Escapades In Ceylon: A Tale Of Three Cities

Escapades In Ceylon: A Tale Of Three Cities
I was making my way through Gangaramaya temple at night when it's glowing like a pearl suitably perched in the middle of Colombo Lake, to a totally diverse scene of Valentine’s celebrations by young and old. Both equally painted the town red at the Colombo City Center: shifting sights from soul sanctuary to the material world, conversion of sounds from Paat to clinking coins, contrasting smells of aromatic pastil to coffee and eau de toilette – all of it almost automatic.

My mission was impossible. I was to cover as much of the city while luxuriating and de-stressing along the Taj Samundra and Cinnamon Grand stretch of happy-go-lucky beach. I was supposed to catch a bite in a much-talked-about Navratna restaurant at Taj. I was ready to embark on my expedition at sharp 8:00 am: the driver was there before time, which is pleasant knowledge when one is pressed for time. Our discussion took just a few minutes to understand each other, so he could plan his route around the city and take me to places of my heart's delight. Starting off, I spent fifteen good minutes at the beach with white sand, where the vastness and generosity induce you with an unexplainable sense of bliss for being a resident of this amazing Earth! The shoreline was closest to where I was staying.

Jami-ul-Alfar Mosque, Colombo

My second stop was, of course, Colombo National Museum where history, pride, art, culture and memories were preserved in every bit and detail of the artefacts: assemblages that are windowed in halls and galleries open and ventilated! Great Buddha meditating at the very entrance of the museum building, inviting us ;to His world of peace.

The Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque in Colombo is an astounding piece of architecture in the heart of Colombo, known colloquially as the Samman Kottu Palli, Rathu Palliya, Red Masjid, or the Red Mosque. It is said that the Red Mosque has been a landmark for sailors approaching the port of Colombo ever since it was built in 1908, and upon looking at it you can easily imagine that being true. The mosque’s distinct red-and-white pattern, whether swirling or spiraling, or alternating, is quite mesmerising. The domes are built in the shape of a pomegranate (unlike the traditional onion shape), and the colorful brick patterns are meant to convey the same image.

Viharamahadevi Park was a few minutes away from Pettah. Natives are health-conscious, and families enjoy being together. A Buddha statue and a lotus pond are indigenous ornaments necessary in every part of Ceylon. Hindu Paat, Buddhist chanting, Azaan from the mosque and bells ringing at the church resounding from the Dutch quarters are the best example of pluralistic heritage that I can think of. The old marketplace sells everything from needles to clothes, fruits, sarees to hot samosas and coconut pancakes – a place where you can't find so much as a coconut husk littering the streets, pathways or even the nooks. Too unimaginably clean for being the hub of all hustle and bustle!

People don't honk! Surprised? I was too.

Every vehicle follows the rules: people don't usually speed or overtake if there is a sudden shift. A mild horn with an apology (waving a hand from the window) fixes even the biggest rows.

I passed along the Lotus Tower, for I was not particularly attracted to its height or colour – with due respect to the national monument. So, I asked my driver Chandanan to keep moving towards Independence Square. Built for the commemoration of the independence of Sri Lanka from British rule with the restoration of full governing responsibility to a Ceylonese-elected legislature on 04 February 1948, it is located in the Cinnamon Gardens, Colombo. It also houses the Independence Memorial Museum. After a few quick clicks, I asked Chandanan to make photos of me at the monument. We then drove off to the Dutch quarters, finally making it to lunch at the Navratna Taj Samundra. Mouthwatering paneer Tikka and seafood barbecue platters were devoured with religious devotion: finishing off the main course with light watalappan, a coconut pudding, and Kajoo ice cream drizzled with coconut cream, jaggery honey, and Kajoo bits roasted with salt – it was all too good not to be licked off from the dish.

We continued our journey towards Kandy.

Elephant orphanage Pinwala is one stopover, bringing you a step closer to the Ceylon lifestyle. Loving nature and its miracles is something far too precious to be brushed aside. This experience after visiting elephant sanctuaries in Malaysia and Thailand enriched my heart and soul.

Moving on, we made a brief stop at some spice gardens, finding out the medicinal properties of our household spices and how their taste, colour and look differ from sun to sun, water to water, earth to earth. There they served a Cocoa drink complimentary. It was truly medicinal, hot and relaxing: very good for my headache and fatigue. Ayurvedic medicines were also available for tourists in the shop at the gardens.

A tea plantation with a factory and different blends was definitely a landmark to be visited. Chit-chat with the girls at the plantation, learning about processing the tea leaves to tea brewing over a cup of steaming hot gold blend with melting palm jaggery in the mouth – it all made my journey to my reservation at Kandy easier.

I had Masala Dosa for dinner before checking in, to call it a night.

I woke up to see from my room’s window Buddha watching over the city. I walked out to get the essence of the city: it was The Poey, the day of the full moon revered by Buddhists. They all wear white clothes, markets remain closed, no meat is eaten and all believers go to the temples with sheer reverence to make offerings and pay homage to the great Buddha. The Bahirawakanda Vihara Buddha statue is situated at quite a height but once at the top, it is worth the view. For myself, given the close proximity, I was developing an uncanny relationship with the majestic Buddha himself.

Getting down and tasting the strange yet familiar fruits in a salad both sweet, chilli and tangy is another delight after the soulful meditation, brought to me by my now friend Chandanan.

There is a car parking city view which gives a traveller a birdseye view of the city. One misses to wink at the sight of lake Kandy! It's pure blue water, generosity engulfs all your worries leaving you a neonate.

We stopped at a mask factory, which I can safely say is not just culture! It is skill! It is hard work! It is passion! It is truly a labour of love. Those intricate patterns and designs are carved out, sculpted, and built-in teak, mahogany, jackfruit wood are painted with natural colours from the rainbow tree by mixing with a variety of substances also found in nature and through oxidation. Creating precious art pieces for life.

