A Lankan Sojourn
Like I discovered, you will notice no great divide as you leave the southerly shores of Kerala and head out to Sri Lanka, or erstwhile Ceylon. The view from the air remains the same, with coconut tress blanketing out the ground, save for an occasional large and tall tree which had bravely stepped out from their midst. The food habits and choices in Lanka are quite similar and suiting the Malayali palate. After all, till the island separated itself and floated off, it was part of the mainland, so the flora and fauna are largely similar, and the people look pretty much like those from Travancore. Anyway, that was where we were headed, a few weeks ago, and the week we spent there was eminently satisfying, to say the least.
Like Kerala, Lanka too is a land of fables and grandmother’s tales, and home to a good number of soft-spoken people. There are cities and there are towns, there are villages and hamlets, and of course there are tea estates and bungalows. Home to a large number of seemingly contented elephants, Lanka also boasts of large tracts of fertile land which were toiled upon ages ago, by thousands of Indian Tamils to establish the country’s famed tea gardens. Colonized first by the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the English, you can easily detect traces of mixed lineages from the names of the Sinhalese. Mostly Buddhist, and with sizable Christian, Hindu and Muslim minorities, the population relies mainly on tourism, tea and agriculture, not to forget the islands burgeoning gem and pearl industry.
The flight from Cochin landed in Colombo in under an hour, we hardly had time for a shuteye on the plane. What jerked me awake every now and then was a stewardess passing by and her hips swaying past the periphery of my bleary vision. Those seductive hips were pleasantly distracting (I was reminded of Kamalhasan’s hilarious exploits in the Tamil film Meendum Kokila) and exacerbated by the way the Sri Lankan saree is worn! We were whisked off the Bandaranayke (named after the family of eminent politicians, and Lankan prime ministers) airport by our chauffer after some Sri Lankan rupees were procured from the exchange counter. The first taste of Lankan food was satisfying, and the abundance of scraped coconut, coconut oil and coconut milk and could be tasted in most dishes, much to my delight. Omnipresent was the ‘pol sambal’ or coconut chutney and the onion chutney laced with fish ‘sini sambal’. We loved the taste of most of dishes, and finally topping it off with the local dessert ‘watalappam’ made it a full meal.
Off we went next to the elephant orphanage at Pinniwala, some 90km NE from Colombo, where one could watch a number of elephants frolicking in the river and wandering about, but then again, that visit for the Malayali is just a pleasant diversion for I was coming after attending a temple festival at Palghat where we had five adult elephants in parade for the Navaratri festival. Most Malayalee’s love elephants and a fair number of them can be observed ambling around in Palakkad & Trichur roads, walking from one temple festival to the next (or glumly chewing a palm leaf and looking lazily around with forlorn eyes, as the truck carrying them lurched around potholes). One thing disturbed us though and it would trouble us the entire tour, for our chauffer who was supposed to double as a guide as well, simply was not a guide and one who was at best reticent, morose and one who presumably hated or feared his own voice. Nevertheless, we were not put off, for there was much to observe and take in.
|Dambulla Rock Caves|
Like we saw that people felled coconuts using a long pole, rather than climbing the tree like in Kerala, but then again as I mentioned previously the tress were much shorter and they had both the red and green varieties, with the red used only for tender coconut water, which we consumed regularly stopping the car now and then as the weather heated up. The driver informed us that they did have people climbing up or going from one tree to another, but they were in larger plantations. And we drove on, as paddy fields and small homes whizzed past the window.
Dambulla, an ancient town, situated about 50 km further NE, at the center of Lanka was our next destination. Interestingly, Dambulla’s cricket ground, built in 167 days is where Virat Kohli, present Indian captain made his debut, in 2008. Showcasing the heydays of Buddhism, the five cave temples of Dambulla depict many statues, especially large reclining Buddha statues and lovely cave paintings. King Valgambahu who had been was driven out of his throne by Dravidian invaders had found sanctuary in these regions and after finally defeating the invaders, had the famous rock temples built in gratitude. The so called Golden Dambulla Rock Temple is one of most revered Buddhist sanctuaries of Sri Lanka.
