Early in 2019 AD, we finally did what our fellow Indians have been doing since 500 BC - hop, skip and jump onto Sri Lanka whenever there is an urge to travel overseas and be in the same time-zone. Sri Lanka is the only other country on the planet on IST and the only one with an honourary title as its first name. Late January, one of the few dry windows between the two monsoons, is when we hopped to Bangalore, skipped Chennai and jumped to Colombo, taking an entire day to do what Dara Singh did in one Ramanand Sagar episode. The morning's tiffin ('breakfast' for those of you who don't speak English) was with one of Aparna's friends where we were introduced to such finger licking delicacies as string hoppers swimming in kiri hodi and dhal curry which soon enough turned out to be our life force for the entire trip. We then spent the morning at the only place in a city that interests us - at its National Museum and the one in Colombo displays some precious sculptures housed in one of the most archetypal colonial buildings in all of South Asia. After some futile attempts to negotiate the city traffic in the name of sightseeing, we gave up and headed to Anuradhapura, our first real destination of the trip.
A recurring theme in Sri Lankan history is a king running away from invaders to the safety of a hilltop fort and one such incident happened in late 1200s when the king Buvanekabahu came to Yapahuwa when the Pandyas attacked Polonnaruwa. This Yapahuwa is strategically located on a hilltop to stop the invaders and conveniently located on the way to Anuradhapura to stop the tourists. Mayan like temple structures, sweeping vistas from the hilltop and the nation's most famous lion statue all made the pit-stop worthwhile. Anuradhapura, on the other hand, is no footnote in history. It is the first and the longest serving capital of Sri Lanka. The city was founded in 377 BC and it remained the capital of Sri Lanka until it fell to the invading Cholas in 1017 AD - a time period that roughly maps to the birth of Phillip II of Macedon to the birth of William, the conqueror, or closer home, from that of Chandragupta Maurya to that of Mahmud of Ghazni. The entire rise and fall of the Roman empire would be but a footnote in Anuradhapura's history. And we decided to tackle it on a bicycle. The tropical sun soon knocked sense into our head and we switched on to a more comfortable tuk-tuk. The monuments that survive the test of time are its gigantic stupas: Abhayagiri Vihara - the thanksgiving stupa that Valagamba built after regaining the kingdom from the Tamilians, Jetavanaramaya - the atonement stupa that Mahasena built to repent for persecution of the Theravadins, Thuparamaya - the earliest stupa on the island built by Devanampiya Tissa to celebrate the arrival of Buddhism and Ruwanwelisaya - the most awe-inspiring hemisphere on the planet. After gathering a few clinching evidences of the inadequacies of a 24 mm when confronted with some of the largest buildings on the globe, we spent the afternoon hiding from the sun. In the evening, we headed to Mihintale which is touted to be the very place where Mahinda, the son of Ashoka, successfully converted Devanampiya Tissa and introduced Buddhism to the island.
During its long history there were several occasions when the ruling monarch had to temporarily vacate Anuradhapura which resulted in the creation of several satellite capital cities around Anuradhapura. On the following day, we decided to check out a couple on our long route to Polonnaruwa. Our first stop, however, was Avukana, the home to one of the best standing Buddha statues from ancient Sri Lanka. The 13 m tall masterpiece was carved out of a large granite rock, probably during the reign of Dhattusena in the 5th century AD. After gaping at the monolith with awe and frowning at the modern canopy with disdain, we headed to Dambulla, the place where Valagamba took refuge in the 1st century BC when Anuradhapura was taken over by the Tamil invaders. In his brief exile, Valagamba managed to create one of the priceless gems of Sri Lanka - the magnificent carved cave temples of Dambulla. The series of five caves are overflowing with Buddha statues in every form conceivable - sitting, standing, preaching, meditating and sleeping - and the walls and the ceilings are exploding with murals in every conceivable hue. The only thing that can spoil such timeless serene setting is busloads of tourists who ensure that the caves, instead of reverberating with Buddhist chants, get drowned in the cacophony of chatter. After doing our best to dodge and duck the crowd, we headed to the most famous hill-fort of the country - Sigiriya. Hindus believe it is the place from where Ravana lorded over the island, while the locals believe it was the city that Kashyapa found as an alternative capital to Anuradhapura after revolting against his father. In reality, given that water availability on top cannot sustain any meaningful royal presence, the place was probably an ancient monastery which gave refuge to Kashyapa during his exile. Unlike its political history, Sigiriya's geological history has only one version - it is a volcanic plug, a vestige from the epoch when the Indian Plate glided over the Reunion hotspot. The place is a must-see even if you don't give a rodent's behind for history. The sight of the rocky outcrop raising dramatically over the verdant plains is figuratively stride-stopping whilst the vertigo inducing climb to the top is literally one. Sane people do the climb in the coolness of the mornings. We did it during the mid-day heat. The price of having our skin colour move couple of shades darker in the fairness cream ad-scale was avoiding the mad rush on the way to the top. At one point on the climb there is a narrow stairway to the most mysterious murals of all of Sri Lanka - of buxom ladies befitting a royal harem than a monastery filled with celibate monks and another point where you are walking on a plank hugging a sheer vertical cliff, a hundred feet above the ground.
