Honeymoon in Sri Lanka
A tear-drop falling from the southern tip of peninsular India, suspended on the blue-green waters of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka was known over the centuries, as ''The Pearl of the East’, ''Swarndvip’ (Golden Isle) and ''Serendib’ - the root of the word ''serendipity’ – the faculty of making happy discoveries by accident – names which, though rather grandiose, are not too far from the truth.
Sri Lanka has always epitomised the exotic – a place where the earth opens up to yield precious bounty of ''pigeon blood'' rubies and bright green emeralds, of yellow and blue sapphires as big as rocks and sloping tiers of rubber, tea, coffee and spice plantations on hillsides. Although tiny, Sri Lanka is one of the world’s major tourist destinations, with enough spice gardens, temples, elephants and tea plantations to hold its own against the rest of the Far East.
Sri Lanka is also known as the Pearl of the Indian Ocean.
Savour a cup of Sri Lankan tea which is the largest exporting commodity here.
Sightseeing in Sri Lanka
Though a small country, Sri Lanka has quite enough to keep a visitor occupied for a few weeks. There’s a lot to see, including old forts, museums, temples, viharas, churches, wildlife sanctuaries, beaches, and more.
Located 21/2 hours away from Colombo on the road to Kandy is the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage , a great favourite with visitors to Sri Lanka. Orphaned baby tuskers are looked after by foster parents in this government run sanctuary. The babies are a big draw and best hours to visit the Orphanage are bath and feed times - 0915 to 1200 and 1315 to 1600.
Besides the capital Colombo and the hill city of Kandy , there are few other cities of importance in Sri Lanka. Colombo is the capital, and therefore has an economic, political and cultural significance all its own.
Kandy, which defied foreign conquerors for many centuries, is the second largest city of Sri Lanka and a culturally vibrant place. Easily one of the best known, and most sacred of Buddhist shrines in Sri Lanka, the Temple of the Tooth at Kandy is a World Heritage Site. It dates back to the 16th century and houses a relic of great significance – a tooth believed to be that of the Buddha. During the lunar month of Esala (July/August), the Esala Dalada Perahera festival is celebrated with a procession, and is a spectacle worth seeing, complete with drummers, dancers and richly decorated elephants.
Some towns in Sri Lanka are famous purely for ''tourist value’ – places like Bentota and Hikkaduwa are known mainly for their sunny golden beaches and their coral reefs. Sri Lanka’s best known beach resort, Hikkaduwa has an attractive coral reef, golden beaches and plenty of opportunity to swim, scuba dive, surf or go snorkelling. There are also tours in glass-bottomed boats, especially in the area of the ''coral sanctuary’.
The second highest mountain in Sri Lanka (2224 mts high), Adam’s Peak is also known as ''Samanalakande’ (''The Mountain where butterflies go to die’) and ''Sri Pada’ (''Sacred Footprint’). Adam’s Peak is sacred to most Sri Lankans, of whatever faith – Christians believe that it is the place where Adam first set foot on Earth; Buddhists hold that the ''footprint’ at the top of the peak is that of the Buddha, while Hindus believe that it is Lord Shiva’s mark. Thousands of pilgrims have been trekking up the peak for more than a 1000 years. Adam’s Peak lies 65 km from Colombo, the nearest settlement being Dalhousie.
Outside of Colombo and Kandy, there are plenty of tourist attractions. Towns of historical importance include Negombo which was under Dutch control for a long time, and still has many reminders of Dutch rule – in the form of old buildings and canals, Galle, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa - the ancient capitals of Sri Lanka.
205 km from Colombo is Sri Lanka’s first capital, Anuradhapura , established around the 4th century BC and inhabited for over 1000 years. Its exquisitely carved stone remains lie to the west and north of the modern town of Anuradhapura. Extensive temples, tanks and ponds form part of the city complex, of which the holiest site is the Sacred Bo-Tree, which is believed to have grown from the tree under which the Buddha received enlightenment.
Sigiriya , one of Sri Lanka’s many forts, is different in that it is not of European origin. It was built in the 5th century AD, and stands at the top of a 200 m high rock embankment. It is unique in some ways: there are some amazingly good rock paintings of women (the only non-religious old paintings discovered so far on the island), there are water gardens, and there is even a graffiti wall over 10 centuries old!