A warning for future travelers, visiting these rock temples and many other high places require you to be in reasonable physical shape. As you climb up to the caves, monkeys survey you lazily, checking if they can lope of with food you might have in your hands. This UNESCO world heritage rock temple for example requires you to climb steps totaling to some 160mts. The Dambulla cave complex include some 153 Buddha statues, three statues of Sri Lankan kings and four statues of Hindu gods and goddesses. Lovely murals depicting the Buddha story decorate many of the cave walls. As you get back, you come across the new temple and the massive golden statue of Buddha and a horde of devotees, young and old, thronging the courtyards dressed in whites. Every full moon day is a national holiday in Sri Lanka with the temples, stupas and vihara’s would exhibit throngs of white clad devotees and red clad monks, with much chanting.
|Kandy Buddha Tooth temple|
That made me recall an interesting trivia - The Sri Lankan flag recognizes most of the major religious groups there, the yellow border and pepul leaves symbolize Buddhism - the main religion in the country, while the green and saffron bands represent the country’s Muslim and Hindu Tamil communities. Maroon of course representing the Singhalese. Lanka as you may know is the fourth largest exporter of tea in the world, and in February 2017, marked its 150th anniversary of tea exportation. Ceylon Tea, being that Sri Lanka is most known for, is considered by the cleanest tea in the world, with negligible pesticide content. Lanka is also known as Serendib (Arabic corruption of Sanskrit Sinhaladweep) and usually termed the Paradise Island. If you did not know, Serendib (through the lovely Persian fairy tale of the three princes) is the source of the word serendipity, coined by Horace Walpole recollecting a part of the "silly fairy tale" in which the three princes by "accidents and sagacity" discern the nature of a lost camel. Most of the world’s cinnamon also comes from Sri Lanka (80-90 %!), so you can thank them for sharing this with the world!
You will quickly notice the abundance of auto rickshaws or the three wheeler ‘tuk tuk’, which our driver was very upset with. He claimed that the decadence of the island can be fully attributed to the arrival of the cheap and accessible Bajaj three wheeler which quickly disturbed the entire balance of the island. Anybody could buy them and drive them around on cheap hires to make a quick buck, they disregarded many a traffic rule. I had to agree with him, for the normal Lankan driver is quite careful and law abiding compared to his counterparts in South India and the single lane roads in Lanka required discipline to prevent choking up of the traffic. But another aspect disappointed me, the architecture of roadside houses was bereft of any originality or uniqueness, unlike those at Bali. Roadside shops were replete with fruits and with the mango season over in Kerala, the piles in Dambulla made us stop and but a couple of alphonso’s which the shop keeper slices for us. She would not peel off the skin saying that it was not right for her (not really dirty) hands to make contact with something we had to eat.
Our place of stay was quite a splendid affair, the Harbana village resort with lovely cottages in a large lakeside resort, lots of walking trails and a huge buffet room for dining and entertainment, not to leave out live music. Hammocks, rattan chairs, pools, a cricket pitch where the many workers of the resort spent their spare time, all placed in the middle of a natural resort with huge trees and creepers made it quite a unique colonial experience. The pains of the cave temple climb were quickly drowned in copious swigs of Lanka’s Singa beer.
Can you imagine starting a day with a crispy egg appam with coconut milk for breakfast? Well, that was just part of it, for the choices were aplenty. Thus fortified, we set off for the first major hike of the day, climbing the Sigiriya (Lion rock) hill fortress of king Kashyapa. The fortress was built by him atop a 200 meter tall hill after he had wrested power away from his half-brother Moggallana, who fled to India. Expecting the inevitable return of Moggallana, Kashyapa is said to have built his palace on the summit of Sigiriya as a fortress as well as a pleasure palace. Moggallana finally arrived, declared war, and defeated Kashyapa in 495 CE. During the battle Kashyapa's armies abandoned him and he committed suicide by falling on his sword. Well, the palace is all gone and only ruins remain showing the foundations of the palace, the palace tank atop the mountain and the famous polished mirror wall and the murals of many a lovely lass remain for one to see, but well worth the arduous climb. The climb is slow, single file, on narrow steps and as I said before, quite tough for those who only warm their backsides in office chairs, most of the year! From a medical assistance point of view, not much is available, save a small first aid station at the summit.
