Thursday, December 30, 2010

Sri Lanka Holiday 3

Tea Factories & Holy Sites
26th December.

With many of our dinner companions having drifted off to explore other parts of Sri Lanka Joy and I decided that we should learn a little about the history of the tea industry in the island so we booked a car and driver and headed off to a local tea factory to see how the various teas are created from the tea leaves and to sample one of the local brews.

The Embilmeegama tea factory was an unpretentious building on the outskirts of Kandy with a narrow store frontage displaying teas to tables of imbibers all of whom had been ushered through the two floors of workers, machinery and boxes that was the factory. Here we learnt that there are eight different classes of tea decided on by a combination of type of bush, type of leaf and fineness of the crushed, dried leaf - from the fine dust that ends up in the tea bag through to the coarse leaf of Joy’s favourite - Green tea.

Our curiousity pricked we decided to visit the Kandy Tea museum at Hantane high on the Uduwela hill above the city. Here, in an old tea factory the Sri Lankan Tea Board and Planters’ Association have set up a “monument to the pioneers of Ceylon’s tea industry.” The buildings contain examples of the machinery that was used to create the many blends of tea that Victorian England demanded and from which the fortunes of Lipton and others like him had come.

The museum has not yet become an established place on the local tourist map despite it being operating since 2001 so it had that dim shadowy feel to it as the huge floors echoed to our solitary footsteps. We were shown 100 year old machines like the “Little Giant” hand operated tea roller, the first tea drier using a venetian heating system, a 56 year old packet of Ceylon tea, and copies of old reference books used by the plantation owners in their quest for the “perfect” blend of tea.

The history display on the second floor did give us some of the information our visit to the tea factory hadn’t such as that the industry had grown from the collapse, from a “coffee blight”, of an earlier coffee industry in 1869 and owed much to the activity of a James Taylor who had planted tea in the country in 1867 and the entrepuenerial skills of Thomas Lipton whose marketing moved tea from the realm of the affluent to that of the working class in Britain.

After scanning the hills of the Knuckle range, the site of yet more tea plantations, through the mist we headed back into town to plan our activities for the next day.

27th December: Day trip to Sigiriya and Dambulla.

After some searching we discovered a travel agency that offered day trips from Kandy as well as more extensive trips across central Sri Lanka. We took the advice of our fellow travellers from the hostel and opted to visit Dambulla and Sigiriya which are archeologically sacred sites for Buddhism.

We were told that the trip to Dambulla would take about two hours and that to Sigiriya about 30 minutes with the return journey taking maybe three hours as driving in Sri Lanka is not to be conducted at speed as, apart from the numerous stalls, villages and townships to be navigated through there are the additional road hazards of pedestrians ambling along, lines of tuk-tuks laden with passengers and merchandise, cars, vans and trucks laden with logs or gravel and the battered buses with their diesel spewing exhausts either stopping at random to pick up passengers or deciding to race each other to the next township along the few straight lengths of road, so a distance that on the map would indicate a 30 minute drive takes at least three times as long.

Our driver arrived at 8.15 and we headed off, in the company of Nicole, our Dutch photographer acquaintance, to Dambulla. The trip took us through villages that straggled along the river bank and huddled over the roadway and through paddy fields cut from the jungle to the shrines of Dambulla.

Dambulla, which houses the oldest and largest religious painting in South Asia, sits on the top of a hill, some 600 feet above the roadway, and consists of a series of caves filled with representations of Buddha in the different sacred positions carved from the sandstone of the caves. The site has had some sort of monastic and sacred activity going on since about the 3rd century AD and had been patronised by Sri Lankan rulers till the 18th century. The construction of the images of Buddha were credited to a 12th Century ruler, King Nissanka Malla of Polonnaruwa while the 25,000 square feet of religious paintings that cover the walls and ceiling of the cave are the work of generations of artists.

Joy took one look at the climb and joined Nicole to wander around the visitors’ centre taking photographs while leaving the expedition to me. The steps to the summit were flanked by preening monkeys and hucksters selling moonstones and plastic baubles to the pilgrims clambering up the stairs. Once at the top admission is granted only on production of the ticket and receipt purchased at the bottom of the hill and I, as I had given Joy her ticket and the receipt to attempt to get a refund on her unused ticket, had only the ticket was told to descend the stairs, find Joy, collect the original receipt, climb back up, present both ticket and receipt and then I could be admitted. Fortunately this diplomatic impasse was averted when an American couple offered me their father’s ticket and receipt as he, like Joy, had baulked at the long climb.

Inside the complex the lines of over a 120 statues of Buddha and his supporters along with occasional representations of Vishnu, a Hindu god, fill the caves showing devotees the life of Buddha and the spiritual journey towards nirvana. The journey being indicated by the positions of the Buddha’s hands and the spacing of the toes on the reclining body. ... with the toes together Buddha is asleep but with the gap between the toes being open Buddha is reaching nirvana.
Back at the car-park the reception committee interrogated me about the time I took to reach the top, check out the site and head back down again as they had seen others, after me, go up and come down again at a far more rapid pace that me so, therefore, I was dawdling!!!???

We left the car-park with its bus loads of orange clad monks and headed to Sigiriya. Our driver dropped Nicole off at the local bus station for her to continue her journeying while Joy and I lunched at small Hotel restaurant to gather our energies for Sigiriya.

The 1500 year old citadel of Sigiriya was yet another 600 foot climb. This time not as “gentle” as the gradient to Dambulla as the site is at the top of a vertically sided rock in the middle of the rainforest. Joy, once again, took the option of waiting at ground level in the full expectation that I’d only be gone an hour or ninety minutes at the most. So vertigo severely kept in hand I headed off from the car-park, through the remains of the gardens that had surrounded the citadel city and 20 minutes later began the climb up the stairs and steps that led to the summit.

The citadel, which has been likened to a French Chateau dropped on top of Ayers Rock, had been built as a defensive position by King Kassapa who had deposed his father and then had to resist his brother’s, Moggallana, attempts to regain the throne between 447 and 495 AD and, after the decline of his kingdom, had become a refuge for forest dwelling monks until it had been rediscovered by a couple of English explorers who had climbed the rock in 1853.

The rock is famous for its frescoed wall half way up the climb to the top. Here, along the walkway, artists had painted pairs of women engaged in various activities from admiring flowers to applying make up. The women, presumed to be royalty with their maids, are depicted, bare breasted, in seductive poses waiting to worship at the feet of Buddha or the King Kassapa. The walkway above the frescoes runs along the cliff face with the climbers sheltered from the drop by a wall that, in the past had been polished to present a mirror, along this earlier passers by had recorded, in sanskrit, their impressions of the images below.

Once past the mirror wall one climbs along the cliff face to the plateau of the Lion’s Paws before venturing up along a spindly series of steps and open walk ways to the summit. At this point, after ninety minutes of climbing and admiring the drawings and remaining buildings, I heeded the advice of the guide book which said “vertigo suffers are advised not to look down on this climb” and decided that the summit could do without my admiring presence and began the climb down.

Fifty minutes later, back in the car park I was met by Joy and the driver with a barrage of “what took you so long” questions and we headed back, through the melee of buses, tuk-tuks, wandering dogs and cows, pedestrians and beckoning stall holders, to Kandy.

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