You may have already read a little about my latest holiday in Sri Lanka, but now comes the interesting bit. When we decided to go to there, it was mainly because we have a Sri Lankan Maid, and so we believed we had a built-in tour guide. We decided to book in Nuwara Eliya, because this would allow us the benefit of visiting the centre of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Kandy, and Mary’s home town, Spring Valley, near Badulla.
We came to Nuwara Eliya via the Kandy rd, and I wasn’t the only one looking wistfully out the car window, wishing that we had stayed there when we passed (after a 2:30am start, a 4-hour flight, obligatory airport battles and another 4 hours in the car with cranky leprechauns). But I underestimated what was still coming. Although already in high hills, we continued to climb towards the clouds, and they hid the eventuality of our journey – we knew we needed to get to the top, but where exactly was it?
Nuwara Eliya is about 200km from Colombo. That might sound an easy couple of hours, but Sri lankan roads are almost entirely just one lane each way, potholed, unsignposted, and with a population of 22 million in an island only just over 430km long, you can imagine how busy they are. Driving in Sri Lanka is like driving in India, and I can only recommend getting someone else to do it for you.
The scenery is beyond spectacular. About an hour out of Nuwara Eliya, the tea plantations start, and they coat the hillsides like unending topiary gardens. Every square inch is cultivated, and occasionally we also passed vegetable or rice plots (more vegetables and less rice the higher we climbed), terraced into the hillsides and giving the whole place an utterly fairytale appearance.
Graceful women with sacks strapped to their backs by headbands stooped over the bushes just like in the Dilmah ad. Huts in bright colours and a thin coating of black aspergillis appear, clumped in tiny villages every kilometer or so. They nestle around the tea factories, which themselves are identical elegant siblings. children rush out and wave spring onions or agapanthas at us, hoping for a quick sale, and despite the cold (about 16 C), everybody is barefoot.
We eventually arrived at Nuwara Eliya itself – a colourful village of tudor and cape-cod style housing resting in time around a lake and a shaggy racecourse. Many come here for golf, and the greens are velveteen masterpieces – I imagine they have been trimmed with the aid of a magnifying glass and nail clippers. You can read more about the unusual lodging we chose here
, and you can see more of my photos of the tea plantations here
The first day out was back to Kandy. When I had booked the journey, I assumed it was an easy day-trip, and it is, provided you don’t have young, spoiled children. Fortunately by the end I was channeling my inner Buddha, and was able to remain calm in a usually mind-scraping situation. The driver told us it was an hour and a half, but it was over two each way, and so with a 10am start, it left little time in between lunch and the return to enjoy Kandy itself.
The greatest attraction in Kandy is the massive Temple of the Tooth, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and said to hold the Buddha’s tooth – the only surviving relic from his cremation. I had read that 1 – it was expensive, and 2 – it was crowded, but I found both to be wrong. We were charged 2000 Rupees as a family (plus a token 100 for the holding of our shoes), and this allowed the four of us and our guide (Hasantha, our driver) to enter, and we were also given a mini CD to play later. That’s about $20 all up. We arrived at midday and did not queue, nor did we get shunted around like canned sardines.
The temple is made up of various buildings, ranging from origins as far back as the thirteenth century, and up to 1998, when the Mahawahalkada was bombed and needed to be replaced. Stepping through the entrance brings one into a haven from the clamour and smells of the busy streets on the exterior, and into an arcade with pic-nic lawns and trees with gnarled roots that could be sculptures. They lead to the Mahawahalkada, and walls and stairs with stunning relief sculpture. As you tiptoe in stocking-feet through to the main complex, you pass baskets of lilies and offering bouquets, which you can buy and present in the temple as your knowledge that life is a beautiful bloom that will eventually wither and die.
The roof is painted in more subtle and earthy tones than many of the Hindu and Buddhist temples I have seen, and I wonder if it has faded over time, or is a reflection of the dyes available when it was first worked on. Further inside are more paintings, carvings in wood, stone and ivory, brass antiques, and other treasures. Of course, we cannot see the tooth, which is protected pass-the-parcel style in 7 golden caskets, but the hall where it lies, and the people who manage to lose themselves in prayer despite the clunky tourists taking photos of them are attraction enough alone for me. I’m not going to take you all the way through, but lets say that your $20 family pass gets you a good hour or two of beauty to appreciate, as the entire complex is available to view.
Outside we found monkeys shagging on the fence railings, an elephant being washed in the moat, and people lighting candles and incense – another way of honouring the cycle of life. The grounds are enormous, and Hasantha took us down the back exit, where we found a market of flowers – purple lilies, orange marigolds and white jasmine, red and green tuk-tuks and Sri Lankan flags colouring the dirt road like a Gauguin painting. Don’t miss that – it’s free!
We finished with a lunch overlooking the temple from a nearby hill (another sterling recommendation from Hasantha) for which I have promptly forgotten the name – you will just have to book with him and find out for yourself.
One of his students asked Buddha, “Are you the messiah?”
“No”, answered Buddha.
“Then are you a healer?”
“No”, Buddha replied.
“Then are you a teacher?” the student persisted.
“No, I am not a teacher.”
“Then what are you?” asked the student, exasperated.
“I am awake”, Buddha replied.