Sri Lanka: A Feast for the Senses
by Andy Alpine
Seyllan - Lanka -Serendib - Ceylon -Sri Lanka. The names and sounds conjure up exotic images of fantasy and enchantment. "From Seyllan to Paradise is forty miles," says a legend. "The sound of the fountains of Paradise is heard there."
Michael Ondaatje, best-selling author of The English Patient and a native of Sri Lanka, relates in his book Running in the Family, "One morning I would wake and just smell things for the whole day - it was so rich I had to select senses."
During my visit to Sri Lanka in spring 2004, I found that I too had to select which senses to deploy to appreciate the textured vistas of rice fields and palmyra palms ... the tang of curries and fresh tropical fruits ... the drone of cicadas on a hot afternoon. The Sri Lankans with their wide smiles and hands pressed together with the greeting of "Ayubowan" (wishing you health, wealth and happiness) welcomed me to explore the wonders of their country.
Lying off the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent and just 400 miles north of the equator, the tropical island of Sri Lanka offers visitors an enormous variety of terrain, from deep jungles and exotic beaches to cool mountain passes. Known as Ceylon before independence from England, the compact country covers roughly 25,000 square miles - about the size of Belgium and Holland combined.
In 2002, a peace settlement brokered by Norway quelled a 20-year insurrection that kept many Americans (but not Europeans) from visiting Sri Lanka. A visit to this peaceful Buddhist country pre-sents a rare opportunity to combine both cultural and physical splendors.
My first morning, I drove with my driver/guide north from Colombo towards the "Cultural Triangle" cities of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, and Kandy. Although the route led through the drier western part of the island, the vegetation was still lush, with bright-green rice paddies lining both sides of the roadway.
Along the road, small stands sold pineapples and freshly roasted cashews at prices that were almost embarrassingly cheap. Each town had a specialty, from milk curds to pottery and brightly colored masks.
Feast of Flavors
Most of all I was intrigued by the variety of bananas - Sri Lanka has 12 types, each more flavorful than the next. I asked my guide, Neal, how the locals differentiated one type from the other when shopping. He explained that people could always tell them apart by the stalk.
The Kandalama Hotel served as my base for visiting the cities of the Cultural Triangle. Designed by the famous Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, Kandalama borders a large lake and sits amid dense forests and sharp cliffs. In this dramatic landscape, Bawa created a simple design of vertical lines and horizontal planes. Instead of being austere, the strict geometry and total lack of decoration accentuates the landscape, bringing it visually into the building.
Although set in Sri Lanka, Kandalama reminded me of top safari lodges in Africa. My room with a glass-paneled shower overlooked the lake, with the famous 5th-century rock fortress of Sigiriya in the distance. Forest plants grew up the sides of the hotel, and monkeys visited my balcony in the evenings.
The lake beside the Kandalama was actually called a "tank." The kings built these large reservoirs over the centuries (close to 33,000 have been documented) to irrigate the rice crops that in some areas are harvested three times a year. With almost 11,000 tanks still in use, Sri Lanka remains an island of lakes and water birds. Lots of water makes for happy animals, and one afternoon I watched dozens of cows gambol like lambs across the green pastures left by the receding waters of the Kandalama tank.
For several days I explored Sri Lanka's ancient cities. The spiritual capital of the 3rd century, Anuradhapura offered the finest buildings, monasteries and dagobas (pagoda-style structures or stupas) reserved for the monks. I visited the oldest historically documented tree in the world, said to have grown from a branch of the original Bo tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. Hung with prayer flags, the tree has been regarded with spiritual significance and veneration for almost 23 centuries.
Polonnaruwa served as the capital of Sri Lanka in the 11th and 12th centuries - an era regarded as the country's Golden Age. Strong South Indian architectural motifs appear even in the Buddhist temples that stand side by side with Hindu structures. The palace even features a very practical innovation - air conditioning - achieved by having cooling water flow through an empty space between the walls of the king's quarters.
Polonnaruwa is famous for three statues of the lord Buddha cut from the same giant rock face. One depicts the Buddha standing with his arms crossed in front of his body. A certain look in his eye signifies that he had completed his work on earth - it was the most lifelike presence of the Buddha that I had ever felt. These three statues and a 39-foot sculpture in Aukana near Anuradhapura are considered some of the finest ancient Buddhist stone sculptures in Asia.
