Tropical Sri Lanka blasts us with sauna-like heat, and our eyes soak up the vivid greens of lush foliage and forests of swaying palms as we breeze along the new expressway from the airport into Colombo. This island country, known as Ceylon till 1972, is located off the southeastern coast of India.
Our first outing is the very next morning, as Poya Day at Kelaniya Temple will not wait. Poya is the Sinhala name for Buddhist holidays in conjunction with full moons (also a civic and bank holiday, and there can be 12 or 13 per year, according to full moons in that year). Poya is a day of fasting from meat and alcohol (our taxi driver describes it as “veggie day”).
This Poya, being the first in the New Year, holds particular prominence with a steady stream of worshippers to the temple. Motor-rickshaws and other vehicles arrive in droves. Our noses lead us to sellers of flowers for temple-offerings, food stalls waft tantalizing scents to feed the masses, ice-cream vendors are a hit on this scorching day, cloths and toy sellers seem out of place.
Our Sri Lanka Photo Gallery
Leaving Rick to mill around the outer court fountains, I pad up the steps barefoot (as is the custom) and pass through the grand arches of the temple area. A pure white stupa rises into the pale late afternoon sky to one side of the temple entrance. People speak quietly as they enter the many temple rooms, yet the sheer number adds a continuous hum. Shuffling along with the throngs my gaze falls on ancient and modern wall paintings and statues.
The exit door is charged with people filling every inch of concrete and grass where scriptures are being read over a speaker system (can you spot me in the photo?) The richness of the Buddhist heritage leaves me in awe.
Sri Lanka has a long history of Buddhism, introduced into the country in 247BC by the Venerable Arahat Mahinda Thero (son of King Asoka of India), and since has been practiced by the Sinhalese (ethnic group native to Sri Lanka, comprising 75% of the population). Sri Lanka also has a strong Tamil Hindu heritage; the Tamils brought to the country from India under British colonization for plantation work, many in administrative capacities. The two official languages of Sri Lanka are Sinhala and Tamil.
During the next few days (and after one hotel change) we settle quite nicely into our Colombo neighborhood – close to the ocean, lots of great cappuccino/lunch places, grocery stores, and a few small malls. Wide sidewalks and vehicles that actually stop for pedestrians at cross walks are other notable niceties (a bit novel after India).
One ‘feeling-energetic’ day we wend our way the 3km to Gangaramaya Temple, that our hotel manager claims, “is not to be missed.” It is like a tranquil oasis amid the city bustle near Beira Lake. This spectacular temple consists of a mix of buildings in Sri Lankan, Thai, Indian and Chinese architecture. Ganesh and other Hindu gods stand before the entrance to the main temple.
A Bodhi tree rises in the courtyard. Out front of the tree is a seating area with people in silent contemplation. This Bo is considered to be 100 years old, and said to have been started from a sapling of the Bodhi tree planted in 288BC in the Sri Lankan city of Anuradhapura, which in turn is said to be “the southern branch” of Sri Maha Bodhi tree which we saw while in Bodh Gaya India, under which Buddha sat after his enlightenment.
As well as one of the most important Buddhist temples, Gangaramaya is a learning centre, library and small museum filled with historic artifacts and art. While in the museum a monk comes up behind me and points to a shrine behind glass, “Lord Buddha’s hair…do you see?” This relic was a gift from Bangladesh, brought to the temple in 2007.
The Coles notes version of Sri Lankan history is as follows: After over 2,000 years of rule by local kingdoms, Sri Lanka was colonized in turn by the Portuguese, Dutch and British, with independence being realized in 1948. It gained republic status in 1972 and was officially named the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka in 1978.
Election for the country’s president happens within days of our arrival, and we are cautioned by locals not to venture out of the city on election-day and the following day, as there may be “some disruption of sorts” which might leave us stranded. As it turns out, the new candidate Maithripala Sirisena wins over Mahinda Rajapaska (elected in 2005) with no “disruption”, and as always after an election – high hopes for the future.
