By Dr Pravina Bhim Sain

When going on a holiday, it is always helpful to gather some basic facts about one’s destination for better understanding and enjoyment. When my husband and I decided to join a group of senior citizens going on a tour of Sri  Lanka we did some basic research about this island, situated in the northern Indian Ocean, south of the Indian sub-continent. Among the interesting facts, we learnt was that Sri  Lanka had undergone several changes in its name, and, in the theories related to the names in the course of its history. Just to site a few - the Arabs who traded with the island as far back as 361 AD called it Serendip meaning ‘’abode of lions’, as it is believed that there was an abundance of lions in this island. Lanka is its ancient name given by its inhabitants the Sinhalese and mentioned as such in the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata.

The name  Lanka means that which glitters or shines because of the glittering of gold and gems found on its surface. We are all familiar with the name Ceylon which the   British gave during their colonial rule. It was named Dominion of Ceylon in 1948 when it attained independence and in 1972 it was given the name “Free Sovereign and Independent Republic of Sri  Lanka” and still later in 1978 it changed to Democratic  Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. More romantically, it is termed as “Pearl of the Indian Ocean” because of its natural beauty, and  “Tear of the Indian Ocean” because of its shape. Names aside, Sri Lanka has a long history starting from prehistoric times dating back to 125,000 years or maybe even 500,000 years. In the course of its history through the various stone ages and early iron age, it was spotted with several kingdoms including that of the Demon King Ravana whose reign was supposed to be a glorious one.

Having with us some basic facts about Sri Lanka we set out on our sojourn to explore the island for ourselves. We were a group of about 30 senior citizens travelling with a company called “Silver Wings” one of the best travel agents I have ever travelled with. It was a tour of five days and six nights enabling us to get just a glimpse of the rich cultural heritage and biodiversity, its fabulous coastal features, such as bays, lagoons, sandbanks and tropical beaches,  waterfalls, rivers, mountains, historical and religious monuments and lots more. 

We landed at the Bandaranaike International Airport, about 35 km north of the capital Colombo. It is named after the  Prime Minister of Sri Lanka the first woman Prime Minister of the world, Sirimavo Bandaranaike. The first leg of our journey was the resort town of Bentota, southward along the eastern coast of Sri  Lanka. This resort is famous for its long beach, one of the finest beaches on the south-west coast. It stretches north and then becomes a narrow sandy strip. Our hotel, ideally known as “Surf” was located in such close proximity to the beach that we could hear the continuous music of the waves as they lashed along the shore, blending perfectly with the vast Indian Ocean beyond. Our team of boys accompanying the tour, Rajeev and Deepu, and the local guide Alex were very hospitable and helped us mingle with our fellow travellers from the start of the journey.  Our stay in Bentota was a very relaxing and enjoyable experience.

One of the most interesting and unique items of tourist attraction in Bentota was the sea turtle hatchery.  A beautiful variety of turtles are bred here in huge tanks before they are let out into the sea. Interestingly, only the male turtles are let out into the sea and the females are kept back for two to three years. The whole breeding cycle was explained to us and we were even allowed to pick them up and have a close view of the intricate mosaic patterns on their backs. One tank full of baby turtles was a delightful sight. The workers in this hatchery showed utmost passion and commitment in their work. Unfortunately, the formidable ocean which is their rightful home is full of danger for these creatures, but that is what nature has planned.

Another fascinating item on the itinerary was the mangrove cave river safari. It was awesome the way these seafaring young boys manoeuvred the boats in and out through the thick green canopies hanging over the backwaters. What followed was even more intriguing  - fish pedicure. We had to immerse our feet in a tank full of small fish. The moment our feet were in the water, shoals of tiny fish began their meal with the dead cells on the skin of our feet. The thought was scaring at first, but once the pedicure started it brought about a tickling sensation which became almost amusing after a while.

Following closely to this was a visit to an elephant orphanage, nursery and captive breeding ground for wild  Asian elephants in Pinnawala. It supposedly has the largest herd of elephants in the world. In 2011 there were 88 elephants – 39 males and 49 females from three generations. It was established in 1975 by the Sri Lanka  Department of  Wild Life Conservation in the  Bentota tourist complex,  to care for and protect orphaned and un-weaned wild elephants found wandering in the nearby forests. It was a treat to see the little ones being bottle fed, playing with each other, others bathing and having their meals in the stalls made for that purpose. Each adult can consume about 250 kg of food. It is indeed a noble work being carried out to conserve

 

wildlife  .

