A religious edge

Island tour

A religious edge

When our team leader Vishalakshmi Karanth, who does all the planning, research and costing for our annual tours, suggested Sri Lanka this time, and indicated that it could be for 10 days, I jumped up from my seat. I said, “Why 10 days for Sri Lanka? Can’t we do it in 3-4 days?” But, when she presented an itinerary, we were all convinced that the tiny emerald island had much more than just beaches and Buddhist temples to offer.

Whether Gautama Buddha ever visited Sri Lankan territory is still being debated, but the powerful influence of Buddhism on its inhabitants for several centuries is undisputed. We rightly began our journey from Anuradhapura, 205 km north of Colombo, a sacred Buddhist city since 3rd century BC. Its well-preserved ruins, three gigantic stupas, and other architecture,  spread over a 40-km area, are topped by the Sri Maha Bodhi Tree, said to have grown from a cutting of the original Bodhi Vriksha under which Buddha attained enlightenment.

The Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, hosting about 100 elephants, including those handicapped, offers loving care and attention to these magnificent animals.
But they are beautiful!

Our next stop was the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, which became the new capital after the destruction of Anuradhapura in 993 AD. It flourished under King Parakramabahu, who built many monasteries and monuments. The huge stone structures of Buddha and some of his disciples, amidst the ruins of the temple complex, are an amazing sight. The nearby Gal Vihara hosts rock carvings of four Buddha images in different postures, chiselled from a single granite, and they are so beautiful that you would want to keep watching them till the guide yells at you to move on.

As you go past the imposing golden temple at Dambulla, where the gold-plated Buddha stares at you from a height of over 200 metres, and climb the back of the hill for an hour, you come face-to-face with a cave monastery exquisitely carved from a giant rock. A sacred pilgrimage site for over 20 centuries, the five caves have 157 statues of various sizes, and mural paintings that have survived the ravages of time and weather.

A rock so rocking 

The Sigiriya rock is a stunning geological formation that encompasses an important archaeological site in the midst of thick greenery. Built by King Kasyapa around 1,600 years ago, the steep and sometimes-narrow staircases that lead up to the ruins of the fountain gardens and terrace gardens, and finally to the sky palace, leave you exhausted, but the visit is worth all the trouble.

The conceptual beauty of the lion staircase and the fresco paintings on rocks of some of the women of Kasyapa’s harems, remain etched in one’s memory for a long time to come.

If Sigiriya was hot and humid, Kandy, our next stop, provided a perfect antidote with its elevated height and cool breeze. The second largest city in Sri Lanka, Kandy is set on a plateau surrounded by mountains dotted with tea plantations and rainforests. The artificial Bogambara Lake — in the heart of the city — is a popular destination for a stroll, but we were quickly off to Dalida Maligawa or the Temple of The Tooth. This 17th century temple, sacred for all Buddhists, is believed to house the left upper canine tooth of Lord Buddha. According to legends, it was smuggled to Sri Lanka in 313 AD by princess Hemamali, who fled the Hindu armies besieging her father’s kingdom in India. The tooth, which has survived numerous attempts of capture and destruction, is now a precious relic brought out on special occasions, and paraded on the back of a decorated elephant flanked by two others.

The royal botanical garden on the outskirts of Kandy is well-maintained with more than 300 types of orchids, spices and medicinal plants, besides a variety of flowers. A visit to a gem factory and museum introduced us to Sri Lanka’s precious gems like blue sapphire, star sapphire, aquamarine and topaz, but their prices were unaffordable despite the Indian rupee, for a change, fetching double its face value!
Nuwara Eliya, a hill resort situated 2,000 metres above sea level, has many English-style bungalows and buildings. It offers many activities like visits to tea plantations, horse riding, boating, hiking etc.

For those looking for Ramayana linkages to the island, there is a Sita Amman temple — with its gaudy images of gods — at Nuwara Eliya, and a very modern (more tolerable) Bhakta Hanuman temple at Ramboda, recently erected by the Chinmaya Mission, but neither evokes any bhakti. The only compensation at Ramboda was an excellent South Indian lunch at the Chinmaya canteen.

The whale and dolphin-watching on a boat ride from Mirissa Harbour in the Indian Ocean was exciting not only because we were lucky to have glimpses of small whales and tortoises, but we came across the point where the seas merge, making an interesting kaleidoscope of colours.

Island hopping

A boat ride on River Madu Ganga took us to several small islands and mangroves, including Kasgoda — famous for turtle conservation — and a fish spa — which was a model of Lankan ingenuity to attract tourists. The Yala wildlife sanctuary was disappointing, but the pure thrill of water sport at Bentota made up for it.

Galle is a charming historical city in the west coast. Occupied by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British at several points in history, the city has preserved several colonial buildings, striking a balance between antiquity and modernity. The unhurried Sri Lankans, who rarely use their vehicle horns, allow the tourists to wander around the fort area, which is picturesque in every sense of the term.

Colombo, the largest city and Sri Lanka’s commercial capital, was our last destination. The clean, green and neatly-laid-out city, filled with colonial and modern buildings, beautiful promenades and orderly traffic, is a class apart. The local government has removed all traces of terrorist violence this place was subjected to not long ago, and serenity reigns. No wonder that foreign tourists, many of them Indians, are flocking back to Sri Lanka, giving the much-needed boost to its economy.

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