de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2005). A Mosaic of Culture and Nature. Compass, the magazine of the Pacific Asia Travel Association. July-August 2005. Pages 26-27.
As a destination, Sri Lanka has everything.
Sri Lanka has over the centuries been described as a tropical paradise. This is not surprising as it is a destination that has everything. Sun, sea, sandy beaches, cool mountains, ancient stupas and lakes, forests teeming with wildlife, precious stones, magnificent archaeological sites and above all a friendly people. Combine this with a well educated, English conversant people and a good tourist infrastructure, it is not hard to see why it continues to enjoy being a popular tropical island destination. The beach fringed coastline gives way to a wet and rugged mountainous interior. Snorkeling in the morning, can be followed by hill-walking by nightfall, in this compact island.

Physically, Sri Lanka is a tear drop shaped island in the Indian Ocean separated from the Indian peninsula by the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Strait, the width of the narrowest stretch of water being 32 km. It is 432 km from north to south and 224 km from east to west and is approximately 66,000 square kilometers. It enjoys fine sandy beaches almost all around the island with the strip from the west coast to the south, with its sandy bays and delightful coves, developed heavily for beach based tourism. The beach resorts at Negombo to the north of Colombo, and those to the south at Bentota and Beruwela are magnets for beach lovers and watersports enthusiasts. Further south in Unawatuna and Hikkaduwa are fine beaches with good prospects for snorkeling and diving. Swimmers share the ocean with turtles.

Heading further south on the coast are the Dutch fortress towns of Galle and Matara. Continuing south, the sanctuaries of Kalametiya and the national parks of Bundala and Ruhuna (Yala) are reached. Here, the jungle belongs to elephants, leopards and dozens of other large animals that can be seen on safari. Tissamaharama, previously the center of an ancient kingdom, is now a thriving safari center. As with elsewhere in the country, wildlife and culture are inseparable.

The exciting mix of wildlife and culture, created when cultural outposts hold back the jungle tide, is nowhere more evident than in the ancient capitals of the north central plains. Culturally, the ancient kingdoms of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa rival those of other ancient cultures such as the Egyptians, Mayas and Incas. But in the latter, ancient religions have been extinguished with the passage of time. In contrast, many of Sri Lanka’s ancient temples, dating to pre-Christian periods, are still flourishing in a Buddhist and Hindu culture that is still vibrantly alive. In the travel trade, the island is referred to as Buddha’s Island, in reflection of its long association with Buddhism and the impact the religion has on the physical landscape as well as the social and political fabric of its society. The legacy of ancient cultures is much in evidence in the hundreds of ancient man made lakes that dot the country, especially so in the dry lowlands.

A historical legacy survives of many examples of an early appreciation of aesthetics. From the sublime rock cut sculptures at the Gal Vihara in Polonnaruwa to the sheer hedonistic delight of the fratricidal King Kasyappa who sought to reconstruct heaven, on an isolated rock monolith at Sigiriya. The gardens and palace at Sigiriya are an early example of the organic movement of architecture, sympathetic to the in-situ landscape. Today, what survives includes the famous frescoes of beautiful maidens who provoke much debate.

Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa form the two apices of a cultural triangle. The third, to the south of them is the hill capital of Kandy. This became the seat of the Sinhalese kings after successive invasions and internal dissent led to the abandoning of the magnificent capitals in the north central plains. The route south to Kandy from the north central plains runs past the cave temple complex of Dambulla and the Aluvihara in Matale. Dambulla is breathtaking. Cave after cave has its walls covered with ancient paintings.

Kandy in the cool mid-hills, is the center of the nation’s Buddhist soul. The Dalada Maligawa or Temple of the Tooth Relic, houses a tooth of the Buddha, retrieved from his funeral pyre. Every year, the Esala Perahera, one of the most spectacular pageants in the world, is celebrated with over a hundred caparisoned elephants and thousands of drummers and dancers taking to the streets.

The British, who finally subdued the Kandyan kingdom, set their sights higher and established the hill station of Nuwara Eliya, up in the highlands. The hill station still retains a colonial elegance with its mock Tudor and Queen Anne style houses. A journey to the highlands will take you through mile after mile of tea plantations, forming green carpets that cover the mountainsides.

Tea came at a price. Much of the island’s bio-diversity was lost, before science could catch up with it. What little is left clings to the harsh mountain tops and ridges and a few protected areas like the Horton Plains National Park, once the hunting grounds of the British. Although much diminished in size, the highland plateau and forest continue to be a refuge for many plants and animals found nowhere lese in the world. The beautiful leopard still holds sway all the way from the jungle fringed beaches of the lowlands to the cloud forests of Horton Plains.

An ancient network of footpaths criss-cross the island, making it ideal for trekkers and cyclists to explore ‘off the beaten track”. Perhaps the best known trails are those leading to the sacred peak of Sri Pada or Adam’s Peak. One trail starts all the way from Ratnapura, the city of gems. The gravel beds around Ranapura are rich in precious minerals and a thriving prospectors’ town has built up around an industry that makes Sri Lanka one of the world’s top five producers of gem stones. The Ratnapura area is home to another gem, the Sinharaja lowland rain forest, where half the tree species are found only in Sri Lanka.
In contrast to the rustic simplicity of the facilities of Sinharaja, the country’s business capital Colombo has the usual developing country mix of five star hotels and luxury apartments competing for land with unsightly slums. The urban sprawl of Colombo spreads ever outwards, smothering the countryside in its wake in a pall of pollution and traffic congestion. Even here, however, are havens of peace and refuges for wildlife. The Talangama marshes are a wetland jewel within half an hour’s drive of central Colombo. The city, like much of the country, once derived its wealth from trade winds that brought merchants and adventurers to its shores in search of spices and elephants for export. Today, the new merchants of Colombo fly business class, taking their garments, spices and software to the east and west.

This article is adapted from The Magic of Sri Lanka, written and photographed by Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne, published by New HollandPublishers (London).