We spent Christmas and New Year on the road. Our route criss-crossed the cultural triangle, an area north of the hill country where ancient kings once built sacred cities and irrigated the land with a network of elaborate tanks. We then went east to remote towns and national parks where white faces were still a thing of curiosity. Finally we travelled south, through the tea plantations of the eastern hill country, and to the idyllic beaches on the south coast. Over 1,700 kilometres in our little Maruti 800.
With the car we had bought our freedom and were able to explore remote cave temples and mountain shrines, and stop at towns and villages as we pleased. There is a certain charm about the small urban places one encounters when travelling between bigger commercial centres, in their crowded streets, dust, and tired concrete buildings. Often there is something unexpected about them which can give a place an identity not instantly apparent. Look closely and there may be an old colonial building immersed in the modern town, or beautiful trees that line main streets, lovingly kept and in contrast to the cracked tarmac they shade. There will likely be an elaborately sculpted Hindu kovil, a minaret that pierces the skyline clad in painted tiles, or lines of Buddhist prayer flags that leave a trail of fluttering shadows.
The towns, villages and roads provide a place for small business and innovative ventures, run by people who are always willing to tell their story. On the road from Kurunegela to Anuradhapura we stopped at a roadside café. The owner had set up a bakery behind for short eats and had expanded his business to include biscuits of unusual flavours and ingredients. He showed us the large stone oven that provided the only light in the dark rooms and we watched a worker make fish buns. His biscuits used only local ingredients, and included flavours such as garlic and rice, and water lily seeds.
Our going was slow to Anuradhapura, as all the surrounding roads were being resurfaced in preparation for the annual Independence Day celebrations held in February. The result was kilometres of rocks, vicious pot holes, mud, dust, and angry bus drivers.
Anuradhapura became capital of Sri Lanka in 380 BC and over the next several hundred years the great kings constructed magnificent monuments and irrigation systems. Today the sacred city is set in scorched forests just north of the new town. Majestic dagobas rise out of the trees, ancient monuments to ethereal times. Three are working shrines and places of pilgrimage today and are plastered brilliant white with a glittering golden spire on top. But the colossal Jetavanrama Dagoba is left in partial ruin, and foliage and monkeys cling to the gentle curves of the exposed brickwork that is the colour of baked clay.
Humans and animals share these places. The ancient buildings provide a sanctuary for magnificent monitor lizards, exotic birds, monkeys, turtles, giant squirrels, flying foxes and semi-wild buffalo. The monuments themselves were often dedicated to mythical beasts. The weathered remains of five-headed cobras and the multi-species makara adorned bathing pools and palaces.
Surrounding the site are three reservoirs, known as tanks in Sinhalese. They date from the 4th century BC and provide water for agriculture during the long, arid dry season. The largest, Nuwara Wesa, covers 1,200 hectares and is still used today as a place for bathing, washing and leisure. Nearby are the remains of a monastery where, so the tale goes, monks dressed in scraps of clothing taken from corpses lived on a diet of rice.
The new town was typically chaotic, noisy and full of the clamour of urban Sri Lanka. It was designed under the tutelage of eminent town planner Sir Patrick Abercrombie, and incorporated the most roundabouts in any Sri Lankan town as part of a baffling road system. Driving through modern Anuradhapura is an exercise in concentration and patience. Cows, potholes, bicycles, buses and crowds of people fill the dusty streets. And a network of roundabouts in a country that has no discernible right of way makes navigation all the more tricky.
We stayed in a small guest house run by an old school friend of my Director. He served great feasts of stringhoppers, milk rice, fish, dhal and potato curries, and poppadums. A generous man, and in keeping with the legendary Sri Lankan hospitality, he plied us with arrack. Together we polished off two bottles on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Small B roads took us east through rural villages surrounded by jungle, paddy fields, and ancient tanks. To the south, the peaks of the Knuckles mountain range shimmered in the intense heat. Treacherous road surfaces made the going slow but this suited our frame of mind. Agriculture and employment in the public sector seemed to be the main industries, and we passed intriguing government departments such as the Coconut Research Institute and the Wild Elephant Control Unit.
Apart from the hill country, Sri Lanka’s topography is generally flat except for numerous rocky outcrops that sit like giant domes on the landscape, carpeted with trees. Dimbulagala’s peak, known as Gunner’s Quoin, rises over 500 metres from the eastern plains. At its top is a magnificent Buddhist shrine, presiding over the land like a giant white sentry.
The climb was a humid scramble up rocks and through dense jungle patrolled by troops of monkeys, eager to steal delicious treats, such as the freshly cooked corn on the cobs sold along the route by locals. We were met with breath taking views from the rocky summit. From the shrine, the resident monk pointed out, we could see the eastern forests which used to be the stronghold of the LTTE. The peak formed a border of sorts, as well as the administrative boundary of the north central and eastern provinces. Looking at the dense foliage that stretched to the horizon in all directions it became clear why Sri Lanka had only recently emerged from a bloody civil conflict lasting 25 years, the longest in recent Asian history. Guerrilla warfare in this terrain would test even the most powerful armies.