A leather factory was the next stop: the cow-, goat-, and sheep-leather jackets, boots, slippers, bags and more signature products made by artisans are worth owing. I became the owner of two sandals and one moccasin.

Sacred Tooth Temple is set like a diamond surrounded by amethyst and sapphire of Kandy Lake. Walking around the Sacred Tooth Temple, housed in the palace of the former sovereign of the kingdom of Kandy. Sri Dalada Maligawa, commonly known as the Glorious Tooth Temple, one is transported to the past. The glory of this white palace, its ornamentation, grace and peacefulness with richly decorated elephants marching in discipline is one of the rarest sights that tourists wait for! It is where the relic of the Tooth of the Buddha is found. As the legend goes, whoever holds the Tooth of The Buddha becomes the sovereign. Sinhalese kings have always been the custodians of the Tooth. It is a World Heritage site now and rightly so!

Temple of the Tooth, Kandy

The story of Princess Hemamali and her husband Prince Dantha goes like this: after the Maha Parinirvana of Gautama Buddha, according to the legend, the tooth relic was preserved in Kalinga and smuggled to the island by Princess Hemamali and her husband Prince Dantha on the instructions of her father King Guhasiva. Hemmamali hid the relic in her hair on the way to the island. They landed on the island in Lankapattana during the reign of Sirimeghavanna of Anuradhapura (301-328) and handed over the tooth relic. The king enshrined it in Meghagiri Vihara (present day Isurumuniya) in Anuradhapura. Safeguarding the relic was the responsibility of the monarch from then on. Taking a stroll along the temple and lake on a pleasant night and finding peace in nature is the whole purpose of traveling.

Wandering in pleasant weather around the Tooth Temple is quite mystic! I found myself sitting between the columns, under full moon and star-studded sky: mysteries solved, relaxed bones, carelessness intoxicated by the independence of being. While walking back to the car, eureka! We came across the historical Queens Hotel. The hotel was originally constructed as a residence, the 'Dullawe Walauwa,' designed by Devendra Mulachariya on instructions from King Sri Vickrama Rajasinha 160 years ago. Here every year tourists imprint their tales in the folds of bed sheets, dents of soft pillows, water drain of showers and the mist on the mirrors in the bathrooms.

I called it a night, falling asleep immediately after retiring to my room as the next day yet another journey awaited me.

Fresh crispy morning air flowed inside the car windows, caressing my wet hair as I set out for Bentota. Here, a turtle hatchery and clinic was a veritable empire of love. From babies to handicapped turtles rescued by volunteers, the turtles are treated and looked after till it is time to release them to their indigenous habitat.

Here, too, dolphins show off their shiny leathery skins, dancing in the middle of the Indian Ocean, kingfishers hunt in lagoons and fishermen fishing in estuaries couldn't possibly be more calming to the wanderer in me.

My most significant visit in Bentota was to the Brief Garden.

Being apprehensive and judgemental – as I have formerly visited Mughal gardens, the Hofsburg gardens of the Habsburgs, Spanish gardens and a number of aviaries – I asked the usher if it was worth an exploration. He, of course, didn't like my attitude. He surely had the right to be proud – as I realized quickly after entering the premises Framed by green vines stood Bewis Bawa's home built in 1929. Bewis Bawa was the son of a successful lawyer of Ceylonese Muslim and European parentage. He was sent to look after family rubber plantations after the death of his father. Being a man of aesthetics, with a distinct flair for artistic creation, he fell in love with this place called Bentota. Bewis started selling his rubber plantations bit by bit and settled in growing this labyrinth of aboriginal and foreign plants. Being a keen social observer, he wanted to grow this garden to amuse his friends and visitors.

Lush green plants line the bungalow, while stems and fruits overflow from the sculpted pots and vases – vibrant orange, pink and scarlet surprise the visitor with their constant game of peakaboo with gleaming wonders. The jungle-esque greenery within the garden and the artsy home is proof of Bewis's love of art and design. Homoerotic sculptures haunt the space – Bewis lived openly, though it was not approved then, and even now. As I learned, interfaith marriages are also discouraged in 2022 Ceylon.

Brief Garden of Bevis Bawa, at Bentota

The entrance to the garden is located through ornate gate posts, crowned with male and female figures. The gate posts were created by Bawa and Donald Friend, an Australian artist – representing a fusion of Eastern and Western influences. The path then leads to two additional entrances. The first, a black-and-white door set in a mustard yellow wall leads to the house via a curved staircase. The second leads down into the garden but screens any views of the house.

Donald Friend came for one year from Australia and stayed for another four years – creating unforgettable art along with Bewis, which adorns all walls, ceilings, floors, and the fertile grounds of Brief Garden.

Dooland Desilva listened to me intently, replying patiently to my inquiries one after another. He gifted me a coconut. Nandani his loving wife was too kind, and invited me to the lunch next day. Having all the time in the world and curiously starving for more stories, I arrived the next day to their scrumptious lunch.

Lunch at their home was not only to the heart’s delight, but meeting their very interesting friends was quite enlightening too.

It was my last day in Bentota and I just wanted to absorb the clime, scents, scenes, tastes and images. I asked the resort manager to buy me a king coconut and pineapple. Taking my last boat trip to the beach, inhaling the salt at the estuary, making memories of birds chirping in the lagoon, depositing the sounds, smells, and noises in my memory, I returned from the island that became my home away from home!

I am indebted to all who became friends and family in no time during my Ceylonese escapade. The most beautiful thing in this world is to see genuine, love, empathy, and care in someone's eyes for yourself!

I found it in the little heaven on Earth called Sri Lanka!