Our first location was the capital city of Colombo – this was not by choice, but by force; since there is only one international airport in SL which is around 60 kms from Colombo. Our driver/guide came to pick us up at the crowded airport. The outside was a scene to behold. Thousands of people thronged the aisles, with trolleys holding their luggage – which included televisions and refrigerators that they had bought at the duty-free shops in SL! We stood in the corner taking in the screams, the people and the rapid stream of Sinhalese that made their way to our ears. There were streams of Sri Lankan Tamizh – I am not very conversant with this dialect and had a hard time figuring out if it was Tamizh in the first place!! What I observed was pretty representative of SL on the whole.
Even with all the clutter, mis-organized boarding, crowding, trolleys having no space to move and people clambering to get to the curb and their cars, there did not seem to be any fights. Now, I am not saying that people fight all the time in Mumbai – the patience levels are pretty high there was well, but I am of the opinion that the same scene in Mumbai would have produced a choice string of expletives that would have blamed your mother for your birth as well as your entire blood line for its presence on this same land as the swearer! People in SL seemed more capable of taking in all of these issues with calm.
As we drove through the clean and neatly laid out roads (again, common through Lanka), our driver chatted away about the country. Apparently, SL has a majority of Sinhalese at close to 74%, followed by Tamizh-speakers at 24-odd%. In terms of religious distribution, a sizeable chunk of the population is Buddhist – these are generally Sinhalese. Then follow Hindus (Tamizhs), Christians (Sinhalese, then Tamizhs) and finally Muslims (generally Tamizhs). We were also treated to the interesting fact that our driver happens to be the best friend of Dilhara Fernando (SL cricket team) and is also his child’s godfather!
The ride through SL was pleasant, and we had a good view of daily SL life (not that different from India), but was punctuated with ‘random’ stops by army personnel – who wanted to scan through our passport and our driver’s guide card. This brings me to something that was very common in SL – the number of police and army personnel out on the streets. The streets of Colombo literally teemed with cops guiding traffic and one could spot machine gun-wielding army guys at regular intervals. There were shelters at regular intervals where these random spot checks were conducted. We were told that this is because of the recent war; and I can see why this is needed. I would like to come back in five years and see if the distribution of military personnel has dwindled.
We drove up to a hotel that was established in colonial times – 1830’s – and was situated on the harbor – right at the brink of the ocean. The views from the dining room were fantastic, though our room was far from ideal; what with the age-old fan and A/C. I like the concept of living in a heritage site, but at the prices that we were paying, one would imagine some level of modern comfort!
A heavy buffet of continental as well as SL breakfast items followed, with us digging in heartily in order to justify the exorbitant cost. We then made our way onto a nice little Buddhist temple and I witnessed a weird version of SL Buddhism. SL Buddhism is seemingly a mixture of the true principle of Buddhism, Hinduism and the strange fascination of the Lankans to tiger-like creatures (maybe a Chinese influence). There are statues of Buddha, surrounded by angels who look exactly like those from Hindu mythology. The monks ‘offer’ prasadam to the lord (fruits, rice cakes, dessert) as Hindus are wont to do. Loud drums and nadaswaram-like instruments are used in a manner reminiscent of the chendai and thavil from Kerala temples! Further, the altar is surrounded with ivory tusks (hopefully from already dead elephants) and the temple houses an elephant of its own!!
This temple we visited is supposed to house many priceless articles and we were treated to a glimpse of the haphazardly arranged set of items; most of which were various statues of Buddha carved out of gold! I am sure that the Buddha is turning around in his grave somewhere (yes, I know he was cremated; this is just an expression!).
There is also this SL Buddhist tradition of having a banyan tree and tying pieces of cloths inscribed with your deepest desires on the branches. Remind you of something? Again, Buddha’s ceiling on desires is seen in a new light in SL. The final straw of course was the fact that the head monk of the monastery is supposed to carry a gun with him (‘He is very tough’, we were told); ostensibly to ward of terrorists (read: LTTE) from attacking and pilfering the monastery! There you have it – a gun-toting ‘hard’ buddhist monk!
Adjoining this temple is another smaller one that is bang in the middle of an artificial water body. Again, the location was amazing, and the SL buddhism traditions manifested themselves everywhere. We saw statues which resembled Saraswati and Laxmi!
We also visited the Independence memorial (hopefully I got the name right) – see below. This is a large hall with pillars that was built to commemorate SL independence. SL independence day is about 6 months after ours and this place supposedly houses celebrations every year.
After showing us the president’s house, the Indian and US embassies and telling us how many restrictions there used to be before the ‘war’ – our guide lead us to a shopping center which had seriously overpriced items and a hoard of firangi customers! Again, I shall limit myself to this and not go on a tirade against such organized tourism. We reached the hotel in the evening and my jet lag (jet lags! – HKG to Mumbai; arrived in the middle of the night, and then took a flight to SL in 2 hours!!) kicked in. I closed my eyes and woke up 15 hours later – morning the next day.
That ends part I – coming up: Kandy in Part II!