Shoe Money: The Price of Admission

“You must give him twenty-five rupees to guard your shoes while you view the Avukana Buddha. You can pay for my shoes as well.”

“But, Shirly, there’s no one visiting the Buddha but you and me, and that young fellow far off with the umbrella.” I sputtered under the thick drizzle. My protest that only three humans and the shoe guard stood at this World Heritage site during a major storm and one of them did not have to protect my sandals. Shirly was resolute that I pay the shoe guard.

My guide, Shirly Fernando (in Sri Lanka, Shirly is a man’s name), commanded me to remove my sandals and hand them over to the elderly gentleman whose face wore its ruddy complexion with dignity. The shoe guard, garbed in plain white shirt, bedraggled beige trousers, and errant flip-flops squared his shoulders with an air of importance. Next to his hand ancient folded hands resting on the counter a sign declared in Sinhalese and in English: “The Office.”

I forked over the fifty rupees, the equivalent of thirty-eight cents US. The Buddha guard nodded and smiled. He accepted my designer sandals and Shirl’s worn brown loafers with reverence. He placed them softly on a shelf behind him. He then nodded for us to proceed to the Buddha.

The Office, as the placard indicated, represented an all-ramshackle stall, with shelving for tourist and devotee shoes and other items. The shelves, currently the palest of blue, needed paint. Fronted by a short concrete wall and worn out board counter, the Office served as a locker room of sorts for visitor valuables at the Aukana Buddha near the village of Avukana in north central Sri Lanka. Atop the bleached board an alabaster Buddha statuette relaxed in full lotus surrounded by yellow mum-like blossoms. An odor of must and mildew permeated the atmosphere, wetted by the current continuous deluge. A basket marked “donations”, again in Sinhalese and English, rested next to the Buddha. The stubble-faced, toothless old man, thin and clearly weighing less than me, also guarded the wicker container.

We waded through puddles formed by gigantic fat drops dumping from the sky, Shirly proffering me the large white and green stripped golfer’s umbrella while he shielded his body with a piece of cardboard. The shoe guard immediately ran after him with a very collapsible parasol.

At first, the monsoon downpour warmed and cleansed my bare feet. I stepped gingerly on the gravel path to where the carved Buddha nestled with a large image house, as if framing the magnificent statue. But the morning’s short trek to this “sun eating” Buddha was anything but luminous and bright. The guide books and postcards promised the Aukana Buddha as the “most perfectly preserved ancient statue in Sri Lanka.” The nearly thirty-nine-foot high carved figure, depicts a variation of the Abhaya mudra pose, standing with right hand up in greeting and the left hand on its shoulder easily holding up the thirty-five-foot high pleated train of its golden granite robe. The Aukana Buddha seems to pause on the three-foot pedestal, raising its grandeur quotient. Facing the Kala Wewa reservoir, the Buddha gazes at all supplicants and visitors with a face lost in tranquility. Still tethered by stone to its back, the Avukana Buddha stopped me and my grumbling. In glorious sunlight, it’s said to shimmer.  In heavy rain, it shimmers still.

This day, the walls of monsoon rain created a different feeling. Unseasonal showers may have changed some of the experience of this grand site. However, the “sun eating” Buddha stunned with his massive thighs sensually outlined by carved pleats, his pouting lips and tight coiled hair adding a radiance to his presence, even in the downpour. Standing barefoot, my cold slippery soles squishing in the surface mud, I forgot my irritation for the show money shakedown. It was then I notice the Buddha wore no shoes.

Shoe money became routine requirement on my journey around Old Ceylon, that teardrop of an island off southeast India. At the Golden Buddha, at Polonnaruwa, at every Sri Lankan ancient Heritage site, Shirly reminded me to pay this stipend. As pilgrim tourist, I repeatedly removed my shoes, and tread over sharp shrine stones interstrewn with spiky pebbles, bird feces, and random insects dead and alive.

“Every rupee helps my countrymen and countrywomen,” Shirly was a one-man save the Sri Lankans campaign. He shared his rationale for shoe money more than once. Every rupee helps, he said, with taxes increasing, gas price rising, a repeated refrain at each shrine.

“How can you save everyone here, Shirly? What is your government doing to help the people?” Shirly looked over his right shoulder, then slowly to his left.

“The government does some, but not enough. It’s better now after the war with the Tamils ended last year. The Tamils who pick tea in the mountains where we will go now have cement block houses, no more mud and waddle that wash away with the monsoons.”

At Sigiriya, or Lion’s Rock, the city in the sky built by King Kasyapa in the fifth century CE (Common Era or AD), I spied a stack of unguarded miscellaneous shoes, sandals, and flip-flops.

“Shirley, who would ever dig through the pile of footwear at a hole, or a tourist, site and take a pair of shoes,” I again argued with my intrepid guide.

“It happened once with one of my guests.” Shirly’s faced flushed with remembrance. “We came back from the temple at Anuradhapura and a gentleman’s shoes were gone! I had to replace them with the help of my company. It is my responsibility to ensure nothing like this happens to those in my charge. Never again, I said.” Shirly appeared distraught even now years later that such an event happened on his watch. And that one of his countrymen would do such a dastardly thing.

After the eighth or so time of pulling rupees out of my back pocket, I resigned myself to Shirly’s stalwart care and courtesy. The gaze from the Aukana Buddha in a deluge cleared major grumping from my mind. I may have paid more for that pair of sandals watched over by the old guard than he would earn in his lifetime. Moreover, it was worth it to ensure my faithful guide could walk relaxed and unworried as he explained the history, moral meaning, and lesson learned about life at each site. It was worth this price of admission to Sri Lanka.

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