Having traveled in India on more than one occasion, becoming acquainted (sometimes overwhelmed) with its geographical immensity, ancient and diverse cultures, I’ve long held a curiosity about Sri Lanka, the relatively small island neighbor lying less than 20 miles from India’s south eastern coast. Considering Sri Lanka’s location in the equatorial tropics of the Indian Ocean, I knew that it must have a diverse and splendid ecology. After all, it was a spice island prized by early western explorers and colonizers. And, considering the interplay of the relatively modern western influence and its historical connection with India, I assumed that today’s Sri Lankan culture must be a reflection of both East and West. I was not to be disappointed on any account!
In April I had the opportunity to travel through portions of Sri Lanka to find answers to these questions for myself. My itinerary, expertly arranged for this purpose by Varini De Silva of Ceylon Express, was designed so that I might experience what turns out to be the deep tropical beauty of Sri Lanka, while exploring selected areas, including a number of historical sites. I also hoped to come to some understanding of the culture that is modern day Sri Lanka.
I was greeted in my late night arrival in Sri Lanka’s Bandaranaike International Airport, by a grand display of spectacular lightening accompanied by peals of thunder. Knowing that the country was about to celebrate the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, I accepted the tropical storm as a New Year’s greetings, possibly arranged by the deities which some say protect and accompany daily life in this land of beauty and great biodiversity.
My internal clock being set to California time, that first night I lay awake in the dark early morning hours in my hotel room, in the beach town of Negombo, listening to the tropical storm slowly dissipating as it followed its Indian Ocean track beyond the City. The night became profoundly quiet. Near dawn, the silence was broken by a bird brilliantly announcing its presence by a deep and melodic call, quickly accompanied by a faint and distant response. After rising and several cups of coffee my enquiry found that the bird call came from a Koel bird, the Koel being one of approximately 433 species of birds in Sri Lanka. In the following days of travel I was to learn firsthand why Sri Lanka is known as a biodiversity hotspot and one of the most ecologically significant places on earth.
My travels began by a drive from coastal Negombo inland to Sigiriya, one of Sri Lanka’s eight UNESCO World Heritage sites. Near the town of Kegalle and mid-way to Sigiriya we detoured in order to visit the government run Pinnewala elephant orphanage. The elephant orphanage was established by the Sri Lankan Department of Wildlife Conservation in 1975 to care for and protect orphaned elephants. The Pinnewala orphanage is also known for having the largest captive elephant herd in the world, having a population of nearly 90 elephants today, including many adult elephants. In some areas of the refuge the public is allowed close contact with the elephants so if you have ever wanted to snuggle up to a baby elephant, put the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage on your bucket list.
Beyond the elephant orphanage, and after a couple of hours driving, we approached Sigiriya, a massive shear sided rock monolith singularly rising nearly 500 feet above the surrounding tree covered plain. It’s an awesome site when first seen from a distance, and after some exploration, accompanied with a little understanding of its history; it became clear why it is considered one of Asia’s major archaeological sites.
Sigiriya’s historical period is thought to have begun around the third century BC, with the settlement of a Buddhist monastic community and extends to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when the development on and around the rock became an outpost and military center of the Kingdom of Kandy. However, it was in the fifth century when Sigiriya took its present form, becoming a walled and moated royal capital, including a palace compound on the very top of the rock. Below the rock, and between the outer perimeter of moats, elaborate pleasure gardens and defensive ramparts were constructed. It was near the end of the sixth century, and after a palace coup, that Prince Kayapa and his master builders named the rock Simha-giri, meaning “Lion Mountain” and the full complex was developed.
The “Lion Mountain’s” rock paintings, about the 300 feet above the ground, within a lengthy depression on the western face of the monolith, are the most famous feature of Sigiriya. The surviving paintings are of female figures, thought to represent celestial nymphs. I viewed the paintings by climbing a short run of well constructed spiral metal stairs, after a steady uphill climb from the parking area. After viewing the ancient paintings I continued on by a series of stairs to an upper terrace on the north side of the rock. On the terrace I was greeted by the Lion Staircase. Now only the paws remain of the once gigantic sculpture of a lion. Between the paws a brick stairway transitions to a series of modern metal stairs which extend to the very top of Sigiriya, providing access to the remains of the palace complex and gardens, even a small lake.
