In the footsteps of legends

Lakshmi Sharath heads out on a 'Ramayana trail' in Sri Lanka to discover temples, caves, forests, mountains and lakes immersed in legends and myths...

Sigiriya

A small Buddhist temple along with a stupa stood silently surrounded by trees. One of them was an ancient peepal tree that had an air of agelessness about it. A couple of young girls had just taken a break from their outdoor classroom sessions and were strolling around aimlessly around the lush campus. We could not speak their language, but they became our guides, taking us inside the nondescript temple. As we walked in, all the walls burst into colour, filled with paintings from the Buddha’s life. Larger-than-life sculptures filled the room. But as we walked further, the paintings took a different hue. They depicted scenes from the Ramayana.

Vivid & colourful

One of the paintings, in particular, was so vivid and yet poignant. It portrayed Seetha getting ready for her ‘agnipariksa’ or ‘trial by fire’ to prove her chastity to the world after Ravana had kidnapped her. I stepped out of the room to see a statue of Hanuman. A small board mentioned that Seetha’s agnipariksha had taken place under the shelter of the peepal tree.

I was in a small town called Divurampola, 15 km away from Nuwara Eliya in Sri Lanka. Divurumpola meant ‘marketplace of oath’ in Sinhala and it was apparently the venue to settle disputes between parties. Perhaps, Seetha’s agnipariksha gave the place its very identity. The Buddhist site also has a school and the monks have been maintaining the protected site of the agnipariksha as well.

We were on the ‘Ramayana trail’ in Sri Lanka and our journey took us to temples, caves, forests, mountains and lakes which were all immersed in legends and myths. We started our trail from the coastal town of Negombo, located about 10 km from the airport. After a sumptuous breakfast of red string hoppers with pol sambol, a spicy coconut relish, we drove towards Dambulla, stopping by at a small town called Chilaw.

A painting of Sita's 'agnipariksha'
A painting of Sita's 'agnipariksha'

Located inside the Tamil quarter called Demala Pattuva was a towering Shiva temple called Munneswaram. I saw a lot of devotees carrying small saplings of the coconut tree and dedicating it to the deity. Darshan explained that this was given as an offering to help devotees heal from illness. It was believed that Rama had also come here to ward off an ailment. After killing Ravana, Rama had been dogged by the brahma hatya dosha and he had apparently come here to pray. As directed by Shiva, Rama carved a linga out of the sands with his bare hands. The linga stands today in the neighbouring Manavari Temple.

Our next halt was Dambulla, known for ancient Buddhist caves which houses a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The five cave temples, known for the breathtaking murals and towering statues, have been a sacred Buddhist site for over 22 centuries. But it was the Lion Rock or Sigiriya standing tall at 200 metres that caught our attention. According to legends, this was one of the earliest palaces of Ravana and Seetha was held in captivity here before being shifted to Ashok Vatika. We were back on the road, crossing beaches and mountains, caves and forests and there were temples everywhere. We were now in Ravana’s Lanka. In Trincomalee, we went to the historic third-century Koneswaram Temple, which was believed to be built originally by Ravana.

Tales galore

Our next destination was the lush environment of Nuwara Eliya, often dubbed as ‘Little England’. There was an air of mysticism in Nuwara Eliya as we stumbled upon a temple inside a dense forest. We saw a towering sculpture of Hanuman, housed in a temple built by the Chinmaya mission. It was believed that this is where Hanuman first landed when he came to Lanka.

We finally made our way to the lush environs of Ashok Vatika in Seetha Eliya. A small spring sprouted and meandered into a forest stream as a statue of Seetha and Hanuman stood there. Adjacent to it was a small Seetha Temple. It was believed that Hanuman saw Seetha for the first time here. Darshan added that there was a botanical garden closeby which was believed to be an extension of the Ashok Vatika.

Our next destination on the Ramayana trail took us to Rumassala Mountain near Galle, the old colonial settlement which was the haunt of the Portuguese, Dutch and the English. A towering Peace
pagoda stands on the hillock, built by the Japanese. As I climbed the Buddhist stupa, I could see the Dutch Fort across the ocean. According to the Ramayana legends, the hillock was a part of Dronagiri Mountain which had the sanjeevani herb, required to heal Lakshmana from a fatal injury during the war. Hanuman had carried the entire mountain from the Himalayas and a part of it had apparently fallen here.

Our last stop was at a magnificent Buddhist temple filled with large murals and sculptures, located near Colombo. Kelaniya was not just an ancient Buddhist site, but it also marked the culmination of Rama’s tryst with Lanka. It was believed to be a palace handed over to Vibeeshana, Ravana’s brother after the war.

The Ramayana may be different things to different people — an epic, a fantasy tale, a legend, a divine text, an allegory, but to me, it is an integral part of my life. The trail almost made me feel like I was walking in the footsteps of Rama and Ravana, Hanuman and Seetha.

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