The clean city of Colombo, filled with lush greenery of its palm trees and signboards in the local language, Sinhalese, greeted us as soon as we arrived. The terrain reminded me of my travels to Kerala and other southern states in India, and we noticed the touch of coastal humidity prevalent in the air. Nuwara Eliya, a colonial-style hill station was to be our first stop —a “little England” of sorts. We drove through villages on the way – the view was filled with picturesque old houses, Buddhist temples and churches.
Sri Lanka’s population of a modest 20 million people consists of 70 per cent Buddhists—which probably lends its people their zen-like, peaceful demeanour—while the remaining are Hindu, Muslim and Christian. On the way, we paused at a small shack selling mini pineapples, bananas and orange coconuts. We relished deliciously sweet coconut water while gazing out at a beautiful sunset standing besides rice paddy fields. Then, we moved on. A slight drizzle started as we soon whizzed past girls dressed in white skirts with lace, listening to the local radio station belt out rock and roll tunes.
We made a stop at Kandy on the way. Sri Lanka’s second largest city after its capital Colombo, Kandy has plenty of history. Here, we visited the famous 200 year old Temple of the Tooth, located charmingly on the banks of Kandy Lake. The temple is known to contain a relic with Lord Buddha’s tooth. After paying our respects, we moved ahead and stayed the night at Nuwara Eliya.
Nuwara Eliya is a quaint little town having a quintessentially English countryside—thatched roofs, lakeside views and undulating hills consisting of tea plantations set up by the British. The town overlooks the scenic Gregory Lake, named after Sir William Gregory, who established the town. The lake offers motorboats, speedboats, jet skis, swan boats, kayaks and other water recreational activities. We observed young couples enjoying the misty weather in the park around the lake, sitting peacefully on benches amidst bottle brush trees.
We drove past the turf club, golf club and the race course. There were lots of hotels, inns and restaurants in the area, as well as a shopping complex selling jewellery, textiles and tea. We then visited a historic post office that was set up in 1894, and which is still operational. Its red and white exterior is a living example of the Tudor Edwardian style of architecture that was evident during the colonial era.
Another interesting spot was the Seetha Eliya temple. The temple has the famed Ashok Vatika in the backdrop, the forest where Sita was imprisoned during the time of the Ramayana. Here, one can still view the imprint of Lord Hanuman’s foot besides a waterfall, when he found her and handed over Lord Ram’s ring to her.
We then drove ahead towards our next destination—the Udawalawe national park. During the course of the journey, the landscape visibly changes from hills to thick, dense forests, and we noticed several varieties of trees—banana, mango, teak, pipal and Ashoka.
The next morning, we embarked on an early morning safari in the national park. It was a treat to witness animals up close in their natural environment—rare Asian elephants, spotted deer, crocodiles, mongoose, peacocks, buffalos, land monitors, pigs and different varieties of birds—parakeets, pelicans, herons, eagles, owls, bee-eaters, lapwings, cormorants and painted storks.
There are about 500 elephants in the park, and they were certainly the most interesting animals to observe—quiet, peaceful and almost meditative in the way they move. Incidentally, elephants are also one of the most intelligent animals in the world. Their trunks are extremely sensitive, and can pick up signals emitted from a distance of several miles.
Though it is a tiny country in size, Sri Lanka boasts of extremely rich biodiversity, wildlife and river ecology. Hills, lakes, forests, beaches, oceans – all of these lie within mere hours of each other, even as history, mythology and modern life jostle together in one happy dance. I was particularly impressed with the country’s cleanliness and sanitation. The people I encountered were honest, sincere, hardworking and disciplined. Their multi-ethnic origins and diverse religious beliefs keep them grounded, and at the same time, unified. Moreover, Sri Lanka has an impressive literacy rate of 92 per cent, the highest for any country in South Asia. It has a number of big institutions offering high standards of education. Moreover, it is safe for women to travel, and there is no dirt or pollution.
Overall, Sri Lanka taught me that small is beautiful, and less is more. My heart goes out to all those who lost their lives in the recent terror attacks in the country, and I hope that its people find the strength they need to ride through this difficult time
Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world. You can read all her published work on www.nehakirpal.wordpress.com