Few places in the world have received as many beautiful qualifications as Sri Lanka. Its variety of landscapes and cultures, the cordiality of its people of different races and religions, its extraordinary richness in flora and fauna predispose to the most fiery compliments. It is known as Pearl of the Orient, Shining Island, Paradise on Earth and Tear of India, among other things. Many agree that Sri Lanka -whose translation from Sinhalese means Holy Land, perhaps the most beautiful of definitions- is an extension of the Paradise that Adam and Eve inhabited. Perhaps the teardrop shape of the island is a consequence of the sorrow of our first parents when they had to leave it.
Legend has it that when God expelled Adam from Paradise and condemned him to populate the earth, he did not, in his infinite mercy, want the contrast to be especially harsh for him. So he decided to place him on one of the highest mountains in Sri Lanka. There, no doubt, he would find many elements in common with the lost Paradise and his misfortune would be more bearable.
We do not know very well what that Paradise was like, but certainly a place where high mountains intermingle with leafy valleys and immaculate beaches, where rivers, waterfalls and lakes combine with enormous rice fields or tea plantations, where leopards, elephants and alligators live together with butterflies, palm trees and orchids; a place where all contrasts are possible and all beauties stand out, should not have seemed bad to Adam. And although Eve was supposed to be more demanding, she too must have felt satisfied. Sri Lanka is also a paradise for all kinds of snakes, and Eve got along with them.
Today, one of the most characteristic places on the island is precisely the so-called Adam’s Peak, a mountain over 2,200 meters high, considered sacred by the four religions that live together in harmony in ancient Ceylon. But whatever the belief, Adam’s Peak is above all a symbol of what Sri Lanka is, of what it wants to remain in the future. In the tortuous ascent to the top of the peak, each pilgrim must fulfill his rites but no one should ask how much longer it is until the summit. Instead, the only greeting that all ¬-buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Christians–repeat is a word in Sinhalese: karunavai, which means peace.
Peace. That is the word and that is the message. The people of Sri Lanka are brimming with peace. You can see it in their peaceful faces, in their calm gestures, in their cordiality in welcoming strangers. The merit is undoubtedly theirs, but something must weigh on living in the closest replica of Paradise, where all the gifts of nature seem to have overflowed in strange harmony. It is not strange that this small country, barely 435 kilometers long and 225 kilometers wide, has received such beautiful descriptions and such exalted compliments. When you walk through it from top to bottom, when you discover its many beauties, you understand that they are not at all exaggerated.
Touring the island
The first impression of the island that the traveler usually receives is through Colombo, the capital. And that is almost always a false impression. Like all oriental cities, Colombo is an accumulation of contrasts: modern and gigantic hotels next to colonial mansions, shopping centers and crowded bazaars, young people in jeans and women in traditional sarongs, huge traffic jams and skillful rickshaws on pedals?
The center of Colombo is called Fuerte, as a legacy of the first outpost that, first Portuguese and then Dutch, built there. It is in this area where most of the colonial remains are located. Probably the most representative is the Lighthouse Clock Tower that served as a lighthouse and clock in the center of the city. There are more things to see in the capital, including the fort itself and the Dutch Hospital, the former hospital complex built by the Dutch settlers and now converted into a lively leisure and restaurant area, where you can find some of the most famous restaurants in the city. Not far to the south is the fort and citadel of Galle, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the oldest part, but there are so many wonders waiting in the rest of the island that it is not worth spending too much time on it.
One of the first historical places that the traveler visits is Sigiriya, an old citadel of the 5th century built on top of a huge rock that rises almost 200 meters above the leafy forests. The site has something supernatural about it and it was surely that aspect and its undoubted strategic position that led King Kasyapa to build his fortress there. The climb to Sigiriya is worth the effort. Of course it is not suitable for people with physical problems or who suffer from vertigo. Not only do you have to overcome more than 2,000 steps, but sometimes the narrow stairs and walkways are installed over the vertiginous abyss.
In the first stage of the ascent, you can contemplate the beautiful frescoes called the “maidens” -or apsara- of Sigiriya, which shows beautiful women with naked breasts that seem to emerge from the clouds. They have perfect, round, haughty, rosy breasts, perhaps too perfect to be real. At present, 19 of them are admirably preserved, although it seems that there were more than 500. Those that we now see have not lost, despite the passage of 1500 years, not one iota of their grace, their slenderness, the almost unreal perfection that managed to capture in them the anonymous brush to which we owe their delicious contemplation today.
