“The Island of Sri Lanka is a small universe; it contains as many variations of Culture, Scenery and Climate as some countries, a dozen times its size.” ~ Arthur C. Clarke – Author, inventor and futurist (1917-2008)
Back in college, my friend Seema and I would daydream of one day making lots of money so that we could travel to far off places. Money, we made. Travel, we did. But it would take us 12 years to finally realize this dream together, having been caught up in different countries making ‘lots of money’ that makes you forget why you were making it in the first place. And so, Sri Lanka happened this March, where we were to re-discover an old friendship and a prehistoric country.
Throughout history, this island country was known by many names. In India, it was known as Lanka, ancient Greeks called it Taprobane, while the Arabs referred to it as Serendib. In the last millennium, it was called Ceylon before being renamed in 1972 into the modern day Sri Lanka, which means “resplendent island” in Sanskrit, and truly so. One of the first written references to the island is found in the Indian epic Ramayana. According to the Hindu mythology, a land bridge once existed between India and Sri Lanka, and was reportedly passable on foot up to 1480 AD, that is until cyclones deepened the channel. It is Sri Lanka’s sleepy riverside village of Kitulgala, which owes its popularity to the Kelani River – where David Lean’s Oscar-winning 1957 classic The Bridge over the River Kwai was filmed.
Unlike many other islands, Sri Lanka is not just sand and sea. As a tourist you have the opportunity to gaze on palm-fringed beaches and a lapping Indian Ocean, tropical grasslands and soaring mountain peaks – all within a few hours of travel! Ruins of ancient kingdoms across the mainland give insight into a sophisticated ancient society and 2,500 years of heritage.
We were aware of Sri Lanka’s tropical climate, but eventually discovered that it apparently has no marked seasons. It is bizarre to inform readers that we landed in the country without any prior tour or hotel bookings. It was all part of our daringness to feel like adventurers! We were, however, armed with good research.
Day-1: Vicki and Kumari, the Elephant
We found an excellent value-for-money tour service before exiting Colombo airport, which I would happily recommend. As we stepped out into the humid air, Vicki, our Sinhalese driver-cum-tour guide, greeted us with ‘the look’, the same one that we assessed him with. But Vicki would ultimately prove to be an indispensible asset. To my particular delight, Vicki not only spoke English, but also Hindi and Arabic!
Our very first stop was at an Elephant Safari en route to Giritale, towards the Cultural Triangle in Central mainland. Kumari, the baby elephant, became our maiden elephant ride. I watched with a combination of trepidation and awe as my friend, being the more daring of the two, rode astride Kumari and fed her two dozen bananas during our 30 minute ride, while I sat clinging to the railings on Kumari’s back.
Ancient Splendor of Polonnaruwa
Whether you appreciate history or not, Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle – home to five of the country’s seven UNESCO sites – will undoubtedly impress you. We opted to visit Polonnaruwa, which was the second capital of Medieval Sri Lanka for 200 years. It’s a lot younger than Anuradhapura, but contains better preserved relics. The city at its prime possessed a marvelous collection of palaces, temples and statuary – much of which still stands today. It takes nearly a full day and stamina under-the-sun to see this 11th century archeological site, the highlight being the Buddha statues carved from the cliff face at Galvehera. Also known as the “Cave of the Spirits of Knowledge” the three statues of Buddha, one standing, one meditating and one reclining, are amazing examples of the ancient art of stone-carving. It is important to warn you that no photos should be taken with your back directed at any statues of Buddha throughout the country. (If you unwittingly happen to do so, be prepared to be chided by the locals, who take it as a serious offence).
The outer walls of the main hall of the Royal Palace of King Parakramabahu I still remain standing, but the ruined Lankathilaka, a massive image house containing a headless figure of Buddha, is more impressive. I could not help wondering how the invading Indian warriors reached high enough to behead the imposing statue.
