Sri Lanka – a mosaic of staggering beauty
Sri Lanka was originally Serendib – from serendipity, the art of making happy discoveries by accident – and it fits. Raw ingredients in the Sri Lankan mosaic include beaches of staggering beauty, ruined cities entwined with mythology, a culture that leavens the frantic fizz of India with Buddhist serenity, elephants, leopards and highland tea plantations where women in flaming saris stalk through the camellia bushes.
Most Sri Lankan journeys begin and end in Colombo, but the city is a bland aperitif to the Sri Lankan feast. My city tour began at 3 pm and was over by 5:30, even though I’d dawdled around the temples. Galle Face Green on Sunday evening was a diversion though, when crowds descended to promenade, fly kites, snack on shrimps fried in pastry and watch soupy bronze waves churning against the tiny strip of beach below the sea walls.
South of Colombo is the Resort Coast but those in search of cultural pleasures head inland, and the next morning I set off on a veering journey along a little swerving road that was never far from another heart-in-the-mouth drama as we shaved narrowly between huge trucks on one side and pedestrians, tuk-tuks, cyclists, dogs and cattle on the other.
Out the window were newly planted rice fields, sparkling with a colour that elevates the word “green” to a new level. There were moments of poetry – three monks walking along the road, each with a black umbrella hoisted over his shiny bald head, and once an avenue of acacias sprigged with yellow closed its arms above us.
Archaeology is woven into the fabric of Sri Lanka. The ruined former capitals of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa rate among the wonders of the ancient world, but heat, kings with polysyllabic names and crumbling stonemasonry are not a good combination but Sigiriya was a surprise. The most poetic of all the ruined capitals, this soaring fortress-palace was built by Prince Kaspaya, an illegitimate son who killed his father, the king, and forced the rightful heir – his half brother – to flee to India. Fearing retribution, Kaspaya chose this erupting granite spire for his capital and in the 18 years he ruled he created elaborate gardens with fountains, a double moat, audience halls and swimming pools on top of the pinnacle which were fed by water pumped from 200m below.
Capital of the hill country, Kandy is famous as the home of the Temple of the Tooth, a relic from the mouth of the Buddha, and the country’s holiest Buddhist shrine. Only the casket that contains the sacred tooth is revealed each day, inside a dark and slightly mysterious chamber. Places are strictly limited at the event, which is made even more dramatic by the offerings that are brought in by monks, and accompanied by the pounding of drums.
Beyond Kandy the road south winds into tea plantations that cloak the hillside in green clumps, like hair woven into cornrows. Even by the standards of Sri Lanka’s rural trades – which throws up stilt fishermen and toddy tappers who work the coconut palms from a web of ropes – the tea pickers are in a class apart.
Deep on the south-west coast, the ancient port of Galle is a city of sleepy fascination. Within the stout walls of the old fort that was begun by the Portuguese and extended by the Dutch is a three square kilometre World Heritage site, where the fading shreds of the city’s colonial architecture provide a canvas for coconut sellers and browsing cows. The embrasures along the fortress walls that once cradled cannons are now a favourite place for lovers, who invariably arm themselves with an umbrella – but not so much to for shade as for privacy. Sight along the walls on a Sunday afternoon and you will see a long line of black umbrellas, each hiding a smooching couple.
Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje, an affectionate, mellifluous homecoming memoir that casts the author’s madcap family in vivid bas-relief against the sultry, tropical backdrop of colonial Ceylon.