Chapter 4, Part 23
On the day we left the southwest Sri Lankan port of Galle for Kandy, I was still recuperating from a persistent cough. It was a result of the fast boat journey we took from the Bandas to Ambon, then the flights from Ambon to Makassar, Makassar to Kuala Lumpur, and eventually Kuala Lumpur to Colombo, as well as our short but distressing stay in Hikkaduwa, leaving both of us in a sleep-deprived condition when we arrived in Galle two days earlier.
We had to take the train to Colombo before changing to another train going to Kandy since there was no direct railway connecting Galle and Sri Lanka’s second largest city. After the train arrived at Galle station and some passengers disembarked, droves of travelers – foreign tourists and locals alike – climbed into the carriages. With two backpacks each, we were trying to find seats for us without knocking someone down as the cars were jam-packed with people. Amid the jostling, I was pleasantly surprised to see independent Mainland Chinese tourists willing to take such an uncomfortable form of local transportation, contrary to their stereotype as pampered, group-travel only tourists. Traveling does help us fight stereotypes, doesn’t it?
Taking a train ride in Sri Lanka always makes me a little anxious – thanks to the nerve-wracking experience I had back in 2012 on my very first trip to the country – and this one was no different. We had booked second class tickets one day prior to our date of departure. However, aboard the train we found out that all second class seats were occupied. An officer noticed our confusion and offered us to be seated on the third class instead. The train was about to depart, and getting proper seats instead of having to stand all the way to Colombo far outweighed the hassle of demanding an explanation for the situation.
We jumped off the second class carriage and hopped on the one the officer pointed out. He guided us through a packed aisle and walked toward the end of the car where two empty seats were available, just enough for us and our baggage. With more passengers on board, the third class carriage certainly felt very cramped and claustrophobic. To my left was a guy who midway between Galle and Colombo grinned and asked me for water, meanwhile the person sitting next to the man across me offered us some crackers and cream soda. Hot, humid, crowded, but friendly, it was reminiscent of Indonesian economy trains more than ten years ago.
After stopping over at Colombo Fort station for a few hours, we took a more comfortable train to Kandy, our final destination. As the train moved deeper and higher into Sri Lanka’s mountainous interior, a magnificent landscape of undulating verdant hills unfolded before my eyes. A towering gigantic rock with a flat summit, reminding me of Sigiriya in the country’s Cultural Triangle, was as imposing as I had remembered. Not long after sunset, we finally arrived in Kandy. Located 500 meters above sea level, Kandy was considerably cooler than Galle and Colombo. The city once served as the capital of the Kingdom of Kandy, which since the end of 16th century was the sole independent native kingdom on the island. It ensured its survival by forging alliances with foreign forces – from the southern Indian dynasty of the Nayaks, to the Portuguese and the Dutch – to subdue their common rivals. In the early 19th century, however, the Kingdom of Kandy eventually succumbed to the British, marking the end of the island’s last independent kingdom.
We had planned to make Kandy our base to explore Sri Lanka’s cultural heritage, including Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, hence our decision to stay for eight days in the city. Located on the third floor of a multi-story apartment building a little outside the city center, our one-room only guesthouse was managed by husband and wife Mahesh and Achini, who were both P.E. teachers. They rented the remaining rooms on the same floor while taking care of their guests. The landlords themselves lived on the ground floor.
Not only was Achini among the warmest and most helpful hosts throughout our six-month trip, but she was also a chef extraordinaire. During our stay, she prepared a great variety of Sri Lankan delicacies: pol roti (coconut flatbread) and onion sambol (made with onion, turmeric, curry leaves, tamarind, chili flakes, and umbalakada – cured bonito from the Maldives) for breakfast; beetroot, chicken, and jackfruit curries, also gotukola sambol (made with pennywort, red onion and grated coconut) for dinner; as well as refreshing wood apple juice and silky smooth milk tea made with Sri Lanka’s own Dilmah brand. Her freshly-made wood apple juice was a revelation after my bad impression of the juice back in 2012, and her milk tea still is the best I’ve ever had.
When we were not venturing into the island’s Cultural Triangle, we explored ancient Buddhist temples around Kandy. On our second day, Achini hailed a well-mannered and soft-spoken rickshaw driver who would take us to three temples which Mahesh described the night before as “wood temple, stone temple, and wood-stone temple.” The first was Embekka Devalaya, also known as Sri Katharagama Maha Devalaya, a 14th-century temple built as a place to worship an ancient Sinhalese king. According to an old man who guided us through the temple, there were no less than 540 carved panels adorning parts of this centuries-old heritage building.
The second temple we visited was Lankatilaka Vihara, built by King Bhuvanekabahu IV in the mid-14th century, which is depicted on the obverse of the 500 Sri Lankan rupee banknote. Located on top of a rock where stairs were carved into its slopes, the Buddhist temple’s white facades concealed the intricate frescoes adorning the inner sanctum. At the back of the main edifice, a smaller shrine housing images of deities associated with Sri Lankan Buddhism stood testament to a time when Hinduism influenced Buddhist teachings on the island. Upulvan, believed to be the protector of Buddhism in the country, was depicted in the shrine as a four-handed deity with a blue complexion – very similar to the image of Vishnu, one of the chief deities in Hinduism.
The last of the temple trio we went to was Gadaladeniya Vihara, built by the same king who commissioned Lankatilaka Vihara. Due to the ongoing renovation works at the temple at the time of our visit, we decided to go to an office at the temple’s compound where we met a man who said he was an artist taking part in the restoration works. He explained that here at the temple, the Buddha was depicted alongside kinnura (Sri Lankan version of kinnara, celestial beings in Hindu cosmology), another evidence of the incorporation of Hindu aspects into the teachings of Buddhism during the reign of King Bhuvanekabahu IV.
On the fourth day of our stay in Kandy, we finally went downtown where everything looked and felt so familiar to me: with the artificial lake and its fountain, the supermarket where I tried wood apple juice for the first time, and all the colonial buildings around the lake, nothing had really changed. Sri Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth) at the heart of the city was our destination the day after. Not only is it the focal point of Kandy, but the temple also houses a relic of the Buddha’s tooth, making it among the most important and revered temples for Sri Lankan Buddhists. Due to its symbolism, the temple was targeted by the LTTE rebels (Tamil Tigers) in 1998 who fought against the largely Buddhist Sinhalese community until 2009, 26 years after the first conflict erupted. Sri Lanka is now at peace, but as is the case with other places recovering from the wounds of war, challenges remain.
From our balcony at the guesthouse, when we were not exploring the country’s impressive ancient sites, we marveled at a verdant hill peppered with several white buildings. Birds and squirrels frolicked in the trees, seemingly unconcerned by the presence of humans watching them in delight. While sipping Achini’s perfectly brewed milk tea – not overly sweet, but so rich in taste – we were awestruck by the afternoon skies over Kandy which changed color into blazing orange one day, and vibrant purple the next. Before dark, thousands or even millions of bats left their nests at Peradeniya Botanical Garden – a 19th-century creation of the garden-loving Britons some 5 km to the west of Kandy – flying eastward to forage for food. It was blissful moments like these that characterized our stay in this peaceful city.
Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.