Journey to the ephemeral kingdom of Yapahuwa


The carriage kept swaying gently from left to right putting everyone on board to sleep, including the standing passengers, as if we were all in a gigantic baby cot. However, it was a very welcome feeling after the hour-long delay we experienced at Veyangoda (a typical railway experience in a developing country). My target was to visit one of the many Kingdoms of Sri Lanka, called Yapahuwa, a place that has nearly a millennium of history behind it. Our succession of Kingdoms is spread nearly all around the country, from ancient Anuradhapura through Pollonnaruwa, Dambadeniya, Yapahuwa, Kurunegala, Gampola, Kotte and Kandy. Lets also not forget Panduwasnuwara, Jaffna, Sithawaka and many other ancient towns that served as hideouts for our ancient kings.

Yapahuwa remained a kingdom only for a very short time (just over 11 years) but the architecture and the history it bears is enormous. I was tempted numerous times in the past to visit this majestic place, and finally my dream came true after a lot of deliberation. The train eventually got to Maho Junction station (“Mahawa” in Sinhala) and my friend Dimuthu and I got down in a hurry and ran towards the bus stand in search of a bus. We were behind time thanks to a failure in the signalling system and wanted to catch up as much time as possible because we were to take the return train from Maho at 01.30 PM.

Fortunately there was a bus just about to leave, and while my friend got onto the bus, I ran to a nearby shop hoping to buy some takeaway breakfast. The shop assistant fumbled with some string hoppers and rolls in his hurry to send off the worked-up customer that stormed his quiet little shop in the morning. Laden with what little I could grab, I ran back to the bus, which was jam-packed, and managed to force myself in.

The 6km journey felt like 60km inside the crammed bus that moved at snail’s pace. No amount of my willpower could make it go any faster, and after what felt like an eternity, we finally got off at our destination. I was so glad to be on open ground where I took in a long breath of the clean oxygen that I was deprived of during the bus ride. The entrance to the former kingdom was right in front of us and I impatiently dragged my friend towards it.

Entering into the compound, I felt like being in a different world; it probably was all those spirits from hundreds of years ago still hovering about guarding the kingdom against evil. I’ve managed to dig some key facts about this fascinating place. To quote my sources:

Yapahuwa served as the capital of Sri Lanka in the latter part of the 13th century (1273–1284). Built on a huge, 90 meter high rock boulder in the style of the Sigiriya rock fortress, Yapahuwa was a palace and military stronghold against foreign invaders.

The palace and fortress were built by King Buvanekabahu I (1272–1284) in the year 1273. Many traces of ancient battle defences can still be seen, while an ornamental stairway is its biggest showpiece. On top of the rock are the remains of a stupa, a Bodhi tree enclosure, and a rock shelter/cave used by Buddhist monks, indicating that earlier this site was used as a Buddhist monastery, like many boulders and hills in the area.

The Tooth Relic was brought from Dambadeniya and kept in the Tooth Temple built for the purpose at the top of the third staircase. The relics were carried away from the temple here to South India by the Pandyas, and then recovered in 1288 by Parakkramabahu III (1287–1293), who temporarily placed them in safety at Polonnaruwa.

In 1272, King Bhuvenakabahu transferred the capital from Polonnaruwa to Yapahuwa in the face of Dravidian invasions from South India, bringing the Sacred Tooth Relic with him. Following the death of King Bhuvenakabahu in 1284, the Pandyans of South India invaded Sri Lanka once again, and succeeded in capturing Sacred Tooth Relic. Following its capture, Yapahuwa was largely abandoned and inhabited by Buddhist monks and religious ascetics.”

The whole surroundings looked serene and tranquil. I spotted a cashew tree someway off and practically ran towards it. I know what you’re thinking now, maybe even laughing at me.

“Cashew Tree?”

“Big Deal?”

Yeah, it really was a very big deal as the concrete jungle of Colombo has lost many kinds of trees completely, and for the people like myself who’ve made Colombo their home, we don’t even know what we are missing until we go out of the city and lay our eyes on rarities like these. The tree was full of cashew flowers and some fruits too, to my sheer delight. I was staring at them large-eyed as if it was the most singularly fascinating thing I’ve ever come across.

“We’re running out of time. I don’t think we came here all the way from Colombo to see a cashew tree” my friend gently reminded me, smashing my day-dream like an egg falling on concrete. In the distance, the Yapahuwa Rock was standing tall, seemingly fighting the rising fierce sun. I wanted to take a look at the outer wall of the castle and went along the perimeter wall that was about 3ft in width (which made it easy for the guardsmen to walk on). There was a sizeable portion of the wall still remaining, but the unforgiving weather and careless tourists had helped it on its way to decay.

Beyond the wall was the canal, created all around the castle, which had been about 50ft in width and fairly deep, and infested with vicious animals such as crocodiles so as to protect the fortress against invaders. What would it have been like at its heyday, I kept wondering every second. After a brief stroll we decided to go and see the hallmark of the complex, the mighty stony stairway leading to the second level where the sacred tooth relic was kept in a special temple.

