Serendipities at every turn on this island ‘pearl’

Mark Brazil found a month in Sri Lanka was only enough to take in a few of its wonders

by Mark Brazil

The sound of Buddhist chanting grew louder as my travel companions and I entered the compound around the “temple,” where flickering torches lit the smiling faces of sedately circling monks as the warm tones of their voices carried through the impenetrable darkness on a chilling, flag-fluttering breeze.

The night’s rain had stopped, and we were elated as dawn’s light filtered through the clouds and the view gradually opened up around us as the pitch dark gave way first to gray and then to endless shades of green. Soon, a sea of clouds was spread out beneath us, with misty ranks of distant mountains and hills rising through it as we soaked in the wonderful vista.

It was Jan. 4, 2011, and we had risen at the ungodly hour of 2 a.m. I don’t normally wake so early, but I made an exception because my travel companions and I were setting off on a pilgrimage to the holy peak of 2,243-meter Sri Pada in the highlands of Sri Lanka. Though not the highest mountain in the land — that is 2,524-meter Pidurutalagala — impressively conical Sri Pada is its most frequently climbed.

The trail was at first gentle and flanked by stalls selling religious trinkets, warm clothes and snacks as it wound steadily up a valley with a stream rushing down it, occasional steps hinting at what was to come. All was dark except for the pool of light from my headlamp and the dim, well-spaced lights beside the trail. The steps became more frequent, then all too soon the path became a staircase climbing up and up ever more steeply as it disappeared into the perfect umbra ahead.

Ever higher we climbed, becoming increasingly tired as it seemed this was an ascent without end. Then suddenly, the “plod, plod, plod … pause” rhythm of our rigors ceased as we found ourselves among a throng of pilgrims, hikers and chanters on the very top. In my case, that meant it was time to strip out of sweat-soaked clothing and don multiple warm layers.

A short while later, dawn crept in weakly, and soon afterward the pilgrims — long hopeful of a clear sunrise, but disappointed today — departed, and we more-or-less had the mountain to ourselves (along with the colorful birds that make it home).

The imposing peak of Sri Pada is a one-stop shop for rapid religious conversion, since it’s possible to change one’s faith four times here in as many minutes and still be in the right place. The entire tip of the peak is a walled “temple” (no photographs allowed) devoted to a rock held holy by Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims alike, for that particular summit rock formation carries an indentation that’s recognized by all four faiths as a “sacred footprint.” Buddhists are minded to regard it as an imprint of the Buddha’s foot; Hindus attribute it to Shiva; undoubting Christians consider it was made by St. Thomas; and Muslims know it is Adam’s. Perhaps you have heard of Adam’s Peak — well, this is it: Sri Pada!

From Sri Pada’s holy summit the view takes in a significant span of Sri Lanka: mountains, forests, lakes, valleys, streams and waterfalls; enough, you’d think, to give the wide-eyed viewer a grasp of the whole country. Yet to the north, invisible in the far distance, stand the ancient capitals, the cultural heart of the country; to the south lie the mountains and the rain forest; to west and east the coasts are not visible through the cloud. To stand atop Sri Pada literally feels like being on top of the world.

S haped like a teardrop falling off the subcontinent into the Indian Ocean, the South Asian island nation of Sri Lanka makes a big splash these days as a wonderful destination for tourism, and by no means just for mountain hiking.

Yet until just a few years ago, many tourists and their governments considered Sri Lanka off-limits because of its quarter-century-long civil war. From mid-1983 onward, anti-government insurgents, known as the Tamil Tigers, fought for a separate Tamil state in a bloody war that claimed an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 lives and brought widespread hardship to the island before they were finally defeated by the Sri Lankan military in mid 2009.

Once hostilities ceased, reconstruction of lives and infrastructure began apace, with Japan actively involved in funding a number of those efforts. Today Sri Lanka, at peace, holds its arms open to visitors from abroad in a warm welcome.