Weary, but contended, we proceed on to a lakeside village. Phew! It was a back breaking ride in an ancient bullock cart with an intent to visit a villager’s thatched island house. The second half of the trip was in a boat. By the time we reached there, we were simply famished. The lady dressed in a simple lungi and blouse proceeded to show us old village life, mark you, nothing different from that in a Palghat village, where she de-husked a coconut using the vertical blade, scraped it using a scraper (I could not resist doing it myself – had assisted my mom many a time in my younger days) and ground a mean pol sambhal on a stone ammikkallu. Her sister was in the meantime making some fish mango curry, and through the demonstration, I must admit, our mouths watered and we were getting impatient for the lunch as the village mongrel lazily dozed off at the home entrance, not bothered by the arrival of some funny foreigners. The meal which followed on a lotus leaf was simple but complete, baby plantains for desert, and we went back to the car in an auto rickshaw, eyes heavy with sleep. As my wife dozed off in the hammock, I watched a cricket game between the waiters and the houseboys of the resort, not surprised at the quality of the batting and bowling of these youngsters.
Early next morning, we started a long drive to Kandy, the second major city in Lanka after Colombo, which all in all, proved to be somewhat of a disappointment. It had been the last capital of the ancient Nayak’s of Madurai and home to the famous Buddha tooth relic. The temple was fascinating, nonetheless, and the hotel we stayed in, just so-so, like any other clean modern hotel, devoid of any character. Tired, we skipped the trip to the famed botanical gardens of Paradeniya, which people tell us was a miss and quite glorious. The tooth temple held particular interest for me, and I will retell that story another day, together with its connections to Zheng he or Cheng Ho. As is said, since old times long gone, safeguarding of the relic which had been brought in from India’s Kalinga kingdom hidden in the Princess Hemalli’s hair, was the responsibility of the Lankan monarch, and so the custodianship of relic symbolized the right to rule. After the temple visit, we wandered around the town of Kandy, but sad to say it was not very satisfying.
It had been our desire to take the much recommended train ride to the highlands of Lanka, but the upper class tickets had all been sold out and the travel agency were not willing to allow us to travel third class. Our driver Basil, made a valiant attempt the next day to get us to the train as he had found out that morning that two tickets were available, but we could not reach the station in time and it proved to be a touch and go affair (something that would be repeated again as you will read). It was a rainy cold day and the drive to the hill station town of Nuwara Eliya, insipid. The first of the visits was to a tea factory at Glenlock where the lady guide took us through the plucking, sorting, drying and curing process of tea. A few cups of tea were gulped, nice on a cold rainy day, and we were soon off with a few packets of tea as souvenirs.
The drive up the mountains took most of the day and on the way we stopped at Ramboda, where they had built a temple in honor of the great monkey god and friend of Rama, Hanuman. According to the ancient stories, Ramboda is the area where the forces of Rama had gathered to fight Ravana. The nearby Ramboda waterfalls were spectacular, though the lunch was mediocre.
At long last we reached Nuwara Eliya and quickly proceeded to the quaint Hill club where one had to take temporary membership to stay. It was colonial to the core, with suited and booted staff, old fashioned furniture, well-manicured lawns, a tennis court, regularly tended gardens as well as rooms and a general atmosphere which took you back a century, at least. After settling down we meandered through the small town, nothing different from any Indian hill stations, for example Ootacamund, and saw its race course and botanical gardens. Not to be missed is the Sita or Ashoka Vatika and the Sita temple where the lovely Sita ruminated on her future, as a prisoner of Ravana, while she waited for Ravana to come in rescue. Needless to mention, Lanka is home to a lot of Ashoka trees many of which were apparently set afire by Hanuman with his tail as he came in search of Sita. It was here that they say Mandodari came to meet her and where Hanuman alighted, and identified himself with Rama’s finger ring.
The evening proved to be a formal affair as we were to dress formally to eat in the dining room. When I mentioned that I would prefer the second and less formal dining room the steward insisted that we visit the cloak room and pick a suit and tie from the hotel stock. So attired, we sipped a few drinks by the wood fireplace, and supped a nice dinner a little later. As we spent our evening so, the steward regaled us of tales of Queen Elizabeth’s visit to the very room for supper, showing us the cutlery offered for her dining pleasure. The reading room had plenty of old and new magazines and the ‘mixed bar’ at the end of the corridor allowed lesser mortals to sip a beer. Many a stuffed deer head gazed down forlornly at us, having been targets of hunters long dead and the board on the wall stated that there were no floods expected and that the roads were clear. It also mentioned that the train to Colombo would leave at 530AM. As I took in all this, the cashier behind the polished brass grill window could be seen clacking away, not at the typewriter positioned nearby, but at his modern keyboard, to tally various guest accounts. The lady at the entrance had in similar fashion given up using the old rotary phone and the plug in telephone switch, just as the helper boy no longer used bellows to keep the fire blazing. Those days were forgotten, but the implements left behind reminded you of the time when the Englishman made merry. As we got back to the room, to retire for the evening, there were orchids on the bed and believe it or not, a hot water bottle on each bedside, to warm our nether ends! So warmed up, we drifted off to an early night and a deep slumber, since we had to leave the next day at 5AM.
