I was fortunate enough, in September 2017, to attend an academic event in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
As in the past, I took some annual leave whilst in the country, as soon as the work was over, to get outside the hotel and conference centre and actually see something of the country itself – especially of its rich history, many thousands of years old, and of its rich flora and fauna. It is not, however, a rich country, financially, and even after the shrinking of its value since the summer of 2016, the British pound still goes a long way here: there were many times I felt very privileged, and the tips I gave, though seemingly small to me, meant a lot to those who received them. You can haggle, but when the price is £3, why bother to argue it down to £2.50?
After my week in the very nice, but corporate hotel/conference complex in Colombo (where a plush dinner is £15), I spent a couple of nights at Jungle Tide – the retirement villa Homestay of two old friends from the theatre world, where I received a warm and comfortable welcome.
Homestays are like Bed and Breakfast, but they’ll cook dinner for you too, and make you welcome in the lounge. This was just the antidote I needed to the working week in Colombo, perched in the mountains above Kandy, treated to the fireflies in the evening, monkeys squabbling in the trees. The large rat snake (so called because it eats rats) that I disturbed on the path in the morning – thick as my arm and probably as long as I am tall – gave me a fright, but all they eat is rats, so I wasn’t in any danger. At least it wasn’t a python – which of course can kill with a single bite!
Sad to say, it is still illegal in Sri Lanka to be gay. A legacy, no doubt, of colonial times. In this, as in many parts of the world, same-sex relationships in a variety of forms were commonplace before the arrival of the bigoted and discriminatory Christian Europeans. But here, perforce, I have had to retreat, quietly, back into the closet, for a couple of weeks, answering questions like “Are you married” with an affirmative that then describes my spouse with a female pronoun. Yes, “she” is well, but could not join me this time. Yes I will bring “her” next time. Sadly, with two sisters in their late sixties running Jungle Tide in the absence of my theatre friends, already used to this from Colombo, I stayed in this temporary holiday closet, not wanting to risk spoiling the enjoyment of the homestay with a challenge they might not welcome. Who knows, they may have been very accepting, but I did not want to run the risk. With the Sri Lankans, I am not prepared to take any such risk.
Between my two nights’ stay at Jungle Tide I took a tuk-tuk ride down into Kandy itself. The tuk-tuk is ubiquitous in Sri Lanka: a sort-of three-wheeler moped taxi, mostly open air, not very fast, and driven largely by mad people!
Don’t even think about hiring a car and driving anywhere yourself in this country: the roads are insane. What you do is hire a car and driver – I got one from reputable company Mahaweli, arranged for me by my theatre friends at Jungle Tide, and driven by mid-late 20s man-of-the-world-in-the-making, Rohana. Mahaweli are a company whose owner-director is only 38, and all his employees between 25 and 35. Rohana answers the phone with “Hello, Sir” all the time, perhaps especially with his employers as much as with potential clients. (The phone rings all the time while we are driving, and there is no hesitation to answer and talk while at the wheel, here.) He is a very friendly, helpful, hospitable fellow who has tried really hard to make me welcome and to ensure I enjoyed my stay, and learnt about the country and enjoyed its hospitality. I would certainly recommend Mahaweli – and Rohana – to any tourist in Sri Lanka, including gay men such as myself, missing their husbands at home. I have no idea what his reaction might be to this knowledge, but didn’t want to risk the potential estrangement a bad reaction might bring. What a gay couple holidaying together here might do, I have no idea. But this country has so much to offer, that these personal questions are, when you are a solo traveller at least, relatively easy to set aside.
The greatest attraction at Kandy is the Temple of the Tooth – a reliquary temple for one of the teeth of Siddharta Gautama Buddha, brought to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BC.
Whoever holds it holds the governance of the country. After some years in Anuradhapura – the ancient capital for many centuries – it came to Kandy, the last Sri Lankan kingdom to hold out against the European colonial powers, and, after some time in British hands, it is kept again in this fantastic temple by an artificial lake in the high mountain town of Kandy. The majority of the Sinhalese are Buddhist.