This is a country of contrasts and variety crammed into a small area. Located between 5° and 10° N of the equator and between longitudes 79°-82°, it has a decidedly warm tropical climate — though as I found out, that doesn’t rule out the possibility of feeling cold on the peaks! The climate here is complex, dependent on wind direction, proximity to the mountains or sea and the prevailing winds, which bring monsoon rains to different parts of the island at different times of year. It is hottest (over 30° C) during May and June, before the summer rains; the northeast monsoon winds bring rain from the Bay of Bengal during March and December.

To sum up, though, all this really means is that you would be well advised to carry an umbrella — and be prepared for some serious humidity at times!

Brolly-toting apart, the real challenge in visiting this small country with a big heart lies in deciding where to invest your time. Should it be spent deriving an education from the country’s extraordinary and ancient cultural heritage, or in acquiring a suntan while relaxing at one of its many fine beach resorts? Should your stay be a kind of Buddhist pilgrimage, visiting Sri Lanka’s innumerable holy sites, or should it take the wilder option of hiking and exploring its mountains and watching its richly diverse tropical wildlife?

Then again, the island’s wealth of opportunities makes it perfectly possible to visit nothing ranking less than a World Heritage Site — in which case, with eight to see, at least 10 days is a bare necessity. However, if you were to focus only on visiting national parks, since there are 22 of them a month would not be long enough to do them justice.

I had, generously I thought, opted for a month exploring the ancient isle of Serendib (its Arabic/Persian name) and my plans ambitiously incorporated elements of all of the above. A month proved far too short. You really need to focus here; there is just so much to see.

In comparative terms Sri Lanka, which lies off the southeast coast of India (to which it was once connected by a natural land bridge), is slightly larger than Kyushu and Shikoku combined, or about 20 percent smaller than the area of Hokkaido. Yet it packs so incredibly much historically, culturally and naturally into that small area.

An essentially Buddhist nation, Sri Lanka has been a center of Buddhism since ancient times, leaving it now with a profusely rich heritage of religious sites and sculptures varying enormously in scale and at once imposing, dramatic, even stunningly beautiful.

Sri Lanka’s majority population is Sinhalese and the largest ethnic minority consists of Tamils, however it has many other communities and languages in addition to the three leading ones of Sinhalese, Tamil and English. Formerly a part of the British Empire, the island country then known as Ceylon achieved independence in 1948, but only shed its colonial name (derived from the Portuguese) in 1972 in favor of its current official identity as the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.

Imbibers of the nation’s many and varied delicious teas may still think of it as Ceylon though, because teas are still sold under that banner. However, this beautiful “Pearl of the Indian Ocean” produces other important crops as well, including coconut, cinnamon and coffee, along with rubber — but no visit is complete without a trip to a tea estate and “a nice cuppa,” of course.

At sometime in my youth I came across reference to the ancient “tank culture” of Sri Lanka, and had long dreamed of seeing it at first hand. That interest drew me on a journey I can recommend to any traveler — taking in the “cultural triangle” of the north-central part of the island: Dambulla, Sigiriya, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. It is there that the tank culture flourished — though “proliferated” might be a better word, since there are thousands of them.

In millennia past, the seasonal juxtaposition of droughts and monsoons in a fledgling agricultural land demanded there had to be some means of storing water for consumption and irrigation for wet rice production, and it was the island’s prehistoric farmers who constructed the first tanks. However, their works were elaborated on — on a grand scale — by the kings of the island dating back nearly 2,000 years. Now, three great tanks surround Anuradhapura; tanks are visible from atop the summit of Sigiriya, and there is even a small one on its very top; while there is an enormous tank at Minneriya, too. Look carefully, though, and you will find them scattered right across the country; don’t look carefully and you are likely to fall into one.

The tank system involves not just storing water and providing fisheries, but also providing canals and irrigation channels to agricultural areas and towns, and the tanks remain important to this day. They are also wonderful wildlife refuges teeming with fish and birdlife and the occasional Water Monitor (a huge lizard) too.

