The enduring charm of Serendip

With one of the richest treasure troves of natural and man-made wonders and a history dating back to the dawn of civilisation, despite a civil insurgency and tsunami damage, Sri Lanka’s tourism industry has recovered and is booming again

The pearl on the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent, Sri Lanka (pop.21 million) is perhaps one of Asia’s richest treasure troves of natural and man-made wonders. Some of these marvels unveil a history of over 2,500 years — the sacred city of Anuradhapura, the cave temples of Dambulla, and the magnificent temples and palaces of the royal city of Kandy.

This perhaps explains why despite a civil insurgency which persisted for over two decades and the devastating impact of a giant tsunami inflicting massive damage estimated at over US$ 1.5 billion (Rs.6,750 crore) upon its 1,126-km coastline in 2004, Sri Lanka’s tourism industry has recovered and is booming again. Even though the island republic is experiencing political instability currently, for the tourism industry it’s business as usual.

The history of Sri Lanka (once described by author Horace Walpole as Serendip) dates back to the beginning of civilisation. Adams Peak on the island is believed to be the very place where the first eponymous human set foot on earth after expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Legend has it that a large footprint squarely atop this mountain peak is Adam’s. Then there is Adam’s Bridge — a chain of islands linking Sri Lanka to India. It is revered as a viaduct built by Lord Rama aided by the simian god Hanuman in the epic Ramayana.

However the official history of the island as recorded in the Mahavamsa or Great History, dates back to 543 BC, which coincides with the arrival from India of Prince Vijaya in Sri Lanka. Some 300 years later the Anuradhapura period commenced with King Devanampiya Tissa as the first ruler of the dynasty. It was in this period that a sapling of the sacred Bodhi Tree, under which Lord Buddha attained enlightenment, was imported into the island from India. The Anuradhapura period, which began in 459 AD, witnessed the construction of Sigiriya fortress during the reign of King Kasyapa (473-495 AD). The Polonnaruwa period, witnessed the transfer of the capital from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa in 1073. The famous Venetian explorer, Marco Polo, reportedly anchored in Sri Lanka sometime between 1254 and 1324. Soon the Portuguese Navy landed here in 1505 and occupied the island’s coastal regions.

Around that time Sri Lanka had three main kingdoms — Jaffna in the north, Kandy in the central highlands and Kotte, the most powerful, in the south-west. Employing the familiar policy of divide et impera and aiding the Kotte kings to attack and annex neighbouring territories, the Portuguese established their suzerainty over most of the island, except the central highlands around Kandy.

However, infuriated by the frequent expeditions of the Portuguese, the Kandy kings enlisted the help of Dutch traders who helped to expel the Portuguese but took over their territories by 1658. During their 140-year-rule, the Dutch also made repeated but unsuccessful attempts to bring Kandy under their control.

The French Revolution of 1789 resulted in a major shake-up among the European powers and in 1796 the Dutch were supplanted by the British, who in 1815 also won control of the kingdom of Kandy and thus became the first European power to rule the entire island. In 1818 a unified administration for the island was set up and the country was soon dotted with coffee, cinnamon and coconut plantations. The British also built a good network of roads and railways to supplement this new economic activity. English became the official language, and is still widely spoken. The economic legacy of Britain endures on the island and currently Sri Lanka is the world’s second largest exporter of tea.

The island nation attained independence in February 1948 following the anti-colonial upsurge in Asia and Africa after World War II. Coming soon after India’s independence, Sri Lanka’s freedom struggle was a considerably more peaceful and low-key affair.

Getting there. The only way to enter the island republic of Sri Lanka is by air. Colombo is the international gateway for direct flights from Europe, Asia, Australia and the Middle East. Moreover competitively priced flights are available between Colombo and Chennai, Trichy, Trivandrum, Bangalore and Mumbai.

Colombo
The island republic’s largest city, Colombo (pop. 750,000) is as noisy and frenetic as any Indian metropolis. While the city is less interesting than other parts of the island, it’s still colourful and worth a recce. To the north of the centre is the Fort district, the country’s main business hub. To the south is Galle Face Green, a seafront expanse of green graced by cricket matches and trysting lovers. Cinammon Gardens, further south, is the most fashionable neighbourhood of Colombo.