Journey north from Kandy
At Aluvihare Rock Temple, in Matale, the moment when Buddhism was first written down in Sri Lanka, in the 2nd century BC is remembered both in a fantastic cave temple, and in a superb giant Buddha sculpture on the hillside.
Also present in Sri Lanka, however, are many Hindus, Muslims, and Christians (in that order) and a good deal of harmony between them all. (The ethnic tensions between the Sinhalese and Tamils, many centuries old, the latest chapter of which ended bloodily some years ago, is less religious than it is ethnic). There is plenty of syncretism between the prevailing, largely Theravada, but in parts Mahayana Buddhism, and the Hinduism that exists alongside it. The Nalanda Gedige Temple, for example, from a thousand years ago, shows two faces: one Buddhist, one Hindu, as an example of the harmony between the two traditions in Sri Lanka.
Islam arrived during the ascendancy of the Mughals in India, and Christianity – in the form of Catholicism – arrived with the Portuguese.
In Buddhist Temples in Sri Lanka, therefore, it is not uncommon to see many aspects of Hindu culture absorbed into the local form of Buddhist practice. Krishna, Ganesha (known here as Pulyar), and Shiva are all present both in their own shrines and in the Buddhist temples. Here also, is the Hindu Goddess of Rain and Fertility, Sri Muthumariamman.
Dambulla Cave Temples
Amongst the best Buddhist temples, of course, are the caves. At Dambulla, where one must climb high up to the top of a small mountain, up many stone steps, to reach them, are four natural and one man-made cave all exquisitely painted inside and filled with statues of the Buddha at various stages of his life-story. These are particularly impressive, and testimony to the devout following of Buddhist practice for many centuries – and still today – in this country.
Traditional Village life in Sri Lanka
After leaving Jungle Tide, and visiting temples along the route north to Sigiriya, I was treated to an interesting experience of pre-colonial traditional village life in Sri Lanka, through a ride on a traditional bullock cart to a (man-made) lake, and a boat ride across to a lakeside village where locals prepared and served traditional Sri Lankan food – the traditional way. This was the idea of my Mahaweli driver and guide, Rohana, and it was amazing to see how it is all done, how simple, and how delicious it all turns out. Alongside the South American introductions (tomato, chilli) were the older, local foodstuffs: fenugreek, salt, mustard seeds, lime, turmeric, lentils, okra, onion, a local kind of pumpkin, fresh water tilapia fish, the ubiquitous curry leaves, and the incredible coconut which produces oil to cook with, the flesh to spice and eat as a salad, and the milk to make the rich sauces of the vegetable curries – along with the leaves to make the roof, the half-shell cups to drink from, and many more uses beside.
Kaudulla National Park
My Mahaweli guide, Rohana, through friends of friends, asking for someone who knew about the animals and could please someone such as me, with lots of information, and who had a good, safe vehicle for the jungle, got a recommendation, got his number, and managed to book a fantastic guide for us for an Elephant Safari.
I confess I felt very proud of our 1959 vintage black Land Rover Defender, as we passed the touristy Mitsubishi jeeps (all 2-wheel drive and not very comfortable) on the dirt tracks. We were also taken into Kaudulla park, rather than Haburana, as the elephants move, each year, from the latter to the former, when the late September rains begin. This year, they have come early (nowhere escapes climate change) and so the elephants are on the move already – the males, or ‘bulls’ on their solo journeys – sometimes blocking the minor roads around the park – and the herds of females and their offspring in family groups.
We arrived by the lake shortly after several of these solo male elephants and three family groups had emerged from the jungle onto the grassy plains around the lake, and were amongst only three or four jeeps of tourists to witness these amazing animals up close.