Galle is for those who are interested in the colonial side of the island. 115 km south of Colombo, it is a port that had a major Dutch presence for a long time. Galle has a huge 36-hectare fort (in perfect condition even today) built by the Dutch, and inside it are Dutch houses, museums and churches, all in excellent repair.
Situated 309km from Colombo is Ruhuna (Yala) National Park , Sri Lanka''s most visited game sanctuary. Spread over 1200 sq km Yala enjoys the added bonus of a scenic waterfront and picturesque lagoons. Known best for its elephants it also has leopards, boars, peacocks, sambar and a variety of migrant birds. Rent a 4WD and park near a waterhole at dawn or dusk to see the wildlife. Other national parks in the country are Uda Walawe National Park (170km from Colombo), Wasagamuwa National Park (200km from Colombo), Horton Plains National Park (200km from Colombo), Bundala National Park (260km from Colombo) and Gal Oya National Park (360km from Colombo).
Two fairly well known cities – Batticaloa and Jaffna – have been off the tourist map for more than a decade now, due to the warfare raging between Tamil insurgents and the government troops.
Even while travelling within Sri Lanka, from one town to the next, you’ll come across interesting surprises- spice gardens, tea estates sprawling over the hills, gem pits, cashewnut groves, strawberry fields, temples and much more. Just keep your eyes open!
People & Language
The bulk of Sri Lanka’s population comprises of Sinhalese and the most commonly used language is Sinhala. Drawn largely (like most other languages of the Indian subcontinent) from Sanskrit, Sinhala (fortunately for the foreign tourist, and especially the English-speaking one!) has many words that are similar to their English equivalents. English is widely spoken and understood, especially among the middle and upper classes. A wide section of the population has Tamil as its first language.
With 70% of the Sri Lankan population following Buddhism, it is worthwhile to touch upon this religion, even if briefly. Buddhism is not a religion as such, in the sense that it centres round a code of morality and a philosophy of life, rather than a god. Based mainly on the teachings of Gautam Buddha ''The Enlightened One’, Buddhism stresses on the belief that to reach a state of enlightenment is within the scope of every human being. The main stream of Buddhism followed in Sri Lanka is known as `Hinayana’ ("Lesser Vehicle") Buddhism, which is based on the belief that ultimate nirvana is possible for everybody, but one must work towards it, by leading a life of austerity and virtue.
Buddhism came to Sri Lanka through its ties with the Indian Emperor Ashok, whose son Mahinda brought the religion to the island kingdom. Since then, Sri Lanka has come to be regarded as the stronghold of Hinayana Buddhism.
The population of Sri Lanka is made up of a number of different ethnic groups – and this is one of the main causes of the country’s current problems. The Sinhalese make up around 74% of the population and are
mostly Buddhists, while the Tamils, approximately 18% of the populace, are mainly Hindus and consider themselves twodistinct entities. One is the Sri Lanka or Ceylon Tamils, who trace their descent from Tamils who came from India over 10 centuries ago, while the ''Hill Country’ Tamils are descendants of Tamil labourers brought in by the British to work on Sri Lankan plantations in the 1800s. Besides the Sinhalese and the Tamils (the two main players in the current ethnic conflict), other groups in Sri Lanka include the Muslims -around 7% of the population, some of them Malays and many of them descendants of Arab traders, the Veddahs - the aborigine peoples who were the original inhabitants of Sri Lanka and the Burghers, descendants of Dutch and Portuguese settlers.
While in Sri Lanka, remember that you’re in the Orient, amongst people whose idea of what is ''not done’ may be very different from your own. It isn’t as if passersby will spring at our throat if you exceed the norms of what is correct social behaviour; you might just invite a lot of unwelcome attention. Just a piece of advice for those visiting Sri Lanka for the first time: dress modestly, especially if you’re a woman (going topless is very obviously unthinkable!). Wearing jeans, trousers, or knee-length skirts is safest on the streets.
For men, there are fewer restrictions, but some rules do apply while visiting places of worship – most Buddhist temples and mosques require you to take off your shoes; you may need to cover your head in Hindu temples, but uncover it in Buddhist temples. Some places, like the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, also do not allow in visitors wearing shorts. Usually, there will be a signboard to this effect outside the site you’re visiting.
