Sri Lanka's first
settlers were the nomadic Veddahs. Legend relates them to the Yakkhas, demons
conquered by the Sinhalese around the 5th or 6th century BC. A number of
Sinhalese kingdoms, including Anuradhapura in the north, took root across the
island during the 4th century BC. Buddhism was introduced by Mahinda, son of the
Indian Mauryan emperor Ashoka, in the 3rd century BC, and it quickly became the
established religion and the focus of a strong nationalism. Anuradhapura was not
impregnable. Repeated invasions from southern India over the next 1000 years
left Sri Lanka in an ongoing state of dynastic power struggles.
The tragedy of Sri Lanka stems from its
ethnic intolerance and militant readings of religious philosophy. The Sinhalese
are predominantly Buddhist, the Tamils mainly Hindu, and there are sizeable
Muslim and Christian Burgher (descendants of Dutch colonists) minorities. The
Sinhalese speak Sinhalese, the Tamils and most Muslims speak Tamil and the
Burghers often speak English. The Muslims are scattered all over the island and
are thought to be descendants of early Arab or Indian traders. They have largely
steered clear of the civil conflict, though there have been clashes between
Muslims and Tamils in the east. The Tamils in the hill country are recent low
caste arrivals brought in by the British to work on the plantations. They share
little in common with the Tamils of the north who have been in Sri Lanka for
over 1000 years. The hill country Tamils have generally managed to avoid being
drawn into the current ethnic conflict.
Sri Lanka's classical architecture,
sculpture and painting is predominantly Buddhist. Stupas sprinkle the
countryside, and there are several extravagantly large Buddhas sculptures,
notably at Aukana and Buduruvagala. Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa have the most
impressive archaelogical legacy, but Kandy is the most thriving cultural centre
today. Colonial remnants include Dutch forts, canals and churches and British
residences, clubs and courthouses. Galle is the finest colonial city on the
Sinhalese dancing is similar to Indian dance
but relies on acrobatics, nimbleness and symbolism to unfold its narratives.
Kandy is a good place to see 'up-country dancing', but Colombo or Ambalangoda
are the places to witness the ritualistic exorcism of 'devil dancing'. Folk
theatre combines dance, masked drama, drumming and exorcism rituals to vividly
recreate Sri Lankan folklore. Woodcarving, weaving, pottery and metalwork are
all highly developed crafts, and Sri Lanka is especially renowned for its gems.
Ambalangoda is the best place to see Sri Lankan masks; Ratnapura is the centre
of Sri Lanka's gem trade.
Rice and curry - often fiery hot - dominate
meal times and usually include small side dishes of vegetables, meat and fish.
Indian curries such as vegetarian thali, delicately flavoured biriyani and kool,
a boiled, fried and dried-in-the-sun vegetable combo, are also available.
Hoppers are a unique Sri Lankan snack, similar to a pancake, served with egg or
honey and yoghurt. Coastal towns have excellent fish and most travellers are
happy to live on the delicious local tuna. There's plenty of tropical fruits to
choose from, the tea is terrific and the beer acceptable.
Colombo, the island's largest city, is
noisy, frenetic - and just a little crazy. Thankfully, the breakdowns, snarled
traffic and power cuts are received with a shrug and a smile. 'No problem' might
be the national motto; it's certainly the one phrase everyone knows and can say.
While the city holds less obvious interest than many other parts of the island,
it's still a colourful enough place and worth a visit to see what makes Sri
Colombo is a relatively easy city to find
your way around. To the north is the Fort district, the country's business
centre, which has department stores, book shops, airline offices and is the site
of the Central Bank which the Tamil Tigers blew up in January 1996. There are
also ample sights such as the clock tower, a former lighthouse, the president's
residence (known by incorrigible traditionalists as Queen's House), and a
cluster of colonial buildings which lend the district an aura of bygone Empire.
Immediately south of here is Galle Face
Green, a seafront expanse of occasional green graced by cricket games, kite
flyers and trysting lovers. Cinammon Gardens, further south, is Colombo's most
fashionable neighbourhood, with elegant mansions, tree-lined streets and the
city's largest park. East of the fort is the pungent Pettah bazaar district.
Walk through and marvel at the riot of goods - fruit, vegetables, meat, gems,
gold, silver, brass and tin junk.
Culture buffs shouldn't miss the National
Museum, which has a good collection of historical works, the Art Gallery, which
focuses on portraiture and temporary exhibits by local artists, and the city's
many mosques and Buddhist and Hindu temples. After familiarising yourself with
Sri Lankan culture, check out the island's fauna at the Dehiwala Zoo. The
highlight here is an afternoon elephant show. The closest real beach is at Mt
Lavinia, a faded resort 10km (6.2mi) south of the city.
Budget accommodation, cheap food and the
best shopping can be found in the Fort and Pettah districts. Nightlife is
moribund, though a visit to the cinema in the Fort district is an experience.
