Anuradhapura: the Soul of Buddhist Sri Lanka

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Hunting for World Heritage Sites has gone beyond just visiting and seeing sites. Rather, it has become more of experiencing them. Hence, in the Anuradhapura vs Polonnaruwa debate, clearly, I would have to give it to the former. Yes, I am in the minority block.

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The first capital of Sri Lanka remains very much alive today, attracting more faithful pilgrims than tourists. Its significance appears to outlive most of the other later historic sites. While most of the key monuments here are dagobas (local term for stupas) and the variety of architecture is not as diverse as that of Polonnaruwa’s, there is a great amount of history in each of them that is made more special by the reverence that the people have continuously attach to them. In fact, the age of the original monuments here would rival those Buddhist monuments in India, which was really surprising to find out. Not only are these dagobas some of the tallest monuments ever seen in the ancient world, moreover, they also stand as pillars as to why Anuradhapura is given the title “Sacred City”, and not just “Ancient City” as in the case of Polonnaruwa and even Sigiriya. There are two other sacred cities in Sri Lanka which we were fortunate to check out: the Sacred City of Kandy — also a WHS– and the Sacred City of Tissamaharama.

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The 2,000-y.o. Sri Jaya Mahabodhi tree is the most sacred component of the city and it sits right at the center. It is a direct descendant of the Mahabodhi tree in Bodhgaya where the Buddha sat under as he attained enlightenment. From there, the glaringly white Ruwanwelisaya dagoba is a short walk away, passing through the Mahalohapaya ruins. Currently, it stands as the tallest dagoba in the country after the finial of the more massive, red brick Jetavana dagoba broke off. To see the rest, it was, however, wise to hire a tuk-tuk.

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As a place mostly composed of dagobas, it is perhaps the best area to study this architectural style — from the ruined remains of the Dakhina dagoba to the carefully restored Mirisawetiya dagoba nearby, from the vatadage-styled Thuparamaya dagoba (the oldest and one of the smallest) to the ongoing construction of the modern Victory stupa, which will be the tallest once it will be finished.

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We also managed to visit some of the farthest sites such as the Isurumuniya vihara, which required a separate entrance fee. This vihara is considered as one of the oldest monuments in the city and we enjoyed talking to one of the resident monks there about the history of the site. He even kindly tied pirith nulas around our wrists, wherein I was able to record on video the chanting performed along with it.

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Half a mile away is the Vessagiri, an ancient rock shelter for monks. It features Brahmi inscriptions and faint traces of ancient frescoes that can only make sense with the help of a guide.

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A pleasant bonus was when our driver also took us inside the former citadel to check a few ruins including the Dalada maligawa, the former shrine housing the sacred tooth relic. That time, there was also a local herbalist who was gathering various plants for his concoctions. A photo I took of him while doing his thing among the ruins is probably one of my favorite shots.

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It took us a little less than 6 hours to see most of the sites included in this World Heritage Site, and I cannot say I was not impressed.

 

 

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Old and Sacred: The Bodhi Tree

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The Bodhi tree was the old fig tree under which Prince Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment in 623BC in Bodh Gaya in Bihar, India. While the original tree does not exist anymore, there are several trees that are believed to have directly come from the sacred Bodhi tree. Among them, two trees play very central roles in the Buddhist faith and are highly revered by devotees for their close connection to the life of the historic Buddha. These ancient sacred trees are the Mahabodhi tree in Bodh Gaya and the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.

The Mahabodhi tree in Bodh Gaya is regarded to mark the same spot where the original Bodhi tree used to stand. It is regarded as the Axis Mundi, or the Navel of the World, among Buddhists, and it is their holiest site. While the age of the tree is not certain, inscriptions nearby reveal that Emperor Ashoka, who converted to Buddhism in 263BC after the Kalinga War, installed the Diamond Throne beside the sacred tree and erected a stone fence around them in 250BC.