Culture & Crafts
As in much of Asia, ''culture’ is very much a part of everyday life for most people in Sri Lanka. Beautifully carved and painted old temples like the Temple of the Tooth, Gadaldeniya Temple and the Sita Eliya Temple nestle next to Buddhist viharas (monasteries) on the one hand and old Dutch or Portuguese bungalows and forts – on the other.
There are plenty of examples of Sri Lanka’s rich cultural tradition to be seen all around – marketplaces are flooded with beautiful handloom cloth, batik work, traditional jewellery, carved and painted wood masks and elephants and a lot more. Native dances, music and theatre thrive, not just on stages in tourist resorts, but also in processions and celebrations. The spectacular `Perahera’ festivals, combining dances, elephant marches and religious ceremonies are just one of the many instances of cultural activity.
Sri Lanka produces quite a lot of beautiful handicrafts from indigenous materials, using local as well as foreign techniques and patterns. Among the most widely produced handicrafts are the vibrant, colourful painted wooden masks which are used in ceremonies and
as good luck charms to ward off the evil eye.
Other than masks, handloom cloth, batik, leatherwork, coir goods, lacquer ware, jewellery, brassware, and earthenware are also major handicrafts. A certain amount of work is also done in ivory and tortoiseshell, but elephants and tortoises being endangered species, it is definitely not advisable to buy such items.
Shopping in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has plenty of tempting wares to offer for shoppers, and what is best is that there is something to suit virtually every budget. If you have plenty to spend, there’s nothing quite as enticing as Sri Lanka’s precious gemstones – sapphires, rubies, beryls, zircon, quartz and more. Although Ratnapura, – very appropriately named "the town of gems" is the most important gem centre, gemstones are also easily available though usually at a higher price, at other places.
If gems don’t quite fit your pocket or your preferences, there are handicrafts aplenty. Among the most popular are painted wooden ceremonial masks ranging in size from key rings to full, life size ones; batik – an originally Indonesian method of dyeing cloth using wax to create patterns, leatherwork (especially bags), lacquer-work, jewellery, coir-ware and earthenware.
Eating Out in Sri Lanka
For the tummy-conscious tourist, there is a fairly wide spectrum of eating joints. Roadside stalls selling Sri Lankan food and even western or Indian food (though usually not of the best quality) are aplenty, and there are restaurants, both free-standing and in the hotels which offer Lankan, Chinese and Western food. The latter, although their repertoire may often extend only to salads, sandwiches and omelettes, are usually a good alternative for those who dare not risk the fire of the local curries, or have tired of endless meals cooked in coconut oil. Don’t be afraid to try the Sri Lankan food, though a request to keep the spice low is usually honoured.
To quench your thirst, you may, of course, try water – but do this only if you’re sure it’s hygienic; waterborne diseases are rife in Sri Lanka, as in much of the Third World. Coconut water makes a much more palatable and far cleaner alternative, and for those who would stick to familiar beverages, aerated drinks and mineral water are freely available. Fruit juices – especially some unusual ones like fresh passion fruit or fresh pineapple, are worth a try; however, keep in mind the possibility that these may sometimes be diluted with water. For a hot drink, you must have tea – after all, Sri Lankan teas are among the best in the world!
Beer, local as well as foreign, is fairly common. A lot of foreign liquor is imported into Sri Lanka, so it’s also easy to get hold of wines and spirits from the world over, but these are available mainly in larger towns only. Local spirits – toddy and arrack, both derived from coconut trees, are more common.
Most Sri Lankan towns, except the larger cities like Colombo and Kandy, are rather low on entertainment. In large hotels, there will often be casinos or nightclubs; some hotels, clubs and other venues also offer cultural performances by traditional artistes. A popular booklet entitled ''This month in Sri Lanka’ lists most of these for the benefit of tourists. Some towns are particularly rich as far as cultural performances are concerned – Kandy, for instance, has dancers, drummers and fire-walkers performing almost every night in peak season at different venues like the Cultural Centre, the Young Men’s Buddhist Association, and the Red Cross Building.
Besides traditional performances, films (English, Sinhala and Indian) and theatre (Sinhala) are fairly popular entertainment options.
Ankita Mishra [MBA,Marketing/HR]