Sri Lanka, in Proverbs
I had envisioned leaning out the door of the slow train as it rolled majestically through verdant jungles, past tea plantations and small village stations—but my train travel through Sri Lanka was hardly that romantic. En route to Nuwara Eliya, I stood in a narrow aisle straddling my backpack, sandwiched by strangers. With the windows positioned too low to see through, I spent five hours imagining the landscape as it passed. It was stunning in glimpses. In retrospect, we had not committed the time or planning to book seats in advance, or wander far from the beaten path. Looping the south west quarter of Sri Lanka, we found ourselves on a well trodden tourist trail from the capital city of Colombo, through the hill country on old Ceylon's main locomotive track, and the popular beach towns of the south west coast. Rumbling along on the train and shifting my weight from one foot to the other, I thought about how I had changed as a traveler since my first backpack through Europe; though I had rushed to see every tourist destination then—London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, Amsterdam, Santorini—that did not seem to shade the experience as it did in Kandy.
Kandy is a small mountain town built around a small lake, one more reminiscent of an oversized pond. While a walking path wraps all the way around, a grand complex housing the Temple of the Sacred Tooth prevents the road from connecting full circle. The entrepreneurial spirit of our tuk tuk driver (who passed the front entrance, looped all the way around the lake, and dropped us off at the rear entrance which was closed and a mere 200m from front entrance by foot) put me in a bit of a mood. Instead of entering, we explored Sri Maha Paththini Davalaya, an adjacent temple complex bustling with everyday activity. Rather than housing Buddha's sacred tooth relic, a temple was built around a magnificent tree, reverence for nature being something we could appreciate. In the end, we did not go back to the Temple of the Tooth out of skepticism for its mythology.
In 313 AD, Lord Buddha's rescued remains were distributed for worship across various realms and one sacred tooth was preserved in Kalinga, India. The tooth was supposedly smuggled to Sri Lanka in the hair of an Orissan princess for safe keeping during war struck by the Hindu revival of the 4th century. Once in Sri Lanka, It was believed that whoever possessed the tooth had divine right to rule. The tooth was brought to Kandy during the kingdom's rise. The Portuguese claimed to have stolen the tooth and pounded it to dust, but Buddhists claim this was a fake or that the tooth magically reassembled itself and flew back to Sri Lanka. It is put on display once every decade. The current Temple of the Sacred Tooth was built in the 1700s, and has been destroyed and repaired due to various civil wars in the late 20th century. The authenticity of the tooth is strongly challenged, a number of professionals believing it to be the molar of a cow or water buffalo.
I had shrugged off the relevance of the myth until finding Grandeur of the Lion by Sri Lankan author Carl Muller. The novel narrates Sri Lankan history with a basis in mythology and folklore. One chapter told of a King who, during a phase of expansion, addressed the [tree spirit] that was to be cut down to make way for a temple. The great tree asked to be painfully chopped down limb by limb instead of whole, so as to protect the surrounding flora and fauna. Moved by the sprit's selflessness, the king declared its environ protected, and the tree was worshipped by all. Nuwara Eliya was our access point to Horton Plains, a national park in the central highlands. As we hiked through Horton Plains, I imagined the same could have taken place with a tree deity here. The park is an isolated patch of cloud forest as all the surrounding low lying hills were cleared for tea production. There is one tourist-laden loop connecting the park's points of interest, so imagining the park through the eyes of early kings and first explorers (aka. without flocks of umbrella carrying, selfie-stick bearing tourists) added a little more magic.
