Beaches, wildlife, sacred cities, precious stones, Buddhist fervor, Ayurvedic philosophy, luxury gastronomy -everything is found here in Sri Lanka.
When I landed in Colombo, I never thought that Sri Lanka would have so many attractions in only 65,000 square kilometers, an area smaller than the Czech Republic. Fifteen days would hardly be enough for me to explore its tropical beaches, discover the mysticism of its temples, its rich gastronomy and misty tea plantations in the mountains, the precious stones mines, and the exuberant wildlife.
This teardrop-shaped island located in southern India was part of the British Empire until 1948, when it ceased to be called Ceylon. The English influence is not only noticed in the way of driving, with the steering wheel on the right, but in the extended habit of hiring a car with a driver for any trip that exceeds 20 kilometers. In Sri Lanka nobody rents a car! That’s why Franky Dissanayake was waiting for us at Colombo airport to take us all over the island and become our perfect guide. The hotels include in their rates accommodation for drivers.
Franky suggested starting our trip through the Cultural Triangle, in the north, where a collection of archaeological treasures with more than 2,000 years of history that narrate the arrival of Buddhism to the island, can be found. It took us two days to visit the Sacred City of Anuradhapura, the medieval capital of Polonnaruwa, with its huge stupas, the impressive Sigiriya, and the Temple of the Cave of Dam- bulla that houses 154 Buddha statues and frescos painted inside fifty caves.
The Sigiriya, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a huge 370-meter-high rock topped by the ruins of a palace built during the reign of King Kashyapa, in the 5th century. The stairs, attached to the rock wall, begin between two huge lion claws that originally framed the old steps dug into the stone.
Franky told us that much of the movie Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) was filmed in Sri Lanka, and that the Sigiriya inspired several scenes, as well as the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, the central attraction of the city of Kandy, which would be our next stop, located one hundred kilometers to the south.
On our way to Kandy, we stopped at the Athreya Ayurvedic Spa, run by Dr. Mahinda Tennakoon, a fifth-generation Ayurvedic doctor. Surrounded by prodigious nature, we took a shirodara, an hour of body massage and half an hour of warm oil that is slowly poured on the third eye causing a deep relaxation. Then, a few minutes in a natural sauna, with a floor of branches covered by medicinal leaves with steam rising from it, complete the experience.
The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic is the heart of a group of buildings surrounded by a wall, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. A legend says that an Indian princess hid a tooth of Buddha in her hair when she fled to Sri Lanka. Twice a day, a tooth is exhibited before a fervent crowd, for only 15 minutes. Bare-chested guards with turbans on their heads and escorted by huge elephant tusks, play the drums announcing the opening of the reliquary where the sacred tooth is kept.
Tourists, worshipers, and monks in their orange robes walked barefoot carrying lily flowers, handfuls of rice, and other offerings. And suddenly, behind a golden fence, I could see for a few minutes, the gold reliquary on a silver table. I regretted not having traveled in August, when on the full moon night, begins the Perahera or Procession of the Buddha’s Tooth, the night parade of elephants dressed in richly embroidered clothes and illuminated with light bulbs. The spectacular procession is headed by the largest elephant, with gold cov- ers on its tusks and a heavy palanquin on its back where the sacred tooth is carried. It is the only time that the relic leaves the temple and passes through the city in a party that lasts ten days.
We left the hot and humid Kandy on the way to the hills of Nuwara Eliya where fog and cold were waiting for us at an altitude of 2,500 meters. This region seduced the English who decided to plant tea, perhaps the best in the world: 2,000 hectares of Ceylon tea. Several old factories have been turned into hotels, such as the Heritance Tea Factory of 1930, which still keeps in the center of the building the huge fan with which the leaves were once dried, and that is lit up every night. The next morning, along with other guests, I participated in the harvest, all of us dressed in the Indian style: saris for women and sarongs for men. We har- vested the leaves and put them in the baskets that we carried on our backs. Then, we learned about the drying process and tasted different types of tea.Back on the road to the south, Franky renewed the supply of mangoes and watermelons for the road, not only for us, but also for the elephants that circulate freely in Sri Lanka and often obstruct roads. A practical way to clear the route is to tempt them by putting their favorite fruit on the side and wait for them to head towards it.
Back in Colombo, a nal stop in a garden of spices and herbs underlines the respectful relationship of Sri Lankans with their surroundings. Already in the capital of the island, Franky replaced the combi with a tuk-tuk, also with Wi-Fi, and took us shopping. Main Street, where the shops that sell cloth and garments are concentrated, is near Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque, the oldest and most beautiful mosque in the city. Franky dodged a frantic crowd and hundreds of tuk-tuks and left us in front of Ram Bros, which retails the best quality saris and Indian fabrics at a ordable prices. An un- imaginable collection of silks, cottons, and linen in a rich variety of colors, as well as saris with intricate em- broidery and rich textures, were displayed here.
After having the national dish -curried rice- for lunch at Curry Pot, located on Marine Drive and over- looking the sea, and before saying goodbye to wonderful Sri Lanka, we were tempted with some last- minute shopping: tea, curry, spices, and souvenirs with elephant gures.