As we left, dozens more jeeps were arriving in the park, and I was very grateful to our guide for knowing not just where to be, but when, to witness these extraordinary creatures. On the way there, and on the way back, he also stopped frequently, with keen eyes, to point out the red-faced macaques in the trees by the road, black faced grey langurs, peacocks and peahens, and even a crested hawk eagle.
Rarest of all, on our way out, standing in the back of the land rover, I was first to spot a billiard kingfisher – and our guide was really impressed that we had had the opportunity to see one – and that I had spotted it!
It was truly an incredible privilege to see all these fantastic animals, and an absolute delight to do so from what was clearly the best vehicle around, and probably the best guide!
Staying at the Zinc Sigiriya – once the ‘Resthouse’ and now fully renovated and newly marketed to the global market – I rose very early to climb the famous, UNESCO World Heritage Site Sigiriya Rock. The site opens at 7am, and it is wise to begin one’s climb straight away, to be on the top at 8am, and making one’s descent by 8.30.
The heat is such that a visit any later in the day invites both exhaustion and burning for northern European white skin. The rock is the vanity project of a 5th Century CE royal usurper, defeated in battle by the ‘rightful’ king, who temporarily transferred the royal capital from Anaradhapura to this pleasure-palace-cum-fortress for the length of his reign. As a feat of urban planning and architectural folly it is perhaps in many ways unsurpassed, and remains immensely impressive a millenium and a half later.
The many, many steps up are nothing compared to a climb up Mount Misen in Japan , taking only 30 minutes, but the final section up fire-escape-style metal steps is definitely not for the faint-hearted: if you have any kind of vertigo that makes you quiver up a ladder, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is probably not for you.
I was not the only one quite fearful on this stretch of the climb, both up and down, and you have to steel yourself to brave the trip. The rewards, however, at the top, are very well worth it. The views across Central Province are astounding and unmissable, and the extraordinary brick architecture of the citadel palace built upon the flat-topped summit are a wonder to behold, even now, some 1500 years later.
Back at the hotel, after a shower and a good breakfast, I made ready and embarked on our journey to Anaradhapura. On our way, we took a detour down rural country roads, past local country shrines to Pulyar (Sri Lanka’s name for Ganesh) where the locals pick a twig of leaves to hang by the shrine and pray for a safe journey.
Just past here, our destination was Aukana – the largest rock-carved Buddha in all Sri Lanka. This enormous statue of the standing Buddha, hand raised in blessing, and the rock-hewn water cistern nearby, are contemporary with the palace at Sigiriya Rock (late 5th century CE) and although somewhat out of the way, well worth the visit if you have time. Here, the orange robed monk, with impecable English, clearly a very well educated and highly intelligent man, personally welcomed me and showed me around the site, as the coach of local children came and went. He was clearly pleased to see an international tourist and I would recommend any visitor to the country to make the time to come here. It is a very special place with a fantastic ambience, and I was deeply moved by the exquisite carving and serenity of this enormous standing Buddha sculpture.
After Aukana we headed on to another UNESCO World Heritage Site: Anuradhapura. This time I stayed at the Rajarata Hotel. This was a good hotel – not unlike Zinc Sigirya – although offering hot water for people to make their own coffee with sachets of Nescafe is for the rooms, not for the breakfast buffet, please! Dinner, however, was very good here, as it had been at Zinc Sigiriya.
I then spent all day – from 8am to 3pm – with Jagath, a guide whose excellent English and understanding of the sites made the whole experience exceptionally interesting, despite the crushing heat (a very humid C29-31 most of the time.) I kept applying sun block and spraying anti-mosquito spray, but still got a bit red, and several bites. (You have to take your hat and shoes off to get into/near to the Buddhist shrines.) Jagath was extremely informative, and Anuradhapura is simply incredible.
