A small trip to experience the natural beauty of a place that was once called Ceylon
began by making my way through the Gangaramaya temple at night when it’s glowing like a pearl perched in the middle of Colombo Lake, to a very unusual scene for valentine’s celebrations by the young and old. Both painted the town red at the Colombo City Centre. The shift from the soul sanctuary to the material world, conversion of sounds from Paat to clinking coins and smells of aromatic pastille to coffee and eau de toilette was almost automatic.
My mission was impossible. I had to make it possible for the next day. I was to cover the city while luxuriating and de-stressing along the Taj Samundra and Cinnamon Grand stretch of the happy-go-lucky beach. Catching a bite in a much-talked-about Navratna restaurant at the Taj, I was ready to embark on my expedition at 8am sharp. The driver was there ahead of time. This is a very pleasant surprise when one is pressed for time. The driver and I took only a few minutes to start understanding each other’s language. Then he easily planned his route around the city to take me to places that I really wanted to visit.
Starting off, I spent a good fifteen minutes at the beach with white sand, where offing and the horizon are not in sight and the vastness and generosity of the sea inculcates an unexplainable sense of bliss in you. The shoreline was quite close to where I was staying.
My second stop was at the Colombo National Museum where history, art, culture and memories are preserved in the form of artifacts and assemblages that are displayed in the well-ventilated halls and galleries. The Great Buddha could be seen meditating at the very entrance of the museum building inviting us to his world of peace.
In the heart of Colombo, you come across an astounding piece of architecture known colloquially as the Samman Kottu Palli, Rathu Palliya, Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque or the Red Mosque. The red and white showcase the rich history. 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. The mosque’s distinct red-and-white pattern is quite mesmerising. The domes are built in the shape of a pomegranate (unlike the traditional onion shape), and the brick patterns are meant to convey a similar image.
A Buddha statue and a lotus pond are indigenous ornaments necessary in every walk of Ceylon. Hindu paat, Buddhist chanting, azaan from the mosque and bells ringing at the church in the Dutch quarters highlight the remarkable diversity in this small country. The old marketplace has everything from needles to clothes to fruits to sarees to kiosks selling hot samosas and coconut pancakes. But you can’t find trash on the streets or pathways, even the narrow nooks. Everything is unimaginably clean despite the great hustle and bustle.
Also, people don’t honk at you. This left me very surprised. Every vehicle on the road follows the rules. There is no speeding or overtaking. There is no road rage in sight. A mild horn and an apology (with a hand-waving gesture) fixes a potential row.
Surrounded by the amethyst and sapphire Kandy Lake is the Sacred Tooth Temple, set like a diamond in the middle, transporting one to the past.
As I passed along the Lotus Tower, I decided against stopping over at the monument. Instead, I asked my driver, Chandanan, to keep moving towards Independence Square. Built to commemorate the independence of Sri Lanka from British rule, the Independence Square is located in the Cinnamon Gardens, Colombo. It also houses the Independence Memorial Museum. After a few quick clicks at the monument, we took off again – this time, towards the Dutch Quarters. We finally made it to Navratna Taj Samundra for lunch. There, we devoured mouthwatering paneer tikka and seafood barbecue platters finishing off with Watalappan, a coconut pudding, and the delicious kajoo ice cream drizzled with coconut cream, jaggery honey, and kajoo bits roasted with salt.
After the scrumptious lunch, we continued our journey towards Kandy. On our way, we stopped at the Elephant orphanage Pinwala which makes for a mesmerising experience. Moving on, we made a brief stop at spice gardens to learn about the medicinal properties of our household spices and how their taste and colour differ from one place to the other. We were served a complimentary cocoa drink that helped me relax and took away some of my headache and fatigue. Ayurvedic medicines were also available for tourists at the gardens. But those were a tad expensive and for me, they didn’t turn out to be effective either.
A tea plantation with various blends of tea was definitely a landmark to be visited. Chit-chat with the girls at the plantation and learning about how tea leaves are processed over a cup of steaming hot gold-blend made my journey to the reservation at Kandy complete. I devoured some masala dosa for dinner before checking in to call it a night.
