Suitcase and World: Pearl of the Indian Ocean.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Pearl of the Indian Ocean.

When National Geographic Traveller, Travel and Leisure and Condé Nast Traveller magazines all listed Sri Lanka as one of their top travel destinations for 2012, I took notice and had put the country on my list of places to visit.

Feeding my interest in the country, my close colleague Neil is from Sri Lanka and he's been taking every opportunity he can to show me the wonders and beauty of his homeland.  Each image he showed and article I read just fueled my desire to go.   I finally caved in when Neil,  knowing my penchant for festivals, showed me images of elephants parading as part of the Esala Perahera festival.  I had to see more so I got on to YouTube and watched one video after the next of the massive tuskers, adorned with lavish garments and lights, parading down the street at night.  I was hooked!  I have to experience the Esala Perahera for myself and so I am going to Sri Lanka!

Before I started planning for this trip, I knew very little about Sri Lanka. 

Nicknamed the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka is the tear drop shaped island that lies off the south east coast of India.  That much I know.

I also know that it is also the country that was formerly known as Ceylon and was a former British colony.

And when I was growing up, I knew it as the place where tea was grown.  Today, Ceylon tea is still one of my favorites.

I also know it's a tropical island with pristine white sand beaches and on its southwestern shores, the famed stilt fisherman cast their rods.

More recently, I knew it as the country that was hit by a massive tsunami that caused unimaginable destruction and from which the country is still recovering.

I know to not say that Sri Lanka was ever was a part of India.  It is distinctly its own country.

Sad to say but that's about all I know about the country.

As I started planning this trip, I quickly learned that Sri Lanka has a very long and rich history.

The written history of Sri Lanka dates back to the beginnings of the Sinhalese monarchy in the 6th century BC.  Buddhism was introduced in the 3rd century BC by Arhath Mahinda (son of the Indian emperor Ashoka the Great).

Up until about the 16th century, Sri Lanka was ruled by 181 kings from the Anuradhapura to Kandy periods. 

European colonists, including the Portuguese, Dutch and British, started arriving on the island's shores in the 16th century occupying and ruling coastal areas.

After 1815 the entire nation was under British colonial rule and armed uprisings against the British began to take place shortly thereafter beginning with the Uva Rebellion in 1818 and the Matale Rebellion in 1848. Independence from British rule was finally granted in 1948 but the country remained a Dominion of the British Empire until 1972 when the country finally assumed the status of a Republic.

A constitution was introduced in 1978 which made the Executive President the head of state.

In 1983, a Civil War between the majority Sinhalese population and the minority Tamil population erupted. The war had a crippling effect on the country's tourism industry as numerous travel advisories were issued for travelers. In May 2009, the conflict finally ended and the country began to rebuild itself.  It is now trying hard to boost its tourism industry and it will be interesting to see how far the tourist infrastructure has developed since the war ended.

From a historic perspective the Anuradhapura period is, in many ways,  the one that gave birth to the Sinhalese nation that is now modern day Sri Lanka. 

The sacred city that takes its name from this historic period was founded in 380 BC by Prince Pandukabhaya.  It is believed that the city was established around a cutting from the *tree of enlightenment*,  Gautama Buddha's fig tree, brought there in the 3rd century BC by Sanghamitta, the founder of an order of Buddhist nuns.  Under the Prince Pandukabhaya's rule, Anuradhapura quickly became both the capital of Ceylon and the sacred city of Buddhism on the island and it remained the political and religious capital of Ceylon for  10 centuries.

In 993 AD, the city was destroyed by King Chola Rajaraja I and it remained abandoned, hidden away in dense jungle until the it was rediscovered in the 19th century.
Today, many of the city's monuments have been restored including palaces, monasteries and several dagabas (stupas) of colossal size.  Amazingly, the cutting from the fig tree of Buddha, brought to Anuradhapura in the 3rd century BC, has flourished and, today, the Bodhi tree spreads out over the center of the site.

Anuradhapura was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982.

After Anuradhapura was destroyed in 993 AD, its inhabitants fled to the neighboring city of Polonnaruwa which became Sri Lanka’s medieval capital between the 11th and 13th centuries. Enclosed within three concentric walls, the city contained royal palaces, bathing ponds, monasteries and dagobas.  Because the city was situated in the arid plains in the northern part of the country, Polonnaruwa depended heavily on channeled water to irrigate its fields. This demanded the construction of massive irrigation projects and today, remains of those projects can still be seen.

Polonnaruwa was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982.