Having been drawn to the cultural heart of the country by its waterways I hadn’t anticipated being so entranced by its historical sites (or so annoyed by its ridiculously inflexible ticketing system for these sites).

Look no further than Dambulla if you wish to see what can be achieved with simple tools and immense amounts of manpower starting only with a granite mountain and a natural overhang. Embellished over two millennia, the caves now house reputedly the country’s most impressive murals along with the artistic feature that is perhaps the most abundant in Sri Lanka — images of the Buddha. The 14-meter-long reclining Buddha in the “Temple of the Lord of the Gods” cave seems, on first sight, unlikely to be beaten (but read on).

Traveling from the coastal plains into the low hills with their valley-bottom rice fields dotted with white egrets and colorful kingfishers and with jewel-like bee-eaters flitting overhead, and on into the cultural heart of the country, it’s impossible to avoid visual references to Buddhism. Buddha images, like the bee-eaters and kingfishers, abound. The statues range from small to immense, from kitsch to serene, and on any journey around the country you’ll likely realize that the only things more common in Sri Lanka are the wandering dogs — I counted more than 100 a day, but then if Buddha-nature is in everything, it must be in the dogs as well. That said, the wandering, uncared for canines (and the ticketing system for ancient sites) were the only aspects of this fascinating country that upset me.

Not far to the north of Dambulla is the site for which the adjective “spectacular” has to be reserved — Sigiriya. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1982, this place is so remarkable that if you were to miss any aspect of the country it should not be this “fortress in the sky.”

The Sigiriya Rock rises almost sheer-sided from the plains and commands a panoramic view across the countryside. At first a place of religious retreat, for a while around 1,500 years ago it became perhaps the most impregnable palace in the world. The climb to the top, via an iron staircase, is not for the faint-hearted, but along the way the few remaining fantastic frescoes from what was once a long frieze purportedly portraying the Hindu goddess Tara, are lasting testament to the quality of art here, and the beauty of womanhood, back when Western Europe was plunging into its Dark Ages.

Climbing up from the Lion Platform between the lion’s paws that are now the only remains of a colossal statue that once reared up to the summit, the staircase winds up the face of the ancient rock to the top. From there, the view not only takes in the surrounding, mainly green landscape, but also, at the foot of the rock, what is considered to be one of the oldest formal gardens in the world with, beyond it, one of those many tanks.

To the northwest of Sigiriya is Anuradhapura, which for 1,000 years until 993 was the most significant of Sri Lanka’s cities — but in that year it was largely destroyed by invaders from India.

It was here, in Anuradhapura, that Sinhalese culture entered its golden age. Among the surviving remnants stand the great dagobas (stupas), which were so huge when they were built that only the Great Pyramids of Egypt exceeded them in size. There is so much to see here that truly the city is worthy of several days’ exploration, but instead of time it is the exorbitant ticket prices charged to overseas visitors that place a limit on what is possible. That said, however, I still savor strong memories of walking barefoot round the enormous and busy white-painted Ruvanvalisaya Dagoba and the simpler unadorned brick Jetavana Dagoba, and of marveling at moon stones (semi-circular decorated stones at the foot of ancient stairways) and multi-headed cobra carvings. What I found most enchanting, though, were some relief-carvings in stone of playful elephants that I came across by chance.

Guidebooks will have you believe that it’s a toss-up between visiting Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, but if you like Buddhist statuary there is no choice in the matter: Either you go to both, or you go to Polonnaruwa.

Just when you thought there could be no more beautiful or impressive Buddha images than you beheld at Dambulla, you realize at Polonnaruwa that there are. Appearing as if carved from wood not stone, the rock’s grain so much resembles that of a tree’s, and appearing so implacably serene, the carvings of the Buddha here require a prolonged sit and some serious contemplation. They are drop-dead gorgeous and held me spellbound.

