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Return to Sri Lanka

Cedric Angeles Dameeka, an 11-year-old monk at Pidurangla Temple, at Sigiriya.

Photo: Cedric Angeles

Sri Lanka, of course, was the location of some of the earliest Buddhist kingdoms, and its shrines are correspondingly important. Whether or not because of the elections, I found them all unpopulated that season, when it sometimes seemed to me that I had the island to myself. Besides an occasional pilgrim, I was alone at sites like Dambulla, where stone steps rise 500 feet through rock face to five great cave temples dating back to the first century B.C., each ornamented with fresco cycles that depict episodes in the Buddha's life in serial sitcom form. And except for a handful of tourists and touts halfheartedly hawking overpriced guidebooks, the fifth-century fortress of Sigiriya was briefly my property.

Up close, the table rock that had been visible as a low hump from the terrace of my room at the Kandalama revealed itself to be a vertiginous outcrop rising 560 feet above swaths of manicured field and grove. Built as his redoubt by a fifth-century king called Kasyapa, Sigiriya had been abandoned and known only to locals for centuries before British colonial explorers hacked it from the jungle in the 19th century.

At the lowest level lay a series of cool, shaded gardens surrounding symmetrical water channels designed according to a complex system of hydraulics and later copied by the Moghuls in northern India. Climbing higher by stages along zigzagging stairs that are entered between the colossal sculptured paws of a lion (Sigiriya is thought to be a corruption of Simha-giri, or "lion mountain"), the path I followed snaked up to a midpoint spot where it diverged into a spiral stairway. There, a catwalk, bolted to the cave wall, was slung below a rock shelf and protected by a corrugated roof; beneath it, the walls were painted with ancient frescoes so evocative they more than merited the climb.

No one knows the meaning of this small grouping of elegant creatures sometimes deemed Apsaras, or celestial beings. Were they, in fact, temple maidens captured as they processed to a shrine nearby, as some suggest?Were the topless lovelies toting trays of fruit or delicately clutching lotus flowers prostitutes?Were they bosomy avatars of ancient triple-X porn?Whatever their meaning, the frescoes show clearly the influence of Hindu art from ancient south India, whose queens were often sent to Sri Lanka in strategic marriages to local noble families. Robust and frankly sensual, they are a relief to the eye, a break from the sexless ethereality of so much Buddhist art.

Up on top of Sigiriya rock are the ruins of the palace, less compelling somehow than the views of the horizon across viridescent jungle composed of a thousand greens. There are greens dense and somber and also exuberant or else virile or menacing or shockingly fresh or in places so irradiated-looking that they could set a Geiger counter humming. There are greens that seem manifestly poisonous or else are as glittering and gemlike as the legendary stones mined from the inexhaustible veins beneath Sri Lanka's soil. There are parrot greens and greens the color of the pythons that abound on the island, which grow to the diameter of a man's thigh.

Since I am afflicted, as a writer friend once said of herself, with a poor sense of historical perspective, I failed, when looking out at the immemorial landscape, to conjure up the machinations and horrors, the bloody revolts, the slave armies required to bring this sublime city, now lying in ruins, into being. It was no easier for me to dwell on an ugly and more present reality. Not 30 miles from where I stood, the dirt roads and emerald fields of the contested northeast region were pocked with rebel hideouts and studded, too, with the mines that have proved so effective at robbing the unsuspecting of their limbs.

It is often said of Sri Lanka that it is the size of Ireland and almost as often that its history is even bloodier than that other island's. Yet with the highest literacy rate in the region, generally high health standards, vast natural resources, and fairly evolved government conservation policies, there was reason then to buy into the belief that Sri Lanka was poised to become the next great destination. And as we rode along the backcountry roads that week, passing villagers whose fingers were dyed red to prevent voting fraud, there was even cause to discount some of the doomsayers' prophecies about the eroding peace process.

Still, it was pointless on that visit to try ignoring the signs of tension: armed roadblocks were posted along the tree-shaded highway from Kandy to Colombo, and troops surrounded the heavily fortified Temple of the Tooth. I had stopped there briefly while in Kandy, padding barefoot around the gilded antechambers to the sanctum sanctorum, where the Buddha's molar may or may not be enshrined.

But the atmosphere was creepy and I got out fast, preferring to spend some deliriously happy hours traipsing around in the loamy air of the nearby Peradeniya Botanic Gardens, a beautiful place with its improbable Hollywood avenues of Royal Palms, its specimen trees planted by 19th-century European nobility touring the colonies, its immense mangroves filled with racketing fruit bats, and its overall sense of paradise in the Persian root sense of that word—a glorious enclosure, a microcosm of tumultuous, hectic, unstoppable life.

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