India’s teardrop, memories of a Sri Lankan road trip

Beyond almost anywhere else I’ve ever travelled, Sri Lanka ranks as the place to which I would most like to return. A legendary island, it’s known as the Teardrop of India thanks to its shape and location. The narrow strait in the Indian Ocean that separates it from India’s southern tip, has ensured Sri Lanka developed a unique identity from its larger neighbour. Perhaps its other name, Pearl of the Indian Ocean, is more fitting.

The island’s unimaginable geographic diversity is matched only by its biodiversity. From tropical beaches to the rolling hills and tea plantations of the interior, from elephants and leopards to a plethora of bird life, the island has an abundance of natural riches. It is also home to the oldest known human-planted tree, the Maha Bodhi dating from 288 BC. Its natural wealth is complemented by a cornucopia of historical and cultural glories.

Tangalle, Sri Lanka
Fishing boat, Negombo, Sri Lanka
Hindu temple, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
Giragala, Sri Lanka

It was only a decade ago though that the country emerged from a prolonged and bloody civil war. Starting in 1983 amid rising tensions between the majority Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamil minority, the war only ended in 2009 with defeat for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the Tamil Tigers. Not long before that, the 2004 tsunami brought a different kind of devastation to Sri Lanka.

Arriving in Colombo eighteen months before the war ended, we experienced military roadblocks the whole trip. Yet it was the deep physical and psychological scars of the tsunami that we noticed most. Sri Lanka’s modern history has dealt it terrible blows. Sadly, post-conflict governments have undermined democratic norms and pushed a nationalist Sinhalese agenda to the detriment of the Hindu and Muslim minorities.

Tea picker, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
Buddhist temple near Batigama, Sri Lanka
Buddhist monks near Tangalle, Sri Lanka
Stilt fishermen, Koggala, Sri Lanka

On my flight from Hyderabad in India, I was seated with a large group of Indian men en route to jobs in the Middle East. One of them had never flown before and was teased mercilessly by his companions. The nadir of which came when they convinced him to add sachets of sugar, salt and pepper to his coffee. I felt bad because it was obvious he was worried and a little overwhelmed by the whole experience.

We parted ways in Colombo, they to get another flight, we to spend the next ten days being guided through the highlands to the southern coast, where we’d spend a week beachcombing along the palm-fringed sands of the Indian Ocean. A Sri Lankan friend in London had arranged everything, including a car and driver and a few days at the Kandalama, a remarkable eco-hotel close to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Giragala, Sri Lanka
Tangalle, Sri Lanka
Elephant sanctuary, Kandy, Sri Lanka
Fishing boats, Tangalle, Sri Lanka

When I say extraordinary, I mean waking up in the morning looking out over a lake and spotting elephants, swimming in an infinity pool with a view of the Sigiriya fortress in the distance, and having monkeys swing past the large glass exterior walls while you’re showering. Architect Geoffrey Bawa created an eco-friendly masterpiece landscaped into a hillside so that it’s invisible until you’re almost in it.

We spent a few days visiting nearby ancient wonders of the 5th century Avukana Buddha statue, the ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya, the 2,000 year-old Dambulla Cave Temple, and the 10th century Sacred City of Pollonnaruwa. It’s an amazing area. We could have spent weeks here, but the coast called and we went south into the hills to Kandy and another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Temple of the Tooth.

Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, Kandy, Sri Lanka
Temple monkeys, Dambulla, Sri Lanka
Avukana Buddha statue, Dambulla, Sri Lanka
Frescoes at the ancient city of Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

Kandy was almost a washout thanks to horrendous monsoon rains. Afterwards we headed further into the highlands around Nuwara Eliya, an area known as Little England where tea plantations stretch as far as the eye can see. A few days spent in a tea factory converted into a hotel ended with a drive to the coast via Yala National Park, and a week of exploring the coast to reach the Dutch colonial city of Galle. A journey worth a trip down memory lane!

This is a lockdown blog based on recollections of my 2007 visit to Sri Lanka.

12 thoughts on “India’s teardrop, memories of a Sri Lankan road trip

  1. My parents would have loved your post. They went to Ceylon (as it was called then) in ’52, flying from Karachi, plus other destinations on the way. A DC 4 did not have such a range…

    1. I would have loved to have seen it then, Brian, newly independent and with very little of the traffic congestion or tour groups that plague it today. Ceylon tea was a big thing still when I was growing up, despite the name change in ’72.

      1. Tours? OMG. I have digitalized my parents’ Ceylon film. Part of my overall archive digitalizing process. When I’m done with all films, I will start posting short clips.
        Take care Paul

        1. Now that is something I’m looking forward to seeing, Brian. Can’t wait.

        2. Well, it might be a few months. I’m only half way through the movies. And each movie is at least one week’s work. Will let you know. Cheers.

  2. This was wonderful armchair travel. It makes me really want to go there. Although I must confess the beautiful animals there are what interests me most, among with these stunning beaches. Did you get to see this animal while there?

    1. Sadly we didn’t see any of the purple-faced langurs, they look amazing. Infuriating that they are endangered by our lack of respect for their habitats, a story repeated just about everywhere. We only visited one national park and sadly it rained so hard that seeing animals was difficult – apart from elephants, which are quite hard to miss.

      1. Yes, I think more needs to be done to protect them for sure. I hope we humans can see their inherent value not just the value of commodities

  3. The portraits of the tea picker and the stilt fishermen are my favorite. You do so well at capturing locals doing what they do best. Thanks for taking me to Sri Lanka today!

    1. The tea pickers were very gracious allowing me to photograph them. From afar, it’s amazing seeing the dots of bright colour scattered across the mountainside. Each dot a tea picker.

  4. Considering your many and varied travels, this gets high praise indeed. It does look a fascinating place, sad it has tragic stories.

    1. Tragic but also fascinating. I can’t believe I’ve not been back. Maybe that can be a post pandemic treat!

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