The land of serendipity: Sri Lanka
A land as diverse as it is ancient, India’s island neighbour Sri Lanka is a land of mythical status – an island paradise that blends in an eclectic mix of cultures that have shaped the land and given it an unique flavour
Known by many names during its storied past, Sri Lanka has long remained the quintessential 'foreign island' vacation destination for India for a long time. An exotic, foreign locale with just enough familiarity to engender comfort as it were. Sri Lanka is one of the two island countries neighbouring India, the other being the Maldives. Sri Lanka is one of the few countries in the world to have had close trade, political and cultural relations with India since times of antiquity.
It is one of the oldest democracies of Asia as democratic elections under universal adult franchise were held for its State Council in 1931. Sri Lanka's geographic area is 65,610 sq km with 1340 sq km coastline. The population is 21 million and is multi-religious with Buddhism as the dominant religion with more than 70 per cent of the population, followed by more than 13 per cent Hindu, 9 per cent Muslim, 7.5 per cent Christians and an assorted 1 per cent. The culture and lifestyle of Sri Lanka blends in strong Indian influences since 3rd century BC when the monk Mahinda, son of Mauryan Emperor Ashoka arrived in Sri Lanka and convinced the King to embrace Buddhism who in turn converted the Sinhalese people to Buddhism. The ancient Sri Lankan inhabitants were Yakshas and Nagas and signs of ancient civilisation stretch as far back as 600 BC. Modern Sri Lankan history begins with the arrival of Portuguese in 1505 AD and moves forward with the Portuguese gradually gaining influence over the coastal regions and setting up a base of operations at Colombo.
They were ultimately driven away by the Dutch when the king signed a treaty with them in 1638 and the war was won by the Dutch in 1656, who subsequently captured Colombo. The British East India Company came to Sri Lanka and occupied Colombo in 1796 and ultimately drove away the Dutch in 1815 and colonised Sri Lanka till independence in 1948. The freedom fighter, CWW Kannangara became the first Prime Minister and is also known as the father of Sri Lanka. Till 1971, Sri Lanka was known as Ceylon and after 1972 it was declared as a Republic and its name was changed to Sri Lanka.
The short history lesson aside, I recently visited Sri Lanka to study its culture, society and tourism scenario. The first thing I would like to address in my travelogue is the perception of safety and social stability in Sri Lanka. The country fought a long civil war for almost 30 years due to ethnic trouble when the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government won a decisive war with the Tamil Terrorist led by Prabhakaran. The world was again shaken when the Islamist terrorists attacked the Church and other Building in Sri Lanka in March 2019. However, now visiting Colombo and other parts of the country was not less than a revelation. Colombo, situated in the west coast, is the commercial and administrative hub with a unique blend of colonial structures and modern Sri Lankan architecture and is emerging as a world-class city at par with any beautiful city of the world. The Sri Lankan Army repaired the Church which was damaged in March 2019 terrorist attack, within a week and the law-enforcing authorities have either arrested or eliminated the culprits.
Apart from Colombo which has a lot of heritage sites and its beauty can only be described as incredible, for Indians, the country has spellbinding tourist attractions which are affordable and homely. The Kandy is a picturesque hill town built around the beautiful lake and is the seat of Buddhist practice in Sri Lanka. It is the centre of Sri Lankan art, craft and culture. The entire Buddhist world knows Kandy for the temple of the sacred tooth relic of Buddha which was brought here in 4th century AD. It is a pilgrimage centre for Buddhists and is a prized possession of Sri Lanka. The cultural show by Kandyan Cultural Centre depicts the unique traditional music and dance forms of Sri Lanka. The popularly depicted dancing forms are Salupliya, depicting several demons, Thelma, a vibrant expression of low country rhythm, Fire and Harvest dances accompanied by ceremonial drums and the drum orchestra rising and falling to the lively tempo. As many as 12 different folk and traditional dances are performed by the Kandy lake club dance troupe within an hour. The fire dance shows the powers of charms over the fire and the twenty-seven devils that can trouble mankind skillfully run over the burning coal and play with fire with their mouths known as fire-eating. The absolute faith of the fire dancers protects them from the fire.
For those who love nature, a visit to Kandy's Royal Botanical Gardens is a must. It is spread over 147 acres and was developed in 1374 AD as a pleasure garden for the kings of Kandy. There are more than 5,000 species of trees and plants, some rare and endemic. Flora from the tropical World Spice Garden and Orchid House are popular with tourists. Then elsewhere, there are elephant and turtle orphanages where the diseased animals are taken care of and act as a showcase of the bio-diversity along with the famous Sri Lankan ayurvedic herbal gardens. For those who love frolicking along the seashore, the Kalutara beach promises an unforgettable experience along with Galle beach and fort. Yet another scenic journey, a scenic cruise along the Madhu River in Balapitiya, is a relaxing trip with plenty of interesting stops. The boat passes through dozens of islets forested with mangroves and offers an opportunity where one can appreciate the timeless natural rhythms of rural life. A 200-year-old Hindu temple in the middle of the river is an additional attraction. In the past, when a tsunami struck Sri Lanka, the Hindu temple in the middle of the sea remained unaffected like the Kedarnath temple in 2013. For Indians, the Ashok Vatika Temple in Nuwara Eliya is of added interest along with the small mountainous islands said to have been brought by Hanuman with Sanjeevani to cure Laxman. Interestingly, the vegetation of these islands is quite different from other places in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka is, therefore, emerging as a gateway of Asian tourism because the people here have resolved to have pride in their cultural ethos and are determined to forget the three-decades-old murky insurgency as we have seen people taking long march with national flags to have solidarity. The destination also offers a broad spectrum of cultural delights from across the Indian subcontinent packaged into a sun and sand island destination holiday. I would recommend Sri Lanka for travellers of all dispositions and levels of experience, it is quite simply a holiday destination that has something for everyone. It can be enjoyed with friends and family as well as by someone looking a peaceful vacation in solitude.