- Tamil Nadu:
- Chennai/Madras: colonial buildings
Feb 16, Mamallapuram.
Mamallapuram, a World Heritage Site, was a rich and important city of the Pallava empire in the 7th century. Pallava art is scattered all over the town. Despite the hellish heat, my five hours of exploration were breathtaking. The Panch Rathas (630 AD) alone are worth the trip: majestic temples/sculptures carved in the living rock. There is also a pretty Shore temple (700 AD) by the sea. This shows the transition from the rock-cut temple to the free-standing temple. Same age are the Relief of Arjuna's Penance (7th c) and Relief of Krishna Mandapa (7th c) sculpted in the rock. A trail leads all over the hill overlooking the sea to find more temples and caves.
Feb 16, Kanchipuram.
Kanchipuram (which was the capital of the Pallava empire) boasts the Kailasanatha temple (720 AD), dedicated to Shiva, but the biggest is the Ekambareshvara (1506), a monster of a temple and one of the five panchalinga temples dedicated to Shiva's five manifestations (this one is "earth").
Tiruchirapalli (Trichy) has a rock temple on top of a hill (400 steps in the heat of the day), but the real highlight is the island of Shrirangam that hosts the biggest functioning Hindu temple in the world, the
Ranganatha, dedicated to Vishnu.
I lost count of the number of gopuras that preceded the actual temple.
There are 21 gopuras, and instead of the vimana there is a low building with a
The whole reminded me a bit of the Forbidden City in Beijing (in terms of buildings that keep appearing one after the other). Endless, although not necessarily the best (see Thanjavur and Mamalla for my favorites so far, and i haven't seen Madurai yet).
The Jambukeshvara, located in a nearby village, is one of the panchalinga temples, this one dedicated to Shiva as water.
Feb 17, Thanjavur.
Thanjavur (ancient capital of the Chola empire) boasts yet another World Heritage Site, Brihadiswara temple (1000 AD). The walled area alone must be one square km of buildings. The temple is built of granite. The cupola of the vimana
is an octagonal structure built out of one piece of granite. The linga is four-mter tall. The level of detail is astonishing.
Feb 18, Chidambaram.
The temple here (Nataraja) is another Chola creation (9th century). More or less: Shiva embodies the five elements in five different places and this temple is where Shiva is ether (the most sublime of elements). More interestingly, it is the place where Shiva performed his cosmic dance, a fact that prompted the artists to sculpt a lot of vivid images (the eastern gate has a series of 108 reliefs, one for each pose). The temple is different from the others because:
it has four gopuras, one per cardinal point;
all temples have "1,000 pillar halls" but this one has four halls, one prettier than the other;
it does not have the vimana, instead it houses the holy image into a small building with a golden roof (it looks more Buddhist than Hindu).
The gopuras steal the show. The eastern one alone has more than 100 sculptures.
Done with the Chola empire.
Feb 19, Madurai.
The Minakshi Sundareshvara complex (dedicated to Parvati as Minakshi and Shiva
as Sundareshvara) is colossal, but, again, size is not everything. I still rank Thanjuvar and Mamalla much higher in style.
This is also quite recent (1659), quite a jump ahead in time.
The shrines to the two deities are surrounded by
12 gopuras with layers of intricate stories.
The 1000-pillar hall has been turned into a museum of sculptures.
It takes forever to hike across it (barefoot, by law).
- Kelara: Feb 20, Kochin (former European fort) and Thrissus.
Karnataka, located on the West Coast, was ruled by different kingdoms:
Chalyuka in the 6th century;
Hoysala in the 11th-14th centuries;
Muslims in the 15th century;
Vijayanagar in the 14th-16th century;
Wodeyar in the 16th century.
Each had its own architectural style, and all left behind masterpieces.
What these styles had in common with the East Coast is the manic density of detail. That remains the main characteristic of Indian art.
Feb 20, Somnatpur.
There are three Hoysala cities left: Somnatpur, Belur and Halebid. Each about 900 years old.
