Off the beaten track

Off the beaten track

Ravans abode

Legendary: Sita Eliya, believed to be Sita’s home in captivity. photo by authorThe bus drive from the airport to Pettah, the bustling commercial district in the heart of Colombo, took an agonising two hours.

The little that I managed to see of Colombo as the bus headed deeper into the city was enough for me to decide that I could easily avoid it. And so, when we got to the main bus terminal at Pettah, I took the first waiting bus out of the city. It was heading south, to the town of Galle, and I hopped on.

Having already travelled to central and northern Sri Lanka, where many of the better-known tourist attractions are located, on a previous visit to the country, I decided to spend my short vacation in southern Sri Lanka, a part of the country that I had not hitherto visited.

The bus passed out of the urban sprawl of Colombo and then onto the highway leading to Galle, a four-hour journey to the south. Along the way, the road ran parallel to the sparkling turquoise waters of the Arabian Sea. Most of the coastline had recently witnessed a feverish spree of construction activity.

Almost every available bit of beach had been gobbled up by expensive hotels, catering mainly to the hundreds of thousands of sun-thirsty western tourists who flock to Sri Lanka every year. Mass tourism meant money for cash-strapped Sri Lanka, but it had definitely taken a heavy toll on its famed natural beauty.

Galle is small enough to cover on foot, uncluttered by the mind-blowing traffic of Colombo.

The town’s Dutch-built fortress, said to be Asia’s largest, juts into the sea, and is surrounded by formidable moss-laden walls. Within the sprawling complex are hundreds of ancient buildings — a neatly white-washed church, a towering lighthouse, Dutch tomb-complexes and numerous pretty bungalows located behind low lying walls, decked with flowering creepers which, though centuries old, are still meticulously maintained.

I headed the next morning to the town of Tissa along a road that trailed along the coast. There was little to see in Tissa but for a massive dagoba, a stupa-shaped Buddhist shrine which, according to local lore, marks the place where the Buddha stayed on one of his supposed visits to Sri Lanka. It is claimed that the structure contains some holy relics of the Buddha.

The friendly head of the local monastery showed me some ancient palm leaf
manuscripts that the shrine possesses. Continuing in this rather spiritual vein, I boarded a bus heading towards the neighbouring town of Kataragama, one of Sri Lanka’s most popular centres of pilgrimage, named after the god of the same name.

The ongoing, decades-long civil war in Sri Lanka between Buddhist Sinhalas and Hindu Tamilians has taken a heavy toll on the community relations in this once idyllic island, but the popularity of the cult of Kataragama among both Sinhalas as well as Tamilians indicates that the bond between the two communities, formed through devotion to shared ritual spaces, still survives.

Kataragama is for Tamilians God Murugan, while some Sinhala Buddhists regard him as a Boddhisattva, or a person on the way to Buddha-hood. Kataragama’s pilgrimage complex consists of numerous shrines set in a massive park on the banks of a river that cascades down densely forested hills. The shrines contain statues of fierce looking Hindu deities as well as that of the supremely serene Buddha, and of the long-haired Kataragama himself astride a peacock.

The next morning, I headed northwards to Ella. The countryside was stunningly lush, and the forests grew thicker as we climbed up Sri Lanka’s famed Central Highlands. Ella, a settlement of just a few dozen houses, had nothing noteworthy to see, but I used it as a base to walk to Ravan Ella, an hour’s hike up in the hills. Another hour’s climb from Ravan Ella was an
enormous cave hidden in a dense forest, where it is said, Ravana, king of Lanka, had kept Sita, wife of Ram, in captivity. Supposing that legend were to be true, the location of the cave, I thought to myself, was just apt for Sita, for it was set in brilliant countryside, surrounded by a sprawling carpet of brilliantly hued wild flowers.

From Ella, I travelled in a delightful mountain train to Nuwara Eliya, the heart of Sri Lanka’s famed tea country. As I passed by, I had a splendid view of high peaks in the distance, with slopes decked with tea plantations and interspersed with villages set in narrow valleys. Far in the distance stood, in awesome majesty, the 2,243-metre-high Adam’s Peak, a cone-shaped mountain that is sacred to local Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims alike. It houses the sri pada, a sacred footprint which Buddhists believe to be that of the Buddha, Hindus that of Shiva, and Muslims and Christians that of Adam, left by his entrance into the world.

The Garden of Eden in Semitic tradition is believed to be in this very part of Sri Lanka. My holiday was now at an end — I needed to get back to Colombo to attend the conference I had come for in the first place. And so, from Nuwara Eliya I boarded a bus for a six-hour drive down winding roads, over thickly clad hills, past little hamlets and placid Buddhist monasteries, till I found myself back in the bustle of Pettah, the heart of Colombo, a place I had fled the day I had arrived in the country.

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