We hopped on another standing-room-only train to Ella, this one also filled mostly by tourists. I had to remind myself that I was on a train in the heart of an untamed jungle, completely untethered to a job, apartment, or set plans for the future. I had to let go of all my preconceived notions about Sri Lanka and embrace my inner tourist. Calling mindfulness into practice, I endeavoured to simply be present and enjoy this window of freedom. Though reverberation of the train was meditative, my practice often still turns into mind-wandering. I began musing about Sri Lanka's history, and how little I knew of it. I now know that 35,000 years ago, Balangoda Man stood somewhere on this island, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. Though writing had not yet been developed in the 3rd century, other civilizations have documented Sri Lanka's existence. Sinhalese history traditionally begins with Prince Vijaya's establishment of the kingdom of Tambapanni in 534 BC. In 380 BC, the great Anuradhapura Kingdom was built, and Buddhism was introduced a century later. Gradually, the island was divided into numerous kingdoms and ruled by up to 181 monarchs at any given moment during the Anuradhapura and Kandy periods (377 BC to 1815). It turns out that in its time, the Kandyan empire was not only Sri Lanka's sole native polity, but a mighty one that single handedly staved off European colonial forces until their eventual victory in 1815. I tried to imagine what Kandy's impressive empire evolving into its present day state might look like as a time-lapse.
The 16th century collapse of Kandy gave way to an era of Portuguese, Dutch, and British control over Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon. After the Eighty Years War and Kandyan War were fought and won, the victorious colonial invaders put Sri Lanka's resources to use. We rolled by one tea plantation after the next, neat rows of waist-high bushes where thick jungle canopy had once prevailed, eventually arriving in Ella. During our private tour of the Uva Halpewatte tea factory (private because we missed the morning's comprehensive tour), we learned that cinnamon and coffee had been Sri Lanka's primary crops until disease ravaged those plants and forced farmers to cultivate tea. It turned out that conditions were perfect for tea. The tiny region is now the world's fourth largest producer of tea, which made sense only after learning that a tea leaf is ripe for plucking after 7-days and seeing the constant assembly line. We learned that only the topmost leaves in the brightest shades of green were used for export quality (two leaves and one bud). Between hand plucking, transportation, and factory work, it's no surprise that the tea industry directly/indirectly employs 1 million people. Sri Lanka's tea industry thrives today, and vestiges of those early days remain iconic pieces of art.
While the colonial era would come to a close, turbulence would continue. Sri Lanka's function as a British naval base in WWII eventually led to its status as a Dominion of the British Empire in 1948. A 1958 language policy called the Sinhala Only Act, which eradicated the country's second official language Tamil, instigates riots that would escalate into civil war. After 25 years of conflict, Sri Lanka emerged a republic in 1972. It was hard to imagine these times of conflict while strolling a beach laden with bars, loungers, and signboards advertising cocktails. And while all this infrastructure had been rebuilt since the 2004 tsunami, many destroyed homes still dotted the coast. We couldn't help feeling that tourism was taking over with little regard for Sri Lanka's history, heritage, and environment.
When we visited the much quieter Hiriketiya beach, we discovered that most of its establishments had sprung up 2 years ago, one short season after an influx of day-tripping tourists on the small cove's shores. With beginner, intermediate and advanced breaks in the same cove, Hiriketiya is fast becoming a popular surf location. It took a few days of digging to find local gems hidden between westernized resorts, cafes, and restaurants. An unassuming Roti Hut on the east side of the beach offers 100 rupee egg hoppers, 150 rupee rotis, and 100 rupee coconuts and unlimited conversation. One of the owners even pulled out his English-Sinhala dictionary to find a translation for the tree species that shaded our beachfront breakfast table. And so we went through a rolodex of the Singhala words I had learned from an entrepreneurial farmer as he led us through the maze of a terraced and leech-infested vegetable farm in the hopes of charging us for guiding services—tatta (father), amma (mother), and my favorite, astuti (thank you) for the way it rolls of the tongue as well as the smile and head bobble it incites.
It was at Hiriketiya that I finally got back on a surfboard. Bobbing gently in the lineup with new friends and looking out onto the horizon for the next set, the anxiety I'd felt about this trip living up to expectations completely vanished. It had been over a year since I'd last paddled out and in becoming reacquainted with surfing, I was reminded that it's easier for a de-cluttered mind to fall back into the swing of things. I realized the same applies to travel, which overthinking and over-planning can undermine. All in all, we'd explored the rails, trekked into our first cloud forest, caught a few waves, and met a number of inspiring people, some zinc-ier than others! I left Sri Lanka sunburnt and salty, just the way I like.
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