Sri Lanka is an island in the Indian Ocean just southeast of the southernmost tip of India. The equator is only 6 degrees away from the island, which has a surface area of 65,610sq km. It is roughly the size of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxemburg together. The island is shaped like a pear. The northern part is a plain that has a dry withered appearance for most of the year and has to be irrigated from the thousands of artificial lakes that have been here since time immemorial. In these plains, we find the ruins of Polonnaruwa, one of the impressive ancient culture witnessed by the island in former times. Approaching towards the south, the plains are regularly interrupted by giant granite outcrops, rising up nakedly from out of the increasingly green landscape. Then the landscape of the interior opens up: lovely rolling hills in which the rice fields alternate with tropical woody plantations. Spices are grown here in special gardens. Beyond the magnificent cultural capital of the island, Kandy, the hills develop into mountains, reaching a height of 2524m at the peak of Mount Pidurutalagala. Conifers, eucalyptus trees and rhododendrons have replaced the tropical vegetation of the lower lying regions. The hillsides are covered in immense tea plantations which alternate with much smaller plantations of coffee, bananas or cardamom. The small houses in the mountains are painted in multiple colours, and surrounded by various types of colourful flowering trees, bushes and climbers. Descending from the mountains to the west, you end up in the greenest and most densely populated part of the island. This is coconut country. The flat coastal strip is interrupted in many places by wide shallow rivers that turn into lagoons. In the southeast, the extensive savannas are scarcely populated. They contain various nature reserves with a rich fauna - bears, panthers, elephants, wild buffaloes, deer and crocodiles are among the larger animals. The island boasts approximately 450 species of bird, including very colourful ones. There are many species of exotically colourful butterflies.
The Sri Lankan landscape has been adorned through the ages by dagobas, temples and monasteries in the most beautiful spots on the island. Thousands of sculptures, frescoes and innumerable ornate woodcarvings have lifted the spirits of Sri Lankans. Semi spherical dagobas exist in any size, from a modest earthen mound to something approaching the size of an Egyptian pyramid. In the decaying ancient royal cities it is the dagobas that reveal man’s hand influence on the landscape. A dagoba is a religious shrine. Inside all the major dagobas, a particle of the Buddha’s body is stored. These edifices are the symbol of death and the ascension into nirvana of the Buddha. Apart from the dagobas, the temples also play a major role in the veneration of the Buddha. In the early centuries, statues of the Buddha were taboo. Instead, footprints or lotus flowers symbolized the master. Also the many shoots of the original bodhi tree served to remind believers of the enlightenment of the master, exactly as they do now. The earliest examples of temples with actual portrayals of the Buddha date from the first century AD. The oldest shape was that of the vatadage: amidst concentric circles of pillars, sometimes carrying a wooden roof, a small dagoba or a Buddha could be seen. One beautiful example can be found in Polonnaruwa. In later temple shapes, the influence of Hinduism emerged. An iconography developed in which numerous subtle differences in the positions of the Buddha statues referred to different aspects of the master. From the first statues, sixty-four positions emerged, such as the sitting and meditating Buddha, the blessing Buddha with a flat hand next to the face, the teaching Buddha, the sleeping Buddha, and the Buddha who has been received into nirvana, who also lies, but now with one of his feet in a slightly different position. In the course of time, numerous bodhisattvas were added to those, so that the interior of a temple boasts a great multitude of statues as well as colourful decorations. In the earlier temples the proportions of the interior, the statues and decorations all told their stories and nothing was left to chance. In the later temples, elements of a purely decorative nature were introduced.