Monday, January 5, 2009

Same old stories

We're back in Kandy to apply for a 4-month visa to India. This is a bit tricky because the standard issue is only 3 months. One of the consul officials, after a personal interview with us in best bib and tucker, and some dishonest explanations about meeting John's sister in April in Kolkata (we said it was her first time in India and she's young - whereas she's older than John and it'll be her her 3rd or 4th time), agrees to grant us a 4-month single-entry visa. This is no good to us, because we want to visit Nepal before we meet Ruth. So we go for a 2-month visa knowing that we'll have to reapply in Nepal. Ahh, visas, we just love 'em.

Whilst we wait for the Indian bureaucracy to crank some gears and pull a few levers, we head northwards into Sri Lanka's 'Cultural Triangle'. This region is home to some UNESCO-listed sites - ancient cities and monasteries recovered from the forests. They are expensive to visit, but as one wag put it to us, "they won't be any cheaper tomorrow". This turns out to be entirely true as the rates go up on the 1st of January. We begin in Anuradhapura, where the ruins are spread out over a large site. We hire bikes to get around the various huge dagobas (stupas),
and water tanks and brick foundations of the old kingdom that lasted over 1000 years until the 11th century. Buddhism came to Sri Lanka during its growth. Pride of place, and heavily guarded, is the sacred bodhi tree - grown from a cutting of the original tree in India under which the Buddha reached enlightenment (Om!) - and outliving the original. This is understandably a place of holy pilgrimage for Buddhists. So it seems odd that the army are running a transit camp right next to it, to transport soldiers to the northeast. Then again, the Buddhist monks have played a leading role in Sinhalese nationalism, so perhaps it is very appropiate. Attacks from South Indians led to the collapse of this ancient kingdom and a new one setting up at Pollonaruwa where we also hire bikes to visit the ruins. The highlight here are three large Buddha statues carved out of the same rock in various poses - the standard ones of sitting, standing and lying down looking very happy with himself. Other buildings poke up above the treeline, most of them in a sorry state, but cycling around you get the sense of a great and wealthy city. It reminds us of other great jungle ruins we have seen in Mexico, Peru and Cambodia - although it's fair to say there's not much left here. This kingdom also succumbed to South Indian invaders. I get the feeling that these sites might represent a little more to the nationalists than just their cultural heritage.

Our final stop is at Sigiriya, a wonderful monastery complex built around and into a large rock standing huge and square, high above the surrounding landscape. It's the most visited site, and involves a steep ascent of stairs, with a passing view of some surviving frescoes, before emerging onto the flat top with great views all around. We watch the sun set and then descend old iron staircases in the twilight, trying to avoid getting lost in the gardens below. We eat rice and curry in a basic little cafe and catch the news on the television. There's an extended report by a journalist flown into Kilinochchi - the LTTE (Tamil Tigers') administrative centre just taken by the army. There's footage of a senior officer arriving to shake hands with lots of soldiers and salute the flag being raised over what looks like a deserted town. Stirring music is played to archive shots of soldiers firing mortar rounds and shooting into trees, of helicopter gunships firing rockets, of battle-weary bearded troops swaggering down roads armed to the teeth. This is followed by interviews with a couple of soldiers describing the fighting. We obviously don't understand a word of it, but there seems to be no description of the effects of the fighting on the populace - where are they? We do know that there is no independent reporting of the fighting - the government has enforced tight censorship, and there is a history of journalists 'disappearing'. A few locals have appeared to watch the news - this looks like a major development. We read later that a general is quoted as saying that there can be no military solution to this dispute, that a political solution is required. It looks like a brutal way to go about it and there are fears that the LTTE will revert to suicide bombings and other guerilla tactics. All gloomy stuff for the New Year.........

We head back to Kandy one more time to collect our Indian visas - without a hitch. The town is decked out in flags and we're told we've missed a parade to the Temple of the Holy Tooth Relic to celebrate the latest army victory. We ask a man about it and he shrugs "The government asked that every building flies the flag today. The police and government workers came along at 8.30 with flags." He sounds like he's not that impressed. "The war will not end it. We need them involved in our government, like the Tigers in the East. Everyone here is tired of fighting and killing." He does sound tired of it.

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