We explored the Cultural Triangle, the center of Sri Lanka history, where we saw Buddhist statues and wall paintings in Dambulla Cave…

…the millennial-old ruins of Polonnaruwa…

…the inner chamber of the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy…

…and the Elephant Wall in Anuradhapura.

But it was not just cultural immersion. In between, we took breaks to cool off in the waterfalls of Sri Lanka with the locals.

Our Story

My wife Khadija and I, with our friends Peter and Caitlin, were in Sri Lanka for a week, mainly in tea country. By this time, we were over the jet lag and acclimated to the winding mountain roads.

This post covers our travels in the Cultural Triangle, the area between the cities of Kandy, Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura which have ancient ruins and restored temples. It was the home of Sinhalese royalty starting almost 2,500 years ago. Our route was from Gal Oya National Park to Kandy (2 nights) to Sigiriya (2 nights) to Anuradhapura (1 night).

We travelled this segment by van with Suresh (, who drove carefully from morning to night.

Gal Oya National Park to Kandy

This was a six-hour drive, mostly through mountains. On the way, we saw this interesting clock tower with lions and elephants.

On some stretches, Macaques monkeys were a constant sight.


Kandy is the second largest city in Sri Lanka. The city was established in the late 15th-century and soon became an independent kingdom. It stayed independent during the partial occupations of Sri Lanka by the Portuguese (1597–1658) and the Dutch (1659 to when they ceded their territory to England in 1802). It was not conquered because the mountain terrain and thick forest were very difficult for outsiders to penetrate. After many attempts over several years, the British finally occupied it in 1815.

The city is on a plateau between multiple mountain ranges.

We stayed in the Sevana City Hotel ( in the city center. The owners told us harrowing stories about operating during the Sri Lanka Civil War and how badly it affected business.

Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic

This temple is the most famous site in Kandy and claims to hold a tooth of Buddha.

According to Sri Lankan legends, when the Buddha died in 543 BC, his body was cremated in what is now India. His left canine tooth was retrieved from the funeral pyre by a disciple, who gave it to a Sri Lankan king. The subsequent Sri Lankan kings claimed the tooth gave them the divine right to rule the island. It is fair to say that if the tooth was stolen or destroyed, the ruling government would collapse.

In my travels through Buddhist nations, I discovered many sects of Buddhism had similar practices with Christianity. For instance, both religions claim to have relics from important figures. The life of Buddha, as with Jesus, is widely depicted in pictures and statues. There are also stories of miraculous feats like Jesus raising the dead and Buddha teleporting to Sri Lanka. Before learning this, I thought all sects of Buddhism were practiced in a more austere and less literal fashion.

On certain religious dates, thousands of pilgrims come to the temple, as was the case when we were there.

The complex is large and with many finely decorated rooms and halls.

Royal Botanical Gardens

The Royal Botanical Gardens are not in Kandy, but close by in Peradeniya. In the beginning, the gardens were only for royal families to enjoy, but now are open to the public. The gardens are the largest in Sri Lanka and are known for a wide variety of species. I particularly liked the building with the extensive collection of orchids…

…and the twisting, fish-tail looking pine trees which were occupied by hundreds of bats.

The Gardens were established in 1821 and are situated in a bend of a large river. The gardens are very well organized with detailed labeling of species. World-famous people such as Yuri Gagarin (first man in space), English King George V and Russian Tsar Nicholas II have planted trees here.

Waterfall Country

Sri Lanka is home to hundreds of waterfalls, which is remarkable because it is a small country (40,000 square kilometers / 25,000 square miles, similar to the Netherlands and West Virginia). Many are difficult to get to, but there are a number around Kandy which can be accessed by an SUV or a tuk-tuk.

Once I found out we could go to many falls, I was excited as I love photographing them. We used Roshan of Kandy Waterfall Hunters ( who picked us up in two tuk-tuks from our hotel and efficiently took us to four different waterfalls in one day. Here he was in front of a house he is building to rent to tourists.

The first waterfall we saw was the Huluganga Falls in the town of the same name, about 30 kilometers (18 miles) from Kandy. It is 75 meters (250 feet) high. There are platforms to mount a tripod for photos.

The stream that feeds Huluganga Ella Falls originates in the Knuckles Mountains, which can be seen in the distance.

Saree Falls was so named, perhaps with a lot of imagination, because it resembles a woman’s saree.

The waterfalls on the Lebanon Estate are not as well-known as the others in the area and have no official names. Instead they go by numbers. They are fed from a stream that runs through the estate and for many years were only known by the people who lived and worked in the area. Lebanon Falls #1 involves a walk over large rocks on a river to arrive to the top of the falls.

Bouncing over the large rocks is fun for some, while it is difficult for others.

My favorite for the day was Lebanon Falls #2, which had natural beauty.

It is also a popular swimming hole for local boys…

…and two sisters.

The day was enhanced by traveling through terraced fields, tea plantations, and tiny villages where we saw local merchants…

…and a blade sharper.

The most fun was seeing the children of a local school exercise to a classic Bollywood song

The supervisor might have been too much of a taskmaster with her stick.