We will remember the day that followed for a long time, since it was a reasonably tough trail, walking through the fog till it cleared, all of 12 km through the Hortons plains at some 7,000 feet elevation that left you tired and winded after 5-6 hours of walking with little rest, climbing up, slithering down and exercising wheezy lungs, to see the Bakers falls, the world’s end precipice and so on in a plain reminiscent of the Scottish highlands. World's End is a sheer precipice with an 870 mts drop and you can see tiny villages and tea plantations in the valley below. Another cliff known as the Lesser World's End of 270 mts is located not far from World's End. The grasslands here was apparently created when Hanuman set the trees alight but now it is home to other animals, and we found on our path a freshly mauled deer, by a leopard in the forest, the fact that it was nearby chilled our already cold blood. Tired and hungry, we got back to Nuwara and after a quick bite, settled to watch a day-nighter cricket match between India and Australia, which India lost.
A visit to the Adams peak was something we missed, deliberately, for we were not sure our physical conditioning was sufficient to make that climb and down. Also the climb would have necessitated a three day rest later, which we did not have for we had to get back to India and US soon after the Lanka trip. Adam’s Peak incidentally is the most sacred mountain in Lanka. Sri Pada as it is otherwise called, has tourist and pilgrims from all over the world climb to its peak by candlelight to stand in the famous footprint left there. Buddhist’s believe that it is the footprint of Buddha, Hindus believe it’s the footprint of Lord Shiva, Christians and Muslims in Sri Lanka believe that this was the footprint of Adam.
The next and penultimate day of our tour was a drive to take us back to Colombo and our desire to enjoy a train ride was still not satiated. So, Basil took us early in the morning to the highest rail station (6200 ft) of Lanka at Pattipola to give it a try, but the train was already leaving the station as we made a wild dash to the platform. Not to be deterred, Basil sped to the next station at Ambewela from where we boarded a second class compartment of the blue hill train for an eventful but short ride to Nanu-oya. Scenic is just one word to describe the rolling plains, the hill side tea plantations, and the glorious pine, teak, coconut, arecanut and eucalyptus trees that sped past the windows of the train. At each curve, we could see the rest of the train ahead of us and the tourists craning their heads out to catch a sight of the many waterfalls we passed, enroute. One thing is clear, they take care of tourists having a separate foreigner’s rest room in each rail station!
Tea estates with English names like Shannon, Leigh, St Clare, Strathdon, Devon, Edinburg and Somerset dotted with Tamil plantation laborers whizzed past our windows as we drove down the hills, destined for Colombo. The radio played lovely 70-80’s songs on Ceylon’s 93 or 93.2 FM, with the DJ rattling off on various matters now and then. A surprise was the lady police’s uniform which was skirts! Drivers hardly used their horns, roadsides exhibited very little litter and mango trees still sported tender mangoes. One thing mystified us though, LG TV’s advertised there could drive away mosquitoes, can you believe that? The TV's "Mosquito Away Technology" uses ultrasonic waves that are inaudible to humans but cause mosquitoes to fly away, according to LG, and works even when switched off (I checked it out and found that it had originally been designed for the Indian market!).
Finally at long last we were in Colombo and a hasty city tour before sundown took us through the Galle sea face, museum, St Lucia cathedral, Independence square, the twin towers, Gangaramaya Buddha temple, Beira lake, Pettah, Town hall etc though the dense traffic was a deterrent in enjoying it. The last night’s stay was at the oceanfront Lavaniya hotel, an ageing but well placed property with a nice balcony dining set up, replete with live music. Though we tried, we could not eat the famed Ceylon Porotta, the driver stating that he would not be party to our buying unhygienic street food. We dropped off to a weary sleep with the ocean lapping the hotel walls. The next morning we boarded the flight back to Kerala…
A nice sojourn, leaving behind many a memory of days well spent, new people, new sights and sounds, new flavors and a taste of Lanka’s history. We did not see a lot of the Paradise Island, and I would only guess that we are destined to visit again, for we still have to see the Adams peak, Galle, Trincomalle and Jaffna!