Pinnawala Elephant Orphange
Okay – time to hit-the-open-road! Booking a car for the day, our driver Rajah is waiting when we appear at the hotel entrance with our boxed breakfast (compliments of our hotel) at 7 a.m. Nibbling while passing through village after village has Rick commenting, “This is like driving continuously through city traffic.” The rule of thumb on this two-lane highway seems to be – motor-rickshaws rattle along on both outer sides, with trucks, buses, and cars squeezing between in both directions, with motorcycles weaving in and out of all-of-the-above – reducing our average car speed to 30km-per-hour. Rajah is a seasoned driver who I swear must have the compound eyes of an insect that work in unison to avoid a collision, especially with the crazies that take wildly indiscriminate chances in passing.
The orphanage was established in 1975 by the Sri Lanka Department of Wildlife Conservation, for care and protection to the many orphaned Elephants found in the jungle; some abandoned from falls into pits/ravines, herds displaced by development projects leaving pre-weaned elephants in the wake, or some found diseased or wounded. It is currently on a 25 acre coconut property near the Maha Oya River. In 1978 it was taken over by the Department of National Zoological Garden.
From seeing babies being bottle-fed, each sizable bottle a mere gulp or two, to following the adults around the grounds, we are enthralled by their magnificence.
The information I glean from Pinnawala staff is that the facility has 88 pachyderm residents (37 males, 51 females) spanning three generations, and as well as taking in new orphans, older elephants are retained as they have come to depend on the food supply, and as such the facility has now become a breeding centre.
It is a catch-22 situation that it has become a tourist attraction – the fees are needed to maintain the elephants, with each adult animal given 250kg (550lbs) of green matter a day (tamarind, grass, jackfruit, coconut, kitul (sugar palm), plus 2kg (4.4lbs) of rice/bran and maize daily. Maintenance also includes vet costs and mahut wages, etc. Most are healthy (according to inspection reports). One elephant is blind and another lost her front left leg due to a landmine.
The females and young elephants are free to wander as a herd through the day. Mahuts are handy to keep tabs on visitors who seemingly forget the immense size of these creatures in lieu of a photo-close-up. The older males do some light work through the day, such as hauling in feed. Both adult males and females are chained in corals at night. I must admit seeing a few of these gentle giants with a chain around one ankle, and the gigantic bull walking about with loose chains jangling around his neck is jarring. But, I don’t pretend to know the dynamics of elephant behavior under this semi-zoo-like setting, with its digression from herds in the wild, wherein females and young move together in groups, and bulls are solitary or form a bachelor group.
Solutions? …other than a wealthy benefactor donating millions of dollars for the orphanage to have the acreage for a more natural herd setting, perhaps as the country grows in wealth some tax dollars will be available to maintain the orphanage as such, and find ways to reintroduce the elephants back into the wild when reaching a certain age… and tourists can go to National Parks to see elephants in the wild (lists of these at end of this article).
Rajah is nowhere to be seen when we get back to the parking lot. An ice-cold coke at the nearby small café goes down pretty smooth. We walk again to the vehicle, in the hopes he will see us from wherever he is….Oh!…Rajah was there all the time, taking a nap on the flattened seat. The ice-cold coke we bring him goes down as well as ours – and off we go to Kandy, our focus being the Temple of the Tooth
Temple of the Tooth, (Sri Dalada Maligawa) – Kandy
Kandy is picturesque nestled in a valley with its pale jade Kandy Lake in contrast to the dark greens of the forest that climb the hills. A dazzle of flowers shows off the old colonial buildings and shops of the town.
The Royal Complex spreads before us, the Temple of the Tooth (so named for its tooth relic of Gautama Buddha) was once a part of the last residence of Kingdom of Kandy royalty; it is now a UNESCO site. This kingdom was founded in the 15th century and continued its rule into the 19th, finally succumbing to British forces with the aid of Kandian chieftains in 1815.
Upon entering the temple, a sizable painting draws attention. It is of Princess Hemamali and her husband, Prince Dantha. The Princess is said to have carried Buddha’s tooth relic hidden in her hair when bringing it from Kalinga India to Sri Lanka in the 4th century, as per instructions of her father King Guhasinha of Dantapura (its history prior to this is scant). The relic was brought to the Kandy Temple in 1545, where it has remained ever since.