Now, to backtrack a little to that sweeping view from atop the Sigiriya Rock. Looking southwards from there, in the distance you see the land rising steadily, becoming ever more mountainous and more spectacular, with ridges, waterfalls and peaks. Head in that direction and you’ll pass the Knuckles Range en route to the next destination of note: Kandy.

This pretty hill town is renowned among Buddhists for its reliquary, secreted away in the depths of the Temple of the Tooth, which is said to hold a tooth of the Buddha. Among visitors, the daily ceremonies at the temple are a draw, along with the town’s very many gem stores, but for naturalists it is seeing the early morning and late-afternoon to-ing and fro-ing of hordes of Giant Fruit Bats making their way between their roosting sites in the trees beside the town lake and foraging areas in the forested hills that is the more priceless memory.

Take care, though, when looking up at the chattering, fox-faced bats as they hang furled in their leathery winged “capes” at their roosts, because while looking up you may just trip over one of the enormous monitor lizards that make this lake and its environs home. Akin to the dragons of Komodo Island in Indonesia, these surely must be the second-largest of all monitors — and those at Kandy seem especially huge.

From Kandy, routes for exploration southwards include Nuwara Eliya and the Horton Plains, Kithulgala Forest and the river there, which was used as the setting for filming the 1957 David Lean classic, “Bridge On the River Kwai” — and Sinharaja. This is an area of tropical hill forest so unique in its plethora of endemic species that it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. At least 20 species of endemic birds occur here, as well as innumerable endemic plants and insects — but, like all rain forests, it is hot, humid and reveals its secrets only to those with patience and determination (and a willingness to accept the leeches!).

The logistics for access are not easy and guides are strongly recommended unless you happen to be an expert on some aspect of tropical ecology, but if you wish to experience the extraordinary antics of a Sri Lankan “bird wave,” then this is where you must head. A bird wave here is nothing like the metachronal rhythm of a “Mexican wave” in a sports stadium, but involves a suite of different avian species all traveling together foraging, like a combine harvester through the forest. Encountering one of these is bewildering, since after relative silence, birds suddenly seem to be everywhere, hopping on the ground, fluttering between branches, on tree trunks, and up in the canopy. Among my favorites were the extraordinary Sri Lankan Blue Magpies, colorful members of the crow family with the oddest of frilled, fleshy-red eye-rings. When there are no bird waves evident, there are scores of butterflies to watch for, and good chances of seeing the gorgeous Sri Lankan Junglefowl, too.

However, if tropical forest sounds too challenging for you, then you might like to visit Udawalawe National Park down in the southern lowlands, where you are very likely to encounter wild Asian Elephants, or Yala National Park in the southeast, the best place in Asia to seek out leopards. Sadly, though, time in Serendib soon runs away with you. There is only one thing to do: go twice.

Ayubovan (welcome) is how I was made to feel throughout the country, and when it became clear that I reside in Japan, that welcome became even warmer. Japan and Sri Lanka have a long relationship, with Sri Lanka having achieved third place (after India and Pakistan) among South Asian nations as a recipient of Official Development Assistance from Japan.

In fact, I was intrigued by the number of signs I encountered bearing witness to Japanese support — at parks, on bridges and at airports — and a little further research revealed that Japan has supported an astonishingly wide range of projects. These have involved food production, water supplies, shelter, health care, solar energy, transport infrastructure, agriculture — with many loans for other purposes on top of all that. Little wonder then that visitors from Japan are so welcome.

I will certainly return to Sri Lanka just as soon as I can — and I will head straight back to my favourite retreat of all, the Ibis Guest House (www.guesthouse-ibis.de) on the south coast near the small town of Tangalle. This family-run guesthouse has arisen twice from destruction, most recently from the South Asian tsunami in December 2004, and the friendliness and fortitude of the family shine through in their welcome — a welcome so typical in Sri Lanka.

Mark Brazil is a long-term contributor to The Japan Times, in which his “Wild Watch” column has been running since 1982. Visit www.wildwatchjapan.com to find out more about his activities as a travel and natural history writer, photographer and eco-tourism consultant.