The village of Anuradh was founded by a King’s minister (called Anuradh) in about 600BC, and only later became a city (a ‘pura’) in 300BC when Buddhism was introduced to the country, when pagan Sri Lankan King Devanampiyatissa was converted to Buddhism, and his people with him. Anaradhapura was the place, shortly after, where a clipping was brought from the Bodhi tree under which Gautama Siddharta, the Buddha, had reached Enlightenment. Relics of the Buddha’s body, of objects from his life, and of things associated with him, form the three different kinds of relics, nearly all of which are buried in sacred caverns (called relic chambers), and then enormous solid brick domes are erected over those chambers. Atop the domes, where once were a kind of fence, there are now square or rectangular boxes, and above these, where once were parasols one atop another, there are now cylindrical columns. Crowning the pinnacle of the columns there are now bright crystals ( – possibly lightning conductors in their day – ) where once there was a simple pillar next to the fence.
This religious architecture is called a STUPA, and is completed by three rings around the base of the dome, representing the Buddha, his life, and his Enlightenment. The main stupa at the First Monastic Complex at Anuradhapura, originally built around 100BC, contains many such relics, and is the largest brick built building in the entire world. (Nearby, at the 3rd monastic complex, the Stupa there is the 2nd largest brick building in the world and is estimated to have 93million bricks in it, which would be enough to build a wall from London to Edinburgh.) The biggest is repainted every June. The second biggest has just been restored, from being covered in greenery. Beside the main stupa in the First Monastic Complex, from that original cutting brought to Sri Lanka around 300BC from the tree in Northern India under which the Buddha gained Enlightenment around 600BC, is a giant fig tree – the very same Bodhi tree. It is, thus, the oldest chronicled tree in the world: now 2600 years old. So this oldest tree in the world, and the largest brick building in the world, together form the centrepiece of the First Monastic Complex of Anuradhapura.
The Second Monastic Complex is a city where 5000 monks lived, worked, meditated, ate, slept, and welcomed international visitors from around Asia for study and sharing. There are a further six or more such complexes, which were sub-schools of the Second Monastic Complex, some of which remain buried in the jungle, some just beginning to be excavated. The site, in short, is vast – literally a kind of Ancient Rome or Athens in Sri Lanka, but entirely devoted to the Buddhist philosophy and way of life. It finally came to an end, in the 10th century AD, when Sri Lanka was invaded from South India, and the great city was completely destroyed and burned. The capital moved to Polonuwara (where I don’t have time to visit on this trip) briefly, and then to Kandy, which, at last, fell to the European colonialists.
In the Second Monastic Complex I had time – amongst the vast area of living quarters and shrines – to visit some special places selected by my guide: the finest ‘moon stone’ in Sri Lanka, the finest ‘door guardians’, and both the largest water cistern and the pair of most attractive water cisterns. The sandakada pahana, or ‘moon stone,’ named after a half-moon, is a semi-circle laid at the entrance to many different Buddhist sites around Sri Lanka. There are a series of semi-circular rings. The outermost ring is of fire: the experience of the world, of desire, and the pain and suffering that go with it. The next ring is of elephants, lions, horses and bulls – the four animals that represent the four pains of life: birth, ageing, ill-health, and death. They are also the four stages of life: growth, energy, power and forbearance. The next ring is a twisted creeper, representing the tortuous routes one must sometimes take to put aside desire in search of one’s true happiness. Then the next ring is of Thorn Birds or Swans; in Sri Lankan mythology the Thorn Bird can magically separate milk and water. This symbolises, then, the moment when the follower of Buddhism begins to discern the true happiness from the fires of the world. At last, then, in the inner semi-circle is reached: a semi-circle of lotus flowers, and the radiant inner happiness of nirvana. Thus, at the entrance to a Buddhist site in Sri Lanka, stepping upon the ‘moon stone’, one is stepping upon the path to Enlightenment. It is the cycle of Samsara – from worldly desires to the achievement of Nirvana.
There are, of course, lots more photographs on Flickr.