Serendipity in Sri Lanka

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Travel Features >> Serendipity in Sri Lanka

Serendipity in Sri Lanka

November 23, 2012

`Swarnadweep’- the golden isle - is what they called Sri Lanka once upon a time. Swarnadweep, incidentally, was the word the Brits later bashed and distorted into the barely-recognisable `Serendib’, and that in turn gave rise to `serendipity’- the `faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for’ (according to Merriam-Webster- I haven’t made that up!).

And now that the facts are out of the way, let’s get down to business. To talking about the golden isle. It’s also been called the `Pearl of the Orient’, so maybe all those gemstones which the country digs up every year haven’t gone unnoticed. But really- Sri Lanka isn’t all gems and gold. There’s a lot more to it. Food so spicy it’ll blow the top of your head off, but leave you clamouring for more. Silver domed churches and gold-plated temples. Elephant orphanages and fragrant spice gardens. And plenty, plenty more.

Six of us have come here, to this golden isle, for a brief vacation of seven days. Long enough, we think, for such a small country. Sri Lanka is, after all, pretty tiny- compared to India, at least- so how much could there possibly be to see? Enlightenment dawns, but it takes some time. By the time we’ve been through Colombo and Galle, Kandy, Nuwara-Eliya and Welimada, we’re wondering if we could possibly extend the trip a bit.

But to start at the beginning. Kattunayake International Airport, where we’d touched down, is a 45-minute drive through lush green paddy fields and shady coconut groves, to Colombo. The capital, a manageably small city spread along the banks of the Kelani river, is a combination of Gothic-Victorian buildings, spire-topped and bulbous-domed Buddhist chaityas, sleek glass-fronted skyscrapers and a culture which is firmly grounded in South Asia, but has a strangely Western feel to it. The women wear the Sri Lankan sari, with its neat little peplum- but plenty of them wear skirts. Our driver, a cheerful blue-eyed, brown-haired burgher called Tex looks anything but Sri Lankan- but he is. The shops are so crowded with Swiss chocolates, Austrian liqueurs and French wines that they look more European than Sri Lankan- but they are.

We’re taken around town by our Sri Lankan friends- to the spotlessly white Town Hall and the unusual Buddhist chaitya which straddles Chaitya Road. The Parliament House, guarded by alert sentries, is off-limits for mere tourists, but we compensate by stopping for a good while at Independence Square, a memorial which is liberally littered with ornate stone lions.

We haven’t come all this way without a bit of shopping in mind, so we’re bundled off to the local emporium- Laksala, a massive storehouse of batik work, carved wood, painted masks, and plenty of jewellery, most of it liberally studded with emeralds and diamonds, rubies and sapphires. Our pockets won’t bear the strain of such expenses, so we content ourselves by buying a batik shirt, a tiny painted elephant, a little bamboo bowl. And spend the rest outside- on the street, where the shops sell inexpensive T-shirts, gaily painted skirts, and huge pinkish-grey blocks of incense. There’s an all-pervasive smell (ad nauseum is the general level) of coconut oil, occasionally interrupted by a salty whiff of sea breeze or the fragrance of jasmine from a passing woman’s plait.

That evening, we go for a walk down Galle Face, the broad avenue which is Colombo’s main promenade. Canoodling couples snuggle on the broad steps along the path, and entire families, grandparents and toddlers in tow, walk along in huge groups, stopping along the way to pitch another pebble into the waves which lap the shore or to buy a golden-hued king coconut from the vendors who sit alongside. We stop too, at a local food stall, to eat the crispest and most luscious hoppers we’ve ever had- with a fiery chicken curry and loads of freshly squeezed passionfruit to douse the fire.

But Colombo isn’t all we’re here for. The next morning, long after dawn and a filling breakfast, we pile into a huge van (15 easily; 20 thin ones at a pinch; and 25 two deep). There are only about 12 of us, so it’s nice and roomy, and the ride to Kandy is, besides being comfortably short, punctuated by pleasant stops along the way- at a roadside stall to eat fresh, syrupy pineapple, livened up with a liberal dose of salt and powdered red chilli; at a tiny cashewnut-growing village called Kajugama (`Cashew Village’- not much ingenuity used here when it comes to names); at a pretty spice garden, bursting with cardamom and cinnamon, cocoa, coffee, pepper and rambutans. There’s the almost-mandatory halt at the Elephant Orphanage, where all the girls in the group gush over the baby elephants being herded along by foster mothers, down to the river for their morning baths.

Kandy, home to the spectacular Temple of the Tooth (it actually houses a tooth of the Buddha himself), is centred around a serene, tree-lined lake. The temple itself, a World Heritage Site, is a must-see; but so is the pretty stone church of St Paul’s next door. And, as if that isn’t enough, there’s a Hindu temple in the neighbourhood too, its wooden columns intricately carved with lotuses, not one of them the same.

In the evening, there are martial dances and fire-walking at the local club, followed by glassfuls of fiery arrack and spicy (as usual!) curries. After that little bit of partying, Kandy goes to bed- as we do, tired but eager for whatever the next day brings. Which, as it turns out, is a trip to the pretty hillside town of Welimada, and further on, to Nuwara Eliya and a cool, crystal-like mountain spring where we wash tired feet and wish for more holidays like this. Journeying on, we pass gem pits- ugly and dull looking quarries which belie the gorgeous stones they produce. Strawberry fields; a Benedictine monastery which makes luscious jams; a roadside tractor and transport museum; coconut groves and paddy fields- all flash past, in a whirl which will remain, despite its brevity, etched for years altogether on minds completely enchanted.

We come back to Colombo all too soon. And, all too soon, depart from Colombo too- to head back home. Hotter, more crowded, definitely less welcome now that we’ve had a taste of heaven.

Serendipity? Yes, I suppose that’s an apt enough word to describe Sri Lanka. The surprises here are many- and pleasant- and they come up, zooming around a corner, when you least expect them to. Vivid, colourful, joyous and amazingly unforgettable.

- This article has been contributed by Madhulika Liddle

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