After many good-byes and last minute shopping, we packed our belongings and left Colombo. On the way to our new home in Kandy, the entire group was to take another extended excursion through the Northern and Eastern regions of Sri Lanka. Our first stop from Colombo was Anuradhapura. After a five hour van ride we arrived at the ancient capital and went straight to the Sri Maha Bodhi (The sacred Bo Tree).
Like the one we had visited weeks before in Kataragama, this tree was grown from a cutting from the fig under which Siddhartha Gautama meditated and reached nirvana. In the mid second century BCE, the Indian Emperor Asoka sent his daughter Princess Sanghamitta to Sri Lanka with a cutting and the tree has grown continuously at its present site . The original tree in Northern India has since died. The Bo Tree at Anuradhapura is the oldest known documented angiosperm in history making it impressive even without the religious and historical importance. The planting of the tree was happening in the era of the Punic wars, Archimedes and the Zhou Dynasty that we read about in ancient history books. For more than 2,000 years the tree has been continuously protected. At first villagers would man bonfires to ward off wild elephants. Later, special guards who received land for their protective services preserved and defended the tree, a tradition that still holds today.
In 1929, a deranged man attempted to cut down the venerable tree, but luckily managed only to sever a branch. In 1985, the Tamil tigers attacked the shrine, and while they were not successful in destroying the important Buddhist symbol, 229 monks, nuns, civilians and children were shot and more than 100 perished in the assault. Our group visited the sacred site on a day in 1982 when an important monk was coming to speak to the entire community. Villagers were placing 82,000 candles and tiny oil lamps all around the tree in anticipation of his visit. Every notch in the walls around the temple near the tree were glowing with tiny flames. Some small candles in clay bowls were used to spell out words in the dirt surrounding the temple shrine enclosure. It was a beautiful sight, the colorful prayer flags and twinkling lights giving a festive almost carnival-like atmosphere to the complex. Our group headed out before all of the lights were lit, but hundreds of villagers dressed in white mixing with monks in saffron robes readying the area for their important guest was magnificent to see. We felt important as well. Everyone was very friendly and when we attempted our rudimentary Sinhala we drew quite a crowd.
I picked up one of the fallen heart shaped leaves off of the ground and pressed it between the pages of my Sinhala book. As the years went by I would come across that leaf as I moved through the stages of my life and I would remember sitting beneath the Bo tree that day just as the Buddha had over 2,000 years ago. I can still smell the sweet lotus flowers piled as offerings mixed with the aroma of burning coconut oil in the hundreds of tiny oil lamps. I can hear the wind rustling thousands of leaves overhead while worshipers chanted quietly and hundreds padded around the shrine, their bare feet slapping against stone and sand.
In places trunks and branches strained and broke through stone enclosures erected over the centuries making Sri Maha Bodhi appear a robust thriving tree. In other areas, slender limbs had extended away from the central trunk long past where the laws of physics should allow and were propped up by bamboo or metal crutches.
Anuradhapura became one of my favorite places to show off to visitors when they came to see us in Sri Lanka. Sadly, when we visit the island in 2017, we do not have plans to make a trip to the Bo Tree or Anuradhapura. Luckily I visited this site many times between 1982 and 1983. Those interested in religion, history or botany all found it quite an impressive site.