The Hoysala temples are among the most intricate structures ever built, and quite different from the temples of Tamil Nadu:
they are star-shaped;
they sit on jagged platforms;
they mix curving towers (shikharas), typical of northern India, and column halls (mandapas), typical of southern India.
The statues are so complex that they looked like they were made of metal. But it is all stone (soapstone). They defy physics.
At Somnathpur, dedicated to Vishnu, sitting on the huge pedestal are three pyramids. The bottom layer has six strips of carvings: elephants, horses, flowers, crocodiles, geese and i don't remember. On top of this (that alone requires an army of sculptors) there are sculptures that represent stories of the Indian epics, each very intricate. On top of these, there are the geometric patterns that go all the way to the top. The complexity is breathtaking. It takes a while for the eye to absorb all the layers.
Feb 21, Belur.
Belur, a small village nort of Mysore/Maisur, has the Chennakeshava temple (1117).
This compound is even more complicated. First of all, it is totally asymmetric: it mixes different types of buildings, but it does not seem to have a center or an axis. The main building is another star-shaped temple, but it is surrounded by other structures. The interior is perhaps the most sophisticated that i have seen: every corner, every pillar, every part of the ceiling, and every bracket is covered with sculptures and reliefs.
Feb 22, Halebid. This time the complex sits on just one pedestal, although it
is comprised of several independent buildings. Its main feature is that it is
basically two twin temples (south and north) joined together, each with its own Nandi. The west side is carved with panels. The east side has a cylindrical
structure that joins the two temples and it has the two Nandis (the southern one
being larger than the other one, with a corrider and a cell). The eastern side also has two more entrances to the platform, besides the southern and northern ones. The platform is quite high, basically the height of a human being.
Feb 23, Hampi.
Small villages in the middle of nowhere, Hampi used to be the capital of the Vijayagar empire. Now it's several square kms of ruined buildings, but quite a site they picked. It looks like a mixture of Arizona, Yosemite and the Andes. The whole thing was carved in granite (thus the similarity with Yosemite) in a rocky landscape that goes from majestic river to lush jungle. Odd.
The main building is the Vitthala temple that contains a shrine to Garuda shaped like a four-wheel chariot.
Feb 24, Badami.
The three cities of the Chalyuka (Aihole, Badami and Patta) are the oldest in this state (sixth century).
The cities of the Chalyukas is basically where Hindu art was born. Badami was the highlight: ancient capital by a lake, surrounded by mountains. Four temples are located around the lake (which makes for a wonderful hike) and two on top of the mountain
Then Pattadakal and Aihole, that were also capitals. All temples were built
between the 6th and 8th centuries (1,400 years ago). Badami also has four caves,
three Hindu caves of the 6th century and a fourth cave (the highest one) that is Jain. Cave 1, a columned hall dedicated to Shiva, is preceded by a relief of an 18-armed Nataraja. Cave 2 is dedicated to Vishnu. Cave 3 is like a gallery of sculptures and is dominated by a central relief of a four-armed Vishnu.
Feb 25, Bijapur. Two of the outstanding Islamic monuments in India: the Gol Gumbad (1656), which Muslims claim it is the third largest dome in the world after St Peter's, and the Ibrahim Rauza mausoleum. The Gol Gumbaz is mainly famous for the "whispering gallery": the gallery around the dome where one can hear people talking from the other side (or just lighting a match).
Old Goa (old Portuguese colony, with lots of churches, but now more famous for drugs).
Feb 27, Mumbai: colonial buildings.
The island of Elephanta has Hindu caves of the 6th century. Cave number one contains the trimurti (three-headed Shiva) which is considered one of the masterpieces of Indian sculpture.
Feb 28, Lovlana.
There are several Buddhist caves near Lovlana, notably Karla and Bhaja.
Both require a short but steep hike up a hillside via well-paved staircases.