Climbing Sigiriya, the Lion’s Rock
Inarguably, our most arduous experience was climbing the 500ft rock fortress ‘Sigiriya’. Also known as the Lion’s Rock, Sigiriya is popularly considered the “eighth wonder of the world” – and frankly, it isn’t undeserved. Built by King Kasyapa in the 5th century, the fortress sits atop a single rock, which rises 500ft sheer from a vast expanse of surrounding rainforest. You approach the rock along a thoroughfare that was once lined with pools and fountains, and a huge pleasure garden.
But what started as an adventure became the weight of the world. We huffed and puffed and sat several times on our way up the ancient stone steps gravely hoping that the hyped view from the top would be worth it. Halfway through, we nearly gave up and almost turned to descend before my friend pulled my hand and dragged me the rest of the way up. (Later, we could only be glad we persevered otherwise, we would have lived to regret it).
From here an ancient staircase proceeds between two gigantic brick lion paws, once part of a sculpture consisting of a lion’s head and shoulders, with the gaping jaw forming the entrance to the stairs. A section of the original staircase that once wound its way across the cliff face still remains. It is completely enclosed by a wall known as the ‘Mirror Wall’, which is still adorned with ancient graffiti. You can climb an additional spiral staircase to access a tiny cave, filled with frescoes of semi-naked women, most of which were destroyed by Buddhist monks of latter years for being distractive.
A final vertiginous climb brings you to the summit, where the foundations of the nine-storey palace can still be seen. The king’s stone throne and the swimming pool remain intact. When you stand here, you cease to wonder why the infamous king chose Sirigiya for his palace site. Apart from being a natural fortress, the breathtaking view of the lush country sprawling below would give anyone a ‘kingly’ sort of feeling.
Dambulla Cave Temple
After our tiring, but rewarding tryst with Sigiriya, we literally fell asleep in our car, as we headed out towards our next destination. When Vicki stopped at Dambulla, our sleep-clogged minds could barely register the significance of the place. The caves at Dambulla date back to 1301 and are considered the finest preserved. According to the legend, they were all constructed by the exiled King Valagam Bahu, who built them for the 14 years he was exiled here, as a penitential calendar. A large 14m long expiring Buddha dominates one side of the main chamber. As you leave, the giant Buddha statue that sits at the base of the hill above the visitor’s centre is notable as being the only Buddha in the world in the “argumentative” pose – in fact, as I gazed up at it, I could eerily sense his pensive mood (or maybe I’m just over-imaginative!).
Day-3: Sightseeing and Curio, Gem shopping in Kandy
Kandy was the last home of the Sri Lankan kings and to date bears testament to its status as a royal city. It is oriented around a massive central lake, built by its last ruler Sri Wickrama Rajasinha (I can’t help adding historical facts and names) and lies about 480m above sea level, on a plain amidst towering hills and looped by Mahaweli, the country’s largest river.
Blessed with a temperate climate, scenic location and rich history, Kandy is any travelers’ favorite. During August, Kandy – also an UNESCO site – dazzles with the sounds and lights of the Perehara – a magnificent procession where the sacred tooth relic of Buddha is majestically paraded on elephant back along the streets of Kandy.
We started our first morning in Kandy by driving uphill to catch a panoramic view of the picturesque town from Upper lake Drive before setting out to do some shopping. I must warn you that in Kandy you could get carried away by shopping gems and jewelry, handicrafts, batiks, silks etc. as our credit cards were to later reveal to our dismay!
Next, we headed out to the impressive Royal Botanical Gardens, which date back to 1371. Apparently, it was impossible to cover the entire property, even as we marveled at the magnificent array of orchids, spices, medicinal plants and palm trees – all of peculiar shapes, towering heights and very difficult herbal names. A separate Orchid Nursery on the premises is not to be missed.
Totally famished by now, we coaxed Vicki to take us for an early dinner of Sri Lankan fish curry, which interestingly is served with plenty of plain rice, and two assortments of pickled vegetables. As we finished our delectable dinner, it began to rain – cats, dogs and leaping frogs! But Vicki had umbrellas in his car. We drove frantically for our evening engagement, a Kandyan Cultural Dance performance that ended with a spectacular fire-walking finale.
