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.
What serendipitous situations have you encountered on your travels?