Karla was infested with aggressive monkeys but otherwise impressive. The trail continued past the chaitia (big Buddhist hall with the stupa) and became very narrow just by the edge of the cliff, with formidable exposure. This trail helps relate the caves to the landscape. While not as dramatic as the landscape of the Chinese caves (and the caves themselves are way smaller), it has its own charm. I took pictures of cacti and the likes. Not what one would expect in a Buddhist setting (no little pond, waterfall, creek, etc).
Unfortunately they built a Hindu temple right in front of the chaitia, which totally spoils the atmosphere.
Bhaja has three main caves that are totally different from each other. The first one is like the Karla cave, but the second one is an eerie chamber of human-size stupas, and the third one has some reliefs.
- March 1, Gujarat: Palitana.
This is one of wonders of the world: a huge complex of Jain temples built in the 16th century (it existed much earlier but all the original temples were destroyed by Muslim invaders in the 15th century).
The base of the hill is 2km from the bus station. One has to cross the entire town of Palitana.
It takes a while to climb to the top. There are numbers painted on the steps to tell you how far you are. There are porters that carry old (or lazy) people to the top on their "doli" (rope chairs hanging from wooden poles). There are water vendors along the way. There are security guards. And there are thousands of pilgrims of all ages.
The landscape is, yet again, not the idyllic landscape that one would expect: most of the vegetation is cacti, huge bushes of cacti (also the only shade along the trail).
At the very beginning there are two temples. I took lots of pictures thinking they were impressive, but knowing that a lot more was ahead.
The temple on the left, dedicated to Adinath
(the first Tirthankar of Jainism) was busy with rituals.
The temple on the right, dedicated to Neminath (the only Tirthankar who did not achieve nirvana here - he achieved it on Girmar Hills), is actually quite odd: it is a three-storey circular temple that resembles a bit the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, of all places).
Only at the top (after the grueling 3,000 steps) does one realize what/where the sanctuary really is. Around step 2,500 one begins to see the spires of the sanctuary. Then one gets to a fork with a huge map that has the names of all the main temples.
To the left is the main gate.
After the main gate, one realizes that there are basically three ridges covered with temples. It's a city of temples that stretches over three relatively flat ridges overlooking a big river on one side and the town of Palitana on the other side.
The ridge towards the river (Strip 1 of the temples) is the one where all the pilgrims are (and the one where the tourist has to pay for the camera permit). Very crowded, very difficult to move around, but, needless to say, very interesting because of all the rituals going on (no photography is allowed inside the temples, though).
The sequence of temples continues till the highest one, the Adishwaraji. That's a dead end. One has to go back to the main gate and then enter Strip 2, that basically consists of two walled enclosures, Sheth Motishaw Tonk (that looks brand new) and Bala Vasahi (that looks like a fort).
More stairs lead to Strip 3, that has a cluster of temples that afford the best views on the previous two strips of temples and on the valley below.
While not as elaborate at the Jain temples at Mt Abu (north of here), the sanctuary as a whole has to be seen to be believed.
- March3, West Bengal: Kolkata/Calcutta.
March 4, the Sun Temple at Konark and Bhubaneswar (state of Orissa), which is dotted with 7th-13th century temples.
The Sun Temple at Konarak was destroyed by Muslims in 1568, but what is left is still a wonder of the world (and in fact it is a World Heritage Site). There are basically six main structures:
1. Naata Mandir, a layered hall of four pillars on a 5m-high platform (decorated with dancing girls) and fronted by two lions killing elephants
2/ The platform of the Sun Temple (pitha). It is the same platform for both the viman (the temple proper) and the jagamohan (the entrance porch). It is also 5-m high. The most stunning element are the 24 wheels, each 3-meter high. Coupled with the seven life-size horses, the wheels create the impression of a giant chariot.
(Hindus claim that 24 and 7 are references to 24 hours and 7 days, but i am not sure that India at that time knew of the western division of time)
3. The porch (jagamohan) of the Sun Temple, the highest extant structure (40 meters), a colossus with a multi-layered roof (notably the four-headed statues of Shiva)
4. The viman of the Sun Temple, which is mostly collapsed but used to be the tallest building in India (70 meters). Three sun deities have survived, notably the one at the southern crypt and the one at the northern crypt.
