Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Sri Lankan Icons

Pics and words by Barry Greville-Eyres 

In antiquity, with a documented history that spans over 3000 years, Sri Lanka was known to travellers by a variety of exotic and imaginative names. Known in India as Lanka or Sinhala, ancient Greek geographers called it Taprobane  and Arabs referred to it as Serendib (the origin of the word serendipity) Ceilão, the name given to Sri Lanka by the Portuguese when they arrived in 1505, was transliterated into English as Ceylon. As a British crown colony, the island was known as Ceylon; it achieved independence in 1948. 

The Mighty Lankan Lion - Sri Lanka is known as the Pearl of the Indian Ocean because of its natural beauty. Its also been called the teardrop of India because of its shape and geographical location, and the nation of smiling people.
The Lion Flag consists of a gold lion, holding a  kastane sword in its right forepaw, in front of a dark red background with four golden bo leaves, one in each corner.  The Bo-Tree  - Ficus religiosa or sacred fig is a species of fig native to the country and region and adds a specific religious significance to the national flag from the Sanskrit Bodhi:  wisdom, enlightened. 
Buddhist legend tells of Gautama Buddha attaining enlightment (bodhi) while meditating underneath the Bo – Bodhi tree. Sadhus (Hindu ascetics) still meditate beneath sacred fig trees, and Hindus do pradakshina (circumambulation, or meditative pacing) around the sacred fig tree as a mark of worship. Usually seven pradakshinas are done around the tree in the morning time chanting "Vriksha Rajaya Namah", meaning "salutation to the king of trees."
Around the background is a yellow border, and to its left are 2 vertical stripes of equal size in green and saffron, with the saffron stripe closest to the lion. The lion represents the Sinhalese ethnicity and the bravery of the Sri Lankan nation while the four Bo leaves represent Metta, Karuna, Mudita and Upekkha. The orange stripe represents the Sri Lankan Tamils, the green stripe represents Sri Lankan Moors, and the maroon background represents the majority of Sinhalese, like the lion, this is the colour used in early flags of Sri Lanka by Kings.
Negombo's enduring canal system adds mystique and character to this sleepy seaside town north of Colombo
Negombo (with an estimated population of 128,000) is an hour long commute, traffic dependent, north of bustling Colombo and in close proximity to the Bandaranaika International Airport.  It provides an ideal staging point to launch off into the hinterland or to tackle other coastal routes. The Dutch showed their preoccupation with and passion for manmade waterways in Negombo like nowhere else in Sri Lanka. They captured the town from the Portuguese in 1640, lost it, and then recaptured it in 1644. Canals extend from Negombo all the way south to the capital city and north to Puttalam, an astonishing distance of 120km. The British then took their turn at colonizing Sri Lanka – Ceylon, ousting the Dutch without much of a fight in 1796. The town was one of the most important sources of cinnamon during the Dutch era and much of this yesteryear European influence is still evident to this day.
Sauntering along on foot or boating on the Negombo canal system is highly recommended as are visits to the local spice, fresh produce and fish markets.

Colombo city, with an estimated population of 753,000, is located within the most populous of the nine Sri Lankan provinces. The Western Province (Colombo) is home to 6 million Sri Lankans followed by Central (Kandy) 2,6 million;  Southern (Galle) 2,5 million and Eastern Provinces (Trincomalee) 1,6 million out of a total estimated population of 20,3 million. Colombo deserves a short interlude but with an island nation brimming with bio and cultural diversity, scenic beauty and culinary delights its best to take to the roads for the hinterland or Sri Lankan sun, sea and sand. Although extensive work has gone into upgrading primary highways and expressways, traffic congestion is common so adjust your travel plans accordingly and go with the flow.  

Colombo's Independence Memorial Hall erected by the Government of Ceylon to commemorate the achievement of independence on 4th February 1948

One of Colombo's many striking landmarks including a state-of-the-art international convention centre drawing high-powered events and their delegates from around the globe. 

The giant Buddha statue opposite the Colombo International Convention Centre welcomes international delegates to a truly unforgettable experience 

The Asian Elephant with her handler, against the backdrop of well watered tropical forest, is iconic and quintessentially Sri Lanka

Kandy is a moody (described by Lonely Planet as ‘some days having skies that seem to be perpetually bruised’) but thoroughly charming, central highland city (estimated population of 125,000) located at an elevation of 500m some 115km northeast of Colombo. It’s an industrious, must visit city with a cacophony of sounds; kaleidoscopes of colour and culture; kinetic, self-discovered energy generated by the West meeting Asia all thrust atop verdant hillsides and tops. All of this is fortunately tempered but a tranquil, pervading serenity and spirituality. Undoubtedly, the lake is Kandy’s centerpiece and is best traversed, particularly on foot, outside of peak traffic periods where the noise, congestion and pollution issues are largely negated. The manmade lake was created by Sri Wickrama Rajasinha, recognized as the last ruler of the kingdom of   Kandy, in 1807. The modernizing city is seen as a bastion of nationalism in that it served as the capital of the Sinhalese kingdom, which eventually fell to the conquering British in 1815 after defying the overtures, for three centuries, of other colonizing powers in the Portuguese and Dutch.