Exploring Sigiriya can take hours, and considering the warmth of Sri Lankan weather, I found the comfort of the nearby Jetwing Vil Uyana Hotel, ideally located within a cooling marsh, to be a welcome respite. The hotel’s large individual cottages have thatched roofs and are constructed on wooden poles which elevate them above rice paddies. Straw remaining from harvested rice is used for roof thatching. Jetwing Hotels’ use of alternative energy production, water saving programs, vegetable and rice production, where possible, expresses a wish to protect the precious natural world of Sri Lanka. The Hotel Company’s Eternal Earth Project (JEEP), a reforestation program, is especially commendable. The environmental friendly programs are not surprising as they reflect a national theme.
In a nod to its heritage of western style democracy, while recognizing the island nation’s unique habitat and biodiversity, Sri Lanka makes protection and preservation of the environment a national commitment through constitutional provisions. For someone who has had many days of eye watering, throat choking travels elsewhere in Asia, the cleanliness and lack of air pollution that I experienced in the Sri Lankan countryside was a delightful surprise. It also supports the palatable “softness” which permeates the country’s atmosphere, naturally complimented by the sweet, laid back nature of Sri Lankans.
Not far from the Vil Uyana Hotel is Polonnaruva, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. This ancient city was established as the first capital of Sri Lanka around the eleventh century A.D., flourishing as an active commercial, agriculture and religious center. After rising to great heights, it was largely abandoned by the thirteenth century after an invasion by Magha the Tyrant from southern India. Today there are extensive remnants of the area’s ancient architectural past to be seen in Polonnaruva, but I found myself mostly fascinated by its water feature, the “Sea of Parakrama”, a massive irrigation reservoir, portions of which were first constructed in 386 A.D. I couldn’t help but think of the thousands of workers it most have taken to laboriously construct it as we easily motored in air conditioned comfort over a section of the surrounding dirt embankment of the reservoir.
A short distance from the “Sea of Parakrama”, at Gal Vihara, is four images of the Buddha, carved out of a cliff. It’s not surprising to find these beautiful examples of veneration to the Buddha so close to the ancient irrigation reservoir as the Sinhalese who originally migrated from India to occupy Sri Lanka were Theravada Buddhists, traditionally known for their highly sophisticated irrigation technology. On the drive from Gal Vihara to Kandy, the capital of the last Sinhalese Kingdom, I encountered another feature of Sri Lanka’s ancient Buddhist past at the Dambulla Caves. The Caves are actually temples carved into the solid rock of a prominent hillside. Most of the interior surfaces of the caves are covered with ancient paintings and also include many deity statues, each representing a different aspect of the Buddha. It’s not surprising that the glorious interior of the remarkable caves are commonly featured on Sri Lankan tourist brochures – it was truly breathtaking.
In route to Kandy I was able to visit the Ranwali Spice Gardens to get a firsthand look at the many indigenous plants that are used in Ayurvedic healing. Ayurveda, “the knowledge of life” is a centuries old traditional healing system using the varieties of plants and herbs that naturally grow in Sri Lanka and India. Of course, Sri Lanka is also known as one of the prime suppliers to the world of Cinnamon and Cardamom, well known spices but also having practical, everyday medicinal value.
Historic Kandy is nestled in a valley surrounded by forested mountains and one of Sri Lanka’s UNESCO World Heritage sites. I found Kandyan architecture to be an alloy of old and new, expressing a connection with ancient Sri Lanka and at the same time accommodating the needs of a modern bustling city of commerce. The biggest attraction in Kandy is undoubtedly the Temple of the Sacred Tooth, containing the sacred tooth relic of the Buddha, brought to Sri Lanka about 300 AD. The Temple and surrounding palace complex are adjacent to a beautiful lake, providing a sublime setting and attracting thousands of visitors every day. Weaving my way through throngs of visitors, each hoping to get a glimpse of the container which holds the sacred relic, brought back memories of my visits to shrines and holy places in India.
