Another day and another difficult to pronounce ancient city; this time Polonnaruwa. Driving to Polonnaruwa took us by a number of military bases and installations (including a Sri Lankan Naval Base that was nowhere near any water- presumably done to confuse any Tamil Tigers that might have been foolishly looking for the Navy along the watery coastline). Although not at the heightened state of alert that existed during the conflict, the military presence was a poignant reminder of the battle lines that existed in the nearby north and eastern areas of the country. Real and perceived mistreatment of the minority Hindu Tamil community by the Buddhist Sinhalese majority eventually led to the formation of the LTTE, more commonly known as the Tamil Tigers.
Whatever legitimate grievances the Tamils may have had was soon overshadowed by the brutality and terrorism of the Tigers (this was the first group to use suicide bombers as a war tactic- the LTTE was the only separatist militant organization to assassinate two world leaders: Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993 and former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991). After decades of ebb and flow the government of Sri Lanka began an all out offensive in 2009 that saw the complete annihilation of the Tamil Tigers but has also left members of the Sri Lankan government accused of war crimes. Three decades of civil war resulted in the estimated loss of 100,000 lives.
War (albeit back in 1073) was also the reason for the establishment of Polonnaruwa as the royal capital of Sri Lanka after Anuradhapura was conquered by invading Kingdoms from India. Today, the ancient city’s ruins remain in remarkably good shape and are a little more contained than the sprawling Anuradhapura which made it easier to visualize as a former royal city- a fascinating place to visit. The most impressive sights within the complex include the ancient sculptures of Lord Buddha at the Gal Vihara that are cut into Granite stone and date back to the middle of the 12th century. The entire sculpture consists of four colossal statues of Buddha - a samadhi image in meditation posture, a seated Buddha image inside a cave, a standing Buddha image which is 23 ft in height, and recumbent Buddha image measuring 46 ft, depicting the passing away.
On the drive back we ran into something of an unusual road hazard- an elephant crossing. Apparently the highway is closed a couple of times a day to allow elephants to make their way to and from Wasgomuwa Park. And since to elephants aren't fussy about where they cross the road many of the neighboring villages have an extensive matrix of electrified fencing to protect their homes. It was good to see that the war had not decimated the herds of wild elephants in this area and it looked as though Sri Lankan authorities were very protective of their wildlife- a bit unusual for a country in Asia.