Unmistakable Kandy with its centrepiece lake 

Kandy street scene and prime hillside real estate overlooking the lake


Buddha statue sheltered and protected by the spreading hood of a cobra - an interesting variation found on the hillside at Kandy

Some of Kandy’s other outstanding features include the Tea Museum and tea plantations on the outskirts of the city; historical and modern architecture in the central business district and adorning adjacent hillsides; excellent restaurants and bake houses and the slow, hypnotic yet spectacularly scenic half day train trip from the city to Nuwara Eliya (with a turnaround point at the Nanu Oya station). This trip traverses the rolling highland areas primarily under tea plantation cultivation producing Ceylon’s finest. The train route is a marvel of engineering with cuttings, tunnels, switchbacks, and bridges all carved and constructed, often by hand, in the mountainous terrain. An interesting variation is to take the one way train trip to Nuwara Eliya followed by a return road trip to Kandy. This option provides you with the flexibility to spend time exploring touristy Nuwara Eliya and stop at the numerous roadside tea estates guaranteed to provide a thorough tea education complete with plenty of tasting opportunities.  

All aboard! - the very popular scenic and sedate train trip, in a purpose built observation carriage, from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya provides a welcome change of pace and further insights into tea production as the mainstay of Sri Lanka's economy.

Tea plantations, some over a hundred years old, under eucalyptus/gum and silky oak trees with these trees providing presumably a measure of shelter particularly from the natural elements (wind, rain and sun).

Dandy Kandy .......yet another street scene illustrating the old and new in a rapidly expanding city 

Sri Lanka boasts a range of comfortable and affordable accommodation options catering for the needs of most - on our travels we received exceptional service and hospitality at Kandy's Nature Walk Resort -; Thambapanni Leisure (Unawatuna Beach - Galle) - and Tangalle's Ibis Guest House -

The Ibis Guesthouse on the outskirts of Tangalla provides on-beach accommodation along a sweeping stretch of sea and sand. 

Another representation of Golden Lion Passant
Graphic representation of Star Lotus flower
Red/pink and blue water lilies - Star Lotus Nymphaea nouchali  the Sri Lankan national flower

Star Lotus design again - Dutch Fort Galle 
Endless Sri Lankan Summers! 

Southern Sri Lanka particularly the area stretching from Unawatuna to Tangalla and beyond is synonymous with some of the best sea, surf and sand in the country. Here the stilt fisherman at Koggala strut their stuff for the passing tourist trade. 


A stark reminder of the 2004 Asian tsunami which killed more than 35,000 Sri Lankans and together with almost 3 decades of civil war, where countless other lives were lost, Sri Lankans have shown their determination and resilience to emerge as one of the fast growing global economies. 

As a nation of seafarers and fishermen Sri Lankans still rely heavily of the bounty of the surrounding ocean.


Dambulla's Golden Temple
Dambulla's Golden Temple
Bhuddist temple Galle

Sri Lanka is a diverse country, home to many religions, ethnicities and languages. It is the land of the Sinhalese, Sri Lankan Tamils, Moors, Indian Tamils, Burghers, Malays Kaffirs and the aboriginal Vedda. Sri Lanka has a rich Buddhist heritage, and the first known Buddhist writings were composed on the island. 

All in the family.... numerous Habarana to Trincomalee roadside vendors peddle two unique products - water buffalo curd in earthenware/clay pots and an essential accompaniment - palm tree treacle. Both can be used together with either savoury or sweet traditional Sri Lankan dishes with the curd being smooth and very creamy. The vendor captured in the picture with his family is one of the more celebrated in the area.


A double take or not .... this most unlikely of icons  - an Asian three-wheeler or tuk-tuk/bajaj done up in AB livery was found ferrying tourists around Kandy


After construction of the Dutch-colonial Fort in the 17th century, Galle was the primary Sri Lankan port for more than 200 years and was an important stop for ships travelling between Europe and Asia. The construction of breakwaters in Colombo's harbour, in the late 19th century, sealed Galle's fate as a secondary harbour. The Fort and harbour are timeless features on Galle's coastline.  

A pristine beach viewed from the walls of Galle's Dutch Fort
The Fort Lighthouse located on Point Utrecht Bastion
Take a step back into history .......The UNESCO World Heritage Site 36 hectare Dutch Fort occupies much of the promontory that forms the older part of Galle and consists of an amazing collection of structures dating back through the centuries. It is now home to more than 400 operational houses, churches, mosques, temples, and many old commercial and government buildings. Ample tourist accommodation can also be found within the precincts of the Fort.  

Galle's Fort area .... stunning in its simplicity and symmetry

Galle's grand old Dutch Reformed Church at the heart of the Fort complex and inaugurated in August 1755 
Finally, Sri Lanka is, in my view, the real deal and I rate the country highly as a tourism destination as it comes as this amazing gift wrapped package! It has it all in a relatively small and manageable geographical area. More importantly, it nourishes the soul once it has successfully assaulted your senses! My affinity towards this great nation is largely due to its struggle credentials (successive colonizations and the mark they have left on the people and country, the 2004 Asian tsunami and then almost 3 decades of civil war); the irrepressible spirit and resilience of the Sri Lankans; perhaps its due to the fact that I know a handful of exceptional Sri Lankans and I’ve also met many others just like them within the country itself or as part of the Sri Lankan diaspora; or perhaps it’s because President Mahinda Rajapaksa thumbed his nose at British PM David Cameron at the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOG) in Colombo, on war crimes allegedly committed by the Sri Lankan army in 2009 at the cessation of the civil war, challenging Cameron with ‘people in glass houses should not throw stones.’  The warm exotic embrace of Sri Lanka lingers …….
A word of caution is that Sri Lankan’s isolation, innocence and seductive charm has or is about to change due to an unprecedented tourism boom which saw a record number of tourists (over 800,000) visit the country in 2011. This represents an increase of almost 40% from the previous year.  Its anticipated that this will continue in the short term so don’t delay in making Sri Lanka your next tourist destination. 



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