Visiting Sigiriya - the "Lion Rock" - felt like a pilgrimage to Mt. Fuji in Japan. Listed on the World Heritage list, the citadel rises more than 600 feet above the jungle. Hundreds of visitors young and old brave the long climb up the stairs along the side of the mountain to reach the imperial city of King Kasyapa. The views of the endless jungle and lakes merit the ascent. I found it easy to imagine the splendor of the city with its large temples, dance pavilion, and even an enormous swimming pool.
On descending the mountain I stopped to view the incredibly preserved frescoes of celestial maidens that adorn the walls of several caves. Many of the lower paintings had been destroyed centuries ago by monks who found it difficult to meditate surrounded by such voluptuous beauty. I was thankful that these remaining works of art had been, to them, inaccessible.
Several hours later I visited the rock cave temple of Dambulla. The series of five caverns contains 48 statues of the Buddha as well as other deities. Vibrant with color, the statues and wall paintings give no indication that these works of art date from the second and 12th centuries.
The last imperial city of Sri Lanka, Kandy is the site of the Temple of the Tooth. According to historians, the tooth of the Buddha came to Sri Lanka from India in the 1st century and was traditionally lodged in the city where the current king had his imperial palace; consequently, its residence shifted all over the island. For a short period of time, this treasure of all treasures was in the possession of the British governor of Ceylon.
The Buddhist Heart
Inside the Temple of the Tooth, I felt as if I had reached the Buddhist heart of Sri Lanka. Three times a day the sound of pulsating drums and shrill horns reverberate throughout the complex as the inner sanctuary is opened to permit worshippers to pay their respects to one of the world's most sacred Buddhist objects. For me, viewing the gold encasement that contained the tooth was such an intense experience, I felt myself pulsating for hours afterwards.
After my artistic and spiritual journey of the Cultural Triangle, I headed for the high country of the island to the tea plantations and the quaint English-style town of Nuwara Eliya. On steep green hills, women wearing brilliant saris picked the young leaves.
As an avid tea drinker I was in heaven as I drove through miles of tea plantations while my guide explained the subtle differences of low, mid, and high grown teas. A visit to the Mackwoods tea factory, to learn the intricacies of tea manufacturing, was topped off with a cup of fine high-country tea and cake on a veranda overlooking the famous fields.
Heading next for the coast, I passed waterfall after waterfall and brilliantly flowering trees. Although Sri Lanka's beaches are little-known to Americans, European vacationers have enjoyed the palm-lined white sands and azure clear waters for years.
I also spent a day on an African-style safari at Yala National Park viewing elephants, painted storks, alligators, deer, wild boar, horn-bill, kingfishers and the bright green bee-eater. The park is known for its high concentration of leopard. Although I was not lucky enough to see one that day, I was amazed that this relatively small island could contain such variety of terrain, flora and fauna.
On my final day in paradise, I experienced an Ayurvedic massage. An ancient form of medicine used in India and Sri Lanka, this practice is becoming more well-known in the United States. Schools of Ayurveda are located throughout Sri Lanka. I very much enjoyed the scented oils placed on my head and skin, followed by the strong yet gentle strokes of the practitioners and the herbal steam cabinets and saunas that topped off the treatments.
Sounds of Peace
My last impression of Sri Lanka came while seated by the hotel's swimming pool listening to the song birds and the breaking waves on the beach. Bright green fly catchers swooped from the trees, rippling the surface of the clear blue pool with their beaks. The fragrance of plumeria wafted through the air. Chattering young monkeys competed for attention.
I let it all in - I couldn't just select one sense.
For more information on visiting Sri Lanka contact: Ceylon Express International: Phone: 800-423-9566; Fax: 714-968-4296; E-mail:email@example.com; Website:www.ceylonexpress.com.
For information about additional programs and tour operators, see the Geographical Index under "Sri Lanka."
• Sri Lanka offers excellent scuba diving. A wide coral shelf surrounds the island, and underwater visibility ranges from 50 to 100 feet. Some of the best sites are around Hikkaduwa on the west coast and Pigeon Island (Nilaveli) on the east. In the waters off Trincomalee, a sanctuary protects whales and dolphins.
• From February to mid-October is the sunnier time of year. The island has two different weather patterns. The monsoons (rains) affect the southwest from May to October, and the northeast from November to April. Although tropical showers can be heavy, they usually do not last long. Travelers should bring a small umbrella, both to keep off the rain and to provide protection from the sun.
•SriLankan Airlines has frequent flights and award-winning service to Colombo from many gateways in Asia and Europe. For more information call toll-free 877-915-2652. Website wwwsrilankan.lk