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The Chinese called it the Land without Sorrow. The Arabs called it Serendip. And the Hindu epic Ramayana referred to it as the Garden in the Sky. Years later, Mark Twain described it as "sumptuously tropical—a dream of fairyland and paradise."

Sri Lanka has a reputation of superlatives. It gained independence in 1948, but didn't change its name until 1972 from Ceylon to Sri Lanka (meaning Resplendent Island). And resplendent it is. Like an emerald pendant dangling from the tip of India, Sri Lanka measures only 435 by 225 kilometers — just a bit larger than Switzerland.

Single lotus blossom surrounded by circle of lotus blossoms near Aukana Buddha
Single lotus blossom surrounded by circle of lotus blossoms near Aukana Buddha
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Culture and customs

Its rich 2,500-year-old culture lives on today in the customs and religions of the Sri Lankan people. While western influences have crept in, it is impossible not to be aware that the past is always present. As a result, this tiny country remains one of the few tourist destinations in the world that can still be described as exotic.

Where else but in Sri Lanka would you see a TV aerial swaying on top of a palm tree, an elephant towing a stalled car, or a medicine man performing a devil dance to cure an ailing villager?

Astrology still plays an important role in the lives of the people. Horoscopes must be favorable before a marriage can be arranged. Important activities, such as building a house or starting school, must wait until an auspicious day is indicated by the stars.

Monks in saffron robes

Buddhism is indelibly stamped in Sri Lanka. The majority of the population is Buddhist (the remainder are Hindu, Moslem and Christian). Nowhere is this more evident than in the monuments and monasteries scattered throughout the island. Monks still carry begging bowls, from door to door, to collect rice and curry from the villagers.

Meditating Buddha at Stone Temple in Polonnaruwa
Meditating Buddha at Stone Temple
in Polonnaruwa
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Anuradhapura, a 41-square-kilometer complex of dagabas (domed shrines), monasteries and water reservoirs, was Sri Lanka's capital over 2,000 years ago. At one time, 12,000 monks lived here. You must remove your shoes before entering the temples.

One of the first monasteries established in Sri Lanka was Mihintale, just 12 kilometers east of Anuradhapura. Thousands of pilgrims climb the 1,843 steps to the temple on Poson Poya (full-moon) day each June to celebrate the introduction of Buddhism to the island.

Enormous statues of Buddha

Ruins of the 11th- and 12th-century capital city of Polonnaruwa are half-buried in the jungle. A 25 acre citadel houses temples, a palace with baths, theatres and dance halls, as well as a troop of grey langur monkeys.

The most unforgettable sight, however, is the Gal Vihara, or Stone Temple, with its 14-meter reclining Buddha, a seven-meter standing Buddha and a 4.5-meter seated Buddha. They've been called the greatest Buddhist statues in Asia.

Weherahena Buddhist Temple, in Matara, is the largest in the country. A 39-meter-high statue of Buddha dominates the courtyard above an underground temple that defies superlatives. More than 20,000 paintings, depicting 550 stories of the life of Buddha line its innumerable corridors laid out like city streets.

Reclining Buddha
Reclining Buddha
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Temple of the Tooth

The most famous Buddhist temple on the island, however, is the 400-year-old Temple of the Tooth, in the hillside city of Kandy. It houses the sacred tooth relic of Buddha, which was smuggled into the country, in the hair of a princess, more than 1,600 years ago.

Even respectful non-believers may attend one of the poojas (rites) held three times daily. As temple musicians play ritual music, worshippers offer flowers and light tiny clay coconut oil lamps.

No photographs are allowed in the innermost sanctuary, but you can walk through the gold and ivory doors to gaze upon the seven bejeweled concentric golden caskets which house the relic. On Poya days, more than 100,000 people flock to the temple.

Elephant procession

The highlight of the Sri Lankan year is the Kandy Perahera. For ten nights, a replica of the relic casket is carried on elephant back during torchlight processions accompanied by monks, costumed dancers, musicians, and elephants.

The Perahera is normally held sometime in late July or early August. The exact dates are determined by astrologers and announced at an auspicious time.

At other times of the year, traditional Kandyan dancing can be seen at hotels throughout the city. Most performances begin with the blowing of a conch shell and include temple dances, harvest dances, devil dances and fire-eating.

Hindu heritage

Although the influence of Buddhism looms large in Sri Lanka, there's also a rich Hindu culture. At the Friday evening poojas, temple drums resound while people come to pray and make offerings of flowers and coconuts.

As usual in Sri Lanka, locals welcome visitors with pleasant smiles and an easy-going warmth that neither suffocates nor overwhelms. We emerged from a temple with ashes and sandalwood paste on our foreheads and a heightened awareness of a religion vastly different from our own.

Cliffside painting of bejeweled maiden at Sigiriya in The Fortress in the Sky
Cliffside painting of bejeweled maiden at Sigiriya in The Fortress in the Sky
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

World Heritage Site

While many attractions are religious in nature, not all are representative of a harmonious, peaceful existence. Sigiriya is a monument of a different sort. In the late 5th century, a young prince named Kasyapa, murdered his father with the hope of gaining the throne.

Afraid that his brother would take revenge, he sought refuge on the three-acre summit of a monolithic rock, building an impregnable fortress from where he ruled for 18 years.

Although the 194-meter-high mountain appears to be inaccessible, it can be climbed if you are in reasonably good shape and don't suffer from acrophobia.

At least climb the 842 steps to the grotto in the mountainside which shelters some 19 portraits of voluptuous damsels adorned with jewelry and intricate coiffures. Painted by unknown artists more than 1,500 years ago, the colors remain vivid and the images haunting.

The final ascent is made on narrow steel steps culminating in tiny footholds carved into the mountainside. Clinging to the wall and slowly edging upwards, you can't help but wonder how the city could have been built, let alone attacked. From this vantage point, climbers are rewarded with a breathtaking panorama of jungles, lakes and mountains.


Sri Lanka Tourist Board: www.srilanka.travel