5. The southern (horses) and northern (elephants) gates
6. Navagraha, a 26-ton stone in which the figures of the nine "planets" where sculpted.
Bhubaneswar has temples dating from the 7th century to the 11th century.
Lingaraj: only Hindus are admitted inside, but non-Hindus can observe the temple from a platform just outside its walls. It is basically a cluster of 100+ shrines. The main "deul" is 55-meter tall.
Mukteswar: has lots of reliefs, especially the female figures and the torana (gateway) that mix Jain, Buddhist and Hindu styles.
Parsuraneswar (dating from the 7th century): a square shrine plus a reactangular jagamohan, one of the oldest if not the oldest, also rich in reliefs (musicians/dancers and the elephants of the front)
Raji Rani: perhaps the best, every corner is sculpted, and there are many corners. The main attraction are the pairs of temple guardians on lotus flowers, but they are surrounded by countless other scenes (including many erotic ones). The vimana has smaller vimanas (copies of itself) that create the effect of a fractal.
Brahmeswar (9th century): looks like a prototype for the Raj Rani, with fewer corners and niches
Vaital (8th century): inside the town, near the sacred pond, with a multi-layered facade and female figures of the base
March 5, Bhubaneswar (Orissa state):
Udaigiri caves. They are Jain from the first century BC. Very low so people could not stand up. Monkeys all over.
Cave 1 (Raninur Gumpha) is two storeys, with lots of reliefs.
Cave 13 has a roof like a tiger.
Cave 10 has elephant carvings.
Cave 14 has the oldest inscription.
The Mancha Puri is a two-storey temple.
Across the street are the Kundagiri caves, notably number 3.
- March 6, Chennai/Madras
- March 7-9, Sri Lanka
Anuradhapura was the first capital of Sri Lanka.
Its best ruins are the Buddhist stupas/pagodas.
Thuparama (3rd c BC): oldest stupa (1st century BC), sitting on a circular paved platform (empty of any other structures), with roof pillars still standing and shrines at four cardinal points that look like huts.
Jetawanarama (3rd C AD): tallest stupa, a red brick structure on a vast paved elevated square platform with four entrance staircases fronted by four square halls each facing a decorated shrine flanked by statues before the three-tier circular support for the stupa, which is topped by a cube and a spire.
Ruvanveli Mahaseya (2nd c BC): holiest stupa, only one hall before staircase, staircases flanked by statues and dozens of lifesize elephants supporting the elevated square platform that contains: 4 shrines around the stupa (the western one has snakes and elephants), 4 smaller stupas at each corner, shrine of Buddha fronted by five Buddhas (or, better, 4+1 Buddhas), an ancient statue in a glass enclosure, the usual three-tier base of the stupa topped with a cube and a spire.
The largest ruins belong to what used to be the Abhayagiriya monastery (1st c BC).
Polonnaruva has two main attractions: the Sacred Quadrangle and the Gol Vihara.
The Sacred Quadrangle contains a variety of structures:
Vatadage Stupa of 1187: two circular platforms, the higher one walled and containing four Buddhas and a mound, the main gate facing north, the steps to each Buddha guarded by a pair of guardians
Hadatage Stupa (119#) in which three statues are still standing
Satmahal Prasada (a multi-storey stupa)
Galpota (an ancient inscription)
Nissankalata Mandapa (a hall)
The Gol Vihara is a short distance away: it consists of four colossal Buddhas carved in the rock.
Finally there are also the vast ruins of what must have been another wonder: the Alahana Parivera monastery (many crematory mounds).
Dambula welcomes the tourist with a brand new colossal Buddha. A few hundred steps lead to the five cave that make up the temple.
Each cave is a show of statues and paintings, built starting from the 3rd century or so.
Cave 1 is mostly taken up by a reclined Buddha.
