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A Taste of Sri Lanka

The Lighthouse at Galle Fort

In December I visited Sri Lanka with my parents. Sri Lanka is a small-ish Island country, located in the Arabian Sea Southeast of India. It’s inhabited by the native Sinhalese population, as well as by a large population of Tamil migrants from the neighbouring Indian state of Tamil Nadu, many of whom were brought over as labourers by the British in the 1800s. From 1983 to 2009 the country was engaged in Civil War, with the Sinhalese and Tamil populations vying for control. In 2004, the South Coast was hit with a tsunami that killed thousands of people and destroyed entire villages. Despite this, Sri Lanka has been voted Lonely Planet’s top destination for 2019, and boasts a vibrant array of landscapes and cultural artifacts, all in an accessible and tourist-friendly environment.

Visiting in Sigiriya Village

Sri Lanka was great. It was relaxing, it was nice to be a bit fancy for a while, I saw some new things, and I also got to compare Indian culture to that of its neighbour. I had expected Sri Lanka to be pretty culturally similar to India, just a bit less crowded. And while there were definitely similarities, Sri Lanka provided something quite different from my experience in India, from the food to the religion to the interactions I had with different people.

The Cave Temples in Dambulla

We referred to Sri Lanka as India Lite, because many of the different things you can experience in India, you can experience (in a slightly-toned down version) in Sri Lanka, minus the crowds, difficulties, and lengthy travel times. While India has unmatched diversity, it can sometimes take a 20-hour train ride or all day in a bumpy car on unpaved traffic-clogged roads to get there. Sri Lanka, in comparison, packs in luscious green waterfalls next to ancient ruins, open beaches and crowded markets, wildlife, Buddhist Temples, relaxing tea plantations and so much more in a far more compact form. Following are some of my highlights from the trip, especially in relation to my experiences living in India:

The Poya (Full Moon) Ceremony in Galle

1. Buddhist Culture - The dominant religion in Sri Lanka is Buddhism, brought over from India by the son of Indian Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century CE. While India definitely has large Buddhist populations, especially in the North, it was far more apparent in Sri Lanka. Buddhism was founded in India in the 5th century BCE, when the Buddha (Prince Siddhartha Gautama) attained enlightenment under a bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, in (today's) Bihar State. From there, Buddhism spread throughout the world. In the mid-1900’s, Tibetan refugees started crossing into Northern India, over the Himalayas. In 1959 the Dalai Lama fled from Lhasa, and formed the Tibetan Government in Exile in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh.

Buddhist flags at ancient temples in Anuradhapura

All over Sri Lanka we experienced beautiful Buddhist Temples. At the centre of the temple is usually a bodhi tree, surrounded by prayer flags and offerings. At the Gangaramaya Temple in Colombo, an entire room was filled with larger-than-life enamel coated Buddhas and monks, depicting different spiritual states of Buddhism. In the tea-plantation town of Nuwara Eliya, we climbed to a Temple perched on top of a mountain, where there were no people. Detailed murals lined the inner walls and ceiling, while outside the stark white stupa contrasted with the mountain sky.

A hilltop temple in Nuwara Eliya

On my last night in Sri Lanka, in the small port town of Galle, we experienced Poya, or full moon celebrations. As the sun set, the moon rose high above the water, illuminating the red Portuguese rooftops inside the fort. At the Temple, people had formed two long lines, facing each other, stretching through the Temple and across the road to the Bodhi Tree Shrine. They passed baskets of offering and incense to each other all the way down the line, while bells rang and monks chanted. Finally they offered them inside the Shrine, and lit oil lamps outside.

Buddhas at a hilltop temple in Nuwara Eliya

Inside the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy

A modern buddha amongst ancient ruins at Anuradhapura

A hillside temple carved into the rock at the Dambulla Cave Temples

The Poya (Full Moon) Ceremony in Galle

Offerings at the Shri Maha Bodhi Temple in Anuradhapura - where the original bodhi tree sapling brought from India was planted over 2000 years ago

The Gangaramaya Temple in Colombo

The Gangaramaya Temple in Colombo

The Gangaramaya Temple in Colombo

The Poya (Full Moon) Celebration in Galle

Inside the Cave Temples at Dambulla where religious murals are painted directly onto the caves

The Gangaramaya Temple in Colombo

The Gangaramaya Temple in Colombo

The Gangaramaya Temple in Colombo

The Bodhi Tree Shrine at the Shri Maha Bodhi Temple in Anuradhapura

Inside one of the Dambulla Cave Temples

The Gangaramaya Temple in Colombo

Worshippers at the Shri Maha Bodhi Temple in Anuradhapura

A monkey in the ruins at Pollonaruwa

2. Lots of Animals - While India does have lions and tigers and bears, they’re often hard to find and hard to reach. Sri Lanka has tons of National Parks (especially for such a small island), and we visited two different animal reserves. We saw hundreds of wild peacocks - not the kind that walk around the zoo pecking at children, but the kind that live in the wild and perform their mating dances and look pretty exotic. We saw herds of wild elephants congregating around watering holes at sunset. I’ve done elephant rides in different countries, and given them baths in rivers, but it was my first time seeing herds of wild elephants, out wandering in the jungle.

A wild elephant in Minneriya National Park

The first safari we went on (in Minneriya National Park) was a bit crowded. After all, a giant herd of elephants will surely attract several open-aired jeeps full of tourists. The second one we went to (Yala National Park) was more spread out. It specialized in wild leopards (which we didn’t see, but hey, Mumbai also has some wild leopards), but there was a lot more space. At one point we were all alone, and pulled up to a watering hole filled with water buffaloes, their heads and backs sticking out of the mud, just standing there. Wild boars and exotic birds passed by, and we just sat, admiring the nature. I didn’t expect the safaris to be so enjoyable, but it was really special, experiencing nature like that. Sort of like dropping into the Lion King.

A lizard in Sigiriya Village

The hotel we stayed at was a nature lodge right inside Yala National Park. The swimming pool backed onto a natural lagoon filled with wild crocodiles. After swimming I could walk down and sit by the edge (not too close) and watch the water buffaloes in the afternoon sun. As the sun set the crocodiles came further up towards the shore. The hotel offered a $100/person barbecue experience right on the river bank, where they threw the meat scraps to the crocodiles. While we didn’t avail ourselves of the offer (obviously), we stopped by to see, and the crocodiles had come too far up on the land, so the guests had to move farther up while the staff ushered the crocodiles back into the water with fire lanterns. Not necessarily my idea of fun, but it was definitely very interesting to be able to experience wild animals in such an intimate way. And what we saw was only a tiny bit of the vast animal-filled landscapes all over Sri Lanka.

Wild crocodiles in Yala National Park

A wild peacock in Yala National Park

A deer in Horton Plains National Park

Water buffalo in Yala National Park

A monkey overlooking the ruins at Sigiriya

My parents on our elephant safari at Minneriya National Park

Birds in Yala National Park

Temple Ruins in Pollonaruwa

3. Cool Old Things - Sri Lanka is home to the ruins of several ancient civilizations. The old Kings of Lanka would build stone cities, complete with palaces and temples, only to be replaced by a more strategic and more grande ancient city when the next king took over. As a result, you can walk through the deserted ruins of crumbling temples and civilizations.