The National Museum here was the first to be established in Sri Lanka. The Central Library boasts a collection of 500,000 books including valuable and rare volumes and over 4,000 palm leaf manuscripts. The Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha Art Gallery caters to conservative tastes in art. The Lionel Wendt Art Gallery in Guildford Crescent exhibits contemporary artistes and Kalagaraya, the permanent art gallery of the Alliance Francaise de Colombo, displays a representative collection of contemporary art.

A contiguous tourist attraction is Mount Lavinya Beach south of the city centre. Its soft sands and calm waters make for a perfect day on the beach.

Accommodation. Top-end: Hotel Taj Samudra (Rs.12,442-20,835), Trans Asia Colombo (Rs.9,433-14,558), The Galle Face (Rs.10,234-19,585). Mid-range: Sapphire Hotel Colombo (Rs.4,270-6,405), Hotel Renuka (Rs.5,448-7,436).

Excursions

Bentota (62 km) is a quaint seaside town with over 130 km of golden, palm-fringed beaches. Replete with all tourist facilities, the highlight of Bentota is the open-air theatre where folk and mask dances are held every evening. Other enjoyable activities include safaris in the Yala Wildlife Park, water sports in the azure waters of the Indian Ocean, glass boat rides to explore coral reefs, visiting heritage monuments and releasing three-day-old turtle hatchlings into the sea.

Hikkaduwa (98 km) is the island’s most developed beach resort with a range of hotels, spas, guest houses, excellent restaurants and pleasant cafe-lined beaches. There’s provision for snorkeling in an attractive and easily accessible coral sanctuary, scuba diving into a number of wrecks in the bay, giant turtle spotting tours in glass-bottomed boats and good surfing. It’s a relaxed place, similar to many Asian beach resorts popular with Western tourists. There are also numerous handicraft shops, a Buddhist temple and a nearby lake with abundant birdlife.

Accommodation. Hotel Reef Comber (Rs.2,887-12,096), Coral Gardens Hotel (Rs.3,500 onwards).

Galle

The port of Galle splendidly illustrates the solidity of the Dutch presence in Sri Lanka. Sited 116 km from Colombo, Galle was formerly known as Gimhathiththa, when it was the main port on the island. It reached the apogee of its development in the 18th century, before the arrival of the British, who developed the harbour at Colombo.

Prominent landmarks in Galle include the St. Aloysius Cathedral and College founded by Jesuit priests in the 18th century. An important commercial port, Galle exports rubber, tea, rope, coconut oil, and coir (coconut fibre). The large Galle International Stadium with a seating capacity of 35,000 spectators is the venue for international and local cricket matches.

The New Oriental Hotel, built for Dutch governors in 1684, is a colonial gem with a wonderfully atmospheric bar. Nearby is a tiny sliver of a beach, ideal for a soothing dip. Other fine beaches which attract visitors are located close by at Unuwatuna, Weligama and Tangalla.

Other than golden beaches, there’s the splendid Galle Fort, declared a world heritage site by Unesco and the largest surviving fort in Asia built by European invaders. The ramparts, comprising 14 massive bastions, built by the Dutch from the mid-17th century onwards and supplemented by the British, encircle the city. The ramparts south of the harbour are pierced by the Old Gate above which is a British coat of arms. South of the harbour the Zwart (Black) Bastion is believed to be the only surviving part of the original Portuguese fortifications. The circuit of the walls continues via the Akersloot and Aurora bastions to Point Utrecht bastion, topped by a modern lighthouse, then to Flag Rock, the southernmost point of the walls, before looping back north through the Triton, Neptune, Clippenberg and Aeolus bastions.

Getting there. Being an important town in the southern part of the island nation, Galle is well connected with Colombo and Matara by rail and road — a two-three hour drive.

Excursions. Rumassala Kanda, a large mound-like hill near Galle. In legend, this hill is associated with some events of the Ramayana.

Accommodation. Jetwing Lighthouse Hotel (Rs.14,651-38,136). Designed by one of the most original contemporary architects Geoffrey Bawa, the hotel is a serene tropical resort on Galle’s sea shore. It’s worth your time and money to take in its ambience and architecture — an interplay of Moorish and vernacular design with zen inspired spaces and ocean vistas which are a visual treat.

