If you visit the Sri Lanka hill capital of Kandy and fall in love, be content. You are in illustrious company.
Mahatma Gandhi extolled the natural scenery as “probably unsurpassed on the face of the earth.”
Said French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, “It is so beautiful one should go there after the struggle is over and just glide away.” And Humphrey Davy, an army surgeon, really threw down the nature travel writing gauntlet back in 1819, when he wrote, “No description . . . could do justice to the scenery.”
I like a challenge. I’ll try.
Kandy, the city itself, is raucous, bustling. The streets are clogged with motor scooters, monks, the occasional elephant and no shortage of people anxious to introduce you to gem merchants. In this respect, it is a typical Sri Lankan city. It is its history and location that lift Kandy from the entertaining to the delightful.
Kandy lies 500 meters above sea level. The upland climate is cool and refreshing. The hills around Kandy are lush, green, relaxing to the eye and hold the ancient city in a bowl, through which glides the Mahaweli River. The Mahaweli’s source is in the mist-shrouded highlands of Horton Plains. After winding nearly two-thirds the length and breadth of Sri Lanka, it empties near Trincomalee on the eastern coast. It is a lovely, legend-haunted river, the longest in Sri Lanka and the lifeblood of the lowland dry zones. The Kandy stretch is noteworthy for the vast flocks of fruit bats that squabble and fuss in the branches of the taller riverine trees.
The star Kandyan attraction for most visitors is the Temple of the Tooth, a shadowy, echoing, rather queer place wreathed in incense and piled high with lotus-flower offerings. Here rests Sri Lanka’s most precious relic: one of the teeth of the Buddha, rescued from his funeral pyre in 543 B.C. and smuggled into Ceylon 800 years later wrapped in the hair of a princess. It’s been all over the place, this tooth has. It was taken back to India by invaders. Then recaptured by an army led by one of those Sri Lankan kings whose name you can only pronounce if you’re Sri Lankan. It has been housed in the ruined cities of Ceylon’s northern jungles and the Portuguese even claim to have taken it to Goa for ritual destruction. A claim no true-blooded Sinhalese pays much attention to.
During the New Moon festival, a replica of the tooth’s casket processes through Kandy, accompanied by massed ranks of ritually decorated elephants and thousands of Kandyan drummers. It happens in July/August, but think about booking your hotel room now. It is one of Asia’s most dramatic spectacles, particularly when the elephants break loose and stampede through the packed crowds.
Kandy has more to recommend it — palaces, museums and legions of craftsmen turning out batiks, silverware, “antiques” and brass thingamajigs. The traditional Kandyan dances that take place nightly by the central lake are gorgeous, with opulent color and thrilling motion. But for us, Kandy’s most compelling lure is the Royal Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya, probably the best botanical gardens in all Asia.
“Four days in Peradeniya gave me more knowledge of the life and nature of plants than as many months of serious study back home,” wrote Ernst Haeckl in his “Indischen Reisebriefen.” That was in 1882. Four hours in 1999 were enough to thrust my botanical learning curve into dangerous heights of ambition.
The 67-hectare site sits in a loop of the Mahaweli River with sediment-rich water on three sides. It was formerly a royal court of the Kandyan Kingdom. Then a royal pleasure garden. Finally, under the British, it became the botanical gardens one can visit today.
Sri Lanka’s flora has always been one of the country’s finest assets. Some 24 percent of Sri Lanka’s 3,900 plant species are endemic. Noteworthy among the latter being the cinnamon tree which drew spice caravans from as far away as Egypt (where it was used to embalm pharaohs) and Rome (where to impress his wife, the Emperor Nero one night burned more cinnamon than Rome imported in a year). Even today, with the exception of Java and the Seychelles, which export a little, Sri Lanka is the world’s only source of true cinnamon.
The primary motives of the British in establishing the botanical gardens were mercantile. Rubber trees smuggled out of Brazil were grown here to break the Brazilian monopoly. The gardens were the site of the world’s first rubber exhibition. Cinnamon, camphor, cloves, coffee and cinchona, the tree whose bark yields the antimalarial remedy quinine, were likewise propagated for distribution to planters. From humble beginnings in 1821, the gardens, by 1867, were distributing over 1 million plants annually.
But there was more to the endeavor than just hard cash. George Gardner, superintendent, tried to acquire and propagate every single endemic species in Ceylon. He died, presumably of exhaustion, at the age of 37.
The gardens now move at a much less frenetic pace, but have matured and diversified. Four thousand species and cultivars can be seen, including the Baobab (a.k.a. “The Dead Rat tree” due to its hairy, dangling fruit) which was first planted in Ceylon as camel fodder by Arab spice traders 2,000 years ago. Biggest and boldest is the Java fig on the Great Lawn. Its branches cover a surface area of close to 2,000 sq. meters. More than 1,000 people can take shelter here when it rains. Or so “they” say. And if you’ve ever seen how many Sri Lankans can fit into a Temple of the Tooth, you’d believe “them.”
The plants look great. But, as the knowledgeable guides explain, they also do the most intriguing things. Here you will find trees that yield aromatic gums, fast-growing bamboo species that have been used in times past by certain imperial armies to slowly impale prisoners, plants that can stun fish and orchids that distribute up to 4 million seeds in capsules no larger than a speck of dust.
Insect and bird life is prolific. Gardeners take great delight in exhibiting large scorpions they have encountered while pruning. Huge colonies of fruit bats dangle their days away in the Bat Forest.
Fountains of Life by Mario Perera and Marie Jain is a “must read” guidebook crammed with botany, legends and anecdotes.