by Gunvanthi Balaram
From the magnificent stupas at Anuradhapura to the street food of Colombo, from the Cave of Celestial Maidens to the beach at Galle, Sri Lanka offers many changes of scene.
Shore at Manatkadu, Jaffna- pic courtesy of: twitter.com/shanmugan10
Stories apart, what did I remember best about Sri Lanka, my mother asked me when I got home. “The lotus ponds of Anuradhapura and the lagoons of Jaffna,” I replied. “And, mmm, the egg-hoppers in Colombo’s cubby-hole eateries.”
The lotus ponds in Anuradhapura are world heritage ornaments: splendid swathes of inky waters dotted with moss green leaves and dark pink blooms that highlight the ethereal beauty of the ancient stupas and sculptures around. The lagoons of Jaffna Peninsula are pure romance: silvery, alluring waters whose ripples seem to whisper wicked secrets. The guns fell silent three years ago, safety has returned to the land, and cycling along the islets that curl into the lagoons is the loveliest of excursions.
I travelled from beach towns to lotus ponds to lagoons and back to the capital: it was a lovely interlude, but one that revealed that peace has given the island’s luminous beauty a precious edge. The place is becoming expensive and a tad touristy. So, go to Lanka before it catches up with Goa.
Colombo is, of course, where you’ve got to begin. As gritty cities go, it’s a charming one. Walk the Galle Face Green, take a look-see at its historic shrines and modern art galleries, at the National Museum, which prepares you for the ancient cities in the country’s ‘Cultural Triangle’ (Kandy-Anuradhapura-Sigiriya). Do not miss the tropical modernism of Geoffrey Bawa, the country’s most illustrious architect: get a coffee at the Gallery Cafe, his erstwhile office; shoot the breeze at Simamalaka, an open-air temple set on linked platforms in the Beira Lake. It’s designed to create a sense of harmony.
Duck into a roadside eatery to try egg hoppers, string hoppers, or Kothu rotti (a mix of fried chopped rotis, eggs and veggies). They are guaranteed to delight. We went to this little place called A-1 (somewhere behind the Taj), and our luscious breakfast (for two) of countless red-rice string hoppers, fiery sambol, coconut curry, fritters and coffee cost about Rs 100 (one Indian rupee fetches about 2.3 SL rupees).
You can go upmarket, of course: to the stately Galle Face Hotel for a beer in its tropical-meets-colonial garden overlooking the sea, for instance, or to the Cricket Club Cafe, housed in a colonial bungalow crammed with cricket memorabilia (if there’s anyone crazier about cricket than Indians, it’s the Sri Lankans); to Barefoot, a boutique that offers books, excellent textiles and craft, plus first-rate food in a chic courtyard.
Next halt: Galle. We journeyed by car so that we could savour the southern seaside and make detours. Our Sinhala driver, the redoubtable Mr Senanayake, “a full-time Buddhist and part-time meditator”, brought me up to speed not only on political developments after the war but also on the vital differences between his country’s Theravada Buddhism and the Dalai Lama’s Mahayana Buddhism. I digested Sena’s Theravada and Tamil Tiger tales while my eyes feasted on the view of crescent-shaped coves of white sand framed by colourful bungalows and bamboo groves punctuated by new commercial developments.
At the Sea Turtle Conservation Centre in Bentota, I saw my first loggerhead turtle, and an albinoturtle. We took a boat out to see the coral reefs: the water was clean, the reefs recovering slowly but surely after the tsunami. We made the detour to Bawa’s Lunuganga estate, with its ruggedly stylish house set in terraced gardens (a civilised wilderness as someone called it), overlooking the Bentota estuary.
In Galle, which holds more of a European than Asian feel, we watched the sunset from the ramparts of its 16th-century fort, built by the Portuguese, expanded by the Dutch, and peopled today by locals running boutiques, coffee shops, craft-and-gem stores and guesthouses, and by foreign tourists guzzling the sun.
At the gracious Closenberg hotel, a former Dutch palace, overlooking the bay, I joined a Dutch couple at the antique dining table, and found that they’d been coming to Sri Lankan for the past 15 years, undeterred by the war. “These islanders have us hooked,” the wife said, “We so love their warmth, and their ability to smile in the face of adversity.”
Fortress of solitude
Another European couple, with whom I climbed a week later to the magnificent fifthcentury Sigiriya fortress built by King Kashyapa, told me how their love for the island had resulted in them becoming Buddhist and adopting a local orphan, “Tara, now 19”. After visiting the Cave of the Celestian Maidens — the frescoes of which are worth every bit of that 560-foot vertiginous climb — we sat gazing down at emerald-green squares of paddy and forest and a criss-cross of ancient water channels, while they told me the story of their own dusky, curly-haired maiden.
Sigiriya and Tara. Their stories will remain forever intertwined in my mind. Sigiriya: abandoned and forgotten for centuries before British colonial explorers recovered it from the jungle in the 19th century. Tara: orphaned by war, discovered by new parents.
The Stupas of Anuradhapura
Sigiriya to Anuradhapura was a short drive – but rich. Outside the hotel grounds, I saw a sculptor at work outside his village shop, where I found my brother’s 50th-birthday gift: a fine mahogany sculpture of the Buddha in meditation. Further on, I came across a batik store with beautiful pieces I couldn’t afford. But that was forgotten minutes later when I saw a tusker crossing the road (not far from the Minneriya National Park). I’d decided to save Sri Lanka’s wildlife parks for another visit, but I got a tantalising sampler on that drive: a golden jackal and a roost of flying foxes, giant squirrels and brown fish owls in the pondside trees.
The stupas in Anuradhapura (built in 400 BC as the first of Sri Lanka’s ancient capitals) were a study in meditative equipoise. The silence was broken only by the metronomic call of a barbet in a fig tree, or the sudden screech of a grey langur monkey striding along the temple wall, or the murmur of prayers by orange-robed monks and white-clothed lay Buddhists circumambulating the shrine.
Small or stupendous, like the one that holds 90 million bricks, the stupas were all humbling — quite like the giant sculptures of the Buddha that grace the overgrown ruins of Polannaruwa. The first-century Dambulla sculptures were less overwhelming — because they are painted in these kitschy colours, perhaps. But what I liked best were Dambulla’s frescoes: exquisite in hue and execution, enchanting in their serialisation of the Buddha’s story.
Change of scene: Jaffna. The ride on Bus No. 87 from Vavuniya (near Anuradhapura) via Highway A-1, under construction and punctuated by army watchpoints, was little fun. But the Jaffna countryside, with its shimmering lagoons, soaring palmyra trees and solitary beaches, proved picturesque, and its people cultured and hugely hospitable.
I trundled through the quiet, sylvan town on a Hero Honda or in a mate’s Morris Minor, met artists and elders, listened to stories of memory and loss, sat around with my loving hostess Ajantha in red-andwhite-walled temples eating chakkare-pongal and watching a slice of Tamil life: in the old Amman Temple, a must-do on Fridays for Jaffna Hindus, I was charmed by the sight of men emerging from the ‘arati’, wearing a flower tucked behind their ear. Despite being deeply scarred by war, Jaffna, like the rest of the island, held a warm vibe. courtesy: Mumbai Mirror