Less than five miles from Kandy is the Peradiniya Botanical Gardens, sacred in its own way and a must visit for those who love nature. The Peradiniya Gardens are a complete and perfect display of the variety of trees and plants that grow in tropical Sri Lanka. The 147 acres of the Gardens originated in the 14th Century and contains over 300 varieties of orchids, spices, medicinal plants and palm trees. Awe inspired, a travel companion said that in her mind only the Singapore Botanical Gardens compared to the Peradiniya Gardens. The Gardens are also home to a colony of outrageously large fruit bats, often seen in groups languidly hanging high from tree limbs well above walking paths. If you didn’t know better, you would think that you were looking at clumps of large and very odd shaped fruit.
Sri Lanka has to be near the center of the universe for tea drinkers as there are more than 600 tea factories in the country, centered near the tea plantations in the highlands. I found driving from Kandy into the high country on the twisting mountainous roads to be full of scenic surprises. One of those surprises is a series of waterfalls, including the Ramboda Falls, nearly 330 feet tall. Beyond the falls and up the road, approaching the highlands, at times I thought to myself that that there must be a competition amongst tea growers to see who could plant in the most outrageous location, including the steepest slopes and the deepest gully. Here and there I spotted groups of tea leaf pickers making their way along the slopes, quickly and expertly picking just the right leaves and stuffing them into burlap sacks slung over their shoulders.
During the drive from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya I was impressed by the lack of road hogging lorries in Sri Lanka. This is in contrast to what one experiences in other Asian countries where the western traveler can often feel threatened by the constant stream of speed burning, smoke belching lorries that seem to take every possible inch of available roadway.
Nuwara Eliya, located at 6500 ft. above sea level, was founded by the English in the 19th century and is still considered the center of Sri Lankan tea production. Because of the cool climate Nuwara became a refuge for English civil servants during the colonial period, earning the nickname, “Little England”. Many of the buildings from the colonial period remain and some of the grand estates have even been turned into hotels. I stayed at the St. Andrews, furnished in 19th century fashion, featuring an impressive open kitchen and wood paneled dining room, even a smoking room from which one could detect in the late evening the unmistakable sweet aroma of a well priced cigar.
After a short stay in “Little England” it was time for me to drive south to the Dutch colonial period town of Galle. The 17th century Dutch fort at Galle is another one of Sri Lanka’s UNESCO World Heritage sites. Walking on top of the lengthy walls of the fort fronting the Indian Ocean, my mind ran wild with thoughts of off shore sail rigged vessels cannon balling the fort while defenders scrambled for cover. (Surely something like this had to happen because history tells us that the British wrested control of the island from the Dutch in the late 1700’s, calling their new colony Ceylon.). Walking the smooth beaches and watching the sun set over the Indian Ocean will be a never forgotten memory as the softness of the last rays of the sun seemed to summarize the beautify and tranquility of Sri Lanka.
Back in Colombo for my flight home I chose to close my travels in Sri Lanka by enjoying a martini on the deck of the colonial era Grand Oriental Hotel. In perfect harmony, I found an offshore cooling breeze chasing away the warmth of the day as the setting sun closed the curtain on my visit to Sri Lanka. During the waning moments of daylight I was able to reflect on the peaceful beauty of Sri Lanka that I had experienced, remembering that Sri Lanka in Sanskrit means “Resplendent Isle”.
Travel arrangements – Ceylon Express at www.ceylonexpress.com
Hotels – Jetwing hotels at www.jetwinghotels.com offers a variety of high level properties in Sri Lanka .
Best time of year to travel – November to April for the West & South coasts, as well as the hill country. Consequently, December is the most popular time to travel in Sri Lanka for westerners. April to September for those who wish to visit the ancient cites areas and the East coast.
Transportation – Most travel in Sri Lanka is done by a network of roads throughout the island nation. There is also a train network, connecting major population centers. Since 2009 a resurgence of domestic air travel has occurred, including regular schedule flights to major cities, as well as charter flights.
Temperature & Weather – Average temperature ranges between 80° to 84° F., tropically hot and humid. June to October, expect monsoons in the Southwest and December to March monsoons in the northeast
What to wear – Light loose cotton clothing and best be prepared for a downpour, depending on time of year and where traveling. Sri Lanka is a conservative country so modest dress, especially in places of worship, is a good policy.