 

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The Mahabodhi tree encased in stone railings at the Mahabodhi Temple Complex, India

 

The Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree in the ancient city of Anuradhapura, on the other hand, is considered to be the oldest documented planted tree by a person. The cutting from the original Bohdi tree was brought to and planted in Sri Lanka by the daughter of Ashoka, Princess Sangamitta, in 288BC. Anuradhapura, the capital of the first Kingdom of Ceylon, eventually developed and grew around the sacred tree.

 

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The Sri Jaya Maha Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

 

Spreading Buddhism has always been accompanied by the distribution of Bodhi trees, as symbolic bridges in bringing the believers closer to the faith and to the Buddha. A direct descendant of the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree was also planted at the southeastern side of the Borobudur temple in Java, Indonesia. The sapling was brought and planted by Narada Mahathera, a visiting Theravadan Buddhist monk from Colombo, in 1934 as part of his mission to revive Buddhism in the now predominantly Islamic country.

 

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The Bodhi tree beside the Borobudur temple, Indonesia

 

The earliest representation of the original Bodhi tree can be found at one of the ornate gates (toranas) of the Great Stupa of Sanchi in Mahadya Pradesh, India. Created in 100AD, the rock carving also shows the structures built around the tree that were commissioned by Ashoka. The Great Stupa is the oldest standing stone structure in the Subcontinent and is part of a bigger Buddhist monastic complex believed to have been constructed on the orders of Ashoka himself.

 

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The Bodhi tree depicted at the Great Stupa in Sanchi, India

 

The Mahabodhi Temple Complex at Bodh Gaya, the Sacred City of Anuradhapura, the Buddhist Monuments at Sanchi, and the Borobudur Temple Compounds are all UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

 

 

 

 

Tiong Bahru, a Thought on Heritage

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Singapore’s first public housing project surprisingly retains the textures of the then emerging international style and Art Deco movements in architecture. Tiong Bahru is a true heritage spot and an exceptional example of a planned urban space that is still glossed over by most who visit this bustling city in a garden.

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There are two reasons that I can think of for this:  the area hardly makes it to guidebooks, which sadly reflects the truth that what gets written in the pages are simply those that the writers just want others to see and know and there have been cases that they do NOT really know enough; and, more importantly, modern architectural movements still rarely appeal to many in ways colonial Straits shophouses do, as in the cases of Chinatown, Kampong Glam or Little India. It seems that the lack of “romance” and “ancientness” around the former hinder the interest of the average person towards them.

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In an advanced city now known for its modern marvels, how much attention and appreciation can really be accorded to the last remaining built-heritage around? It seems that turn of the 20th-century architecture suffers the most undervaluation and apathy, and Tiong Bahru’s case illustrates this phenomenon clearly.

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But how did I get there, to begin with? A friend took me there primarily for the food offering in Tiong Bahru market — which is amazing! The buildings were really a big surprise to me as I did not know anything about them beforehand.

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The Historical City of Maybod

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With the recent inscription of historic city of Yazd as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I am not quite sure how Maybod, another silk road desert city in the same region, would be able to position itself differently and subsequently provide a fresh perspective or OUV to the prestigious list.

 

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Narin castle and the old city of Maybod

 

 

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A dome of the Shah Abbassi caravanserai

 

Highlights of the old oasis city include the 2,000 year old Narin castle, an intact ice house, working qanats, a few badgirs (wind catchers), what is perhaps the most beautiful dovecote in all of Persia, and the Shah Abassi caravanserai, which also happens to be a component of the Persian Caravanserai – TWHS and quite possibly a part of the Silk Route – TWHS of Iran as well.

 

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An Ab anbar (water reservoir) that is supplied by a qanat running under it

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A covered well fed by a qanat at the center of the Shah Abbassi caravanserai

 

Interestingly, I have observed that inscribing a site more than once seems to be something that Iran enjoys doing. This can be seen with the following: Pasargadae – Persian Garden; Yazd – Persian Garden – Persian Qanat; Bam – Persian Qanat; as well as many others still brewing in the tentative list. Maybod can easily be reached as part of a regular day tour offered in Yazd.