Cave 2 (the largest one and most lavishly decorated) has a colorful ceiling (part of the rock in which it is built) and a parade of deities of various size and shape lined along the walls around the three foci of attention: a standing diety on the left, a stupa with several Buddhas (notably a cobra-crowned one) and, on the right, a reclined Buddha flanked by a female and a male figure
Cave 3 has a reclined Buddha on the left surrounded by Buddhas of various size
Cave 4 is a small grotto with a stupa surrounded by statues and paintings of Buddhas
Cave 5, another small one, has a reclined Buddha between two Buddhas facing each other
Sigiriya has four attractions: the ruins of the 5th century royal palace built on top of a rocky hill, the vast royal gardens at its base (among the oldest extant gardens in Asia), the Buddhist caves dating from the 3rd century BC, and (first and foremost) the hike/climb to get to the palace.
The hike starts from the village (which is one small unpaved square with two small souvenir stalls) via a well-maintained trail through the jungle.
Suddenly the jungle ends and one enters the royal gardens, from which the rocky hill is very visible.
Several staircases lead up the hill. Initially they are just steep. Then you wonder how they will manage to climb a vertical wall of rock.
Two spiral staircases are part of the solution (they lead to some 5th century frescoes).
and metal staircases on the side solve the problem. One wonders how the king used to get up there before they built the metal staircases. It must have been a hell of a hike for him (or his porters).
From the top one has a great view of the jungle on one side and of the royal gardens on the other side.
But now the palace is in ruin. Its only inhabitants are very small monkeys.
The most impressive structure along the way is a colossal lion's paw sculpted in the rock
(there are actually two). Among the caves the most famous is the one that has a cobra-like roof.
Negombo (pronounced Nigambo) is a tourist village by the sea, about 15 minutes from the Colombo airport. The airport is quite far from the capital Colombo but very near this village, that has hundreds of guest houses, restaurants, travel agencies. It's mostly deserted by tourists because of the civil war, but potentially this could be a major tourist spot. It's a Catholic town, and both Italian and German are widely spoken.
Pictures of this trip
Monuments of India
Essay: why south India?
The big difference from the north is in the kind of things to visit. North India has a lot of Islamic monuments (most famous the Taj Mahal) and Hindu/Buddhist temples that are relatively compact. South India has colossal complexes of temples. See "Why South India" for details.
Weather. Very hot. For them it's not even summer yet. I don't want to be here in summer. The heat starts at 6am and goes on till 8pm. Hard to breathe. I have an Alaskan hat that i thought would bring me good weather karma but it's definitely not working! Anyway, i'm getting used to sweating from morning till evening. As long as it doesn't rain.
The good news is that it's really easy to wash my clothes. They dry overnight. Even better if they are still slightly wet in the morning.
Eating watermelons whenever i can (a nickel a slice). The first three days i felt constantly dehydrated.
Luckily temples have free water (if you trust it).
Food. The default choice is vegetarian and it is meat eaters who have to struggle to find their food.
Bottom line: food is good and extremely cheap (hard to spend $1 for a full meal - most items are 15-20 rupies, $1=40 rupies)
Almost everywhere you eat on banana leaf (with your hands of course).
The rule is: if there are Muslims in town, then there is also non-vegetarian food.
Hotel. Mostly very clean, no matter how basic. Hard to spend more than $10 in the south of India.
The epic story is, as usual, toilet paper. You can buy just about everything at the market and in the stores, except toilet paper. They send you to a store the other side of town, and, if you are lucky, they have a very tiny roll of toilet paper that they exhibit like some kind of expensive foreign item. I keep buying newspapers.
Language. Outside of the big cities i don't understand their English and they don't understand mine. The good news is that my Tamil accent seems to be ok because they always understand me when i say something in Tamil.
Yes. Besides eating with your hands and the likes, the biggest cultural shock is actually the way people say "yes": by shaking their head. This does cause some funny misunderstandings, because to everybody else that means "no". And viceversa: when i shake my head to mean "no", they assume that i mean "yes". I have learned not to move my head, period.
