An American Abroad

The Buddha is NOT Down With Your Cargo Shorts

I took a four-hour train trip upcountry to the city of Anuradhapura, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka from the 4th Century BCE to the 11th Century CE.

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The Buddhist shrines, temples, monasteries, and other religious sites there comprise a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I was interested in seeing the ruins. I was here:

I started out at what had been a monastery. There were unusual rock formations at this site: giant boulders leaning against each other, creating keyholes and caves. Clearly the rocks there had been shaped by people, too, but the place was so old that I couldn’t tell where nature’s handiwork ended and human architecture began.

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In one of the natural keyholes, I found this monitor lizard looking like something out of prehistory.

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There wasn’t much by way of informative of descriptive signage — at least not much I could read. But I thought Sinhalese script was fascinating.

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I went to some of the temple complexes, which are still visited by the faithful. I was wearing cargo shorts that came just to the middle of my knees. Signs — in English this time — advised visitors that their clothing must be modest and respectful, that pants and skirts had to cover the knees, and that dark colors were frowned upon. I slid my shorts lower on my hips hoping I could pass muster, but no dice. The guards at the entrance gate stopped me. Fortunately, they have some sarongs available for stupid Americans to use, so I wrapped myself as best I could. I’ve seen Indian hippies looking cool and elegant in their batik sarongs. I looked neither. And why does this sarong make me look fat?

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Perhaps I was expecting another Angkor Wat or Angkor Thom, but I came away from the ruins at Anuradhapura unmoved. What remained of the sites wasn’t particularly beautiful, nor was it displayed and preserved in a very artful way. You’ll have to take my word for that; photography was forbidden in some spots and discouraged in others. The sites obviously had great meaning to the many Buddhist pilgrims I saw gathered there, but as an outsider they left me disappointed.

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At one of the shrines, people had laid flowers on the altar as offerings to the Buddha. These were promptly devoured by a pair of macaques (tentatively identified by my zoologically-minded friends as macaca sinica sinica).

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After taking in the ruins, I went back to my hotel, a cozy little place on a rural/residential road, right next to this institution.

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Maybe I should have taken more time in Anuradhapura and the surrounding area to find some sites that really spoke to me. It didn’t happen on this trip — but there’s always next time.

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