The Defenses of Currimao

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Ever since I was a kid, Currimao in Ilocos Norte has always had a special place in my heart. It has decent packets of beaches very close to where I live, making it an easy weekend getaway. Pangil, one of its barangays, offers what I would describe as the site of the most romantic sunset one can witness in the north thanks to its dramatic rocky landscape. It’s very easy to fall in love with it. Aside from this, however, I did not know anything else about this small, sleepy town by the sea.

Well, until recently[1].

A Reminder of the Tobacco Trade

During the Spanish period, Currimao, which was still a  part of Paoay, was a commercial port that played an important role in the tobacco trade. The northern Philippines was then known to have focused on this cash crop, supplying not only local demands but even those from overseas. The town has an 1869-built almacen, popularly known today as the tabacalera, which was used by the Compania General de los Tabacos de Filipinas. There are two other extant tabacaleras in the province, one in Laoag[2] and another in Dingras. But, what makes Currimao’s tabacalera special is that it was at the forefront of the trade given its strategic location and access to the open waters.

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Inside the tabacalera ruins

The massive structure follows a simple rectangular floor plan, with all sides supported by identical buttresses reminiscent of earthquake baroque churches. It also has gabled ends and what appears to be a portico on the main portal. Vestiges of an old perimeter wall made of the same materials used in constructing the almacen – rocks, coral stones and ladrillos – can be found around it as well.

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Exterior of the tabacalera with its buttresses, and the mess around it.

Given its already fragile condition, what is more disturbing, however, is the obvious neglect of the site by the locals. Currently, it is used as a heavy equipment and motor pool, as well as a dump site for gravel and aggregates for construction works. This is alarming because its state of disrepair might jeopardize the ongoing process to designate the site yet another National Cultural Treasure – a procedure to be completed, hopefully, by next year[3].

The almacen sits just a few meters away from an old yet still functioning pantalan or wharf that is made of coral stones[4]. This, however, was cemented with concrete a few years ago giving a very modern appearance to it nowadays. Also, close to the almacen, to its left, is another ruins of what might have been the aduana or the customs office[5]. Presently, the remains of this brick edifice is within a private property and no one really knows  what will happen to it nor can anyone guarantee its preservation. Furthermore, a few meters again from the ruins is an agua del pozo[6] or a water well. Aside from it still being used, what is more impressive about this simple structure is that it is dated: 12 de Diciembre de 1878 ano.

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The Spanish period well with the date of its construction

Man-made Fortifications

Across the archipelago, there are hundreds of watchtowers and fortresses built by the Spaniards in their attempt to fortify their empire in the Pacific[7]. Ilocos Norte alone has six, and neighboring Ilocos Sur has five. The existence of a twin watchtowers or garitas only reinforces the historical – and commercial – importance of Currimao as a port. In the Philippines, I am only aware of one other town where a twin watchtowers also exist: Romblon, Romblon[8]. Furthermore, the twin watchtowers of Romblon and Currimao have another striking resemblance: their fortifications can be found at either ends of their poblacion harbour. Their only difference is that, for Romblon, the watchtowers were meant to guard over the pueblo with a church, while Currimao’s were meant to watch over a coastal settlement with a tabacalera.

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The eastern watchtower

The more obvious of the two watchtowers in Currimao is partly damaged as a segment of its wall has already collapsed. This one is noticeable at any point along the seawall as it prominently stands at the eastern end of the harbour, without any obstruction surrounding it[9]. The other watchtower, which is still complete, is currently heavily vegetated. Several concrete structures have also already been built around it, thus compromising its visual integrity[10]. Both of these watchtowers, which stand approximately seven meters high, are thought to have been built in the mid 1800s or even much earlier.