Our last stop, Kandy’s famed Temple of the Tooth Relic contains Sri Lanka’s most valuable Buddhist relic, a tooth of Buddha, secretly smuggled from his funeral pyre and carried to Anuradhapura. Visitors at the temple can also see the stuffed remains of Raja, an elephant that served the temple for 50 years. Be sure to dress appropriately before visiting the temples, as too short skirts, strapless tops, and even short pants on men will get you turned away by the security guards.
Surprisingly, all this was a day’s worth of exploration!
Day-3 & 4: Nuwara Elliya, a throw-back in time
The drive from Kandy to Nuwara Elliya was awfully nauseating, as we headed to the home of the country’s most famous export, tea. Starting from Kandy the tea plantations carpet the slopes of the mountains, rising all the way up to the highest points on the island, well over 2,000m in height.
On our way, we stopped for a visit of a Tea factory, sat down at the café to enjoy freshly brewed Ceylon Tea and had a buffet lunch while watching the mist roll over the surrounding hills completely obscuring them from sight. Here we experienced a winter-like climate in the height of summer!
After a much-needed repose (you can’t help feeling soothed in Nuwara Elliya), we started the next morning with a boat ride around Lake Gregory followed by a visit to Seetha Amman Temple, which is supposedly built at the spot where Ravana held Sita captive, as related in Hindus’ epic Ramayana. The small temple has a collection of statues, including three crude statues carved from black stone, which I was told are 5000 years old and were excavated from where the temple stands today.
Nuwara Elliya is a throw-back in time, often referred to as “Little England”, because of its European-like climate, and many British chose to build their homes here in yesteryears. The town contains many remnants of the bygone colonial era – quaint little bungalows surrounded by hedgerows, a red-brick post office, and even a golf course. Our hotel Ceybank itself is a 200 years old white-washed colonial home, which was once the residence of the governors of Nuwara Elliya.
Day-5: Passing through Colombo and Buhari Briyani
I must confess that Colombo was not a preferred stop on my itinerary. Quiet understandably, it is like any other city made up of historical and modern buildings and infested with traffic. The half-a-day that we spent driving through Colombo, almost succeeded in dampening our moods, but thanks to Vicki’s relentless efforts, we managed to visit the Gangarama Temple, which also houses a museum of antiquities, and had the pleasure of eating delicious south-Indian styled Buhari briyani at the popular De Buhari restaurant, which only a native can point out to you.
Day-6: Sunrise at Negambo
A visit to Sri Lanka is incomplete without at least a day spent in one of its Coastal towns. This fact was strongly emphasized by Vicki and although he recommended Hikkaduwwa, we opted to spend our last night in the North-West coastal town of Negambo.
Situated 17kms from Colombo and just 6kms from Bandaranaike International Airport, Negambo is an ideal closure if you have only few days to experience the island’s diversity. Its long sandy beaches and proximity to the airport has made Negambo one of the most popular beach resorts on the island. I personally recommend it for unwinding after a hectic tour like ours. We spent a memorable time here watching the sunrise, and walking along the beach until it became too warm to idle around.
It is quiet impossible to forget a travel experience that has all the ingredients of an ideal escape – good company, remarkably preserved history, a rich culture, incomparable scenery and a native guide, who went out of his way on several occasions, simply because he wanted us to make the best of our time and money.
For me, Sri Lanka also has the special distinction of being the country where two friends discover that old friendships never cease to be.
(Special thanks to Vicki)
The best time to travel to Sri Lanka is between the main rainy seasons. November to April is the driest season on the south-west coast and up in the hills. May to September is the best time to visit east coast, as it is dry during this period. Hence, Sri Lanka is round-the-year destination-there is always a good time to visit at least some part of the country.
Photography courtesy of Shabana Shaikh |Seema Lachwani |Vicki.