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Sacred sites of Sri Lanka

May 13, 2016
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I can barely believe we are here. This island country off the southeast coast of India was known as Ceylon until 1972 and it has long been on my bucket list as one of the world’s most exotic places.

Looking out over Beira Lake, in the heart of Colombo, we find a tranquil pause from the energetic pace of the capital’s business area.

Another favourite are walks in swirling tropical breezes along Galle Face Green, the grassy space running beside the Indian Ocean.

Invariably, my husband Rick and I find a handy outdoor café to slurp iced coffee under swaying palms. After a few days of soaking up the vibes of Colombo, we formulate plans for an elephant encounter in one of the many national parks where these amazing creatures roam wild.

We soon glean with the congested two-lane highways, even the nearest national park is too far (not in distance, but time it takes to get there).

A daytrip to Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is an ideal option, of which our seasoned driver Rajah reports, although only 90 kilometres from Colombo, will still take three hours. Rajah demonstrates an insect’s compound-eye capability as he skims past motor-rickshaws rattling along the outer edges of the roadway.

Trucks, buses and cars vie for space in between and motorcycles weave in and out all of the above. The orphanage, first established at another location in 1975, is a short distance from the Maha Oya River.

A staff member greets us and shares: “Pinnawala is now home to 37 male and 51 female pachyderms spanning three generations. As well as taking in new orphans, older elephants are retained here as they’ve become dependent on the food supply or have special needs.”

Some in this latter category are Raja, who is blind, and Sama, standing tall on three legs as her left front leg lost in a landmine explosion. On a grassless patch, gentle giants toss dust on their backs with their trunks.

A truck rumbles onto an open field signalling the tuskers to come and dine on green matter being spread about by young volunteers; today’s menu is tamarind, kitul (sugar palm) and maize.

Just past noon, we stand riveted as the whole herd thunders past us on their way to the river to escape the heat of the day and socialize in the refreshing fast-flowing water. The young’uns delight in trunk-wrestling and spraying water willy-nilly.

I find it difficult to leave, but with Rick’s prodding, we are onward to the town of Kandy, the site of an ancient kingdom and famed Buddhist temple. Rajah stops the car on a forested hill for a panoramic view of this valley town edging a lake and shares historic timelines.

“After 2,000 years of rule by kingdoms, Sri Lanka was colonized in turn by the Portuguese, Dutch and, lastly, the British ending in 1848. “The Kingdom of Kandy was one of the last independent monarchies founded and endured against colonial forces until the early 19th century.”

A downward drive brings us to the Royal Complex, a UNESCO site that includes the King’s Palace, Queen’s Palace, Harem Quarters, museums and, attesting to the country’s long Buddhist heritage, the Temple of the Tooth, so named for its tooth relic of Gautama Buddha.

Upon entering the temple, a grand painting of legendary Prince Dantha and Princess Hemamali draws our attention. It is said the princess carried Buddha’s tooth hidden in her hair when bringing it from India to Sri Lanka in the 4th century, after which it was moved to various repositories for safety until brought to its final Kandy temple home in the 1500s.

The receptacle holding the sacred tooth is not in plain sight, but lies behind an array of gleaming gold and white marble Buddha images in the heavily guarded relic room. Every inch of available space is filled with worshippers — some standing, some sitting, others adding to the already thick mat of flowers on the long altar table.

The scent is intoxicating, the air is stifling. I smile as a child barely able to reach the top of the table adds marigolds with great solemnity.

Leaving the temple, we are in for a tour of the town, with Rajah pointing out the most prominent colonial leftovers before heading back to Colombo.

Sri Lanka means “resplendent island” in Sanskrit, so apropos for this place of superlative natural beauty, cultural richness and welcoming locals. As a completed bucket list experience, it rates 10 out of 10.

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