It was 6am in Dambulla, and the half-lit sky was bruised with cobalt clouds that hid what would have otherwise been a beautiful sunrise. In the mountains and jungle below, a carpet of green sparkled with fresh dew and mist curled and hovered ghost-like above the rice paddies and highland peaks.
We drove to a large field where a team of people were assembling the equipment for a hot air balloon.I had been invited down to Dambulla by the company running the balloon trip, and since I have never been in a hot air balloon before, I didn’t know what to expect. A few Sri Lankan families watched inquisitively, some still dressed in pajamas. An order was given by the balloon pilot, and then the large gas canisters attached to the basket were opened, spitting out bright orange flames. Within minutes the flaccid red balloon became plump and bloated, rising into the air and tugging at the basket as it inflated.
“Get in!” shouted the pilot, and the group of us – about eight in total – clambered into the basket, excitement lighting up our tired faces. Inside the basket it smelled like gas, and the flames were hot and loud. We were given a quick briefing and then the pilot looked up at the clouds.
“We have to wait for this to pass,” he said.
We waited. And waited some more. And then the waiting got boring and we looked to the pilot for instruction.
“The cloud isn’t passing. If it doesn’t pass we won’t fly and you’ll all have to go back to bed.”
I prayed that the cloud would pass, but then I felt the tingling of cold in the air and a droplet of water hit my shoulder.
“Sorry, the ride is off. We won’t fly today. It’s not safe,” said the pilot as the heavens opened and everyone leaped out of the basket and ran back towards the van. Once inside none of us spoke. Disappointed silence hung in the air, and we watched as the balloon was deflated again, our hopes for the day deflating with it.
Back at my hotel I slept for a few hours, then got up and decided to resurrect my day by exploring. Dambulla is part of Sri Lanka’s “cultural triangle” – a group of ancient cities that once belonged to wealthy Sinhalese Kings. During the golden age at the start of the Sri Lankan civilisation, these Kings built up their empires with exquisite temples, opulent palaces, complex dams, and irrigation systems, most of which still exist – in varying conditions – today.
While most of the ancient cities are famous for their bloody history and ambitious architectural feats, Dambulla is favored for its religious relevance. 2,000 years ago, a group of Buddhist monks helped hide an exiled King within the city limits for over 14 years, and when he eventually returned to the throne, he repaid them by ordering the Dambulla Cave Temples to be built. These five caves sit on top of a giant rock and are painted wall-to-ceiling with both secular and religious frescoes. Each cave also includes multiple sculptures of Buddha, as well as statues of other gods.
I first visited Dambulla in 2006, and remembered thinking that the cave temples were rather dull. I was only 18 at the time, and history did not interest me much in those days. I hadn’t planned on visiting again, but there was little else to do in Dambulla, and so I began to make the climb up the steps to the temple. The climb only takes around 30 minutes, but the muggy monsoon heat made it more difficult than it need be. I quickly found that I didn’t mind the heat though. The surroundings were beautiful, and it gave me time to reflect on how much I have changed since my first visit.
A trail of flower petals lead the way up the stairs, and I decided to buy some flowers myself, to give as an offering once in the temples. I have never given an offering of flowers before, but I’ve spent enough time in Sri Lanka to know that it is the done thing. A woman with a kind smile sold me a bunch of flowers for 100 rupees (1 dollar) and before I left she touched my shoulder and told me “Budusaranai” (Buddah be with you.)
Thinking about the past made me a little bit miserable. The last time I was in Dambulla was only months before my Grandmother died, and in the time between now and then, I’ve also lost friends and my own father. In those innocent days of being 18, I had little reason to need Buddha to be with me, but now I felt happy to have the woman’s well wishes follow me up the rock like a figurative comfort blanket.
At the top of the rock, a group of schoolgirls dressed in starched white saris smiled and waved at me. I waved back, left my shoes at the entrance, and walked into the first temple.
I took a few photos, but then realised that it looked much the same as it did when I last visited, and so I decided to stop being a tourist and just enjoy the experience instead. I noticed that there were five flowers in my bunch, and there were five cave temples too. I left one flower at the feet of Buddha in the first temple, and moved on to the next, depositing my flowers as I went. When I reached the last temple, I found that I was completely alone. Left in silence in the 2,000 year-old cave, I thought about all the other people who must have passed through here. Pilgrims have traveled for miles over the last two millenniums to reach these caves, and their devotion and prayers seemed to hang lovingly in the musty air. Bowing on the floor like I had been shown how to by Buddhist monks in Korea, I left my final flower at the feet of the last Buddha, and with it I let go of the past, knowing that many others must have felt like this before me, and many more will in the future.
I left the temple feeling totally at peace. I noticed how nice it was to have the warm sun on my skin, and I smiled at the flower sellers and the families in their best saris and sarongs, and the tourists in their trousers and t-shirts and they all smiled back. Monkeys played on the steps, and jade-green moutains peeked through the surrounding jungle. A woman selling fruit asked if I was hungry, and even though I wasn’t, I treated myself to some mango. I sat on the steps in front of her tiny stall and let exotic fruit juice gush down my chin and hands.
“mekka amba godak hondai” (this mango tastes very good), I told her.
“okoma hondai” (all is good) she replied, smiling.
I wasn’t sure whether she was talking about the fruit. The climb, the weather, the cool breeze on my skin, the sweet taste and good texture of the mango, the day itself – all seemed good.