The next day I went for a little walk as soon as I got up to get the essence of the city. It was the Poey – the day of the full moon revered by Buddhists. On this day they wear white clothes, markets remain closed, no meat is eaten and all believers go to temples to make offerings and pay homage to the great Buddha. The Bahirawakanda Vihara Buddha statue is situated at quite a height but once you’re at the top, it’s worth the view. Having strange, familiar fruits in a salad both sweet, hot and tangy for breakfast is another thought after the soulful morning meditation.
Down the winding road through the greenery there is a car parking that gives the travellers a bird’s eye view of the city. The sea is a pure.
The mask factory shows not just a culture, but also skill. It is hard work, it is passion and it is truly a labour of love. The intricate patterns and designs are carved out, sculpted, and built-in teak, mahogany and jackfruit wood painted with natural colours by mixing with a variety of substances also found in nature and through oxidation, creating precious art pieces for life. It was evening already and I was hungry and looking for a hot and hearty meal.
Surrounded by the amethyst and sapphire Kandy Lake stands the Sacred Tooth Temple, set like a diamond in the middle, transporting one to the past. This white palace, ornamental, graceful and peaceful, is decorated richly. Elephants marching in strict discipline is one of the sights tourists eagerly wait for. According to the legend, this is where a tooth of the Buddha was found and whoever holds the tooth becomes a sovereign. Sinhalese kings have traditionally been the custodians of the tooth but it is now a part of the world heritage.
Wandering in the pleasant weather around the Tooth Temple is the experience one travels to Sri Lanka for. I found myself relaxing by sitting between columns, under a full moon and the star-studded sky. While walking back to the car, I came across the historical Queens Hotel. The hotel was originally constructed as a residence, the Dullawe Walauwa. It was designed by Devendra Mulachariya on the instructions of King Sri Vickrama Rajasinha, some 160 years ago.
Calling it a night, I fell asleep immediately upon retiring to my room as another journey awaited me the next day. Early next morning, I set out for Bentota where I saw a turtle hatchery and clinic where all kinds of turtles rescued by animal saviours are looked after till it’s time to release them to their natural habitat.
The most significant visit I made was to the Brief Garden. It was quite intriguing, too. Being apprehensive, at first I asked the usher if it was worth an exploration. He didn’t like my attitude. Upon entering the premises, I came across Bewis Bawa’s home built in 1929. He was the son of a successful lawyer of Ceylonese Muslim and European parentage, who was sent to look after family rubber plantations after the death of his father. Being a man of good aesthetics, with a distinct flair for artistic creation he fell in love with Bentota. He started selling his rubber plantations bit by bit and settled in growing a labyrinth of aboriginal and foreign plants. He was also a keen social observer who wanted to grow this garden to amuse his friends and visitors. The garden is full of lush green plants fringing the bungalow, stems and fruits overflow from sculpted pots and vases, and vibrant orange, pink and scarlet surprise visitors with the constant play of peak a boo with gleaming wonders.
The garden and the house are proof of Bewis’s love of art and design.
The entrance to the garden is through ornate gate posts, crowned with male and female figures. The gate posts were created by Bawa and an Australian artist representing a fusion of Eastern and Western influences. The stoic horse, open toilet, natural open-air, shower, the chinchilla blue door, yellow walls, carved coffee table, Ceylonese life murals, relief pottery and tiles tell the story of a life lived with passion. The Australian artist who initially came for one year stayed back for another four years creating, unforgettable art along with Bewis that adorns the walls, ceilings floors, and the fertile grounds of Brief Garden.
A self-portrait by the self-taught and fearless artist Bewis Bawa looms over his life’s work. Dooland De Silva listened to me intently, replying patiently to my inquiries one after another. He also gifted me a coconut. Nandani, his loving wife, was too kind and invited me over for lunch the next day. Having all the time in the world and curiously starving for more stories I accepted their invitation.
That was my last day in Bentota and I wanted to absorb the clime, scents, scenes, tastes and images. 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 hippocampus, I returned from my home away from home. I am indebted to all those 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. I found it in the little heaven on earth called Ceylon.
The writer is an educationist, traveller and poet