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      Volume 10 |Issue 06 | February 11, 2011 |


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The Island of Jewels

Dr Shamim Ahmed

Statue of Lord Buddha at Sri Mahadevi Park, Colombo.

Muslim businessmen, who used to trade with Sri Lankans in the middle ages, mentioned it as “serendip”, meaning “islands of jewels” in Arabic. Slightly less than half the size of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka is one of the most enchanting island countries on the planet. Replete with ancient monuments, sun-kissed beaches, scenic natural spots, many awe-inspiring religious sites and diverse landscape throughout along with a rich biodiversity. No wonder it has earned the title “The Pearl of the Indian Ocean”.

We were greeted with gusty tropical rain, as we reached Colombo's Srimavo Bandarnaike International Airport. An hour drive from the airport, we found ourselves lodged at Mount Lavinia - the nation's “city beach”- a mesmerizing sea front bathed by the blue Indian Ocean. Located on the west coast of the island and adjacent to Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte, the capital, Colombo is the commercial and financial hub amidst colonial buildings and tree lined avenues.

Sri Lanka, the tear- drop shaped nation, is home to several world heritage sites and we ventured a few including, Kandy, Sigiriya, Dambulla and Anuradhapura during our safari.

At Colombo, we crammed inside a three-wheeler (also called tuk tuk/bajaj) and visited places of interest and I must confess that it was a memorable and unforgettable glimpse into the sights and sounds of this captivating city. Taxi cab services are still at infancy and apart from the public bus service, the three wheeler remains the most convenient mode of transport.

Bundled together within a “green lung” in the heart of Colombo in the vicinity of the elegant Viharamahadevi Park are the National Museum, National Art Gallery, the National Archives, the majestic Town Hall and the Independence Hall in Cinnamon Gardens. Housed in an imposing colonial era building, the museum displays a comprehensive collection of Sri Lankan history and culture.

One of the many “Boutique” shops on Colombo-Kandy highway.

In the evening, we strolled along the Gall Face Green-- the city's largest and most elegant promenade along the coast. Lined with palm trees, this mile-long stretch in the heart of the city is a popular rendezvous flooded with numerous small food stalls. Located here are the World Trade Centre Towers and the adjacent Bank of Ceylon tower, the most prominent landmark of the city. The Old Parliament Building stood majestically in the Fort district with the Old Colombo Lighthouse situated close to it. The National War Memorial in front of the Parliament complex is dedicated to all military personal killed since World War I and police personal killed in terrorist attacks or anti-terrorism operations.

Predominantly a Buddhist nation, the entire city as well as the countryside is literally dotted with imposing statues of Lord Buddha. The muslims account for a sizeable population in the country (about 10 percent) and trade mainly in gems, plantations and garments. I was surprised to come across several mosques not only in the cities but in the countryside as well. The call of the Azan could be heard loudly.We found time to say our parayers at the City Dewataghata Jame Masjid and other wayside mosques.

We then embarked for Kandy – "A World Heritage Site" – about 150 kilometres from Colombo. On way, we visited Srimavo Bandarnaike Memorial at Attenagola and stopped at several Buddha temples. Spending some time at one of the Spice and herbal garden at Hingula was useful as we browsed herbal medicine. At Ambepussa rest House, famous Ceylon tea was equally refreshing. One cannot but appreciate the rich wooden craftsmanship displayed at several wayside handicrafts outlets.

It was well past noon before we reached Kandy. Immediately, we settled for the typical hot, spicy Sri Lankan cuisine at the well-known Oak restaurant. The Hill Country capital remains the Sinhalese cultural and spiritual centre .The city is the most scenic and one of the most visited cities in Sri Lanka remains obscured by a layer of cotton wool most of the time. The sacred tooth relic of Lord Buddha lies in the Temple of the Tooth Relic (Sri Dalada Maligawa). Being the domicile of the sacred tooth relic of the Buddha, Kandy is a very significant city not only for the Sri Lankan Buddhist, but also Buddhists all over the world. Housed in the royal palace complex, the temple stands majestically amidst picturesque Kandy Lake, surrounded by forested hills. Visiting Maha Viharaya Temple- sedate statue of Lord Buddha situated on top of a hillock was highly rewarding.

In the evening, the cultural show at Kandyan Cultural Centre depicting traditional Kandyan and country-dances including fire walking and fire dance was highly entertaining. I kept wondering why similar shows are not organised on a regular basis in our own country portraying our rich culture.

Our next destination was Dambulla -- a world heritage site, famous for the cave temple. The Dambulla Golden Temple is the most impressive cave temple in Sri Lanka. This temple consists of several caves and it is one of the largest cave temple complexes in South Asia. Each of the caves in Dambulla had been adorned with wall and ceiling paintings. Its tranquil and captivating surroundings are nature's tribute to ancient monastic dwellings.

On the way, we stopped at Sigiraya another “world heritage sites”. Sigiriya, a 5th century massive isolated rock converted to a fortress is a spectacular sight rising 200 meters above the scrub jungle. This rock fortress is a place of extreme beauty. At the foot of the rock is the pleasure garden studded with ponds, islets, promenades, pavilions, and the ruins of a summer palace and a palace on top of the rock. In a sheltered pocket on the western face of the Sigiriya rock, approached by a spiral stairway, are the famous frescoes.

Driving through the lush green forested countryside, several “boutiques” in thatched outlets along the highways draws one's attention. These boutiques are stacked with fruits, vegetables alongside daily essentials .We stopped at some of them and enjoyed king coconut and hot coffee.

Our next stop was at Anuradhapura, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka located in the North Central province, about 150 km from Kandy. Anuradhapura, another world heritage site is home to several monuments of historical importance --one of the world's major archaelogical sites and the city is considered holy by the Buddhists.

The city gives a fascination glimpse of a well laid ancient metropolis with gigantic Buddhist shrines and monasteries, splendid palaces, pavilions and parks, bathing ponds and vast reservoirs, many of them masterpieces of architecture, art, sculpture and irrigation engineering.

The city's greatest treasures are its Dagobas (dome shaped massive hemispherical shaped Buddhist relic shrines) constructed of bricks and plaster. The most notable of these Dagobas are the Thuparama Dagoba, probably the oldest dagoba in the world. The 350 feet high Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba, Abhayagiri and Jetavanarama Dagobas (a UNESCO Word Heritage site) second in height only to ancient Egypt's two mightiest pyramids at Giza are worth visiting.

The third century rock temple at Isurumuniya Vihara has a collection of fine carvings along with extensive remains of the cave monastery complex.

The city's most renowned relic is the Sri Maha Bodhi, the Sacred Bo Tree. A branch of the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya in India under which the Buddha attained enlightenment was brought to Sri Lanka during the 3rd century BC by Princess Sanghamitta, the daughter of Emperor Asoka. It was planted about 2200 years ago in Anuradhapura and is venerated to this day by the Buddhists from many countries of the world. The bodhi tree is the oldest historically authenticated tree in the world, now garlanded with prayer flags and lights. Our sojourn was hectic. However, exploring the unrivalled beauty of the 'cinnamon” island was highly rewarding.


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