Polonnaruwa, our next destination, was also the next destination of the Lankan capital after the marauding Cholas left Anuradhapura in ruins in early 11th century AD. For a tourist, Polonnaruwa is about as big as Anuradhapura and half a day on a motorised transport is all that is needed to cover all of it. But the monuments of Polonnaruwa are much more varied. From the larger than life statue of its most famous king, Parakramabahu to the ruins of his royal palace, from the uniquely shaped royal ponds to Vatadage, a circular Buddhist temple, from a Chola era Shiva temple to the most well-proportioned dagoba on the island, the ruins have it all. The most celebrated of the monuments here is the Gal Vihara where a triplet of sitting, standing and sleeping serene Buddha statues adorn a single solid granite wall. Our favourites, however, were the Lankatilake where a gigantic Buddha statue can be approached via a narrow corridor bringing us back the sweet memories from Sukhothai and Satmahal Prasada, a mysterious step pyramid and the closest equivalent of which exists several thousand miles away in Lamphun. We could walk with a smirk on our face past other tourists wondering what sort of people get to visit both Lamphun and Polonnaruwa in a single lifetime. The afternoon was a leisurely drive to Kandy stopping at couple of unknown gems of antiquity - a curious Pallava style Buddhist temple at Nalanda Gedige which would be indistinguishable from rest of the monuments if plonked in the middle of Mahabalipuram and a Dambulla style cave temple at Aluvihara giving us an idea how wonderful Dambulla might have been devoid of tourists.
The picturesque hill town of Kandy houses the most prized possession in the nation - the Tooth Relic of Buddha himself - housed in a magnificent temple befitting the artifact. As the chamber that houses the relic only opens by 9:30 am and all you are allowed to see is the gold casket that contains it, we got there early and left before the crowd took control of the premises. A uninspiring National Museum and hyper-inspiring views of the city from the gleaming Bahirawakanda temple rounded our morning. The afternoon was spent roaming the extremely well kept and photogenic Royal Botanical Gardens. The following morning was a long drive to Tissamaharama through the heart of the most picturesque part of Sri Lanka. The famed Ceylon tea grows here and the gardens start appearing on and off soon after we left Kandy, increasing in frequency and reaching a crescendo at Nuwara Eliya. The drive also took us past couple of roadside falls - Ramboda and Ravana and a picture perfect Lake Gregory which would blend in easily if plonked in the middle of a Swiss countryside. When I am around, obscure historical places cannot be far. There were couple at a convenient detours and the tough part was to convince the driver that they were actually there. The first was Yudaganawa, a strange double stupa - smaller one sitting atop a larger one dating from around the time Buddhism was introduced in the country and the second was Buduruwagala, giant Buddha images carved on a granite wall set deep in a jungle, dating from around the 10th century AD.
