Early Arab traders called Sri Lanka Serendib. This is the word that gave rise to ‘serendipity’, which means ‘the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident’. Those traders knew what they were about when they named this island off the tip of India. After long journeys on its rural roads, IZATUN SHARI makes some pleasant discoveries of her own.
THE drive to the Culture Club Resort was quite an experience what with children jaywalking heart-stoppingly in front of us and bulls fighting in the middle of the narrow, uneven road!
Then, as we approached the resort, we came across picturesque Kandalama Lake. Coloured a rich red by the setting sun, villagers were bathing and washing their clothes on the shores of the ancient man-made lake, as they must have done for generations?. It was a magical sight with which to begin our stay.
The resort is in an agricultural district called Dambulla that is about 35km from Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport. It has been designed to resemble a traditional Sri Lankan village, albeit with a touch of luxury, by Sri Lanka’s most famous architect, the late Geoffrey Bawa (1919-2003).
The resort staff greeted me with warm smiles, heads bowed slightly over clasped palms, and an “Ayubowan” (may you be blessed with long life), which are all age-old gestures of welcome among the Singhalese, the majority race in the country. Seated on a dais, flautist Jaysena, 55, was playing a tune called Pelkavya that farmers in the old days used to sing to keep elephants from destroying their crops.
Such a serene introduction to the eco-concept resort gave me a fresh perspective on relaxation. And adding to the sense of relaxation was the resort’s Ayurvedic centre, where a weary body can be rejuvenated after a tiring day of travelling.
After sampling some delectable Sri Lankan food for breakfast, you can go bird-watching, one of the resort’s more popular activities; in fact, the Culture Club resort has been voted a Bird Friendly Hotel by the US Eco-Tourism Society and Sri Lanka’s Field Ornithology Group.
I have acquired a certain liking for the spicy aubergine and dried fish pahi curry, eaten with rice, gowa mallum (a finely shredded cabbage dish cooked with coconut and saffron), pol mallum (coconut sambal) and sweet mango chutney!
Much of the food comes from the resort’s own productive garden, which is full of spices, herbs, vegetables and fruits. Also on the grounds are chalets and eco-lodges, which are replicas of ancient Singhalese farmhouses and British colonial era houses.
Divine DambullaDAMBULLA is home to Sri Lanka’s best cave temples, with a history that dates back to around 1BCE. There are five separate caves containing well over 100 images of and monuments to the Buddha as well as Hindu gods. Each cave is decorated with murals of scenes from the Buddha’s life. These murals are much more modern than the carvings, some of which are a200 years old.
The first temple is said to have been created by King Valagam Bahu (104-76BCE), one of the kings of the ancient city-state of Anuradhapura, who was driven from his throne by South Indian invaders in 1BCE. He took shelter in the caves.
Still workingLOOKING through binoculars from the car, I could see hundreds of people winding their way up a steep staircase carved into a rock that looked like a seated lion.
This is, arguably, Sri Lanka’s most famous heritage site: the rock fortress of Sigiriya.
Located in the Central Province of Matale District, it is only about an hour’s drive from the country’s international airport. The five-century-old fortress is famous for its beautifully and elaborately landscaped water gardens displaying surprisingly sophisticated hydraulic technologies that provided the royal bathwater. Amazingly, the fountains actually work during the rainy season from November to January.
There is a boulder garden with winding pathways and snakes on the trees and salamander in the bushes – don’t worry, they’re harmless. Then there are, of course, the rock wall frescoes, the only secular art to have survived from the early Singhalese kingdoms. These are sensuous paintings of skimpily-clad court beauties or “Sigiriya Damsels”, which are still in remarkably good condition (partly because you can’t use a camera flash near them).
There’s the famous Mirror Wall that has preserved graffiti dating from the eighth century, which has provided linguists with vital insight into the evolution of the Singhalese language.
The ancient city of Sigiriya was built by King Kasyapa in 477 CE. After his death in 491, it became a monastic refuge up to about the 14th century and then fell into disrepair. Since Unesco (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) declared it a world heritage site, great efforts have been made to preserve it.
