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 Post subject: Heavenly Lanka
 Post Posted: Wed Sep 21, 2005 3:09 am 
Heavenly Lanka

@Vashi2Panvel.Com : Navi Mumbai : Sept 20, 2005 :

“See, that lady over there? She’s Tamil,” says Kishendra Wedisinghe, the driver, pointing to a woman in a purple sari. How does he know? “Oh, they don’t look good! You know, dark, big nose, theek lip. And they don’t wear the sari like us [they wear it like us].” However, he points out, every woman who wore a saree like Indians and had unremarkable features wasn’t Tamilian. “Nowadays, Sri Lankans also wear a saree like that,” he says, faintly disgusted.

Wedisinghe is Buddhist and Sinhalese. He says he has friends among `those Tamils’, but he doesn’t let them get too close since, ‘you never know’. In the early nineties, he was taking two elderly Japanese couples around Batticaloa. “One morning, we saw 12 severed heads impaled on a fence [Sinhala men executed by Marxists]. I was really frightened, but I told my clients that the villagers had a festival the night before and the faces were actually made of clay. Luckily, they believed it.”

The smiling face of a Sri Lankan on a tourist poster is not a misrepresentation. Despite 20 years of civil war, they are resilient and very little fazes them. A tourist will be inundated with smiles, though unsolicited, and frankly this is one of the reasons that despite being in the news for the wrong reasons, Sri Lanka draws more tourists than India. Yet they are seemingly willing to slit each other’s throats.

But the underlying tension is not apparent. The villages look happy and prosperous (no snot-nosed raggedy children running around or thatched roofs coming apart in places). Cities like Colombo or Kandy are busy and boisterous, yet nice and laidback, even content.

As you walk down the kilometer - long Galle Face Green, a seashore promenade, young men play cricket with abandon, lovers sit on the rocks facing the sea, and hawkers sell typhoid-spiced prawn pakodas. The air smells of tangy ocean breeze, wood smoke, rickshaw exhaust and the sharp crackle of an impending storm. The storm breaks and you run for cover. But there is none and the rain is now a torrent. So you hail a rickshaw to take you back to your hotel, 300 metres away.
“Ten,” says the rickshaw driver.
We give him 10 Sri Lankan rupees. He looks at us incredulously.
“Dollar, dollar. Ten dollar, no rupees.”
Big city, swindlers haven.

The storm sweeps the sidewalks clean and the air is perfumed with the smell of wet earth and in this tenuous paradise, we do a tour of Colombo city. There are the statutory remains of Dutch, British and Portugese incursions. The Fort with its clock tower, the president’s residence, Sambodhi Chaitya, Cinammon Gardens (Colombo’s ritziest address), and temples, a zoo, parks and museums.

If Kolkata could shrug off its lethargy and rid itself of centuries of grime, it could have looked like this. Colombo is house-proud. Like the great European cities of the world, you can sit on a clean sidewalk if you’re tired, drink large cups of delicious flavoured peach tea at a pavement café without drinking automobile exhaust as well, and walk on encroachment-free pavements. And like Europe, it doesn’t lack for culture. “Kandy, Dambulla, Sigiriya has many cultures,” informs Wedisinghe. “Temples, monasteries, very old, very beautiful. We will go tomorrow,” he promises. Kandy, Nuwara Eliya and Colombo are Lanka’s golden tourist triangle. On to Kandy.

When the Portugese first landed in Lanka, they were escorted to Kandy. They admired the fine city and then razed it to the ground. They then proceeded to take over the whole land, but never managed to conquer the remote highlands around Kandy. The Kandyan kingdom was the last independent state in Sri Lanka and withstood the onslaught of three nations for over two centuries.

There is a sense of romance in Kandy, much like the sigh that escapes after you say Samarkand or Mandalay. And a glorious sense of isolation, even though Kandy is easily reached from Colombo or other parts of Sri Lanka. Visitors come here to see the Dalada Maligawa or the Temple of the Tooth. It holds Sri Lanka’s most important Buddhist relic – the tooth of the Buddha. How did it get here? It is said to have been snatched from the Buddha’s funeral pyre in 543 BC and in due course, smuggled into Ceylon hidden inside the hair of a princess. A thousand years later, it is said that the Portugese got hold of the tooth and burnt it, but were actually fobbed off with a duplicate. So the tooth finally rests in peace at the temple built around 1707. You will never get to see the tooth, just the casket that holds the casket that holds the casket that holds the…

Kandy is visually rich (the reason Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was shot here) and since its cooler than Colombo and compact, its great walking territory. But for long walks past tea gardens, go to Nuwara Eliya. It’s also the most European part of the country. Homesick colonists imported `English vegetables’ like beetroot, cabbage and celery, built Tudor homes, laid golf courses and started clubs. The legacy remains, though slightly browned at the edges. There’s a shantytown at one end with flimsy tin houses and the odour of decay and poverty. But go in to the tea estates and the charm of Nuwara Eliya takes over like a soothing balm.