Tissamaharama's claim to fame is that it is the gateway to Yala. And Yala's claim to fame is that it is the gateway to the leopards. More felines roam here per square kilometer than anywhere else on the planet. However, given the nocturnal and shy nature of the beast, spotting anything more than a lumbering water buffalo isn't guaranteed. So we had decided to schedule an entire day for the possible rendezvous, leaving Tissa at the cover of darkness at 5 am. The wretched luck that we had in Corbett suddenly decided to do an volte-face and presented to us the most maverick driver in the region. On his rickety Toyota, he managed to attain speeds that so far existed only in Einstein's thought experiments and I swear, at one point, we were at two places at the same time. In order to restore sanity to their surroundings, an elephant, a sloth bear and a leopard presented themselves in quick succession and by 9 am we have nothing more left to see that Linnaeus hadn't classified. With the big three off the bucket list, we could spend rest of the morning driving around leisurely enjoying the scenery, watching the birds, listening to the silence and other such niceties. We exited the part by noon wondering what to do with the afternoon that the providence had presented us with. Well, as they say, cometh the crisis, cometh the Bible and lo and behold, a few quite minutes perusing its pages gave us the answer we were looking for: "Half hour from Tissa is Katargama, where exists an ancient stupa dating from the time of Duttugamunu and if that isn't enough, within a kilometer from our inn lies a brace of stupas millennia old." So all we had to do was to hire a tuk-tuk and see if these prophecies turn out to be true.
Our tryst with luck continued into the following morning during the game drive in Bundala National Park. It is a birding park housing just about half the number of species found in Western Ghats, or what we call 'home'. So our expectations were quite low. But, to our utter amazement, quite early on into our drive, we ran into a peacock performing its elaborate mating dance within a few feet from the road close enough for us to capture all of it on a mobile phone. After a few more hours of watching the birds and the bees, we got out and headed to our destination for the night - Mirissa. Did I mention about my penchant for historical sites and long drives? Well, this time around, an 45 minute detour, rather an overshoot, brought us to Galle, home to the most famous fort on the island. The fort was started by the Portuguese, continued on by the Dutch and got finishing touches by the British and so contains all three architectural styles and symbols piled on top of one another. It overlooks the ocean on one side and the Galle Cricket Stadium on the other and is compact enough to be covered within a leisurely hour on foot.
One of the long standing mysteries in the natural world used to be where on earth (rather, ocean) did the blue whales mate. Whales are mammals which means they breathe air and would drown in water like you and me. They need to periodically surface to breathe, a skill that needs to be patiently taught to the newborns by their mothers. Whales mate in shallow waters as that is the easiest place to teach the breathing skills. But there weren't enough sites discovered to account for all the blue whales on the planet. In the early 1980s, the mystery was solved when they discovered a breeding ground off the coast of Sri Lanka. Soon, the infamous civil war broke out during which the whales started thriving as there was no one to disturb them. Today, Mirissa is ideally located to watch these gentle beasts go about their daily lives. That is the background for our overnighting in Mirissa. In the foreground, however, the luck was beginning to fade. The government had decided to double the ticket rates starting the very day we reached Mirissa and the ensuing chaos and resentment by the boatmen was threatening to cancel our trip. Many frantic phone calls and a long suspenseful night later, we managed to get on a boat early next morning. But this was no duck pond and we were no Sindbad. A couple of hours into the ride, despite a bucket load of Avomine, sea-sickness had taken control over our feeble bodies. The fading luck decided to come to our rescue and do a heroic last stand. We soon started running into dozens of blue whales and after the 20th sighting the cameras stopped coming out and that was the cue for the captain to turn the boat around and head back to the harbour. We returned a good 3 hours before the scheduled arrival time and had we been stuck in the ocean till the usual 1:30 pm arrival time, a kind nurse might have been typing this trip report on my behalf. Looking back, from the firm and solid Deccan Plateau, being in the midst of the largest animals on the planet was indeed a surreal moment.
That brought us to the end of a wonderful trip. Everything went according to plan. To the last minutest detail. We had seen the entire country, save the Tamil North. In under 10 days. The weather was perfect. Skies spotlessly bright. Hardly a forgettable meal. Throughout the trip. And on cue, it promptly started raining the week after our trip came to an end. Our return flights were on time. We were able to make the tight connection at Chennai. Heck, the airline food started tasting good. Something must be very wrong. This is not the familiar universe that we were used to. We need to rearrange the furniture at home so that we start hitting our shins and toes against them in order that we feel normal again.
Click here for more photos from Colombo, Galle and Kandy.
Click here for more photos from Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa.
Click here for more photos from the historical sites.
Click here for more photos from Nuwara Eliya, Yala and Bundala National Parks.