The Kingdom of the Sleeping Buddha
Polonnaruwa, the majestic capital of the island’s last independent unitary Kingdom is a swansong written in stone that for 142 years would act as a final rallying cry for the island-kingdom before it descended into a series of wandering capitals, fragmentary realms – and colonization. Its monumental structures, carved and crafted with an almost unrivalled delicacy is the last great achievement of the old Anuradhapuran Kingdom.
If the romance of ruined cities and lost kingdoms call loudly in your heart, this is no place to miss. Polonnaruwa is roughly 3 hours drive from The Flame Tree Estate & Hotel; and trips can be arranged at the Reception Office of The Flame Tree Estate & Hotel.
City of Kings
Polonnaruwa is an astonishing creation given how short its life span was – barely a quarter of the life span of Anuradhapura. Amidst its palaces, audience galls, temples, stupas, pools, and monasteries one artifact in particular stands out: the Gal Vihara.
The Gal Vihara is in fact four vast, quite separate but linked images of the Buddha that have been carved on a single, large granite rock face. The largest of them – at over forty-six feet long – depicts the death of Buddha. He lies on his side, one hand stretched right out across his side and hip; the other crooked beneath his face, resting on a soft bolster. The statue is astonishingly simple and realistic, the unremembered sculptor taking into account the very grain of the granite to give his statue a lifelike buoyancy that places it effortlessly as one of the greatest sculptures anywhere in the world.
Dead, dying or merely sleeping, the serene and heart-stilling face of Buddha is in some ways a most fitting symbol through which to account for the Kingdom of Polonnaruwa, for it is as if the Kingdom itself slept through most of its 142 years of life.
A rough rule of regal thumb has it that a dynasty or Kingdom can live through at least four successive bad reigns as long as it is refreshed by a fifth great or even merely competent reign.
This alas was not the fate of Polonnaruwa. Its sixteen rulers enjoyed reigns that averaged at best eight years a head and numbered amongst their list just two really great monarchs – not enough to ensure the lasting impact of the dynasty. And it would have gotten nowhere had not its first founding monarch not been one of its two great kings.
A Sure Start
Bringing to an end seventy-seven years of Chola-inflicted devastation, King Vijayabahu was to go down to future generations as “Mahalu Vijayabahu” (Vijayabahu the Old) and “Maha Vijayabahu” (Vijayabahu the Great). Both, fortunately for the island, were absolutely true.
Over a fifty-five year reign the king was able not simply to push the Chola empire back across the Palk Straits into Tamil Nadu; but also, to substantially repair some of the great damage their rule had caused. It gave his nascent dynasty a sure start.
That he chose to make Polonnaruwa his capital was expedient; situated as it is a hundred kilometres to the south east of Anuradhapura, and so less susceptible to invasion. Critically, its irrigation systems were intact, and it was better able to support both the growing city and its surrounding network of paddy and agricultural land. Even so, validating his links to the Anuradhapuran kings, Vijayabahu had himself crowned amidst the ruins of the old city.
No sooner had he captured Polonnaruwa from the garrisons abandoned there by the Chola emperors (preoccupied with putting down rebellions elsewhere in their empire), then he had his hands full stifling his own internal rebellions.
But if ever there was a king who could multi-task it was Vijayabahu. As the last barnacles of Chola rule were scraped away, rebels were silenced and the kingdom’s defences against external threats strengthened – measures which included taking two anti-Chola Indian princesses as brides. Roads were constructed, tanks, temples, slices, and canals repaired, royal administration reinstated - and Buddhism resorted.
Indeed so great an injury had the religion sustained that at the start of his reign it was impossible to find the right number of ordained monks necessary to ordain future monks. Burmese monks were enlisted to help. A new temple was built in Polonnaruwa to house the sacred Tooth relic itself. Bit by painful bit the Kingdom wound itself back to something approaching normality. The coinage was restored, and the economy opened up to benefit from the gradual freeing of the once-invincible Chola monopoly that had commercially emasculated the Bay of Bengal.
Gardens & A Cup of Tea
The Hantana Tea Estate is also home to the island's only Tea Museum. The old factory stand amidst acres of tea bushes and give you the opportunity to get up close and personal with the drink that made the island famous.
The tour returns you back to the hotel via Peradeniya Royal Botanical Gardens laid out by Alexander Moon in 1821, just a few years after the British captured the Kandyan Kingdom, their 147 acres covering a site that dates back to 1371 when King Wickramabahu III built a palace at Peradeniya overlooking the Mahaweli river. It is today one of the finest gardens in Asia.
Approx Distance: Round trip = 45 miles
Car costs (1-3 people) $90.
Van costs (1-6 people) $120.
Additional Costs: Royal Botanical Gardens Peradeniya Ticket.
The Cappuccino Years
Famous though the island it for its remarkable teas, it was first famous for its coffee. In 1845 there were just thirty seven thousand acres of the crop but by 1878, coffee estates covered two hundred and seventy five thousand acres.