The next day we continued our journey to Kandy the hill capital of Sri Lanka, 119 km north of Bentota. Nestled between mountains, at a height of 600 meters above sea level it was designated as a World Heritage Site by  UNESCO in 1988. It was built in the  16th. century for the sole purpose of housing the tooth relic of Buddha. It is one of the most sacred places of worship for Buddhists.

Its magnificent architecture and serene atmosphere is an experience in itself. When the Dutch and Portuguese took over the coastal areas, Kandy remained a Sinhalese kingdom till the British took over the city in the 19th. Century. Its cool climate is an added attraction.  The most charming area of Kandy is what is called “Little England” as that was the last place from where the British left at the end of their rule. The colonial style buildings and pretty quaint cottages are a reminder of the British era. Right in the centre of the city is an artificial lake that was created by Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe the last ruler of the kingdom of Kandy. The drive, in and around Kandy was breathtaking as we could view the vast extent of tea plantations on the hillside as far as the eye could see. We stopped at a hotel where we could pick up the choicest teas of Ceylon. 

Perhaps the most interesting part of our travel was the tour of Sri Lanka near the resort city of Nuwara Eliya – the famous Ashok Vatika where Sita was kept captive by Ravana after her abduction, as she refused to stay in the palace of the Demon King. This is presumably the spot where Ravana’s wife Mandodari visited Sita and where Hanuman met Sita for the first time and identified himself by showing her Rama’s finger ring. There is a statue to keep alive this episode of the great epic. The Chinmoy Mission of Sri Lanka has built the fabulous Sri Bhakt  Hanuman Temple in the hills of Ramboda where Hanuman is believed to have searched for Sita. This can be ideally termed as the “Ramayana Tour of Sri  Lanka”.

 

By now we had covered more than half of our tour and still, there were lots to explore, but the time was limited and there is always a next time! In the last leg of our tour, we went to Colombo, the capital city of Sri Lank. We were told that Sri Lanka has actually two capitals – Colombo being the commercial capital and Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte being the administrative capital on the outskirts of Colombo. Colombo is the largest city of Sri Lanka and a typical example of an admixture of different cultures and religions. It has many impressive buildings such as the Gangaramaya Temple a magnificent Buddhist temple which has a mix of Sri Lankan, Thai, Indian and Chinese architecture. There are several mosques, churches and cathedrals and Hindu temples as well.The Beira Lake right in the centre of the city is a pleasant sight.

In the neighbourhood of Colombo lies the Cinnamon garden which is said to produce 70 to 80% of the world’s best cinnamon. It is claimed that some of the other herbal wonders grown there have a cure for every ailment. We had an interesting interaction with the experts who took us around the garden. 

The other attraction as anywhere else was shopping, mainly for the beautiful handicrafts. Colombo specialises in gem cutting and we could look around at the marvellous work done on a large variety of precious stone mined in Sri Lanka.Well, all good things come to an end and we were back home to share the wonderful experiences of the trip of “the best island of its size in the world "as described by the 12th. Century Italian explorer  Marco Polo.

  All the memebers present in Sri Lanka Trip – March 2017 were - Mr. Bhim Sain,  Mrs. Pravina Bhim Sain,  Mrs. Dipanwita Bhattacharya, Mr. Kalyan Kumar Bhattacharya, Mr. Om Prakash Bhele. Mrs. Ranjit Kaur, Ms. Kamal Sethi, Ms. Indira Sethi, Ms. Madhu Karir, Ms. Kiran Mohindra, Mrs. Madhur Chopra, Ms. Rajni Vohra, Ms Santosh Choudhary, Ms. Seema Anand, Mrs. Renu Singhal, Mr. Shiv Kumar Singhal, Mrs. Vinita Rohatgi, Mr. Pradeep Kumar Rohatgi,  Mrs. Amita Ganguly, Col Dr. Supriyo Ganguly, Mr. Sawrup Singh Pawar, Mrs. Vidhya Pawar, Mr. Lakshmanan Vishwanathan, Mrs. Susheela Vishwanathan,  Ms. Uma Mahendroo, Ms.  Sarojini Datta, Ms. Krishna Chatterjee, Mrs. Lakshmi Jagannadha Rao Avasarala, Mr. Venkata Ratnam Sarala, Tour Managers- Mr. M P Deepu &  Mr. Rajeev Parameswaran 
 

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