Another dusty hot day at another temple. I would often accompany Dad on his research excursions and on some of these investigative trips he would take an opportunity to visit temples or statues that he had not yet seen. On this particular day, we left Kandy in the morning and traveled several hours North and East to Polonnaruwa, an ancient Sri Lankan capital. The golden age of this sprawling city was during the reign of King Parākramabāhu (1153-1186).
This King is credited with saying “Do not let a drop of water seep into the ocean without benefiting mankind” and his planning and forward thinking led to numerous reservoirs and irrigation systems throughout the area which allowed the area to flourish. Buddhism and art also blossomed when Parākramabāhu was in power and there are many beautiful statues and carvings that can still be seen there today. I am very excited to revisit the ancient site when we return to Sri Lanka.
In 1982, while we were on the island, Polannaruwa was named an UNESCO world heritage site. Also in 1982, Duran Duran filmed parts of one of its iconic videos amidst the ruins of the ancient city. I was very excited to recognize familiar sites when watching “Save a Prayer” on Friday Night Videos when I returned to the United States.
On this trip, we were not visiting the well-known towering statues of the Buddha or the crumbling palace. We were visiting a small shrine on the outskirts of the city where my father was looking for some carved symbols. Unlike the more famous and popular large stuppas and stone Buddhas, the building we were visiting was not inundated by tourists. When we arrived, the building appeared empty until we caught site of a man sitting cross-legged in the shadows next to the door. He was carving a long piece of wood in his lap. Shavings covered his sarong and his bony legs and several completed walking sticks rested against the stone entrance. We greeted the silver-haired man as we grew closer and as he lifted his head to return our hello we saw that his eyes resembled saucers of milk. Cataracts completely obscured his vision but his carvings were amazing. The walking sticks were covered in intricate depictions of some of Sri Lanka’s most iconic imagery – stupas, lotus flowers, elephants, dancers, rice paddies, tea workers… He ran his fingers over the stick he was carving – an almost finished depiction of the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy was taking shape at the top. My father expressed an interest in the carving and the man quoted a price that was much too low for his fine work, but still higher than we knew we should pay. He indicated he would be done soon and my father could purchase it. Dad indicated he would think about it.
We all slipped off our shoes and left the old man to his artistry. After my father had examined the temple, we exited the structure and watched the old man work on his carving. It was late afternoon and a large troop of monkeys seemed to be interested in our group. The blind man smiled as his calloused hands worked the knife with surprising dexterity. He quoted my father a price much lower than his original asking and my father agreed. Black monkey eyes peered at us over the edge of the temple roof. A few frolicked in nearby trees. Others sat seemingly uninterested scratching their bellies on the crumbling wall surrounding the structure. As we chatted with the carver, suddenly we heard a ruckus behind us and turned to see three monkeys scampering up the side of the building and leaping one by one from the roof to a nearby branch which bent almost to the ground under their weight before springing back in the air.
“What does he have in his hands?” Dad asked pointing to one. I strained to see what it was as the monkey began banging the object against the trunk. Something dropped to the ground as a second smaller monkey grabbed for the object. Not wanting to give up his prize, the larger monkey scampered off into the tree chased by his friend. We turned back to the man who was brushing tiny shavings from crevices along the stick. By the time the walking stick was finished and we had praised the old man’s work, the sun was just above the horizon. We thanked him and went to put back on our shoes. Mine were nowhere to be found. It was then that we realized what the monkeys had been holding as they played in the trees. We walked over to the base of the tree and searched for the object we had seen fall, but could not find either of my shoes.
We had packed a small bag and were staying the night in Pollonaruwa, and the flip flops I had been wearing were the only pair I had with me. The blind carver shook his fist at the trees and yelled at the animals to bring back my shoe, but apparently they were not inclined to listen. So, we hopped back in the van and drove into town where our driver said we were sure to find a Bata shoe store.
We did spot the familiar red logo along the main street, but when we arrived the metal gate was already shut and the lights were off. The store would not open until morning. So, like so many that walked up and down the streets of Pollanaruwa without shoes on a regular basis, I went barefoot. It was a strange sensation to walk along the sidewalks with no shoes. Although the sun had set, the pavement was still warm. I paid special attention to avoid the murky red puddles near doorways that I knew to be places where people had spit out the juice of chewed betel nuts.
The next morning we got to the shoe store just as the clerk pushed open the creaky metal gate and purchased the only pair of shoes in my size they had – a two toned pair of leather sandals that I wore until I returned to the United States and my toes grew well past the ends. I loved those shoes. The salesman chuckled when I told him why I needed new footwear and said surely the blind man had trained the monkeys to grab shoes from the temple tourists. I disagreed and explained they seemed more like mischievous adolescents than hardened criminals. “Maybe the monkey hopes to impress his lady friend,” joked the salesmen and promised to keep an eye out for a primate wearing a used pair of size four flip flops.