Sitting atop Sigiriya contemplating the history and its spectacular views, it is easy to see why this place is Sri Lanka’s premier attraction. Today, the great beauty of the fortress is a source of inspiration to Sri Lankans.
Hair stylist A. Sunethra, 30, climbed the rock a few years ago and came back again from her hometown of Gampola because, she said, the rock had an aura of mystery about it.
“It is like a miracle how the king constructed the rock fortress and palace with an irrigation system that can still supply water right up at the peak.
“There’s nothing like experiencing it yourself. It is an amazing feeling climbing to the top. The view is simply breathtaking,” Sunethra said.
Garden of greatnessWHO would have thought it ... here I was in a hill town, and I was stuck in a traffic jam. The usually serene town of Kandy in Sri Lanka’s Central Province was all agog as supporters of a political party took to the streets.
But it was just a blip on this pretty town’s radar. More usual was my experience of a cultural performance at the Kandyan Arts Association Hall on Ampitiya Road; for an hour, we were entertained by captivating traditional Kandyan and Sri Lankan country-dances. The most fascinating of the forms was the mask dance, which is usually performed in southern Sri Lanka to drive away evil spirits and which is now being used as an adjunct to psychiatric treatment.
The following day, we visited the Peradeniya Royal Botanical Gardens. The almost 60ha gardens were established in 1374 as a pleasure garden for the kings of Gampola and Kandy. Today, they more than 4,000 species of trees, plants and creepers, some of which are very rare.
The gardens are also a regular love nest – couples love sitting under the bamboo trees!
I spotted a pathway lined by coconut tree called Lodoicea maldivica, or Coco de Mer, found in the Seychelles in 1743; they have the largest seed of all the world’s plants, weighing in between 10kg and 20kg. A little way off was a “celebrity” tree: the elephant leg tree where Jungle Book II was filmed a couple of years ago.
There was also a giant Ficus Benjamin Java willow tree with branches spreading over 224sq m; this magnificent tree is indigenous to Malaysia, India, southern China and the Solomon islands.
Another interesting find was the Hura crepitans euphorbiacease, or the sandbox tree, which has poisonous latex that can cause blindness; this species is from tropical Amazon and the West Indies.
There were also many species of trees planted by kings and various world leaders. Among them are Couroupita guianensis (cannonball tree) planted by Britain’s King George and Queen Mary in 1901; Amherstia nobilis leguminosae (the Pride of Burma orchid tree) by the king of Belgium, Leopold III, in 1925; Bauhinia variegata (orchid tree) by former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1967; and Tabebuia guayacan bignoniaceae by former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in 1958.
Cool sceneryNUWARA Eliya is known as the Little England of Sri Lanka not only because of its cool climate – temperatures can get as low as 11°C! – but also because of its decidedly English look.
At almost 2,000m above sea level, getting to the town is an adventure in itself. There are magnificent views of mountains, valleys and waterfalls along the way – or so they tell me. I didn’t see much as I travelled through rain. The four-hour drive from the much larger hill town of Kandy to Little England was a rather scary experience as the roads were narrow, winding and in pretty poor condition!
No trip to Sri Lanka would be complete without a visit to a hill country tea plantation, of course. So we stopped at Blue Field plantation to be educated on how world-famous Ceylon black tea is produced and also to buy some fine blends of teas, which are attractively packaged, particularly the best grade, Broken Orange Pekoe.
We stayed a night at St Andrew’s Hotel, a charming Tudor style colonial mansion that is more than a century old. It used to be the local Scot’s Club, it seems. After a lavish dinner at the hotel’s fine dining restaurant, we retreated to the warmth and comfort of our rooms, which had wooden flooring and walls, antique four-poster beds and heating units to keep us cosy.
Nuwara Eliya town is a charming place with some attractive old buildings, such as the post office; there is also the Nanu Oya railway station, which was built in the middle of the 1870s, and the Gymkhana Race Course, which was taken over by the Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) Turf Club in 1900.
If you have the time, taking a train ride is a great way to see enjoy gorgeous mountain and waterfall scenery and catch glimpses of old ways of life: women picking leaves on tea plantations in the drizzle and men carting tea bush branches to make firewood along the road?.
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