JAYANTA MADHAV travels to the epic land of his childhood dreams.
Hearing and reading the Ramayana stories in my childhood had always aroused a subtle, numinous mysticism about that faraway kingdom called Ravana’s Lanka. Growing up, however, as my geography lessons taught me more and more about the country, the imaginative aura around that epic island of my childhood gradually faded out, replaced by the stark realisation that the Xonar Lanka of my childhood stories was, after all, nothing more than any other geographical landmass of the globe, so very near and well connected to our own very land, India. Ignorance is bliss, as they say!
Nonetheless, the fact that Sri Lanka is a land so immensely endowed with natural beauty and a legendary heritage had always inspired a persuasive desire to visit it once. And so, when one such occasion did actually present itself, when we planned to visit our son in Chennai last February, I quickly clubbed it up with a trip to the island. And once decided, managing everything – from the Visa to hotel bookings, was only a matter of clicks on the computer mouse. And thankfully enough, the enormity of the COVID-19 pandemic was yet to be felt in this part of the world back then!
Taking an early morning Air India flight from Chennai, our group of five landed at Colombo in about an hour. Once the currency and SIM formalities were done with, we straightaway proceeded to Kandy. Staying overnight at a hilltop resort with picturesque surroundings, we started off the next morning with a visit to the Temple of the Tooth Relic. Skirted by the scenic Kandy Lake and declared a world heritage site by UNESCO, it is one of the most sacred places of worship in the Buddhist world. After Gautam Buddha’s nirvana, the Tooth Relic was preserved in Kalinga and then smuggled to the island by a princess and her husband, whereupon it was enshrined in this temple. To be present inside this imposing edifice, so intricately adorned with brilliant interiors, and paying obeisance to the great Lord amidst hundreds of devotees congregated from across the world – that in itself was a blissful experience.
Our next stop was the Royal Botanical Gardens. Set up in as far back as 1371, this magnificent garden boasts of more than 4000 species of plants, orchids, spices, medicinal plants and palm trees and attracts two million visitors annually. One of its main attractions is the Great Lawn surrounded by rows of trees planted over the years by the visiting dignitaries from all across the world. It was a proud moment for us to get clicked standing by the one planted by our own late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Proceeding onwards, we stopped at a gem museum that familiarises visitors with the entire process of gem manufacturing, starting from basic mining to ornament-making. Our next halt was the Spice Garden – where we could see some hitherto unseen spice plants, followed by a round of the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage where they feed and provide care and sanctuary to orphaned baby elephants found in the wild.
It was late evening by the time we checked in at our pre-booked hotel at Mirissa by the sea beach. Starting with a visit to the nearby Shiva temple the next morning, we proceeded to another architectural and historical monument of Sri Lanka and a UNESCO World heritage site – the Galle Fort. As we drove down the road running parallel to the sea shore, the sight of hundreds of tourists frolicking on the sandy beach glinting in the morning sun provided us with some moments of carefree rejoicing far away from our workplaces back home. The Galle Fort, which is on the southwest coast of the island, was built first in 1588 by the Portuguese and then fortified thereafter by the Dutch in the 17th century. Standing majestically by the sea, it is an archaeological landmark of the country that even after more than 432 years has not lost its sheen and grandiosity. After a hectic day, it was time for some laidback moments, ambling on the breezy beach and calling it a night after a relaxed dinner in one of those neon-lit restaurants by the sea.
Early next morning was the time to go for the most exciting leg of our tour, whale-watching. Holding coffee tumblers in hand as we set out into the calm sea – life jackets securely fastened to our chest, the expectant mood among the tourists was evident from their jubilant whooping at each other. Sailing halfway to the whale-sighting spot, however, the sea suddenly turned rough and soon the going got tough for some in the group who went giddy, gagging and howling. Fortunately, however, everything ended well and we could have some delightful sightings of blue whales amidst the surging waves.
We set out on our journey back the next morning and after driving for about five hours along the state-of-the-art highway built with Chinese assistance, we were at Colombo by early afternoon. Having made a round of the capital city that took us to the famous Gangaramaya Temple and the grand Independence Hall, which is the country’s national monument built to commemorate the independence of Sri Lanka from the British rule, we checked in at our hotel at Marine Drive, that presented a splendid view of the Indian Ocean.
Looking out the window after our flight took off the next morning from the Bandaranaike International Airport, as I discerned the receding shoreline, a feeling of elated accomplishment washed over me, having finally made it to the epic land of my childhood dream!