Before undertaking the definitive ascent to the summit of Sigiriya, there is a wide esplanade with some shade and a magnificent panorama. There is also a small drink kiosk that is very much in demand and must be one of the best businesses on the island, so much so that the concession is shared out among thirty families in the area who operate the sale of cold drinks every day, one per month. For those who visit Sigiriya looking for the best picture, they cannot leave this place without visiting the Pidurangala mountain. Located a few meters from Sigiriya, it offers a view as impressive as it is unforgettable for those who accept the challenge of the climb. It is accessed through a small Buddhist temple from where you can continue the ascent to the top by a stone staircase surrounded by the exuberant jungle nature of this area of the island.
A few kilometers from Sigiriya is Dambulla, and again a rock is the protagonist of the place. It is a gigantic mass that forms a deep fold. In the hollow of that fold there are five large caves that house true “Sistine Chapels” dedicated to Buddha. On the walls there are dozens of statues that represent him in different positions, highlighting an enormous Buddha lying 14 meters long, sculpted in the rock, but the most spectacular is the ceiling, in which hundreds of portraits of Buddha contemplate the traveler. Its perfection and color are only surpassed by the harmony with which they adapt to the forms of the vault, so that it looks like an enormous suspended tapestry.
The journey through Sri Lanka’s oldest remains continues to Polonnaruwa. It is the best artistic complex of the whole island. It was the second capital of the kingdom between the eleventh and twelfth centuries and expresses the best of Sinhalese culture, with the most exquisite of its artistic achievements. To the south of the city is the great artificial lake called Parakrama Samudra, a masterpiece of the great Parakramabahu I, a genius of hydraulic and irrigation engineering who planted the country with artificial lakes and dams, many of which are still in operation. His is the phrase repeated today by politicians of different stripes: “Let not a single drop of water reach the sea without first having served man”.
The sacred tooth of Buddha
Although there is still much to see in old Ceylon, it is time to leave the old archaeological sites and immerse yourself in today’s Sri Lanka, its people and its landscapes, and that is where the traveler will find the greatest surprises. From the plain, where the Cultural Triangle is located, the ascent to the green mountains begins and the first stop is Kandy, center of the traditional culture and located in a frame of great beauty. It is the most beautiful and sacred city of Sri Lanka, among other things because here they venerate the ancient relic of the Buddha tooth that arrived, caught in the hair of the Indian princess of Orissan and whose temple has been enlarged by the various kings and rulers of the island. Curiously, the relic most venerated by millions of Buddhists has not been seen by almost anyone. What they see, in fact, behind a golden gate and a silver table, is a golden silver reliquary that consecutively encloses six others that are reducing in size, all of them made of pure gold and precious stones. In the smallest one is the sacred tooth.
This small relic awakens so much fervor that every year a festival is held in its honor between July and August. Every afternoon, during the ten days of Esala Perahera, the relic leaves its place in the temple to walk the streets of Kandy accompanied by decorated elephants, acrobats and traditional musicians who fill the streets of the city with light and color.
It is already the moment to get in touch with what has made Ceylon famous in the world and what gives rise to some of its best landscapes: the green tea mountains. Few things surpass the beauty of a tea plantation, when the first lights of the morning illuminate the bright green leaves of this beautiful bush, while dozens of women dressed in colorful outfits and with large wicker baskets on their backs, held by a strap on their foreheads, carefully pick two leaves and a bud from each bud, only with them is it possible to make the best tea in the world.
And from the mountain to the sea. In the South is the most visited area, and also the most varied, where are the best beaches in the country, perhaps the most beautiful in the world. They are clean, wild, with yellow sand that contrasts with the vegetation that reaches the very edge of the water. There’s nothing missing to make the landscape idyllic, especially since much of the coast is deserted or, at best, populated by strange fishermen on stilts who spend half-naked hours climbing up vertical poles anchored in the middle of the sea with a small rod with which they try to catch the tiny fish on the shore.
No less appealing are the beaches on the east coast, ideal during the summer months when the monsoon moves to the western region of the island. This coastal area, less known, is also one of the places where the mixture of cultures and religions can be most appreciated, since the predominance of the Hindu population is reflected in the architecture and temples. Wide beaches where you can practice snorkeling or enjoy the most beautiful sunrises, you can even see whales that pass through the coasts of Sri Lanka every year from June to October.
The best ending point of the visit to this fascinating land, is a sunset on one of the beaches of the west, with the last rays playing with the palm trees and the sea breaking charges its shore. Contemplating so much beauty, one thinks again of Adam and believes that, after all, he shouldn’t have had such a bad time leaving one paradise to meet this other one.