Tamil labourers arrived (seventy thousand per year at one time) to help the industry grow and in 1867 a railway was built from Kandy to Colombo just to carry coffee. It was, said the papers, a “coffee rush,” but one that benefited many – for a third of the estates were owned by native Sri Lankans. Investors flooded in and by 1860, Sri Lanka was one of the three largest coffee-producing countries in the world.
Governors came and went causing barely a ripple. The colony even managed to weather the inept Terence O’Brien (1863 – 1865). O’Brien, a Colonial Office colleague observed: “has no administrative ability such as is necessary for a . . . Crown Colony.” Equating resistance and criticism with treason, feedback was not something he cherished. Not for him the 360-degree appraisal, the Myers–Briggs or the Adaptive Resilience Factor Inventory. Angry, argumentative, obstinate, and stupid, he was promoted to run Newfoundland, where he precipitated the colony’s infamous 1894 bank crash.
But in 1869, just as it seemed as if the coffee boom would go on and on, the crop was hit by a killer disease - Hemileia vastatrix, "coffee rust” or “Devastating Emily” as it was known by the planters. It took time to spread – but within thirty years there was barely eleven thousand acres of the plant left on the island. The industry was wiped out.
That the country did not follow suit is probably thanks not to the British government – but to a Scot named James Taylor and his experiments with tea.
The First Cuppa
Tea first arrived in Sri Lanka in 1824 when a few plants from China were planted in Peradeniya’s Royal Botanical Gardens. In 1839 more plants arrived - from Assam and Calcutta. In between those two dates Taylor was born, in 1835 in Scotland.
He emigrated to the island in 1852 to plant coffee and spotted early the effects of coffee rust. On his Loolecondera Estate in Kandy - near Hantana - he immediately started to experiment with tea until, from plant to tea cup, he had mastered all the necessary techniques and processes necessary to succeed with this new crop.
In 1875 Taylor managed to send the first shipment of Ceylon tea to the London Tea Auction. Despairing coffee-planters, sat at Taylor’s feet to learn tea production.
Within about twenty years the export of tea increased from around eighty tons to almost twenty three thousand tons in 1890. Tea had caught on. The few estates that made up the eleven hundred acres of planted tea back in 1875 had, by 1890, grown to two hundred and twenty thousand acres.
Years Of Tea & Plenty
Today, the country makes, quite rightly in most eyes, the claim to be the home of the cuppa, worldwide, despite only being its fourth largest black tea producer. Sri Lanka’s climate is perfect for the plant and its modern history is moulded by it.
Tea accounts for almost 2% of total GDP and employs directly or indirectly, over one million people. Its bushes cover over seven hundred square miles and its sales, to places like Russia, the Middle East, Turkey, Iran, the UK, Egypt, and Japan amount to almost three hundred million kilos.
Not for nothing is seven is the number of completeness and perfection, for the island has seven distinct tea regions.
At 6000 ft +, the highest teas are those from Nuwara Eilya - rugged, bracing, cold enough for frost, and home to the country’s finest tea: subtle, golden-hued with a delicate, fragrant bouquet.
At 4-6,000 ft is Uva, caressed by both the NE & SW monsoons; and a drying Cachan ocean wind that closes the leaves, forcing a high balance of flavour. It is aromatic, mellow, and smooth.
Overlapping is Uda Pussellawa, at 5-6,000 ft, a thinly populated region, famed for rare plants & leopards, and bombed by the NE Monsoon to give a strong dark tangy tea with a hint of rose.
Dimbulla, at 3,500-5000 ft, is a region drenched by the SW monsoon. Crisp days, wet nights, and a complex terrain create a clean, coppery red tea, most famous as English Breakfast Tea.
Kandy, where the tea industry began on plantations at 2-4,000 ft, in 1867, produces bright, light, and coppery teas with good strength, flavour, and body.
One of two low land regions at 0-2,500 ft, Sabaragamuwa, home to sapphires and humid rainforest, is hit by the SW monsoon to give a robustly flavoured dark yellow-brown tea, with caramel hints.
Low lying Ruhuna which runs from the coast to the Sinharaja Rain Forest, is shielded from monsoons and has a soil that promotes rapid long, beautiful leaves that turn intensely black and make strong, full-flavoured dark teas.
Peradeniya Royal Botanical Gardens
Hug a tree at Peradeniya’s Botanical Gardens. There are thousands to choose from, though most of them are way too large to hug without help.
Glorious, sometimes drunken avenues of Cook's Pines, Palmyra Palms, Double Coconuts, Cabbage Palms, and Royal Palms lead off into shady dells dating back to the garden’s foundations in 1821.
It is one of the finest botanical gardens in Asia; the modern garden set up by Alexander Moon. Moon’s catalogue published soon afterwards listed one thousand one hundred and twenty seven “Ceylon plants”.
Today the gardens range over one hundred and fifty acres and are especially gorgeous for their many ancient trees.
There is even an arboretum of trees planted by famous people including a huge Ironwood (Tsar Nicolas II); a rather stunted Camphor Tree (Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike); a Yellow Trumpet Tree (King Akihito of Japan) and a Sorrowless Tree (Queen Elizabeth II).