Sri Lanka Secrets: A day in Anuradhapura, The Sacred City

Have you ever chosen not to see a “star attraction” in a place you’ve travelled to? 
In Anuradhapura, I made the “executive decision” to not see the cluster of paid for temple ruins. It was a decision I took based on my conversations with my host, fellow travellers, the lack of preservation I had read about as well as my lack of interest in the history of that particular area. Also, while it’s free for locals, tourists are charged around $25 for a combined ticket to see the cluster and I couldn’t justify that cost to my ever dwindling budget. Finally, I wasn’t keen on seeing temple after temple in the blistering heat. What I was interested in, was the town itself, its surrounding villages, the food and the people.  Later, I found myself making a similar decision later in Kandy when I chose not to visit the Tiger Tooth Temple.
I found Anuradhapura to be amongst the simplest places in Sri Lanka. Simple in terms of the easy going people and in the way they treat tourists. It is quite common in Sri Lanka to be charged a tourist price for every single thing. The government does it openly by charging tourists exorbitant sums for nearly every historical site/ national park in the country and by example, locals do the same thing. Compared to the rest of country Anuradhapura seems to take it slightly more easy on us backpack wanderers.

Anuradhapura, Old Town: Simple, beautiful and peaceful
Home time for la cows: en route views in Anuradhapura
I was staying in a lovely little homestay in a quiet part of the new town which was close enough to all the sites and the restaurants. I hired a bicycle from Mr Shelton, my host and decided to head towards the old town stopping wherever I felt like or when the heat got too much. Hunger pangs came by all too quickly and Jungle Cafe with its shaded outdoor seated area called out to me. Jungle cafe is run by Ranjit an amateur horticulturist who spent nearly a decade working in the Gulf area before returning back home. His love for plants and landscaping is evident in Jungle Cafe. ” You should see this cafe during the rains, it’s paradise”, he tells me proudly.
My trusty steed in Anuradhapura
Lunch hour at Jungle Cafe, Anuradhapura
Ranjit, the plant loving camera-shy owner of Jungle Cafe showing me around                  
After lunch , I wanted to stop at the Tissa Lake for a quick dip but my navigational skills failed me, I got lost and reached the Isurumuniya Temple instead. Known for its 6th-century sculpture of inter-caste lovers, this temple was my oasis on a hot sunny day. The temple itself is carved in and around rocks, there is a water tank where you can still make out carvings from centuries ago as well as elaborately painted ceilings, ancient artwork and also, a tonne of bats hiding in the corner. There’re a standard Rs. 200 entry fee for everyone and the all inclusive Anuradhapura temple ticket doesn’t include Isurumuniya. My prayers at the temple must have been answered because as I climbed up the rock towards the stupa, I saw from that height just behind the temple, Tissa Wewa, the lake I had been looking for all along.

Isurumuniya Temple, famous for its carving of the ancient lovers
Elaborate painted ceilings at Isurumuniya
Art everywhere at Isurumuniya: An elaborately carved door knocker
Tissa Wewa is ideal for a swim and really one-half of it should just be a bird sanctuary. The sunset over the lake as the water turns pink while little oblivious children continue to stay  immersed in their game of cricket is memorable. After a quick dip in the lake, while the sun was still shining, I came across a few free ruins, just near the main junction leading to the Isurumuniya temples (You’ll also find the aforementioned Jungle Cafe near this junction). The massive rocks combined with ancient trees, carvings, ruins and picnicking locals reminded me of Hampi in India. Here I spent some time trying to visualise the grandeur that would have once existed and have a chat with the locals. 

” What’s your age?” “Married?” “Do you like Sri Lanka?” “Where do you come from”, I was asked all questions I had grown completely accustomed to in Sri Lanka and now had no qualms answering.

Ideal for a refreshing dip: Tissa Wewa
Ancient rock carvings on the ruins I stumbled upon in Old Anuradhapura
My last stop of the day was Mahabodhi Temple and what an ideal way to end my day. By the time I got there it was 5 p.m and I didn’t come across any ticket counters, only dedicated worshipers. I am not a religious person but the fervour of spirituality and belief at Mahabodhi is contagious. The gentle hum of chants, the soft whispers of people as they read from their books and the buzz of collective faith of the people there made me feel light, present and at peace. I wandered among the monks dressed in white and orange, young men and women with complete faith in their eyes and I was in awe of the subtle spiritual power of Mahabodhi.
Forgetting time at Mahabodhi Temple
As it began to get dark, I started to head back before my sense of direction failed me again. Filled with images of lakes, temples, happy conversations and chants, my Anuradhapura day was my kind of special.


Sunset and Cricket in Anuradhapura


  1. Exactly Nathan! You've hit the nail on the head here. I'm not religious either but sometimes given the right timing and ambiance…the overwhelming sense of spirituality is something that comes from within. It's always unexpected in my case and that's what makes it even more special.


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