On March 20 we arrived at Hambantota’s spanking new cruise port. This was Amsterdam’s maiden visit & only the 2d by any HAL ship, Rotterdam having visited here a couple of weeks earlier. We were told that the local tourist board had a special meeting the day before our arrival to prepare. We were met on the dock by dancers & musicians, as we had in a number of ports. As our bus left the port we passed a large crowd of taxi drivers waiting to recruit passengers leaving on their own. We were glad we were already engaged.
Hambantota is a small town (about 12,000) that is likely to get a lot bigger soon. Originally settled by Malay fishermen, Hambantota has the largest percentage of Muslims of any town in Sri Lanka. Its name is a corruption of “Sampan-thota,” which means port for sampan boats. It was all but destroyed by the 2004 tsunami, which killed a large portion of the townspeople in just a few minutes. It has been rebuilt near the original spot and the Sri Lanka government (headed by a Hambantotan) now plans to make it the second largest city in Sri Lanka. They have already mostly finished a new port that is one of the deepest in the world, which is where we docked, and are building an international airport as well.
We really didn’t get to see much of Hambantota (which we understand has little to see) because we were on an excursion to Mulkirigala, a fascinating series of ancient temples built into caves in a mountain. On the long bus ride to the site, we were able to see some pretty countryside & some village scenes as well.
Most people seemed to be dressed in western garb but there were many men wearing sarongs & women in sari’s.
Mulkirigala is a huge rock outcrop more than 600 feet high. There are seven Buddhist temples built into caves on four levels. There are 533 very steep steps to reach the top (getting steeper & more difficult the higher you go). The temples date back to 300 BC & were completely restored in the 18th century. (Note that the caves were pretty dark & no flash was allowed, so a lot of these pictures are blurrier than we would have liked)
On the first terrace were two temples, each of which had a 45 foot long reclining Buddha (unfortunately difficult to photograph because behind glass). There were also many colorful paintings on the walls & ceilings showing Buddhist & Hindu gods & stories. As usual, you were required to remove your shoes before entering each of the temples. Also on this level we encountered a number of monkeys, with what looked like Beatles haircuts & dark ears that looked like they had been pasted onto their fur.
We walked up the stairs to the second terrace, where there is a stupa as well as a temple. Inside was a reclining Buddha, thankfully not behind glass this time, with some attendants. Reclining Buddhas, as we understand it, represent Buddha on his deathbed. If his feet are together he is still alive, if apart he is dead. More interesting paintings were on the walls.
The third level has four temples, although it is not clear at this point which of our pictures applies to which temple. Anyway, two of them have reclining Buddhas (one of them is the only dead Buddha on the site). One of them has a separate vestibule, paved with Dutch floor tiles and its walls covered with dramatic sculptures.
The climb to the fourth level was really unreasonable, with steps cut out of almost a cliff wall. But we made it up there (and down, which may have been harder, since you had to do it ladder-style). No temples up here on the very top of the mountain, but there was a stupa & a small building called a dagoba, where another monk was selling blessings. Behind the top you could scramble down (no steps) a hillside to stand on the top of the rock & look out over the countryside for quite a ways, so Rick did that.
So then we climbed down, which sounds pretty simple but actually wasn’t. You might wonder what we could have been thinking going up those last flights of steps, but everyone got down OK.
Perhaps this is a good place to show a sample of the flowers on display at this site.
At the bottom are a number of shrines, one of which was attended by a couple of elderly men in sarongs. We got back in our bus, but had to wait 20 or 30 minutes for the last passenger to show up. We were beginning to wonder whether, if someone fell off the top, anyone would notice them.
Our final passenger finally showed up (we never heard what delayed her) & we drove back to the ship. We passed more town & country scenes. Sri Lanka has, since ancient times, been building earth & stone pools for water retention that they call “tanks,” which have served very extensive irrigation systems. Usually they build a small dam around a depression in the earth. We saw a few of these on our trip back. There was also a pond where egrets, ducks & other birds had gathered.
As in Cambodia, we thought the written language of Sri Lanka was quite beautiful. Here are a few examples with English translations. Note that there are two official languages in Sri Lanka, Sinhalese & Tamil.
So our visit to Hambantota came to an end, but we would see more of Sri Lanka the next day.