The city of Dambulla is home to a unique cave monastery.  The monastery, which is comprised of five sanctuaries, is the largest, best preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka.  Murals depicting various scenes from Buddha’s life adorn the walls of these temples, and gilded statues of Buddha in various poses are housed inside the sanctuaries.  Although the statues and paintings back to the 1st century BC, they were repaired and repainted in 11th, 12th, and 18th century AD.

Dambulla was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1991.

Also known as the *Lion’s Rock* owing to its shape, what makes the ancient city of Sigiriya so  unusual is that it was built on the steep slopes and at the summit of a granite peak standing some 370m high.  Elegant pavilions, amid gardens and pools, were all perched 180m  above the surrounding jungle.  The immense rock was transformed into an immense recumbent lion by the addition of a brick-built head and foreparts of which only the artfully sculptured paws remain. Entering Sigiriya, one is greeted by a fresco of 21 bare-breasted damsels, who are said to represent celestial nymphs.

Ancient cities aside, the country also offers up plenty of opportunities to soak in some of what Mother Nature has to offer.  Like many countries, Sri Lanka has designated land as National Parks. Two of the most popular are Yala National Park and Horton Plains National Park.

Yala is the second largest national park in Sri Lanka but it is the most visited.  More than 215 species of birds, 46 species of reptiles and 44 species of mammals inhabit the park. But of all the animals, the one that people go to Yala in hopes of seeing is the leopard. Yala is home to highest concentration of leopards in the world.

Visitors to Yala are taken through the park on safari tours.  

Photo from WillGoTo

Horton Plains is less about animals and more about spectacular landscape.  The park is home to Sri Lanka’s second  and third highest mountains – Kirigalpotta (2395m) and Totapola (2359m). The *plains* themselves form an undulating plateau over 2000m high, covered by wild grasslands and interspersed with patches of thick forest, rocky outcrops, filigree waterfalls and misty lakes.

The plateau comes to a sudden end at World’s End, a stunning escarpment that drops almost straight down for 880m. Unfortunately, we'll be visiting during rainy so the view from World’s End will likely be obscured by fog.

Other nature landmarks within the park also include Baker's Falls and Adam's Peak which was once considered Sri Lanka's tallest mountain.  It is possible to hike to the top of Adam's Peak but I think I will pass on the opportunity.

Sinharaja Forest Reserve
The name literally means lion (sinha ) king (raja ).  Sinharaja Forest Reserve is the largest extent of relatively undisturbed, primeval, lowland rain forest still left in the country.  More than 60% of the trees are endemic and many of them are considered rare. There is much endemic wildlife, especially birds, but the reserve is also home to over 50% of Sri Lanka's endemic species of mammals and butterflies, as well as many kinds of insects, reptiles and rare amphibians.

Sinharaja was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1991.

Nuwara Eliya
Sri Lanka is world renown for its tea production so you cannot come here and not spend time in a tea plantation or two.  What more perfect place than an English hill station like Nuware Eliya to spend that time in. In my imagination, it will be a little bit of English countryside in Sri Lanka.  When I was in Darjeeling, India, I took time out to enjoy a cup of fine Darjeeling tea, brewed the proper English way.  I want to have the same experience but this time in Sri Lanka.  Got to have a good cupper!

Ancient cities and nature aside, Sri Lanka has some modern towns worth visiting.  On the top of my list is Galle which is fortified town located on the southwestern coast of the island.  Founded in the 16th century by the Portuguese, it was occupied by the Dutch in 1640 and then later by the British.

As far as cities go, can't forget about Colombo which I had always thought was the capital of Sri Lanka but as it turns out, the national political capital is Sri Jayawadenapura Kotte. Colombo lost its status as the capital city back in 1982.   Seems like all the overseas flights arrive into Colombo so that's the city that I will be spending time in.  I can barely pronounce *Sri Jayawadenapura Kotte* without having to concentrate on breaking the middle part of the name down into individual syllables so I hope that as I learn more about the city, the pronunciation will come easier to me!

Last but not least, I am definitely planning in some beach time.  I'm not at all keen on resorts so I'll try to head for the less crowded ones.  Might mean getting a bit off the beaten path but that's fine by me :-)

I'm not a *lay on the beach and suntan* kind of person; I'd much rather be in the water so I see some snorkeling in my future and if there is the opportunity to do some deep sea fishing, I'll be signing up for the chance to cast out the rod.

Of course, being by the sea means seafood and the foodie in me is definitely looking forward to some fresh and hopefully, cheap, seafood.  I plan to fill up on as much Sri Lankan crab as I can :-)

Now that I've decided where I'm going to go for my summer vacation, the planning gets underway.  It's going to take me some time to nail down the itinerary and there's a lot of history to read up on!  This should keep me busy for the next few months but as always, I'm already excited about going :-)