Climbing a series of stairs brings me to the room where this relic rests (behind a series of doors). The perfume of a thick mat of flowers on a long table before a golden Buddha statue is intoxicating. Worshippers fill the space, some standing, others sitting, others placing more flowers on the altar table. Especially heartwarming is seeing young children barely able to reach the top of the table present their offerings with great solemnity.
Monks conduct daily worship in the temple – at dawn, noon and evening. We miss the noon worship with its drummers and chanting, but there is plenty to see around the temple grounds. Rajah also takes us on a tour of the town and to Kandy Lake.
“Pope Francis coming to Sri Lanka!” headlines newspapers, TV news reports and local chatter. We find ourselves in a version of revolving doors with the Papal Delegation arriving in Colombo on January 13th . On the 14th, while we are on our way to the airport for our early morning flight, His Holiness will be on his way to conduct an outdoor mass at Galle Face Green (the grassy space along the Indian Ocean in the business district of Colombo).
We do manage a pre-Pope check of Galle Face Green on the 12th and find it swarming with thousands of police in a practice run, clergy with clip-boards working on logistics, workers adding the final touches around structures erected and the cordoned sections for worshippers and visitors.
At this mass Pope Francis (which we later read that 500,000 people attended) is to canonize the 17th century Jesuit missionary Joseph Vas, also known as “the Apostle of Ceylon”. Vas was born in Benaulin Goa India in 1651, and after becoming a Jesuit missionary, he came to Ceylon during the Dutch occupation when Calvinism was imposed as the official religion. Vas was imprisoned in Kandy for his opposing religious views. When smallpox broke out in the Kingdom of Kandy he was freed to aid the sick, and he began working for the downtrodden and the persecution of those who did not follow Calvinism.
Later on the 14th Pope Francis will helicopter to Madhu for prayers in the 400-year-old “Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu”, which is in the district where Saint Vas was instrumental in his fight for rights and much more recently Mahdu is situated in the heart of the 26-year civil war (ending only in 2009) between the majority Buddhist Sinalese and minority Hindu Tamils. We later read the Pope’s message was for truth and reconciliation, for justice, healing and unity – which the newly elected President Sirisena promised will be a priority during his campaign.
Then after overnighting in Colombo the Pope will jet from Sri Lanka to the Philippines on January 15th, while we will have arrived in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – our next sojourn.
Sri Lanka lives in our minds as a spirited place, an island gem of natural beauty, with Colombo flourishing as a cosmopolitan hub, and the colonial feel of Kandy – we hope its turbulent historic past is just that –in the past.
Okay – time for Rick, my finance minister to have my undivided attention. I wait with bated breath as he takes on the stern official countenance that I now know so well. “Our flight here from Chennai, our accommodations, taxi tours, site entry fees, food and entertainment comes to $153CDN a day.”… broad smile erupts.
Tours around Sri Lanka – We had a second day-trip tour planned from Colombo to Sigiriya (towering rock, remains of former ancient capitals) and Dambulla Temple Caves, which we decided to cancel upon our driver’s report that the drive alone to get there and back would be a total of 9 hours! Although the distances are not great, travel is slow – average highway speeds are between 30 and 40km-per-hour. Our suggestion is to find a hotel in the city/town closest to sites that are further than 100km from Colombo.
National Parks to see elephants in the wild (the distance stated in each is from Colombo).
Wasgamuwa National Park – 233km – in Central Province, large herds of elephants can be seen.
Alankudah – 167km – in Kalpitiya Peninsula – beach, wind-surfing, Spinner Dolphins, Bar Reef coral.
Bundala -245km – scrub jungle in hambantota district, 383 plant species, 32 species of mammals (incl. grey langur monkeys, sloth bears, leopards), 197 bird species.
Yala National Park – 330km – in SE region, home to a great number of elephants, leopards and reptiles. 190 species of birds recorded.
Kandulla National Park –197km – in Polonnaruwa District. Herds of elephants observed, especially in September when they arrive in search of water/food. Also spot sloth bears/leopards/large water birds.
Udawalawe Park – 165km – famous for its large elephant population that can be seen any time of day. Also famous for bird life.
Minneriya National Park – 182km – in North Central Province – it is a dry season feeding grounds for elephants; an immense elephant gathering takes place during August/September.