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The western watchtower

Despite having been declared as National Cultural Treasures in 2015 under the serial inscription “Watchtowers of Ilocos Norte”[11], there is still the urgent need to conserve and restore the structures that are clearly under threats caused by human negligence and natural disasters.

The Coral Rocks as Natural Barriers

Currimao also boasts a unique landscape and seascape. It is home to a very long coral rock formation along its coast. The entire length of this geological curiosity spans nearly three kilometers, and the best exponents of it are found in Barangay Pangil.

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The sharp coral cocks make it impossible for boats and ships to get any closer than 100 metres to shore.

What many might not realize, however, is that these sharp ancient rocks form a durable wall, which creates a natural fortification for the community. During the time when the tobacco trade was at its peak (as a component of the Galleon trade), threats from invading Moros and Chinese pirates were very common in the area. This is also the reason why the watchtowers have come to be known locally as the Moro watchtowers. But, given its rocky shores, boats, let alone ships, cannot dock just anywhere; the rocks and waves make that impossible. Hence, anyone who wished to make a landing would have to go to the only area devoid of coral rocks – the poblacion harbour.

The coral rocks in Pangil can reach as high as four meters tall.

The coral rocks can rise as high as four meters above the water line.

Until now, it is only this particular area where fishermen can safely dock their fishing boats and rafts (with the exception, of course, of the more sandy shores of Victoria and Gaang that are already far away from the poblacion). The Spaniards erected the watchtowers precisely where the natural fortifications ceased.

Fortified Commercial Complex?

A good fortification utilizes elements in its surroundings to its advantage. The coral rocks and the watchtowers complemented each other in as far as guarding Currimao and its commercial activities were concerned. This outstanding system of natural barriers and man-made fortifications made the poblacion of Currimao a highly defensive coastal settlement by Philippine standards at that time. With the presence of the ruins of an almacen and an aduana, a functioning agua del pozo and pantalan, as well as two garitas, together with its imposing long coral rock formations, it is only fitting to reassess, rethink, and reintroduce the poblacion of Currimao – yes, the small, sleepy town – as an intact, fortified, Spanish-period commercial complex that might be hard to match elsewhere in the country.

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Legend: Blue – location of the almacen, aduana, pozo del agua, and pantalan; red – the two garitas declared as National Cultural Treasures; grey – the coastal areas with coral rocks.

 

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[1] Performed cultural mapping and documentation in town on March 14, 2016 for www.philippineheritagemap.org

[2] Presently housing the Ilocos Norte Museum

[3]“Pending cultural properties for consideration for declaration as Important Cultural Properties or National Cultural Treasures by the National Museum in 2016” http://www.ivanhenares.com/2015/12/national-cultural-treasure-2015.html

[4] http://philippineheritagemap.org/reports/14231c4b-5ae5-46ac-a911-77d384e4bf1f

[5] http://philippineheritagemap.org/reports/54b3d96f-5c09-4cc6-b4af-f5cf8aed0d78

[6] http://philippineheritagemap.org/reports/85df66cc-a2f5-4a5a-a704-506c873f4984

[7] Javellana, R (1997). Fortress of empire: Spanish colonial fortification of the Philippines, 1565 to 1898. Manila: Bookmark. Also look at http://simbahan.net/2009/08/27/fortress-of-empire-rene-javellana-sj/

[8] Fort San Andres was a component of the now widthrawn “Spanish Fortifications of the Philippines” nomination for UNESCO World Heritage Site listing. It is also a declared National Cultural Treasure. Its twin Fort Santiago is already in ruins. Also look at http://pamana.ph/fort-san-andres/

[9] http://philippineheritagemap.org/reports/ede424b7-984b-4e21-ac9e-e83c3d45241a

[10] http://philippineheritagemap.org/reports/df3a9836-4f09-441f-9745-a0fa6049ef42

[11] http://ncca.gov.ph/national-museum-bares-2015-list-of-cultural-treasures-properties/