I wanted to admire this mighty creation as long as I could. There was a huge Khomba or Margosa Tree (Azadirachta indica) under which were a few rocky slabs where we sat and enjoyed the splendour of this marvel. The shade made me feel calm and relaxed. A light breeze was blowing from nowhere, enveloping our parched skin and making my eyelids droop. It was so soothing that I just wanted to lie down and let go of all the exhaustion, pain and sorrows. It was no wonder the meditating monks find this place an ideal location for their task of gaining enlightenment.

I was lost in reverie when I heard “Hey! Wakey wakey”; my friend was shouting at my ear and I felt like the proverbial Lankan rabbit who got scared that the world is collapsing, having heard a woodapple fall on a dry coconut leaf. Dragging myself with an enormous effort to my feet, I drank some water to regain my bodily autofocus system. The sun had got fiercer but the breeze too gotten stiffer, restoring the balance. We reached the base of the stairway; it seemed very steep, probably a 70-degree elevation. The finishing of the stairs was exceedingly smooth, with gigantic rocky slabs for the steps welded together by a unique mixture of cement. Rocky pillars bordered the stairway with various magnificent designs on them, done by ancient craftsmen.


There were quite a lot of different designs crafted to perfection. I can never figure out how on earth they created such flawless art hundreds of years ago. Even in the 21st century with all the machinery and computers, we’d still have a helluva time doing something similar. I felt very proud of being a Sri Lankan; our ancestors have been true geniuses who were second to none of their contemporaries in other civilizations. We started climbing and the steepness was such that you could almost feel the upper steps on your nose and forehead. I lost count of the number of steps but looking back, there might’ve been about a hundred in all.

A most remarkable sight was the Yapahuwa Lion; a pair of stone carved Lion sculptures kept midway of the stairway as if guarding the entrance to the palace and the temples above. This very same sculpture was pictured in the former Sri Lankan 10-rupee note. So here I was right in front of the sculpture that I could only see previously on a 10-rupee note, almost able to touch. The incessant rains and sun had taken its toll but they still looked seamless and elegant. The rocky surface was so smooth you could probably brush it with your cheek with no damage to your skin whatsoever.

I was not only mesmerized but also hypnotized by the sheer beauty of these. How clever our ancestors must have been that they made a majestic creation like this out of rugged stone? I could’ve easily spent the rest of the day admiring these two beautiful lions, but as expected my friend nudged me a few times, reminding me that there was a long way to go.

YapahuwaTemplePainting4-DanushkaSenadheeraWe stepped onto the second level where the foundation of the palace and the temple of the tooth was located. There was someone sweeping the area, and, noticing us, he stopped what he was doing and asked if we were “tourists”. We said we were and he started to educate us about this place at machine gun fire pace. I could hardly keep up with the unravelling history, and my friend looked nothing short of being dumbfounded. I had to put on my “bulletproof vest” and face this barrage of armour-piercing rounds. I just told him in my best authoritative voice that we were not foreigners but the locals who’d studied history as a part of our free education not too long ago, and that we could still recall some of the basics.

He looked disappointed but got the message. Thereafter he became more friendly and started showing us around, including a tunnel right under the top portion of the stone stairway, that allegedly led to a nearby hill about 1~2 KM away. He explained that the king had dug it in case of an invasion, to flee with the tooth relic. Looking back at our history, this seemed a very plausible explanation. We were able to squeeze through about 10ft into the tunnel before it descended too steeply for us to continue.

I marvel at the sheer ingenuity of our ancestors. We saw the smooth stone carvings that would be considered as a fabulous even by today’s construction standards. Legend says that the ancient engineers had a special liquid that could melt stone and reshape it in any way you want such as you do with clay. I know it’s hard to believe but looking at these precision carvings, one can’t think of any other explanation either.

The rock towered above our heads, and my friend said that it was time for us to leave, but we had some time left for the train. The person who was chatting to us asked if we were scared of heights. “Why on earth should you ask that” I shot back. Then he very calmly said that the rock could be climbed. “Are you kidding?” my friend asked. “No, I’m not. It’s very easy and there’s a nice path right up to the top” he proudly announced. “Well, are you gonna take us or can we do it on our own?” I was highly agitated now. “No guides needed sir; even a kid can find his way up there.”

We thanked him profusely, and after getting more info about the climb, and of course after giving him a substantial tip for his troubles, we started our ascent to the summit of this majestic rock that in many ways resembles the Sigiriya, the eighth wonder of the world. It was not as difficult as I expected and we made very good time going uphill on the path that bordered the mighty rock to its right. There was another group of people who were labouring up and I felt sorry for a couple of little girls who were panting with their tongues hanging out just like little puppies after a long run. “Have you any water?” they pleaded but unfortunately we didn’t have any either, because none of us had expected to climb the rock.

