Sri lanka

The war is over; peaceful times are ahead and the currency exchange rate is so attractive, that it’s made us throw caution to the winds! We are a motley group of eight women, who have successfully left behind our homes, kids’ et al in search of a break from monotony. This is the moment that we love in travel-arriving in a totally new place, and being assailed by a veritable potpourri of new images and sounds. Monks in flowing, saffron robes, lilting Baila music, the radiant faces of school-kids, tuk-tuks with their witch’s brew of fumes and small town quaintness, garnished with warm service! The town of Kandy, 116 kilometres from Colombo, is the cultural stronghold of Sri Lanka, its spiritual core and a UNESCO World Heritage city. Lore has it that a Brahmin called Senkanda, witnessed a scene in the forest where a jackal was chasing a hare. At a certain spot the roles reversed and the jackal became the quarry! This spot was seen to be a victorious ground and the King was advised to found the city of Kandy here. The Kandyans have a reputation of being brave and resilient, and have resisted the Dutch, the Portuguese and the British for long periods of time. Kandy used to be the heart of coffee plantations, till a deadly fungus wiped out the entire crop! Our hotel is nestled into the banks of the Maheweli River and has the vibe of an old country club. Creature comforts, great views of the surrounding mist-clad spice growing hills, and a breakfast thrown in overlooking the river make it a veritable steal!

Danuja, our local guide (a Ben Kingsley look-a-like), is an elderly teacher who works part-time as a tour guide, to fund his daughter’s education. He is proud of his heritage and a devout Buddhist. He tells us about the myriad Buddhist retreats here where one can achieve ‘inner peace’ through meditation. As we drive around the Kandy Lake (locally called Kiri Muhuda or the milky ocean) the centerpiece of this town, built by the last king of the Kandian Empire, Wikrama Rajasinha, in 1807, Danuja gives us a crash course in Kandyan history. There is an island in the centre of the lake, which used to house the harem of the King and was later converted into an ammunition store by the British! This tree-lined lake is an oasis of tranquility with egrets, cormorants, herons and kingfishers bobbing in and out of the water and water monitor lizards lazily sunbathing on a rock! As we catch glimpses of faded colonial buildings, Danuja points out the graceful Hotel Suisse, a landmark of this town, an 18th Century mansion, which served as the headquarters of Lord Mountbatten during the Second World War. The city is at all times, under the watchful eyes of a gargantuan white Buddha, perched high above on hill. Danuja says that this country has always had a history of conservation of ecosystems and nearly 2000 years ago, King Devampiya created a national park. We see evidence of this in the lush, moist, green ring of hills and forest that surround this city.

We drive through the opulently green, University of Peradaniya’s sprawling campus( the second oldest university on the island) to reach the Peradaniya Botanical gardens, laid out long ago for the pleasure of a local queen, and today a great place to while away an afternoon. This horse-shoe shaped garden, wraps itself around the Mahaweli River. There is a long sinuous line of palms, snaking its way into the garden, a huge Javanese almond tree spraying through the air like a gigantic fountain, a fig tree covered in roots, giant lilies, a spice garden fragrant with cardamoms and cinnamon and a marvelous profusion of Fuji-colour orchids. There is a section of trees here planted by celebrities from heads of state to politicians, even astronauts! There are huge fruit bats hanging upside down on the branches, above courting couples seeking some privacy, as they explore their compatibility!