Dambulla Royal Cave Temple

This is an important holy place in Buddhism and a must see for international pilgrims when they come to Sri Lanka. The Royal Cave Temple is comprised of five caves…

…and around 150 images of Buddha, including statues…

…and wall paintings.

The first images are thought to be over 2000 years ago. Over the centuries, government leaders, rich individuals and religious figures have continued to add to the collection.

Sigiriya Rock

Sigiriya (Lion Rock) is a massive rock almost 200 meters (660 feet) high. Over 1,500-years ago, a palace was built on top. It can be seen for miles in every direction.

As I wanted to catch good light and few tourists, I went early in the morning. My companions went in the afternoon. To enter the fortress, I had to cross a moat and pass through meticulously maintained grounds…

…until I trudged up the first of many long stair steps.

On the way, I saw world-class frescos which could not be photographed. Later when I was in the Natural Museum of Colombo, I photographed a copy of this one.

About two-thirds of the way up, there is a flat area next to a stair entrance to the top that was once the mouth of a lion. All that remains are the lion’s paws.

It took me about 45 minutes to reach the top, which included admiring the frescos and taking photographs. Once there, I rested and took in the far-reaching views.

The downside of going in the morning, is that the front of the fortress is in shadows. To give the place its photographic due, one would have to go in the morning and the afternoon.

Kumbukgaha Villa

We stayed two nights in the Kumbukgaha Villa Hotel ( in spacious, modern bungalows.

The food and service were great, especially as we were able to eat buffalo curd with local honey at any time.

Water buffalo milk is tastier in making yogurt than cow milk because of its higher fat content. It has not been produced in the US because the buffalos are not as compliant as cows in providing milk on demand.

The area is teeming with wildlife, including the large monitor lizards which can be as long as 3 meters (10 feet)…

…and noisy peacocks.

In the farmland outside of the hotel, there were treehouses used by local farmers to spot elephants who could wreak havoc on their crops.

If they see them, they use noise, light and other tools to shoo them away.


After conquering the Sinhalese capital of Anuradhapura (see below) in 993 AD, the Cholas, a southern Indian and Hindu empire, ruled most of Sri Lanka for eight decades. They established Polonnaruwa in 1070. Eighty years later, a Sinhalese rebellion overthrew the Cholas and reunited the island. The new rulers made Polonnaruwa the capital and reinstituted Buddhism. They rehabilitated and built numerous public and religious structures. Alas, the city’s capital status lasted only a century and ended when it was taken over by the Jaffna Kingdom.

As befitting an UNESCO World Heritage Site, the ruins are grand and romantic. They were the backdrop for the Duran Duran music video “Save a Prayer” in 1982. The highlights we liked included the seven-story Sathmahal Prasada which had an unknown function…

…the carved animals and figures on many of the structures…

… the Potgul Vehera, or the Library Monastery…

…the Lankatilaka with 17-meter (55-foot) walls, elaborate carvings and a colossal image of Buddha…

…the Rankoth Vehera, the largest dagoba (stupa) in Polonnaruwa…

..and the banyan tree roots growing over the ruins.

From Kandy, our itinerary was going north with stops until Jaffna. Turning east to Polonnaruwa from Sigiriya was many extra hours of driving, but well worth it. From Polonnaruwa, we drove to Anuradhapura for the night.


Anuradhapura was established in the 3rd century BC, so it really is an ancient city. This Sinhalese capital was carefully and majestically planned and constructed. The city reigned for over a thousand years before it was occupied by the Cholas. For centuries the ruins were hidden by the jungle and unknown by the outside world. In the 1880s the area was excavated and found to be impressively intact. Many of the structures are used today, mostly for Buddhist worship, unlike in the archaeological park of Polonnaruwa.

The night before we stayed in the Gamodh Citadel Resort ( which worked well for a quick stopover. We hired Anura ( to drive us through historic park. He was quite friendly and a veteran of the Sri Lanka Civil War.

Our highlights were the Isurumuniya Vihara monastic complex…

…the museum next to it with a sleeping Buddha…

…and the immense Ruwanwelisaya Stupa with the wall of elephants.

At Ruwanwelisaya, I met these two women who lived nearby.

They are friends who go to the Buddhist Temple once a month. The lady on the left works as a cartographer for a municipal urban planning department. The lady on the right is a telecommunications engineer. In Sri Lanka, devout people often wear white in temples to observe Buddhist Precepts of ethical behavior. White further symbolizes purity of the heart.

While there are many grand structures here, sometimes a relatively small detail stands out, as the Buddha statue in the morning light.

The area was full of pilgrims from other countries, including this group from Cambodia.

Because we had a ride to Jaffna at noon, we only spent a couple hours here. We easily could have spent twice that in order to see more.

Final Thoughts

Sometimes I was in a place, such as a waterfall, in the middle of the day when the light was less flattering. I would have liked to visit places only in the early morning or late afternoon when lighting was best. Further, it would have been ideal to go more than once to have different lighting and circumstances. However, in travel I am often only in a place once and I have to deal with the conditions.

Most ruins in the Cultural Triangle are Buddhist. Our next stop was Jaffna, which is the most Hindu part of the country, as detailed in the next post.

Written by: Ed

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