was the janthagara (monastery bathhouse), or as our guide called it 'the spa'. (Bet the monks wouldn't be too pleased about that.) Amazingly, the grinding stones used to prepare herbs for the baths were still intact (you can see them on the left of the bath). 

The stonework was quite impressive, considering the era it was built in. Transporting, cutting and carving the granite and stone couldn't have been an easy task. Our guide showed us some slabs with holes drilled at equal spaces from one another. This was the method employed to cleanly cut the giant slabs of rock. The holes would be filled with a substance that would expand, splitting the rock. Chisels would then be used to smooth out the surfaces. 

Resting time after the climb

Xena saw me take this photo...

...and immediately rushed to grab a spot. 

Soon after, we were back on a stone-covered path, marked simply as 'pavement'. 

A close-up shot

Samdhans, or 'sakhi-saheli' as I call them 

I pointed out this gigantic tree to my dad and he immediately wanted a close encounter!

Our guide showed us this spot from where you could clamber over some big rocks (not for the seniors or the kid, he warned) and explore one of the actual caves where the monks lived. How exciting!

Three of us proceeded, while the rest, erm, rested. 

Yep, the rocks were giant for sure. 

And after much clambering...

...we reached the entrance to one of the caves!

I was blown away by the size of the boulder resting over the cave.

The inside of the cave was in ruins, with some destroyed Buddha statues and stones scattered all around. Apparently, more than 70 such caves have been discovered, but there might be more hidden away.

Many animals and birds are endemic to Ritigala. Sure enough, we spotted a bug that we'd never seen the likes of. Xena told me later that while we were gone, she had found a similar bug. "It's like a ladybug but not really because it's longer and doesn't have polka dots." She described. 

A mini waterfall along the way!

Soon, we had joined the other group and moved along. (The sign says 'gimanhala', indicating a circular resting point.)

Xena shows off her jumping skills. 

There were some very weirdly-shaped trees, such as this one. 

Next, we reached the padhanaghara (double-platformed building). The moat-like portion was used for meditation, teaching and conducting ceremonies.

All the structures of the monastery were extremely simple and undecorated, in line with the monks' austerity. Except the urinals! These urinals, consisting of foot supports, the urine cup and the drain hole were the only decorated structures. And for good reason. Decorations depicted the luxuries of the orthodox monastic chapters, which the Ritigala monks were heavily opposed to. It is said that the act of urination on decorated urinals was symbolic of dissociation and abhorrence towards excesses.

Soon, we were back in our van and on our way again. This time, I was prepared! A wise friend had advised me to get a trial Spotify subscription so I could play my kinda music from my iPad. I had made a long playlist with songs that I was fairly certain would appeal to most of the occupants of the van. (And of course, there was a whole other playlist of just Coke Studio Pakistan songs, which I knew would be appreciated only by Xena and me.)

Just for fun, I had added the Kolaveri song to the first playlist. When it first started playing, everyone threw mock shade at me for my choice of music. But soon, they all got really into the song, and eventually it led to a deep discussion. You see, we couldn’t decide whether he said 'cow-u' or 'bow-u' and if it was 'bow-u', what it meant. We actually played the song a few times just to figure it out. In the end, we unanimously agreed that it was 'bow-u', i.e. 'bhaav'.

Xena, rising above the silly discussion we were having, was busy drawing and colouring. I had taken along plenty of gear to keep her occupied. 

Lunch was at a tiny restaurant by the roadside. This was what the non-vegetarians' plate looked like. I have no idea about such things, but my mom remarked that the fish was really fresh. 

The vegetarians' plate l

Pepsi in a glass bottle! (I have a soft spot for soft drinks in glass bottles -- Thums-Up in particular.)