A magnificent sunset greets you at The Tea Factory, a luxury hotel in the converted shell of an old tea factory. Neelan Tiruchevelan rustles up in a crisp starched lungi and shirt holding aloft a tray with tea and biscuits. He is Nuwara Eliya born and bred, as is his father and grandfather before him. He dislikes Colombo, but wants to move there eventually. Pay scales are better, but accommodation is a problem. Here he stays with his parents in the plantation worker’s cottage as housing is free. “My younger brother is lucky, he is a monk. He has no worries,” he sighs.

We met his brother at a monastery in Dambulla. He’s just turned 20 and is happy enough to talk to us. He asks about his family, specially his brother whom he misses very much. He’s formed new friendships among the brotherhood, but just the other day, a monk who used to share his room, committed suicide by jumping off the rock face. No one knows why. “He was very quiet, but I didn’t know he had any problems,” he says.

Sri Lanka has the highest rate of suicide in the world, according to a study conducted by Harvard University. But stress seems alien in Dambulla. The monastery here is one of the most visited in Sri Lanka. There are five caves here under a vast overhanging rock. The place is 72 km north of Kandy on the road to Anuradhapura. A civilized climb gets you to the caves from where you get a superb view of the countryside including the rock fortress of Sigiriya. The caves are said to date back to the 1st century BC when King Valagam Bahu, driven out of his own kingdom took refuge here. He regained his throne and converted the caves into magnificent rock temples. Later kings added to the temples. There are a total of five separate caves, which together contain over 150 images of the Buddha.

From Dambulla, you can go to Sigiriya. Sometimes called the eight wonder of the world, Sigiriya soars 600 ft above the surrounding plains, hugging the clouds. Sigiriya looks like a giant mushroom with its head lopped off. The summit of this barely accessible rock was the unlikely setting for a courtly paradise of elegant pavilions, gardens and pools, a kind of 5th century penthouse. It later fell into disrepair and ruin and housed a monastery. Look out for some interesting 7th century graffiti that goes: The ladies who wear gold chains on their breasts beckon me. As I have seen the resplendent ladies, heaven appears to me as not good.” Some historians say Sigiriya may have been a base for meteorological discoveries, given its height.

Possible? Consider this, Sri Lanka is credited with having the oldest flying machine in the world. The ‘demon’ king Ravana abducted Sita in a peacock-powered flying chariot, the dandumonara. The dandumonara still exists on the tail fin of the Sri Lankan national airline.

Sita left Ravana’s golden Lanka (a reference to its wealth, architecture, governance and beauty in the Ramayana) and chose to return to the cow-belt of Uttar Pradesh. Holy cow!

Survival guide

Beware of touts. They will pepper you with stories of violence and bomb blasts, and the dangers of travelling in Sri Lanka without an escort. If you warm to their story, you will be introduced to an `affordable and safe’ guide who will be your constant companion throughout your stay.

If you are travelling alone to the airport in the night, take a cab, not a three wheeler. The road is lonely and the journey long and a taxi affords a degree of safety.

Be careful in crowded areas, especially if you are carrying money and important documents in your shoulder bags.

Women using public transport may be pawed. Holler.

Photographing bridges, airports and government buildings is strictly prohibited.

If you avoid the north, Sri Lanka is basically trouble-free. But even then, check the latest political situation before you go. And don’t take unnecessary risks like venturing out alone for a walk on the streets, very late at night without your passport.

What to eat
It would be a real shame if you come back from Sri Lanka without digging into the following:

Lamprai: a dish of Dutch origin of rice boiled in meat stock then added to vegetables and meat and tenderly baked in a banana-leaf wrapping.

Kotthu rotty: it’s a roti that tastes like a batura with a filling of chopped up veggies, meat and egg. Say, a large sized Frankie.

Appams and Idiappams: (need we explain) for breakfast with an egg fried in the middle or honey and cream. Or with a chilli sambol for lunch.

Ambul Thiyal: a tangy, tuna pickle -- guaranteed after-burner.

Rambutan: If you like the lychee, you will love this. Larger than the lychee it’s sweet, cool and very juicy.

Shell fish: Crabs, clams, prawns, lobsters… cooked the Sri Lankan way in a coconut gravy, spices and a generous dousing of finely chopped, fresh green chillies. Use your fingers.

King Coconut: These are yellow king-sized coconuts with so much water within that it’s best shared.

Swarupa Dutt

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