Taking a mango flower, I leave.

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.

Frustrated by images featuring a well-upholstered police woman and yards of galvanised scaffolding …

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.

I came to digitally re-photograph this scene, taken on film in April 1995.

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.

45 thoughts on “Taking a mango flower, I leave.

  1. A bitter sweet farewell for you. You may not have gotten the photos you wanted to share, but the ones you created in your heart and mind will be yours forever.

    • You’re right, Michelle – with a little help from the hundreds of dud shots, even if I get Alzheimers, I should be able to remember the Perahera! The wonderful thing is I’ve got other memories from the trip too.

    • It is a gorgeous place, and I’m so glad I made my little pilgrimage, even if I set out with the wrong motivation! i’ve never seen the mangos done like that before and was most impressed, though I did get a bit on my nose, eating it like an ice-cream cone!

    • I wondered if I’d make it, at one point. Maybe I attacked the first few ‘flights’ too quickly but after a while i could feel my heart beating hard, and needing to stop to get my breath back. The dozens of photos I took during those stops are all unfocused, (I mean, really blurred!).

      After the half way point I guess I rested long enough, and took it a bit more slowly. Thank goodness I wasn’t a mess when I met the monk (that would have been embarrassing!). Going down was a bit of a challenge for the hips and knees, but I was so thrilled my ankle felt strong and only stiffened a little later in the day.

      Yes, it was a priceless trip, Lynne.

  2. Moving on has always been a bittersweet experience for me. I hope the adventures awaiting you next will also provide new joys and thrills.

  3. Wish we could save time in a bottle. Recapturing old memories is always poignant and bidding goodbye even more so. Didn’t know monkeys had bad hair days 🙂

    • I think it’s a pretty gorgeous place, Emma – very diverse geographically, and culturally, which makes it even more interesting.

      I’d never seen mangoes done this way before and was struck by them – not only did they look lovely, but it was so much easier to contemplate eating it like that, on the move – though I did get mango on my nose a bit but I’m sure that was as much from ineptitude as anything else!

  4. They are lovely photos, but it is a great reminder that sometimes we can miss the enjoyment of the thing itself if we focus all out attention on trying to take a photo of it. Even without a picture the memory of the experience will remain. I love all of your casual references to the monkeys; I wish I lived somewhere with monkeys outside in the trees!

    • I’m glad you’re getting into the monkeys too, Rowena. They didn’t used to be one of my favourite animals, but since Hanuman’s troupe began visiting me I’ve been watching them and have become quite interested in their behaviour.

      Out of Colombo they’re everywhere, of course, and it’s interesting to see how differently the behave in different environments. At Mihintale tourists feed them (or leave their offerings of lotus flowers, which they like to eat) which has made them less fearful of people.

      No naughty squirrels near you?

  5. I know exactly what you mean about getting so focused on getting the perfect shot that you start to lose the moment yourself. I’m glad you decided to enjoy the parade. Those images will always remain with you.

    • You know, I used to travel without a camera, for just that reason. But lately I’ve noticed I’m forgetting things, and I’m afraid I’ll forget so much I’ll be left with nothing to remember … I suppose that’s why I seem to have became obsessed with capturing these last, precious images of things like the Perahere that I’ll never see again. But with the help of my blog, and hundreds of dud shots I should be able to recreate all the movement and excitement and hopefully that might keep those synapses flowing 🙂

  6. you carried me with you through all the frustration, the remembering, the spectacle, then the pilgrimage to mihintale, climbing the steps before dawn, meeting the monk, the windblown monkey, then the fragrance of the fruit as you descended … a marvellous journey wanderlust gene, precious! i agree that blogging creates a record we can refer to again and again, i am having fun finding old photos and telling the stories, for myself … but also to share … one day even the offspring might be interested! thanks for taking me along!

    • Thank you Christine for your perceptive comments. It was quite a trip – unsettling on the one hand, and deeply nostalgic, and yet strangely removed in a way, as if time and knowledge stood between me and my first views of all these marvels. I’ve never felt like that before.

      I wonder if ‘the offspring’ will get into your photographic reminiscences? Offspring’s offspring maybe a more likely candidate! 🙂

  7. I’m glad you found your moments among the photos. Your combined images and narrative drew me along with you, up and down the steps, laughing at the monkey’s hair, tasting the mango flower, and made me happy for you. I’m so glad you got to re-visit your memories.

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