Srilanka: the Serendip Island

The first thing you notice as you drive out from Colombo airport is the roads. Yes, they are narrower(than in India), but spotlessly clean. No pot-holes, just smooth metalled surface. No illegal parking, no driving on the wrong side of the road, no mindless honking. People obey the traffic policeman (an omnipresent creature ) and red signals are accepted as karmic duty. Unlike in India, there is no urge to overtake every vehicle, fill up every vacant space, and contribute to population control as often as you can. These people cannot even show competitive aggression on the road, how did they overcome a civil war, I wonder. Another puzzle is: ‘here are two similar cultures who inherited the same colonial governance legacy, how could their road systems be so different?’ Having found no answer, I just accepted it as God’s gift!

Buddha

Gangaramaya Temple, Colombo

I was in Colombo to attend the wedding reception of a cousin who married a Sinhala girl. The reception was at Galle Face hotel — a majestic colonial hotel on the sea front, ( with a pedigree like our Taj Connemara)which once hosted the likes of Lord Mountbatten and Indira Gandhi. The reception began with a ceremonial lighting of the ornamental lamp (much like our kuttuvilakku).One part of the function was the very western custom of everyone proposing a toast. But there were other parts I enjoyed. One was a vigorous dance performed by Kandy Dancers to welcome the bride and groom. The other was a mellow jazz band led by Samarasinghe (a terrific musician with international experience who fortuitously happened to be the classmate of the bride’s father). They started with sentimental old numbers from Frank Sinatra and Cliff Richard, moved on to Spanish songs, Kishore Kumar numbers and reached a climax with Baila. A large part of the audience moved to the floor to dance to the Baila; the rhythm was so overpowering that I danced with them as well!

kandy

 Kandy Dancers

I had expected Srilanka to be like Kerala. It is that, and more! The beaches and the villas are so like Goa (the Portuguese were their first colonists). Like the Goans, Srilankans are laid-back, love sea food and have a great sense of rhythm . (Srilankan Baila music is like the Mando and Konkani beats of Goa). And if one goes to the hill stations of the interior (I visited Kandy and Nuwara-Eliya) one cannot miss the flavour of Conoor and Shimla.  The Indian similarities are obvious, but Srilanka is unique.

DSC00695

Nuwara-Eliya

The other obvious connection is Tamil culture. All street names and government buildings carry signage in English, Sinhala and Tamil; the Tamil translations are unique but precise. For example, “Lane” is translated as “Ozhungai”: that word became obsolete in India centuries ago! “Railway Station” is translated as “Pugayiratha Nilayam”, which roughly means “Smoking Chariot station” — how quaint! Tamil is spoken in a sing-song fashion with a Malayalam-like intonation. There are at least 3 dialects of Tamil — I was exposed to only the most modern version in Colombo. The Jaffna version, possibly, would be closer to what our ancestors spoke a millennium ago. Their cuisine has Tamil flavours as well — their Indhiappa and appa correspond to our Idiyappam and aappam. The Tamil influence is probably more than what an average Srilankan would care to acknowledge. The language, dress, handicrafts definitely carry the result of many centuries of cross fertilization. Sinhala also has a strong Pali/ Sanskrit base. For example “one day, one year” would translate as “ika divasa, ika vasra”; their traditional greeting, “Ayubhowan” is a contraction of “Ayushmaan bhava”— got the drift?

Ramboda

The steps to Hanuman Temple, Ramboda

We visited the temples of Anjaneya at Ramboda and Sita at Nuwara-eliya. I spoke to many Tamilians (conversation was easy despite differences in dialect). Many of them wear   “vibhuthi / tilak” on their forehead and are fiercely Hindu (typical minority mindset?).They are pleased to meet a mainland Tamilian and some of them proudly traced their ancestry to specific districts of Tamilnadu. They speak with great conviction about Ramayana as a factual event in Lanka. One local told me that the town “Ramboda” was originally “Rama-padai” (Tamil translation = Rama’s Army). All this was very pleasing. But I found something strange when I combed the market place for Tamil Baila song CDs. They simply were non-existent — some shopkeepers offered pirated movies from Tamilnadu instead. Did Tamil music go underground after the war?

Dalida Maligawa

Sri DaladaMaligawa

Buddhists consider Sri Dalada Maligawa in Kandy – Temple of Buddha’s tooth as very sacred. We were blessed to get a darshan here on New Year ’s Day, despite thronging crowds. In Polonnaruwa one can see the ruins of the great city that King Parakramabahu built(an army deserter who was traumatized by the blood and gore of the war was our guide here!). Sigiriya is famous for frescoes. It has nothing that our own Ajanta caves cannot offer; but to reach the caves one needs to climb a 1000-foot volcanic rock almost vertically. The journey is exhilarating and the view, breathtaking!

pollaneruwa

The Ruins of Pollaneruwa

Is a Srilankan vacation expensive? Srilankan government has successfully promoted home-stays in a very efficient way as a pro-tourist measure. We stayed in excellent family homes everywhere. Stay expenses can be low (starting from $10 per night) when compared to similar destinations. That also gave us local insights. Food in a middle class joint or even a Dhabha would cost more than in India. Petrol is almost the same price as India, but taxis are expensive. Like India, entry tickets to all tourist sites are priced higher for foreigners, but SAARC citizens get some discounts. All considered, one can comfortably enjoy the delights of Srilanka at Rs2000 -3000 per day. That excludes shopping. To Indians of the pre-liberalisation era, Colombo’s duty-free shops were an attraction. Not any more, at least not in the same sense. Nevertheless, Srilankan wood carvings and handicrafts make attractive souvenirs. There are many “touristy” shops all over but I would think one gets good deals at the “Laksala” Government shops. The other thing to look for is gem stones. Sapphires and Rubies mined in Ratnapura area have a unique character. One can buy brilliantly cut stones in reputed shops, which can be set with Indian jewelers (I believe Indian goldsmiths can produce better jewels from these wonderful stones). Of course, gem shopping can be expensive. What we saved in stay expenses, we spent on gems!

Note: This Post was also published in the Gandhinagar Club Magazine in 2012

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