Anuradhapura is Sri Lanka's first capital, a
potent symbol of Sinhalese power, and the most extensive and important of Sri
Lanka's ancient cities. It became a capital in 380 BC and for over 1000 years
Sinhalese kings ruled from this great city. Its impressive remains were
'discovered' in the early 19th century and have been in the process of
restoration ever since. They lie to the west and north of the modern town of
Anuradhapura. The Sacred Bo-Tree is the city's holiest site, and was grown from
the tree under which Buddha achieved enlightenment. The Thuparama Dagoba, the
oldest of many temples in Anuradhapura, is believed to contain the right
collar-bone of Buddha. The Jetavanarama Dagoba is the largest remaining
structure and may once have been over 100m (328ft) in height and housed an
estimated 3000 monks. There are also museums that invite exploration,
marvellously restored twin ponds which were used by monks as ritual baths, and
immense tanks built to provide irrigation water for the growing of rice. The
best way to explore the area is by bicycle. The remains of the ancient lakeside
city of Polonnaruwa, 75km (46mi) south-east of Anuradhapura, date mostly from
the reign of the Indian Chola dynasty in the 11th and 12th century, but they
cover a more compact site and are in an excellent state of repair. Anuradhapura
is 250km (155mi) north of Colombo. There are plenty of Colombo-Anuradhapura
buses each day; you can either catch an older style bus or lash out on a ride in
an inter-city airconditioned bus. Trains also go to Anuradhapura but are
dependant on the security situation in the north.
The port of Galle, thought by some to be the
Biblical city of Tarshish, splendidly illustrates the solidity of the Dutch
presence in Sri Lanka. The 36-hectare (89 acre) Dutch Fort, built in 1663, has
withstood the ravages of time. Its massive ramparts surround the promontory that
forms the older part of Galle, and shelters within its walls sturdy Dutch
houses, museums and churches. This area has a quiet, relaxed atmosphere that
seems almost detached from the flow of history. The New Oriental Hotel, built
for Dutch governors in 1684, is a colonial gem with a wonderfully atmospheric
bar. Nearby is a tiny sliver of a beach suitable for a dip, though most
travellers prefer to head along the coast to the fine beaches at Unuwatuna,
Weligama and Tangalla. Plenty of public and private buses run up and down the
107km (66mi) stretch between Colombo and Galle, as well as any number of daily
Hikkaduwa is the island's most developed
beach resort, though it's looking rather forlorn these days. It has a range of
accommodation, good restaurants and pleasant cafe-lined beaches. There's good
snorkelling at an attractive and easily accessible coral sanctuary, scuba diving
at a number of wrecks in the bay, tours by glass-bottomed boats and pretty good
surfing. It's a relaxed place, similar to many Asian beach resorts popular with
Western travellers. There are also plenty of handicraft shops catering to
tourist whims, a Buddhist temple, a nearby lake with abundant birdlife and some
pretty dangerous traffic hurtling down the main road. Frequent buses run the
87km (54mi) down the coast from Colombo, or there are four daily express trains
that are worth considering. There are a few slow trains as well but these can
take up to three or fours hours.
The laidback 'capital' of the hill country,
and the historical bastion of Buddhist power, is built around a peaceful lake
and set in a picturesque bowl of hills. It has a distinctive architectural
character thanks to its gently sloping tiled roofs and the town centre is a
delightful compendium of old shops, noise, buses, markets and hotels. Its
standout attraction is the octagonal Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth), a
temple which houses Sri Lanka's most important religious relic - the sacred
tooth of Buddha. There are daily ceremonies of homage to the Tooth Relic, each
attracting white-clad pilgrims carrying lotus blossoms and frangipani.
During the frenetic Kandy Esala Perahera
celebrations, a replica of the shrine is carried through the city on an
elephant. Other sights include the small but excellent National Museum, the
Peradeniya Botanic Gardens, and the Udawattakelle Sanctuary, a peaceful haven
for birdlife. There are plenty of lovely scenic walks around Kandy, one of which
leads to the Mahaweli, where you may see elephants being bathed. The Kandyan Art
Association & Cultural Centre beside the lake has good displays of local
crafts and an auditorium for popular dance performances.
Kandy is just on 100km (62mi) north east of
Colombo and although the town lacks an airport, there are any number of buses
and trains running between the two destinations.
The spectacular rock fortress of Sigiriya is
an impregnable fortress, a monastic retreat, and a rock art gallery. Built in
the 5th century AD to fend off a feared invasion, it is situated atop a 200m
(656ft) high rock, and at the height of its glory must have been akin to a
European chateau plonked on top of Uluru. There are water gardens, 5th century
rock paintings of well endowed damsels, a 1000-year-old graffiti wall recording
visitors impressions of the pin-ups, a couple of enormous stone lion paws and
To get to Sigiriya from Colomba, hop on a
bus that stops at Dambulla, and from there catch any of the hourly buses going
to the rock fortress, a total of 191km (118mi) away.