The next item in our plan was Kaudulla National Park, where you could observe elephants in their natural stomping grounds. While doing my research, I read that Minneriya National Park was the more well-known and popular one, but the large number of jeeps made it overcrowded with tourists, and sometimes rather distressing for the elephants. At Kaudulla National Park, you had as much of a chance to see elephants in the wild, but the experience was better due to fewer jeeps. We decided on Kaudulla. 

We transferred from our van to a 4WD jeep that would take us inside Kaudulla. The entrance fee was steep -- about 15000 rupees in total. It was a bit of a squeeze in the jeep but once the driver took off the top cover, we stood up two at a time, to enjoy the amazing breeze and create more seating space. 

The elephants are the highlight of Kaudulla, but it also has a lot of other flora and fauna. 

This GIANT wasp nest with wasps buzzing around it, for example... freaky!

My first thought when I saw this ant hill -- ku klux klan!

We also managed to catch a glimpse of this peacock before it dashed into the bushes.

Tootoie and me enjoying our open-top ride

Once we got inside the national park, we realised why we needed a 4WD vehicle. This was the kind of path we were about to go on. 

True to what I had read, there were very few jeeps in the area. 

Some parts of the path were extremely muddy, and we even saw a jeep that had got stuck in the mud and was being pulled out by another jeep. At one point, so much mud splashed up in the air, the poor souls sitting on the side seats (including me) got a nice dose of slushy mud on their clothes!

This video will give you an idea of what the journey was like.
(That's Tootooie, the screamer. And yes, that's me cracking the 'mudslinging' joke.)

Suddenly, our driver told us that he had spotted an elephant. Can you see it in the photo?

So we started driving towards it. 

Xena and Viv try to spot what she'd refer to as 'ELLY!'

And there it was -- the majestic creature!

Soon, a couple of jeeps had materialised, but we all kept a safe distance from the elephant. 

One more!

And two more! There were quite a few jeeps in this area, as you can tell from the snaking queue.

Some kind of exotic bird was circling in the sky, but with the elephants in sight, no one paid much attention to it. I say so because the driver did tell us what bird it was and I still have no idea. 

We couldn't decide if this was a baby elephant or a pregnant adult (see the bulge on its side?).

It was really nice to see the elephants out in the open like this. 

We had spent about two hours driving around in Kaudulla when our driver asked us if we were done and wanted to head back. There was a very enthusiastic 'Yes!' from my mom because she had been quite nervous about the muddy paths, the crazy way in which the jeep was going up and down the muddy ditches, and not to mention being face to face with giant, wild creatures. In fact, she wanted to go home as soon as we had seen literally two elephants! "Bas ho gaya, let's go." She said. I had to chide her, "Kyun? Mrs Sharma aa rahi hai chai par?" 

Anyway, we were also quite done with the elephants, and it was also quite hot out there. I, planner of all planners, carrier of anything that anyone might need, had very smartly forgotten the giant hats in our van. So we had to take turns sharing the two caps I'd dutifully handed the dads that morning. 

On the way back, we saw many, many, many monkeys on the road. 

The jeep had been moving very slowly inside the national park, but now that we were on a real road, our driver went a little bonkers. But we loved the speed and the breeze. 

We saw more elephants on the way back! 

Once we got  back to the bungalow, we gathered in the balcony and played card games. Uno is always a hit with our family, and the fights that happen during Uno are the best! Such entertainment, much hilarity. My mom is especially prone to forgetting to say Uno, and gets the most instances of 'UNO NAHIN BOLA!' from the rest of us. 

Out of nowhere, this bug decided to join in the fun. 

Was it a praying mantis? Praying or not, it was swaying for sure. 

Viv and Tootooie decided to investigate the cause of the bug's slow dancing by switching off the fan. They were still in the middle of their investigation, when my mom decided she'd had enough and flicked it off the balcony to collective protests. Hopefully, it made a fine landing. 

Coincidentally, we were also ready to make a fine landing on our respective beds; that's how tiring the day had been. The next day was to be even longer.

Click here for Sri Lanka trip - day 3!



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