The shared histories of India and the isle of Sri Lanka intertwine in the most unexpected and fascinating way. Nearly 2, 000 miles north of Sri Lanka, the first stone structure built in India featured a lady from Lanka, a yakshi that swung from the gate found on the stupa at Sanchi. Four tribes—the Raksha, the Yakshi, the Deva and the Nagas inhabited Sri Lanka about twenty five centuries ago. In the 3rd century B.C., Emperor Ashoka commissioned and built the famous stupa at Sanchi in India using knowledge of those who lived in Sri Lanka at that time. The travel of Buddhist ideas between the two nations resulted in the transmission and exchange of knowledge in various arenas including art, architecture and sculpture.
The British museum that now houses the statue, states that as per an ancient Indian fertility rite, beautiful young maidens were said to usher in spring by kicking a tree trunk while breaking off a branch, so as to arouse it into blossoming. The yakshi has a bare torso with a single pearl falling between her breasts. A girdle holds up a diaphanous lower garment across her broad hips. She wears heavy anklets and bracelets, and her hair is tied into elaborate plaits. She is holding up the sandstone beam that was once across Sanchi Stupa’s gateway. Or as the Boston Globe puts it, “the touch of a woman, according to Indian myth, could cause the sap of the tree to run, making it flower and bear fruit.”
In India’s epic tale the Mahabharata, the poet calls out to the lady in the translator’s Shakespearean voice:
Who art thou that,
Bending down the branch of the Kad
Shiniest lonely in hermitage,
Sparkling like a flame of fire at night
Shaken by the breeze,
Oh thou of fair brows?
Exceedingly fair art thou
Yet fearest nought here in the forest
Art thou a devata, a yakshi, a danavi,
Or a fair daitaya girl, or a lovely
the Naga king
Or a night wanderer (rakshasi) in the
The Ramayana tells the tale of Surpanakha who incited her brother, the well endowed powerful King Ravana to avenge her insult.
As I wander around Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka’s first capital city, there is no sign of these epic stories. However, relics related to Buddhism can be found everywhere.
Towering stupas dating back to the 1st to 3rd century B.C. dominate the landscape. The mahabodhi tree, an imported and re-planted branch of the tree under which Buddha had attained enlightenment holds pride of place. Planted in 288 B.C., it is the oldest living human-planted tree in the world. Seeds from the bodhi tree were disseminated throughout Lanka where they have taken root.
Theravada Buddhism blossomed in Sri Lanka. Even now, over 70 percent of the population are Sinhala Buddhists. The possession of Buddha’s tooth, a relic carried from India, is protected as it bestows the divine right to rule on its possessor. In 1998 the LTTE, a militant Tamil organization tried to capture it in vain. It now resides in a temple in Kandy.
Two hours drive south of Anuradhapura, Sigiriya Fort a massive column of rock nearly 200 meters high was a Buddhist monastery from as early as the 3rd century B.C. We scramble up all of the 1200 steps to see a fabulous view of a forest-carpeted vista. Lion claws carved into the rock announce the start of an ancient citadel built by King Kashyapa during the 5th century.
In Colombo, another two hour south of Sigriya, the eclectic Gangaramaya Temple houses the Buddha’s hair and the Bodhi tree.
The yakshi continues to fascinate the people of India. The Lady from Lanka now also stands at the entrance of the Reserve Bank of India building in New Delhi, an imposing twenty-one-feet high statue, she also holds a bag of money in her hand. The statue was completed in 1967. She guards modern India’s material needs.
The Governor’s Mansion Harbors a Secret
A stay at the Lavinia Hotel tells of the fascinating secret of a love story around 1805 between the English Governor Sir Thomas Maitland and Lovina Aponsuwa, the barechested half Portuguese and half Sinhalese Mestizo dancer.
A secret passageway from the English Governor’s house led to the village of Galkissa, to a well that was not in use, near the home of Lovina Aponsuwa. It is said that she was a frequent visitor to the white mansion atop the hill in the dead of night when caressing waves of the Bay of Galkissa swept up the beach towards the mansion.
Across the bay while Colombo, the capital city of the island of Sri Lanka, slept, the lady made her way, hidden from the prying eyes of rigid colonial society, through the tunnel to the cellars of the Governor’s house. The mansion would forever be known by her name, Lavinia.
Two hundred years later, we crawl into the tunnel. Our guide is a diminutive man in a gold-lapeled white colonial shirt under which he wears a white Sinhalese sarong. Chef Publis Silva, who has been with the hotel for 60 years, meets us at the other end. His book Royal Meals of the Last Kings of Sri Lanka sits inside a mother of pearl shell in a cabinet in the lobby.
On a table laden with Sri Lankan dishes twinkles the English Trifle pudding with a red jeweled glint. Juice soaked sponge cake, succulent fruit, ruby red jello, blanket of creamy lemon yellow custard and fluffy white whipped cream lie in layers distinct in their aristocratic demeanour and together hold a promise of creamy, tangy, sweet deliciousness.
