Tea, tuk-tuks and Trivanka

Juliet Highet

Modern-day Sri Lanka reflects the country’s rich history – a fusion of ancient Buddhist sites, Dutch gables and remnants of British rule, from mock-Tudor cottages to a Victorian railway

‘Keep calm and drink tea’ was emblazoned across a T-shirt as I stepped off the plane into the diminutive island of Sri Lanka, which nevertheless, now that its 25-year civil war is over, is one of the largest exporters of tea worldwide. Calm has reigned since 2009, and the country is back on the tourist ‘must-visit’ list as a hot place for winter sun. Yet, in addition to its idyllic climate, pristine beaches and glorious landscapes, it is also renowned for its rich Buddhist heritage of more than 2,600 years. Perhaps this contributes to an underlying sense of serenity – certainly its people are warm and easy-going, as well as tolerantly multi-faith. Here a Christian church; there a Hindu temple covered with carved gods and goddesses, painted in eye-watering hues. Next door, there’s a neon-lit mosque. 

But above all, Buddhism, introduced to Sri Lanka in the third century BCE, became an integral part of Sinhalese culture and continues to play a central role in the lives of its people. UNESCO has designated five of its extraordinary Buddhist architectural legacies, which created some of the most refined Buddhist art in the world, as cultural World Heritage sites. Two others are Natural Sites and an eighth – the Star Fort at Galle – also gets a UNESCO accolade. The Buddhist heritage remaining today of entire townships with palaces, temples, monasteries (several of which still support nuns and monks), hospitals, gardens and vast irrigational reservoirs that remain a vital supply of water, all provide evidence of a sophisticated civilisation. Ancient Sri Lanka possessed advanced knowledge of science, technology and town planning – and valued the arts, design and architectural excellence, contributing to a vibrant creative legacy today. Contemplate this at the must-see Buddhist complex of Anuradhapura, a huge stupa (a monument often housing sacred relics), created in the first or second century BCE – the centrepiece of a monastery once housing 5,000 monks. Its name means ‘hill of protection’ or ‘fearless hill.’ 

Not usually castigated for clichés, Winston Churchill called Sri Lanka the ‘pearl of the orient’. In the fourth century, Arab traders named it Serendib, and later, during the 18th century, Horace Walpole was so enthusiastic about the island he coined the word ‘serendipity’. When European adventurers arrived in Ceylon, as it was known, they declared they had chanced ‘serendipitously’ on an Indian Ocean paradise. Successive waves of Portuguese, Dutch and British colonists, as well as Indian and Tamil settlers, have created a mesmerising overlay of history and culture, as well as fabulous food. 

On the south-west coast of Sri Lanka, strategically located on the trade route between East and West, Galle is scattered with colonial memories, European architectural styles and South Asian traditions. Portuguese navigators settled there in 1505, but it fell to the Dutch in 1640, who built a fortified town with such formidable coral and granite ramparts that they withstood the 2004 tsunami. Its Star Fort, which was finally handed over to the British in 1796, dominates Galle. But the town is not just enmeshed in a time warp, there’s an active working community managing export companies housed in old warehouses once stacked high with spices. European-style wide streets are lined with often unrestored, but charming, Dutch gabled houses with wide verandas, which local entrepreneurs are rapidly selling to foreign speculators who transform them into chic boutique hotels. There is a serious danger of visitors spending reckless amounts of money in Galle’s bijou shops, filled with quirky antiques and jewellery of filigree silver binding semi-precious stones. Tourists can wander into workshops creating high-quality batiks, lacquer, ebony or brass ornaments, as well as lace, introduced by the Portuguese. I helped to make and sample Toddy, a local cocktail extracted from the sap of palm trees. Bold souls favour a dash of Toddy for breakfast with their coconut hoppers (patties), or its more potent, fermented cousin – Arrack. 

During the British colonial era, there was a mass exodus of British inhabitants to Nuwara Eliya, a summer hill station in the cool central highlands of Sri Lanka. Around 1850, they cleared tracts of the old kingdom, terraced and replanted it with seas of emerald green – this is Tea Country. Every available slope is striped with rows of tea plants, which are plucked by a colourful sari-clad workforce of women who have made it the most important location for tea production on the island, their product being world-famous for its quality. 

Although the British have long departed, the tuk-tuk drivers call Tea Country “Little England”, and there’s a palpable English twist to it. It even has its own Victorian railway and post office, alongside mansions with snooker rooms and huge herbaceous borders. During the 1920s, mock-Tudor bungalows were built for estate managers, bounded by neat hedgerows. The massive mansion gardens have almost all been transformed into productive market gardening centres – think carrots – but many of the bungalows have become nostalgic visitor experiences, where the Enid Blyton fantasy lives on, complete with croquet and scones at teatime. At the Hill Club, festooned with hunting and fishing trophies, many a pink gin slips down. At 6,200 ft, Nuwara Eliya is as cool as Kent, and at night I’d find a hot-water bottle in my bed, and in the morning ‘bed tea’ brought to my room. A soak in a detoxifying green tea bath was rather more enticing, and so was my dinner of roast lamb with a crusting of Earl Grey. ‘Nouvelle tea cuisine’? 

The heartland of Sri Lanka, both geographically and philosophically, is the Cultural Triangle, bringing together much of the island’s ancient Buddhist heritage. The area contains the sacred cities of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Dambulla, with Sigiriya at its centre and Kandy at the southern edge. Anuradhapura was ruled from 380 BCE for more than 1,300 years by Sinhalese kings. In its prime it rivalled Babylon in its vast proportions, huge number of inhabitants and the splendour of its shrines and public edifices. Its most sacred site is the Bo Tree, which according to legend was grown from a cutting from the tree under which Buddha achieved enlightenment. Sri Lanka’s oldest stupa, constructed in a ‘heap-of-paddy-rice’ shape, is said to contain Buddha’s right collarbone. 

After an attack in 993 CE, Anuradhapura was abandoned in favour of Polonnaruwa, which flourished in the 12th century under the rule of a megalomaniac sovereign, Parakramabahu I, who created a sacred garden city. Again, it’s an extensive site, whose star attraction is Gal Vihara, where there’s a set of four massive, serene statues of Buddha – the largest is 45 ft long, and all are cut from one long slab of granite. At Trivanka Pilgrimage, exquisite murals illustrate the jataka, the previous lives of Buddha; and at Rankot Vihara, at which a 12th century hospital was excavated, surgical instruments were found similar to those used today. But the removal of Buddha’s tooth, a talisman of the Sinhalese monarchy, signalled the decline of Polonnaruwa. 

Rising some 600 ft straight up over the rainforest, the flat-topped Lions Rock dominates north-central Sri Lanka. After mounting a series of staircases and galleries, access to Sigiriya is through the mouth of a gigantic lion. Apart from its stunning location, this ‘palace in the sky’ is renowned for its beautifully restored Water Gardens, but is even more famous for its caves painted with glorious frescoes of ‘The Maidens of the Clouds’, similar to those at Ajanta. However, these 21 voluptuous females are all depicted topless, splendidly adorned with elaborate jewellery. Whether they are apsaras or ‘angels’, or representative of the goddess Tara, has been the subject of much debate. The frescoes of these graceful women, whose complexions range from yellow, through green, red, blue and white, are situated in caves on the vertical wall of the western face of Sigiriya, virtually inaccessible, and therefore, hopefully, a permanent part of Sri Lanka’s inordinately rich cultural heritage. 


About the author:

Juliet Highet is an author and photographer specialising in travel, the arts and culture


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