Transportation. I never had to wait more than 15 minutes for a bus. They go fast. Actually faster than you'd like to. For a hair-rising experience sit next to the driver.
Again, hard to spend $1 even for 200 km trips.
Buses do not have doors: what's the point of doors when it is so hot?
In the cities i am using auto-rickshaws a lot (three-wheeled vehicles). I generally like to walk around, but here it is senseless: you sweat a lot, waste time, and rickshaws are pennies per km.
Plus a bit of wind feels really good after hours in the heat.
Every bus is a shopping mall: before it leaves and at every major stop, street vendors board it and sell just about everything. This is actually welcome, because prices are really competitive.
The fact that buses frequently break down is not such bad news because it allows me to take close pictures of nature and people.
Trains are a bit more annoying. It is true that one can read and write on a train (in the unlikely event that i was able to reserve a seat) and that one does not risk her/his life, but 1. buying the ticket is a nightmare; 2. the stench of urine is pervasive; 3. they are frequently overcrowded; 4. the staff is frequently unfriendly; 5. many more vendors scour trains than buses.
Trains are a better option for longdistance travel, especially overnight.
Trains and buses tend to depart on time (unlike flights, that are alwaysone/two hours late).
People. Very friendly. I also have no indication of crime. There are homeless and beggars, especially near temples, but pretty much like San Francisco (and much less obnoxious).
I have left several times my luggage on the sidewalk to walk away and take a photo. Anybody could have tried to grab it and run. So far it feels very very safe. It feels like theft is just not part of this culture.
Think the opposite of Latin America...
Most people seem to be very honest. If i pay too much (stupid Indian coins that all look the same),they return the extra.
Generally speaking, Indians seem to underestimate themselves, their country and their civilization. Despite the fact that they have temples that make the European cathedral look like children's toys and that they have hundreds of colossal narrative poems, they seem to take for granted that the West is superior. They have a 4,000 year old civilization that rivals China's, but it is stunning (for someone who was in China last year) how proud the Chinese are and how humble the Indians are. There is virtually no nationalistic overtone to any conversation on India.
Crowds. Needless to say, crowds are apocalyptic. But China was a good training ground. No crowd scares me anymore. True: in India you have to deal with crowds at the same time that you have to deal with hellish temperatures. But i can manage, so far. Sometimes the sweat is physically making me blind, and it's a bit annoying if someone comes bugging me right at that moment.
I won't have pictures of overcrowded buses because i can't physically pull out the camera.
I think China is more brutal. Also, Indians are more helpful,which helps manage the overcrowded situations. And more honest.
The sensory overload can be overwhelming but also exhilarating. It totally distorts the senses. For example, things always look farther than they are because there are an infinite number of objects (bicycles, motorcycles, buses, rickshaws, pedestrians, animals) and sounds (screaming, horns, engines, loud music) between you and your destination, no matter how close it is.
Children. Many children will ask for a pen, not money. Buy lots of pens to give away to children. Much healthier than giving them money.
Tour guides. Most temples are so complex that a tour guide is indispensable. Unfortunately i never saw anyone wearing a uniform. Many people display a name tag but anyone can fake that one. So it is virtually impossible for a tourist to know if a man is a real guide or just a tout.
Women seem to be more emancipated in the sounth than in the north. Maybe the influence of Islam makes a difference?
Pollution/deforestation. Pollution would not be so bad if it weren't for the West's favorite material, that is rapidly changing the landscape of India: plastic. I took pictures near temples of huge areas completely covered with plastic bags and plastic bottles.
I was very pleased to see big signs near historical monuments that say "This is a plastic-free zone" and then explicitly ban plastic bags and plastic bottles. Wow. India teaching civilization to westerners. About time.
More striking is actually the way Indians have erased the jungle from most of the territory. One can tell than many of these rice fields and towns used to be deep thick jungle, but only a few banana and conocut trees are left. One can't blame them though: Europeans did the same to Europe. There is no other way to feed people than to grow food.