The layers in Sri Lankan cuisine reflect the waves of people that have made Sri Lanka their home: Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslim, Burghers and the Wanniyala-eto, Chef Silva tells us. A typical Sinhalese meal consists of red rice and meat, seafood and vegetable curries, a mallung of diced garden greens and a spicy onion or coconut based sambal. (The word mallung means “to mix up” and is a category of Sri Lankan dishes that feature shredded leafy vegetables, coconut and spices, all cooked in a dry skillet or clay pot, and then finished with a couple of drops of lemon juice.)
The Tamils sometimes eat their curry with a pancake, dosai. The Sinhalese curries are drier than those of the Tamil. The Sinhalese use coconut milk while the Tamil use ground coconut to thicken the curries. Tamil cuisine depends on gingelly (sesame) oil, yogurt, maize, corn, gram, and tamarind.
The Muslims who are the descendants of travellers and traders from Africa, Malaysia, Persia, and Indonesia enjoy biryani which is rice boiled in meat stock, cooked in ghee laced with chicken or mutton, cashew nuts and sultanas.
Wanniyala-eto or those of the forest have a rich meat diet with venison, wild boar and small game often smoked or roasted. The Burghers or the descendants of the colonial Dutch, Portuguese and the British contributed sweet, rich and heavy cakes like the bolo folhado, and love cake.
Governor Tom and Lovina’s love was many layered and deep like the English Trifle.
Recipe for Trifle Pudding
1 Swiss roll, dry sponge cake, or sponge fingers
6 tablespoons sherry (optional)
1 packet of jello
Can of fruit or 1 1/2 cups of diced fruit salad or thawed frozen fruit
(One of the beauties of trifle is that you can use any fruit: mixed fruit, berries, mango, pineapple, banana etc).
Pineapple or orange juice
1 cup milk
1 cup cream
2 tablespoons custard powder
(or 5 egg yolks with a tablespoon of corn flour)
4 tablespoons sugar
1 cup whipping cream with icing sugar to taste
A transparent glass bowl will showcase the dish.
Slice cake or layer fingers to cover the bottom of the bowl completely. Sprinkle with sherry(optional). Soak the cake with juice. Layer the fruit on top of the layer of cake.
Prepare jello according to the instructions on the packet. Refrigerate until almost set. Pour the jelly over fruit layer evenly. Allow to set. It should not take more than 30 minutes. If you pour the jelly over the cake whilst it is still hot, it will be absorbed by the cake and you won’t have a jelly layer. The jelly forms a strong base concretizing the foundation of the pudding.
Prepare the custard. Take a small bowl and mix the custard powder with a little milk to form a light paste. Heat the remaining milk, cream and sugar in a pan and bring to a boil. Add the custard paste or whisked egg yolks and cornflour into it as you whisk the milk till it thickens. This should be done on low to medium heat.
The custard should not be runny and should be spooned over the jello when cool. It is the consistency of mousse. Press some clingfilm onto the surface to prevent a skin forming. When the custard is cool, pour over layer of jello. If the custard is too hot, the jello will melt.
Take a chilled bowl and pour the whipping cream into it. Beat it to soft peaks with a hand mixer. Slowly add the icing sugar and continue beating till you get stiff peaks.
Transfer the frothy whipped cream on top of the custard layer and spread evenly. Refrigerate.
Garnish with sliced fruits and serve chilled.
Growing up in India, I used to eat the Trifle at our weekly dinners with extended family members.
The English Trifle made its appearance at our dinner table via Ceylon as Sri Lanka was then called. My mother’s brother who was in the Indian Foreign Service had been posted in Ceylon in 1958. On their return to India from their foreign posting my aunt Urmil had proudly presented the English Trifle and subsequently coached every generation on how to set the pudding.
Any pudding where the jello is missing is definitely non-traditional. The jewel in the crown of the Trifle remains forever the Ruby Jello!
We flew into Colombo from the United States where we visited the Gangaramaya Temple and the IPKF memorial, had lunch at Mount Lavinia Hotel, took a walk down Galle face, dinner at Beach Wadia which seems to be a celebrity eating spot and shopped at Barefoot and Odel. The train tracks that ran along the beach from Colombo to Galle invited us to explore the European quarter. We made a day trip to Galle Fort. The next day, we drove four hours to Dambulla where we stayed at the Heritance Kandalama. The resort is cut into the mountainside by Sri Lanka’s premier architect Geoffrey Bawa. Overlooking the Kandalama Lake and the Sigiriya Rock Fortress the resort is highly recommended. We visited Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa the two ancient capitals as day trips from Dambulla before returning to Colombo.
Ritu Marwah is a frequent contributor to India Currents.