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TIME OUT

Things to do in Sri Lanka

What takes your fancy? Beaches? Culture? Ruins? R.K. RADHAKRISHNAN looks at the country's fabled delights.

R.K. RADHAKRISHNAN

... and what lies inside.

SRI Lanka has all the ingredients of a modern-day paradise. Sun, sea and sand, exciting water sports, huge shopping malls and stirring casinos.

So, for the leisure seeker there is "work" with so much to choose from. Here's the list. Explore the ruins around the country with a complex history dating back to 543 B.C. Laze on the beach and dive in coral reefs. Observe wildlife. Hike through tea estates or wander through the ruins of ancient temples and palaces ... it can go on and on. And all this and more at a bargain for the cost-conscious Indian traveller. Most South Indians can pass off as locals, so there are no nagging guides or curious eyes following you.

A triangle of culture

Sri Lanka's cultural triangle lies roughly in its central region. Anuradhapura, Kandy and Polonnaruwa — all ancient capitals of Sri Lanka — form its three corners with Sigiriya at the centre. Inside this region lies one of Asia's richest archaeological heritage sites. In fact the cultural triangle includes five of Sri Lanka's well-preserved seven "World Heritage Sites".

The special sites here include the Jetavana and Abhayagiri monastery complexes at Anuradhapura, the Alahana Parivena monastic university and the royal city and palaces at Polonnaruva, the Sigiriya rock and the painted cave temples at Dambulla.

Sri Lanka is a country that boasts of 23 centuries of well-recorded and documented history, where Sinhala kings reigned for nearly 2,300 years. King Pandukabhaya founded Anuradhapura, which later became the political capital of the country for nearly 1,000 years. This city was also the spiritual home of Buddhism for nearly 2,300 years. Invasions from South India were a constant threat. Because of the constant intrusions, in 1070, King Vijayabahu, who drove the Cholas out, established a new capital at Polonnaruwa. The capital prospered for over two centuries, especially under King Parakramabahu, who turned it into one of Asia's most splendid cities. However, Indian incursions resumed and Polonnaruwa fell in 1215.

With internal strife and economic troubles from time to time, the capital was moved to Ruhuna, Dambadeniya, Yapahuwa, Kurunegala, Gampola, Dedigama, Kotte, Seethawaka and Kandy. Each place has well-preserved historical remnants from the period.

Even recent history hasn't escaped attention. For instance, the museum attached to the Temple of the Holy Tooth Relic in Kandy has captured in pictures the gory details of an aborted Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) attack on the most guarded and revered Buddhist place of worship. While the temple suffered extensive damage, the relic was not damaged. It still attracts the largest number of visitors, both pilgrims and tourists.

Another wonder is the ruins on top of Mount Mu at Sigiriya, easily among the best-preserved city centres in Asia from the Fifth Century A.D. On the ground below the Mount, lie the buildings and gardens at varying levels.



Splendour ... the temple of the sacred tooth relic in Kandy ...

The complex consists of the central rock, rising 200 metres above the surrounding plain, and two rectangular precincts on the east (90 hectares) and the west (40 hectares), surrounded by two moats and three ramparts. "It's the eighth wonder of world," says my driver Leslie. In fact most Sri Lankans are offended that this complex does not find mention among the seven listed wonders.

The plan of the city is based on a precise square module and displays the grandeur and complexity of urban-planning. The layout extends outwards from co-ordinates at the centre of the palace complex at the summit, with the eastern and western axis directly aligned to it. The water garden, moats and ramparts are based on an "echo plan" duplicating the layout and design on either side.

And leisure

And now for the leisure part. Hotels in Sri Lanka cater to almost every need. Choose from the hotel where cricketers Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman stayed (the Hunas Falls Hotel, Kandy) or the most expensive designer hotel, which will pamper you (The Elephant Corridor, Sigiriya). Or try out India's own Taj Group — the Taj Samudra, Colombo, and the Taj Exotica Hotel, Bentota. "One more is coming up," says the Taj's Mohan Kumar. And if you want to do something different, learn to make tea at a well-preserved ex-tea factory (The Tea Factory Hotel, Nuwara Eliya).

* * *

Factfile

Flights: Sri Lankan Airlines flies to Colombo from New Delhi, Bodh Gaya (seasonal), Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Kozhikode, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram, Tiruchirapalli and Chennai. The airline has added 11 more flights from India from October 31, taking the total number of flights to 77 a week.

Indian Airlines flies from Tiruchirapalli, Chennai, Mumbai and New Delhi to Colombo.

Jet Airways flies daily from Chennai to Colombo.

Air Sahara has permission to operate 21 flights/week. It now operates flights from Chennai and Bangalore to Colombo.

Getting around: Colombo, the suburbs and major towns are connected by road and rail. The railway network comprises nine lines radiating from Colombo, which connect most major population and industrial centres.

Buses (this includes air-conditioned vehicles) ply to and from all major cities and towns to Colombo. These are cheap and dependable.

For short city hops, tuk-tuks (autorickshaws) are available all over the country. Since these are private vehicles (and hence no installed fare meters), one has to negotiate the rate before travel. There are many reliable and accredited cab operators.

  • If you are in transit or have come on a short visit, a one or two-day trip to Kandy, Sigiriya, Polonnaruva or Anuradhapura is worth undertaking. From Colombo, you could reach Kandy and Dambulla in just over three hours; while Sigiriya, Polonnaruva and Anuradhapura could take upto five hours. Sri Lanka has decent roads, but there are too many vehicles.

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