The worst pollution is caused by tourists: plastic bags and plastic bottles everywhere.
There are signs across India forbidding plastic but western tourists ignore them.
Temples. Strictly barefoot, and sometimes no shoes either, and sometimes no shorts either.
The temples are usually free, but there is a charge for cameras. Alas, each temple is the territory of one or more hustler who pretends to be a government official and wants to charge something to see the temple. Naive tourists probably spend a fortune. These thugs are not aggressive though, so they don't bother me that much. Just something that the Indian government should take care of.
The internet is very cheap and very fast just about everywhere.
Negative impressions. The main one is about doing business, actually. Unlike the Arabs, who will sell you anything you want, the Indians tend to sell you what they have, not what you want. The best example is, of course, toilet paper. When you find it, it is actually very cheap. They could charge me ten times more and i would still buy it. But it is very difficult to find it. On the other hand, in front of every monument there are countless children selling photos to tourists, despite the fact that just about every tourist has a camera. It is puzzling that they try to sell something that tourists obviously don't need but don't even think of selling what tourists obviously need.
Most westerners are also terrified by the number of people begging for money, especially at train and bus stations (when you are more tense and apprehensive). The truth is that they follow us for the simple reason that they know that we give them money. It is just a matter of time, and they have all the time in the world. It is hard to blame them. Would you abandon a gold mine? Why should they abandon you? They will follow you until you give them money. They know that, statistically, you will. If you don't want them to follow you, don't give them money. It is westerners that create the problem. They simply adapt to what the westerners do. It is indeed hard to get rid of them, and they are so noisy that they spoil the atmosphere in any temple, but one gets used to it. And, again, i blame the westerners more than them for this bad habit.
See my website for the charity organizations that i recommend.
Trip difficulty: easy to moderate
Length: 28 days
The international airport is closer to Negombo than to Colombo, and Negombo has plenty of hotels and guesthouses.
Colombo is about two hours by bus from the airport (bus number 187 that costs 100 rupees or $1 from the airport's bus depot, which is itself a ten-minute walk from the airport) or about one hour by train (from the airport's train station, that one usually reaches by tuk tuk, but trains are rare).
Visa upon arrival: $15.
Sri Lanka is Buddhist, not Hindu. That is the main difference with India.
Nor do they like Indians/Hindus.
Compared to India, this is a silent country. There is very little noise, even in big cities (but then there are no big cities except the capital).
It is a clean and safe country. Traffic is relatively orderly.
It is hard to believe that there is a civil war going on.
There are no apocalyptic crowds to fight with, although public transportation can be very crowded.
That is because buses and trains are not as frequent as in India.
It can be very expensive in the "historic triangle" (i have seen internet at $3 an hour).
The ticket to visit all the ruins is $40, the most i have ever paid in my life.
Being a country in the middle of a civil war and just recovering from a tsunami that killed 80,000 people, i was a bit surprised that it is more expensive than India. Unlike Hindu temples and CHristian churches that are (almost) always free of charge, Buddhist temples are religiously controlled by monks that charge a fee for everything.
Yet another demonstration of Buddhist greed (Buddhist countries tend to be much more money-driven).
The country is also much more westernized than India.
The historic triangle is mostly visited via jungle villages. The lodges are as clean as it gets in the jungle.
The triangle can be done in two days if you are a fast walker/biker. Each of the ancient ruins takes 3-4 hours if you are a maniac of ancient ruins like me.
Best is to rent a bicycle and visit the ancient ruins by bike and on foot.
Sri Lanka has four World Heritage Sites: the 2,000 year-old capital of Anuradhapura (i have a passion for abandoned cities and this one will definitely make the list, see the entry for Hampi too) the 12th-century capital of Polonnaruva the 2nd-century rock temple of Dambula (five caves carved in the rock) the 5th-century royal palace of Sigiriya on top of a rocky hill Unfortunately, the ticket to see all of them (the "historic triangle") is ridiculoudly expensive: $40. And it doesn't even include everything. And you can't even take pictures at the museums.