Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Anuradhapura: Memory and the Sacred City

A Carving of a elephant playing in the water

There is something magical to me about ancient places. It is a near human universal – this desire to step into the past, to stare at crumbling ruins and try to imagine life in them, to feel some kind of connection to a time we can barely imagine. Why we love this I don't know, but for me it is like walking through a world you can half create: imagine walls around empty foundations and pillars. Fill them with people. In some ways I enjoy the condition of wondering more than the condition of knowing, so my favorite site was the most ruined one. Half covered in grass and trees, sometimes walls emerging from the ground and sometimes only strange lumps of green hinting at the world beneath. Felt like a child again, imagining the kings and gods and ordinary people who filled these palaces and temples.

Jonathan and I navigated the sacred city of Anuradhpura on bikes, enjoying wet air cooled by rain, a world saturated in growth and green. We cycled aimlessly, pausing to admire vast stupas rising out of the fields, or herds of monkeys, goats, and water buffalo that wander through the ruins

These Langiers may have made my day with their acrobatics - we watched them tussle and turn backflips and swing on the wire in the background. 

A random, beautiful, Stupa. 

We visited a 3000 year old Bodhi tree, brought by the Buddha when he came to settle a dispute between Sri Lankan kings. It is the oldest tree in the world continuously cared for by humans. The air hummed with prayer as families in white sang and chanted, offering flowers or incense or plates of food.

The ancient Bodhi tree. 

The only experience comparable to the two great Stupas that I can think of is standing at the foot of the great pyramids – at the time they were built the only things in the world which rivaled them in size. At 70+ meters in size (only half their original height) and made up of 90 Million bricks the scale was astonishing. Barely believable, that such a thing could be made with human hands and sweat before mechanical aid. No words or pictures can describe the feeling of standing next to one – you feel minuscule.

Detail of a ladder going up the Stupa 

But, like everything in Sri Lanka, Anaradhapura has a political dimension as well. After the war the ex president Rajapaksa announced a plan to build yet another stupa in the middle of the sacred city – even taller than the ancient ones – to commemorate the bravery of the (Sinhalese) soldiers against the (Tamil) 'terrorists'. From what I could see of construction the project survived the regime change. It breaks my heart, but this beautiful place has become symbol of triumphant nationalism. Anaradhapura, is, in a way, a monument to nostalgia – to a time when the Sinhalese were the best architects and one of the wealthiest civilizations in the world. Yet, just like when Americans harken back to 'the good old days' (what good old days? The days of 'colored' water fountains? The days when women couldn't vote? The days of slavery?) nostalgia is dangerous. It is almost always built on a simplified, idealized past, and erases those who complicate the present. Not that progress is always positive, Anaradhapura demonstrates the need for a respectful but critical eye towards history, lest it become relegated to a prop for our stories about the present. 


  1. Great points on nostalgia.

    Why are there buckets hanging on the ladder?

  2. To be fair, Anuradhapura has been a place of triumphant nationalism for at least a century now. Its excavation during the the British period made it a symbol around which those seeking independence could rally, and do so at the expense of minorities living there. The eviction of Muslims from the old Anuradhapura town in the 1940s because they sold beef is just one example. This controversy has followed the minorities into the new Anuradhapura town, which was established as a compromise away from the ruins, but which has now seen attacks against the mosque there in the past several years. Rajapaksa makes an easy scape-goat for almost everything, but he only played off prejudices with deep roots. Anuradhapura as an archeological park has never been innocent.