About halfway up, we could see an opening that showed the top of the rock; well, not the very top but just below it. My friend cheered as if we were about to set foot on top of this Mount Everest. All of a sudden the trees that provided the much-needed shade from the scorching hot sun disappeared, bringing us to an open area just below the summit.  There were about two-dozen steps carved into the rocky surface, and having climbed these we noticed a somewhat larger cave to our right. The path to the top was to our left, the other side offered a terrific view, and we saw miles and miles of lush greenery in the form of paddy fields, forests and hills stretching into the horizon.

The constant breezes kept us sane and cool from the scalding sun’s rays. We pushed onward to the last stretch and arrived at a large flat area that had ruins of an ancient Pagoda (Stupa) and a pond next to it. The whole area was the size of perhaps half a football ground, and at places we could clearly see the foundations of the buildings that must’ve been standing proudly during the heyday of the Yapahuwa Kingdom. The bricks they used were twice the size of what we use nowadays, and the mixture they used to bind them together is said to have included bee honey.

I was mesmerized by the sheer ingenuity of these engineering marvels. We roamed around taking pictures and peering at everything as if we were in an alien land. My friend was worse, he kept sniffing at everything like a Giant Californian Rabbit and I couldn’t help laughing at him like an idiot. We were back in our childhood, carefree and being childish and acted like silly school kids surprising the second crowd who’d finally managed to reach the summit. Those thirsty girls looked so pale, they’d have given me a fright if it were dark.

Little by little they seemed to recover. Who could feel down and out for long with such a breath-taking view, and a feeling like you’re about to be blown into the wind? They had to fight hard not to drink from the ancient pond, which had collected some rainwater over time but was probably far from hygienic. We savoured the moment, taking deep lungful’s of air that went to our bloodstream revived our souls.

In our enthusiasm we’d completely forgotten the string hoppers we’d packed with us. Finding a nice shady tree, we unwrapped the parcel only to find the curry no longer in edible condition. Gosh! Well you don’t expect curries to last that long, back from early morning. Setting them aside, we were stuck with only the string hoppers and the rolls, and we started wolfing them down as if it was the last meal we were gonna have. For some strange reason, it tasted better that usual and we wished we’d got more.

Collecting all the remains and packing them carefully into our backpacks (if you can’t take your litter back with you or dispose them of properly at designated points, well you shouldn’t bother coming to places like these because they’re not for you) and started the downhill journey. It was a walk in the park compared to what it was like coming up. Being thrilled like never before must’ve helped the cause too. We reached the top of the magical stairway to find the gentleman who helped us still sweeping the courtyard.

“How was the climb, sir?” – He asked ever so cheerfully.

“It was like magic, thanks a lot for telling us about it” – We both said in unison. We were smiling from ear to ear and he too must’ve felt our joy. We kept chatting for a bit more and then bid our farewell to him thanking him once again.

Time had flown while we weren’t looking. It’d just past 1.00 PM and we had to hurry to go catch the 1.30 PM train. We ran to the entrance frantically searching for a way to get to the station soon, but none was available, even the tuk-tuks that seem to roam 24/7 were nowhere to be seen. It was just another unsaid and unwritten Murphy’s Law in action: “you don’t get what you look for when you need”. We kept walking in circles kicking stones making dust storms around us, to no avail. After what felt like an eternity, a CTB (Ceylon Transport Board) bus came and we boarded hurriedly and sat in the back.

The driver didn’t share the same urgency as us, and kept idling his engine waiting for more passengers. I went over the edge and asked the conductor when they’d reach Maho, and he very calmly replied “around 1.45 PM”. I felt like getting down and running all the way to the station, but realized in this heat I’d not have lasted more than a couple of hundred meters. Finally we heard the sound of changing gears and we were on the move.

The conductor was true to his words and we reached Maho just before 1.45 PM, and we practically jumped out of the bus and ran to the train station. To our horror, there was a long blue & white train about 100 M away seemingly pulling out. I wiped my eyes and soon realized it was the train idling at the station. Crashing onto the ticket counter and panting from twenty to dozen, I asked “is this the train going to Colombo?” and the officer calmly declared that it was and that it won’t leave for another 10 minutes.

I felt my knees buckle under my own weight, as it could no longer bear the excitement. “We made it buddy”, I shouted as we got the tickets. For the first time in my life, I was thanking the railway officials for being late. If not for the delay, we’d have had to wait another 3 hours for the next train and I’m sure that wait would’ve sent me mad.

We got in and sat down on the hard plastic seats and I closed my eyes, reflecting the day’s events. I guess I saw myself in the old days, when the Yapahuwa was in its golden era bustling with horses and elephants. I was lost in a reverie until the train arrived two and half hours later at Colombo Fort. Our journey was at its end.

Story | Sri Abeywickrema
Photography | Danushka Senadheera

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