Kandy

Sited 100 km north east of Colombo, and fringed by tea estates is Kandy, well connected by frequent buses and trains. This former capital city of the island and historical bastion of Buddhist power is built around a peaceful lake and set in a picturesque bowl of hills. It has a distinctive architectural character denoted by the gently sloping tiled roofs of its buildings. The main business area or the town centre is a delightful compendium of old shops, traffic noises, choked streets, bustling markets and quaint hotels. Its greatest attraction is the octagonal Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth), which houses Sri Lanka’s most important religious relic — the sacred tooth of the Buddha revered by the faithful. Elaborate daily rituals are performed in the temple to pay homage to the tooth relic, which attracts thousands of white-clad pilgrims offering votive lotus blossoms and frangipani (scented water) every day.

The Kandy Esala Perahera is the main festival of the town, during which a replica of the shrine is carried through the city on elephant back. Other interesting sites in Kandy include the small but excellent National Museum, the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, and the Udawattakelle Sanctuary, a haven for bird watchers.

Reputedly the best in the country and built as a pleasure garden for a Kandyan king, the Royal Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya are surrounded by the river Mahaweli on three sides and connected to the bank opposite by a suspension bridge. The gardens are embellished with over a hundred varieties of palm trees, a fernery and several orchid houses with rare blossoms and spice trees.

There are plenty of scenic walks around Kandy, one of which leads to the Mahaweli, which hosts an elephant training camp, where visitors can enjoy a ring side view of elephants being bathed and fed. The lakeside Kandyan Art Association & Cultural Centre organises exhibitions of local crafts and cultural shows.

Excursions. Several historical monuments lie within easy reach of Kandy. These buildings, mostly religious shrines, were constructed between the 14th and 18th centuries. Among them: the Lankatilaka Vihara (65 km), one of the best examples of traditional Sinhalese temple architecture is a multiple roof shrine covered with flat clay tiles accessible via a flight of rock cut steps. An arched passage leads through a mandapa (hall) into the richly decorated inner sanctum which contains a colossal seated image of the Buddha. Gadaladeniya Vihara (48 km) is a special building of South Indian origin. The main shrine has a seated Buddha and the remains of rare paintings of the Gampola period.

Accommodation. Top end: Mahaweli Beach Hotel (Rs.6,037-15,976). Mid-range: Hill Top Hotel (Rs.5,080-7,436).

Anuradhapura

Anuradhapura was Sri Lanka’s first capital and a former seat of Sinhalese power. It is one of the most extensive and important of Sri Lanka’s ancient cities from where Sinhalese kings ruled for over 1,000 years from 300 BC. The Sacred Bo-Tree is the city’s most hallowed site, believed to be a graft from the tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. Thuparama Dagoba, the oldest of the many temples in Anuradhapura, is said to house the collarbone of the Buddha.

Accommodation. Tissawewa Rest House (Rs.6,500 onwards), Nuwarawewa Rest House (Rs.5,000 onwards), Galway Miridiya Lodge (Rs.3,000 onwards).

Sigiriya

This spectacular rock fortress is a monastic retreat, and a rock art gallery. Built in the 5th century AD to fend off a feared invasion, it is situated atop the 656 ft high monolithic Ayers Rock. Within there are water gardens, 5th century rock paintings of well-endowed damsels, a 1,000-year-old graffiti wall recording visitors impressions, a couple of enormous stone lion paws and tremendous views.

To get to Sigiriya from Colombo, hop on a bus that stops at Dambulla, and from there catch any of the hourly buses going to the fortress, a total of 191 km.

Accommodation. The Elephant Corridor (Rs.16,500-81,500), Culture Club Resort (Rs.5,500-7,600), Kandalama Hotel (Rs.5,250-6,500).

Trincomalee

This famous natural deep-water harbour is sited in the north-east of Sri Lanka. On the eastern side of the town of Trincomalee, on a cliff known as Swami Rock stands one of the oldest kovils (Hindu temple) in Sri Lanka. The present day Tirukonesvaram Kovil was rebuilt on the site of the Dakshana Kailayam (temple of 100 pillars) which was destroyed by the Portuguese in the 17th century. The restoration work was completed in the 1960s, and the kovil is worth seeing.

Accommodation. Club Oceanic (Rs.4,500 onwards), Welcome Hotel (Rs.3,500 onwards).

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