Serendip was the ancient name of the island of Sri Lanka, and yes, this is where the word serendipity comes from. Serendipity, or a happy accident, is exactly what we found at the ancient city of Anuradhapura.
Anuradhapura was the center of Therevada Buddhism for centuries and today features a collection of ruins and restored temples that date back over 2200 years. One of the highlights is the Jaya Sri Bodhi Maha Tree. This tree was grown from a sapling from the banyan tree that Buddha sat under when he found enlightenment. It was planted in 288 B.C. and has been continually maintained ever since. It is the oldest known tree planted by a human. That is really freaking cool, right? But in the end, it is just a tree. That is where serendipity comes in.
When we visited Anuradhapura, the ancient city was filled with thousands and thousands of religious pilgrims. It was the start of school holidays, and we saw extended families at the tree praying, singing, chanting, giving offerings to Buddha, and this being 2017, taking selfies. A normally mundane scene was transformed into a lively event. We were some of the only foreigners at the Bodhi tree that morning, and we were greeted with smiles and hellos. One lady asked If I’d like to take a photo of a monk with her offering. Her daughter had just graduated from medical school and she was there to offer thanks. Pride and happiness radiated from her like light from the sun.
We then walked to the Ruwanwelisaya stupa, a massive, gleaming white dome surrounded by life-sized elephant statues built 160 years before Jesus walked the Earth. Although impressive on its own, the real highlights were the orange-robed monks and white-clad families giving merit. One family gave us some flowers to give to Buddha as an offering. She probably thought we’d pray to have children but instead we asked Buddha to look after our pregnant cat.
Next, we went to the smaller yet even older Thuparamaya stupa. Shortly after arrival, a parade of pilgrims led by a band entered the site and marched in circles around the stupa while carrying a long orange ribbon. After three circumnavigations, the monks and boys tied the long orange sash around the stupa and the family sang and prayed with monks. It was, in a word, magical.
All through the day, friendly and curious Sri Lankans asked us to pose for photos, stopped us to chat, and waved and smiled as we walked by.
In the end, visiting the ruins and temples would have been an interesting experience on its own, but the serendipity of seeing the religious ceremonies, hordes of pilgrims and friendly people made it a highlight of the trip.
Anuradhapura Photo Gallery
What serendipitous situations have you encountered on your travels?
Looks great 🙂
I love every single photo in this post, Jeff. So lucky you were in Anuradhapura at the same time with lots of local pilgrims donning the uniquely Sri Lankan white dresses. When I was there (I don’t remember from which trip) the ancient town was only preparing for a festival, so there were not too many people yet.
I certainly feel lucky to have seen it at this time. Although there are some cool ruins, we’d have probably been happy to spend the morning there and move on. This made our time in the ancient city so much more interesting and memorable.
Did you enjoy it despite the calm atmosphere?
I really enjoyed Anuradhapura in both visits, although for some reason it was always hot when I went. From your photos it seems like it wasn’t that hot when you were there.
It wasn’t too hot – maybe 30 degrees during the middle of the day. Coming from Bangkok, it was absolutely beautiful! It got down to 12 degrees in the mountains and I loved it!
What a lovely slice of life you have shared with us. Your photos as always are great. I love the contrast of white against the blue sky and the vivid orange next the white!
The light was very intense and brought out the color, especially late morning and afternoon. I felt lucky to see it on such a beautiful day. When we went to the ruins at Polonnurawa it was cloudy but I didn’t mind because there were not pilgrims there.
It is really these sort of interactions with locals that make our experiences and memories of great sites even greater. We also felt this in Borobudur, Indonesia. The orange and whites stand out so vividly in your beautiful photos.
Sometimes at places like Borobudor, the Taj Majal or Anuradhapura you meet people from all over the country who are making a once-in-a-lifetime trip to see their own country. Sometimes they have never seen or interacted with westerners before. I have posed for so many photos at places like that!
The bright sun really brought out the color. I was lucky to have such great weather during my visit. It poured rain the next day!
Magical indeed. Harmony and happiness seems to be the theme.
Yeah, it was a cool experience. Lots of happiness for sure!
Well, I’d say lately I’ve been the victim of reverse-serendipity, but I’ve had my share of happy travel accidents, too. Along similar Buddhist lines, we were lucky enough to be in Lhasa, Tibet, during a time that pilgrims came into the city to be at Jokhang Temple and other holy sites. They come from miles and miles away on their hands and knees, and no amount of reading about that prostration can prepare one for the actual sight of these committed people! A highlight of my traveling life for sure.
I bet that was intense seeing the pilgrims on hands and knees in Tibet. If I did that I’m sure I’d be all bloody and scratched up. Was that the case?
They wear pads on their arms and knees. The ones on their hands and arms almost look like giant oven mitts. It’s so bizarre. And so moving to see faith like that in action.
Sounds like a magical place, and wonderful people! How long have you been traveling in Sri Lanka?
We were there a little over three weeks, but back in Bangkok now. It is a great country. Do go someday!
I’d love to go!! Maybe by sailboat someday 🙂
I can feel your joy. I love when this kind of serendipity happens. We came upon a special day of religious ritual and celebration in Chinchero, Peru, and on the drive to Mt Popa in Myanmar, and at a temple near Mandalay in Myanmar – each time pure serendipity, and so joyful and exciting. I had no idea Sri Lanka was once called Serendip. How appropriate! Great photos as usual.
Thank you Alison. It sounds like you’ve had your share of lucking into similar events. I bet those celebrations in Myanmar and Peru were colorful and boisterous!
Yes both. So much fun!
What a beautiful collection of photographs. We are planning to head there tomorrow and I am only sorry now that there won’t be a festival.
Hopefully you will still have some locals there for pilgrimage. Enjoy and let us know how it goes!
It was actually very quiet but that gave a wonderful serenity to the place 😄
We had a great day exploring and we felt we had only scratched the surface of the stuff you could explore. There was still plenty of locals on pilgrimage.
Good to hear that it was still lively. Yes, there are several places to go, including spending time at the lakes with the locals and visiting some farther out temples.
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