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This past week was all about temple hopping, as my temporary fellow globetrottergirl Becki and I left the tea country and traveled north to Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle. We had already spent a couple of days there as part of our pre- TBC Asia conference trip, climbing up the lone 660 feet (200 meters) tall rock of Sigiriya, on which the remnants of an ancient palace sit. This time, we would visit Polonnaruwa, the second royal capital of Sri Lanka, one thousand years old; and Anuradhapura, which was the first religious and cultural capital of the Sinhalese, which held this title for 1,300 years.
Founded in the 4th century BC, it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world. While most of the ancient stupas and structures are not inhabited anymore, they have been preserved over the centuries, and until today Anuradhapura remains an important sacred place for Buddhists. At present 5,000 monks are living in the monasteries around the city, and hundreds of Buddhists make a pilgrimage to Anuradhapura every day. With an area of over sixteen square miles ( 40 km²), it is one of the biggest archeological sites in the world.
The sheer size of the city makes it almost impossible to explore it in one day, but we were lucky enough to find a tuktuk driver who knew his way around the most majestic and remarkable sights. Jetavanaramaya, pictured, was one of the most impressive structures, and is not only one of the tallest stupas in Sri Lanka but in the entire world! In fact, the stupa is the 3rd largest structure in the ancient world – only the Great Pyramids of Giza are larger. 93.3 million baked bricks were used to build the 400 feet (120 meters) high stupa, making it the largest brick building that was ever built. The engineering behind this construction is a miracle to me, especially when you take into consideration that it was erected between 276 and 303 BC!
We spent all day marveling at bright white stupas, ancient bathing pools, a mystic temple built into a rock and the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi Tree, or the Tree Of Life, which is the centerpiece around which Anuradhapura was built. It felt like we had planned our time in the cultural triangle the right way – starting with the small Sigiriya, followed by the more impressive (at least to me) Polonnaruwa, and culminating in the awe-inspiring Anuradhapura. All three sites were declared UNESCO World Heritage, a well-deserved honor.