I first heard about Sri Lanka from a soda commercial as a kid. It was portrayed as a land of spices in the Hansen’s soda. An Indiana Jones-looking character was depicted walking tea plantations and smelling open baskets of herbs and gazing at verdant fruit trees. Over the course of my high school years I learned of the epic of the Ramayana, one of the two main holy books about Vishnu. In the epic poem, Vishnu takes on the incarnation/avatar of Rama, a king in India in who fights a great battle against king Ravana of Lanka. (The second holy book is about Vishnu incarnated as Krishna, intervening in the battle of the Mahabharata). Everywhere I turned, the lore of this country drew me.
I decided to visit during my first trip to India. I traveled to the southern state of Kerala and hopped a short flight. Sri Lanka is part of the Indian sub-continent, but the land bridge connecting it to Tamil Nadu is submerged. At the time, the government of Sri Lanka had been confronting a domestic separatist group in the west of the country which sought to establish a separate nation on the island. The group organized as the “Tamil Tigers” and would attack the capital city of Colombo. So it was advised at the time not to travel through the Tamil-held region. Hopping a flight was considered safe.
Understanding the political tension of the city, I traveled by train out to the mountainous region called Kandy. This is the jungle area where the hilltops have been preened into elegant tea plantations. Though the weather so near the equator is sweltering, it is a luxuriously natural place to hike and take in the natural beauty that earned the country fame with the British, for their tea importation industry. (The East India Company is where the Hansen folk borrowed the vagabond-trader lore from. As the British would fill their boats here for the long trek for tea time in London and across the colonies.)
One of Sri Lanka’s points of fame among Buddhists across Asia is that a sprig of the “Tree of Enlightenment”, a banyan tree under which Gautama Siddhartha achieved enlightenment, was brought here. After reaching the transcendent awareness, followers took sprigs of the original banyan tree along with the original teachings to spread among the Buddhists of Sri Lanka. The original tree in Bodh Gaya died many centuries ago. But monks then took a sprig of the Sri Lankan tree back to replant at the original site of Buddha’s great enlightenment. It grows there to this day.
The form of Buddhism practiced in Sri Lanka is called Hinayana, the “lesser vehicle”. Lesser meaning that each person is on their own path of enlightenment. It contrasts to the Mahayana, or “great vehicle” tradition, whereby all sentient beings are on a trajectory of all inclusive path to nirvana. Neither of the traditions is greater than the other per se. It’s just a question of which voyage you plan to take toward enlightenment, the bandwagon approach or the one within yourself.
Much of the tradition of Buddhism here is monastic orders of those on the path of mendicant austere lifestyle dedicated to meditation. There are many caves where monastic orders retreated to in practice of meditation. Many of them preserve exquisite works of art to this day.
If you travel by Lonely Planet, you’ll be navigating between dozens of UNESCO World Heritage sites including the massive stone temple called Sigiriya, Lion Rock, in the center of the country. It was envisioned to become a massive sculpture of a Lion by the king who made it the center of his kingdom. But unfortunately, only the lion’s feet were completed before his reign ended. But you can climb to the top to see the gardens and pools atop the massive mountain and the landscape around.
The beaches of Sri Lanka are fairly unfrequented by the local community. It seems that beach obsession is more a thing for the visitors! So if relaxing on the shores is your idea of a good time, you won’t have much competition here.
It’s a great place for a quiet week by the shores where you can read the Ramayana and picture Hanuman carrying his mountains of medicine across the skies. (The Monkey God is a representation of medicinal power because to serve Rama he brings an entire mountain that has medicinal herbs instead of just bringing one!)
Follow @Leapingaround on Twitter: twitter.com/leapingaround
Follow Christopher on Pocket