When our flight landed at the Bandamaike International Airport exactly after an hour from Chennai, we emerged with our baggage and were eagerly looking for our guide, and within minutes we spotted him running towards us waving the placard with our names. “I am Bodhi Narayan, you can call me Bodhi,” he said, shaking our hands with a smile. Soon he disappeared to fetch his car and we found ourselves seated in a Nissan (later we realised Bodhi was not only its owner but was very proud of his latest car) and from here began our journey by road into the Land of Buddha replete with history of political, cultural, and religious significance.
We headed towards Kandy, a distance of about 116 km, after exchanging our currency from dollars to Sri Lankan rupees. After an hour or so we stopped at a wayside restaurant since Bodhi wished to have a bite and we, some tea. I was in for a surprise when the waiter brought a trayful of bakery products and placed them in front of Bodhi. One look at them made me think our chauffeur would take at least half-an-hour to consume the whole lot of them, but he took just one biscuit, and gulped it down with tea and asked for the bill. The waiter took the rest back. Bodhi informed us that a similar practice was followed in restaurants here where all the items were placed before the guests for them to make their choice.
As we approached Kandy we found the whole city wore a festive look, Buddhists clad in white clothes worn in Sri Lankan style were seen going in processions, and Wesak paper lanterns of different shapes and size hung from shop windows. It was the festival of Wesak, the most hallowed of Buddhist festivals commemorating the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha, which is held on the full moon day in May and the day following it.
Roads were lined with alms booths erected by local people who were stopping passersby and offering refreshments served on tables and chairs placed inside the temporary sheds. We found it difficult to refuse their hospitality.
After checking into Queens hotel, an 1840 vintage Raj classic which appeared to preserve its true British style with its period furniture and decor intact, we made it to the cultural show consisting of dances of Sri Lanka held in an open auditorium nearby.
The Pantheru Natuma needs special mention where the dancers dressed as Sinhala warriors, on their way to the battle, manipulate the pantheru akin to the tamborine with great skill and dexterity and create a series of vigorous acrobatic and rhythmic forms. Fire walking forms the climax of the show where devotees, after seeking the blessings of Lord Katiragama and Goddess Pattini, walk barefoot on burning coals. This daring event just takes your breath away!
The focus of Kandy is its lake with the Temple of The Tooth, Sri Dalada Maligawa, on its northern side. We were overawed by the sheer magnificence of the Buddhist architecture and the gilded-roofed chamber housing the sacred Tooth Relic. Climbing endless stairs to reach the sanctum sanctorum, we waited for the doors of the chamber (the workmanship of these was intricate and delicate) to open.
They opened to the accompaniment of chiming bells and there lay the golden casket in the centre consisting of the Tooth Relic. Of course, we could not have a glimpse of it as it is taken out only on special occasions. The new building behind has a beautiful image of Buddha and his disciples and on the wall the story of the Tooth Relic is related with accompanying pictures. Photography is permitted even though there is bag and body search before entering the temple. Since it was the Wesak festival, we noticed the whole place was lit by coconut oil lamps in earthern containers completing the festive look.
End of the day in search of vegetarian food, we spotted a modest Indian restaurant, and, for the second time, noticed the day’s menu displayed on a plate being placed before us to pick up the item of our choice.
The following morning, after breakfast, we visited the gem museum and lapidary where we saw a CD showing how gem bearing gravel was dug out from the mines, washed thoroughly and the gem stones that were collected sorted according to their categories and quality. There was a miniature model of the gem mines and models of workers engaged in the different processes which was interesting to watch.
From here we visited the famous Royal Botanical Gardens, Peradenia, and this is a place where you can lose yourself and become one with nature, such is its beauty and awe. The total area is 147 acres containing about 4,000 species and armed with the guide map you can cover as much as your feet can take you.
We found the double coconut palms from Seychelles fascinating for their gigantic size, each coconut weighs 10 to 20 kg! The spice garden, the rising bamboo trees forming an arch, the flower garden are some of the other attractions here.
Reluctantly, we had to bid goodbye to this wonder of nature as we had to proceed to our next destination, Nuwera Eliya, a hill station, a distance of 80 km, with an ascent of 1,400 meters.
(To be continued)
N Meera Raghavendra Rao