We earn our cultural credentials at the famed, brilliantly white Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth relic), one of Buddhism’s most venerated sites which is supposed to enshrine a tooth of the Buddha, obtained from his funeral pyre ( which reached here after many adventurous wanderings!) . The fabled molar is of course not on display, but housed in an aura of mystery, inside a blink-and –you-miss-it jewelled casket. The security is tight and we are frisked several times, reminding us of the bomb that detonated here in 1998, and destroyed a large portion of the temple. The multi-tiered temple with pagoda roofs is surrounded by a moat, and lit up brilliantly, casting a mellow glow all around. The Kandyan drummers beat out a mesmeric tattoo, and worshippers pour in with frangipani and lotus offerings. Lamps flicker all around and the fragrant incense lingers in the air. Danuja tells us that, sometimes the queue of worshippers here can be three miles long! He tells us about the Esala Perahera, a ten day pageant in August, when the streets of Kandy come alive, with decorated elephants carrying a replica of the tooth relic, jugglers, fire-eaters, traditional dancers and barefoot pilgrims! This is held to invoke the blessings of the gods for good rain, successful crops and good health. Behind the temple on Deva Veediya, is the St Paul’s church, built in 1846 and still in use. A little further ahead, is the Garrison cemetery, a poignant reminder of the British presence here. We read the headstones of British pioneers, civil servants and settlers who are buried here – someone who was killed by an elephant, someone who explored the Maheweli Ganga River and many others who lived and loved on this foreign land.

Come evening, the Kandyan Cultural Centre near the lake, is the scene of a cultural extravaganza replete with colour and rhythm and tour- buses disgorge legions of camera-crazy tourists. We are welcomed traditionally with the Kandyan drummers, and the blowing of the conch. The mask dance (using traditional bright-hued masks) where the bird kills a cobra, signifying the war over evil spirits, is highly enjoyable. The Ves dance with shades of Kathakali, has the traditional garb, which consists of sixty four ornaments! The grand finale is the fire-walking and fire-eating show, which has the Japanese tourists up on their feet, exhausting their digital memory!

Our progress through the streets of Kandy is invariably slow; sometimes halted by elephants carrying huge loads, and many times by school-children clogging the streets (Kandy has a staggering number of schools and colleges!) There is evidence everywhere that this is a cricket- crazy nation, just like India( we’ve seen billboards with cricket stars and roadside cricket almost everywhere) but Danuja tells us that rugby union (a British hangover?) is the most popular sport here and the local rugby club has remained undefeated for many years. We see colourful Hindu temples, a wealth of cheap restaurants with traditional cuisine of hoppers, sambol, the famous Kuttu parathas (rotis diced with vegetables and masala) and curries (Think: Kerala). We feast on exotic fruits with piquant flavours- purplish mangusteen, hairy, red rambutans, passion fruits, red bananas and the unforgettable Durian! “Hello! Are you a Hindu?” says a voice behind us at the market and soon we are subjected to high-pressure marketing tactics to see his brother’s batik factory! Successfully extricating ourselves from his clutches, we round up the afternoon with our own bit of retail therapy-multi-hued traditional masks, each with a particular power to ward off evil and porcelain elephants filled with orange pekoe tea.

For centuries, traders were drawn to this island for its bewildering array of spices. Driving down to one of the innumerable spice gardens (with signs in German, French and English), dotting the road to Colombo, one is treated to a conducted tour (with a free massage thrown in!).The entertaining guide rattles off cures for every health disorder (including aphrodisiacs which will ‘take you to heaven’) and USPs of the relevant plants. Just don’t use depilatory wax...a small magic potion dabbed onto a friend’s hand makes the patch completely hairless in ten minutes! Our last stop from Kandy is a pleasant diversion- the Pinewala Elephant orphanage. This was started by the Wildlife Department in 1975 to house elephants abandoned because of the death or injury of the mother (land-mines and poaching have contributed to several accidents). The bottle- feeding sessions of these elephants are over, but we catch their ‘Spa time’ at the Maha Oya River. The pachyderms are a delightful sight, gamboling in the waters, with the babies playfully ducking under the adults, some fresh and others with a thick mud-pack. There are stalls lining the road to the river filled with bric-a brac and souvenirs. The omnipresent motif seems to be, of course, the elephant! There is even a shop devoted to paper and paper products made from elephant dung (talk about environment-friendly!) We rest our tired feet, sipping on a tender coconut water, and marvel at the capacity of this country to handle misfortune whether from terrorism, a tsunami or a disease wiping out the coffee crop!

Published in The New Indian Express, 2009.