A tumultuous few days away – to see what will likely be my last Kandy Perahera, and to revisit Mihintale – has yielded little of what I’d planned, but instead the sort of memories that leave me once again besotted by my adoptive home.
Yes, Sri Lanka is an exotically beautiful island. Yes, I find the people and their cultures fascinating. I am always amazed and admiring of its archeological heritage, it’s spectacles, its forests and idyllic beaches; and it’s headlong and often disconcerting development and rate of change. But what I love most about being here is that something always forces me to stop – to be in the moment. I find it refreshing: cleansing and invigorating.
From close on a thousand shots of this year’s Äsala Perahera, I have maybe two decent new photographs to add to my collection. By the time the MaIigawa Tusker floated into view (as clouds are supposed to do) that first night, I was so upset – frustrated and disappointed by images featuring a well-upholstered police woman and yards of galvanized scaffolding – that I had walked away from my coveted spot at a window overlooking a rare, well-lit portion of the parade route. Scurrying from one window to another, searching in vain for the ideal place from which to shoot pictures, I suddenly remembered why I had come. To see: to watch and experience the Perahera.
Two pictures, but my eyes, and ears – all my senses – are still full of the thrilling cacophony and barely controlled chaos of a fiery spectacle which tradition believes will call forth the rain. Spare a thought for the people affected by drought*, they came in their thousands, tens of thousands, to marvel and be entertained, and to be spiritually uplifted by their participation in a ritual of such unbroken antiquity that it seems to have always been.
My primary reason for a two-day side trip to Mihintale was not one of reverence, although it should have been. I wanted to re-photograph what I consider to be one of the most picturesque places on the island, so I can enter it in the Pix the World competition! It is many years since I was last in Mihintale, and a quick visit (and to nearby Anuradhapura), would be an appropriate beginning for a series of ‘farewell’ trips I plan to take before I go back home to Australia.
My visit started auspiciously when I realised it was the morning of Poya – the full moon. Up since before dawn, I began to climb the shallow granite steps under the frangipani trees that form a long and fragrant archway up the rocky outcrop of Mihintale – one of the most venerated sites on the island. Sometime during the second set of stairs, I began to understand that pilgrimages, like faith, require stamina and determination.
It was a sublime morning – the sun still hidden behind the hill, not a soul about except a couple of hopeful dogs, and the birds beginning to waken in the trees beside the path. A whisper of breeze caressed my face.
Up through the old precinct gate – the halfway point – I was greeted by the sun peeping around the side of the hill, drizzling palest pink upon the eastern face of the dagoba, high above.
Upward I climbed, hands more steady now, occasionally glimpsing the dagoba through the trees, until I crested the final rocky rise to the natural amphitheater where it is believed the teachings of the Buddha were first made known to the people there.
What was my surprise when, after removing my shoes and donning a shawl to cover my shoulders, I should be greeted by the monk. He had been a young novice, he said, when I first came, twenty years ago. As we spoke I became aware of change in this serene place – we had all changed. Was a photograph even possible, now? Did I care?
Of course I clambered up to the Buddha statue to take a couple of shots of the little stone ringed cetiya below, and of the summit rocks – the destination for almost all pilgrims, the monk told me.
Up on the dagoba hill, the wind was so strong I had difficulty focusing the camera, and a cheeky monkey feasting on lotus flower offerings was having a bad hair day.
By the time I was ready to leave, the sun was high and pilgrims were arriving in family groups, or by the busload, to spend the evening with the monks on Mahinda’s hill. During the week of Poson,** two million people will come for an hour, or a couple of days, to listen to the monks speak, and reflect on the teachings that have remained at the core of most people’s lives here for over two millennia.
I washed, put on my shoes, and bought a mango flower from one of the vendors who had set up makeshift stalls under the frangipani trees.
Only then, feeling replenished and light, did I began to descend the 1,840 shallow granite steps down the mountain to the plain below.
* No rain yet, unfortunately. The Water Supply and Drainage Board today declared it ‘is compelled to curtail water supplies due to the prevailing drought’ – an announcement that would have been impossible to make before the final Perahera yesterday afternoon.
The full moon at Poson (June) is celebrated as the anniversary of the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka, here at Mihintale.