Aptly nicknamed ‘The Pearl of the Indian Ocean’, Sri Lanka is an eclectic mix of all things exotic. Being a sociology student, I was naturally interested in understanding how the social fabric of the island had been weaved over the years, and how it continues to change even today. For this, I planned a seven-day trip with the assistance of Diethelm Travel Sri Lanka to go on a fact-finding mission to understand how this small island contains many diverse communities. Here are the cities that I found to be intertwined with unique culture and heritage.
The commercial capital, Colombo, is known to any traveller visiting the island as a city where economic growth is at the heart of its machinations. However, when I went to explore the Pettah Markets and the Colombo Fort, I understood that its commercial activity is underpinned by the culture of the community.
Walking down Olcott Mawatha, Second Cross Street, Wolvendaal Lane, and Sea Street, I was able to see some interesting places of worship that can be traced to the colonial period. Moreover, going past the myriad of street vendors and shops, I was able to observe how the shop keepers, regardless of ethnicity or religion, cooperate with fellow businessmen in the area, which made me conclude that even in a place where the chaos of commercial hustle and bustle is the norm, cultural harmony is what keeps it running.
The very next day I set off north to Jaffna wondering what would be in store for me. When I got there, the first thing I noticed was there were much lesser buildings than in Colombo, but more importantly, I was able to immediately identify that the city is home to a majority Hindu population, as it was home to many interesting kovils. The ones I visited were the most prominent ones, such as the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil, and the Nagapooshani Amman Kovil in Nagadeepa island. I found that every detail of the kovils was a piece of art that coincided with the ancient lore behind the place of worship.
Heading south from Jaffna, I finally arrived at the famous Cultural Triangle, located in the North-Central and Central Provinces, in which most of the island’s ancient history begins. As time was a major constraint, I was here only for three days. Regardless, I was able to explore most of the prominent monuments in the three notable cities.
When in Anuradhapura, I explored the ancient city in which the first kingdom of the country came to existence in the 4th century BC. One of the attractions that caught my attention was the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhiya, as it is the oldest planted tree in the world, and is considered to be the sapling of the very tree that Lord Buddha meditated under in India. This made me realise how deeply intertwined the religion of Buddhism is with the culture.
Polonnaruwa was another interesting experience for me, as I felt like Indiana Jones trying to find the Crystal Skull. The ancient city of Polonnaruwa is considered to be where the second kingdom of the island came to power. Tracing its origins way back to the 11th century, the Gal Vihara Temple, and the Vatadage are places that allowed me to reimagine a lost kingdom. Many monuments are dedicated either for practicing, or teaching the peaceful religion of Buddhism. Moreover, these monuments also housed ancient relics that once belonged to Lord Buddha.
The hill country city of Kandy is where the last monarch ruled until the British colonised the entire island in the 19th century. Regardless, the prominence of the Temple of the Tooth Relic, which houses the left canine of Lord Buddha, along with the vibrant pageantry of Esala Perahera (procession) showcases how Hindu and Buddhists share religious customs. The Christian and Muslim minority’s influence can also be witnessed when exploring St. Paul’s Church and Meera Mosque respectively.
Even before I arrived at the island, I had heard several stories of how beautiful the southern coastal town of Galle was. Many likened it to an old European walled city, and how right they were! The Galle Fort instantly transports you to Europe with the cobblestone streets, and neo-classical architecture. I felt like I was walking along the streets of Rome at one point. But what makes this place unique is the many societies that dwell here.
The churches, the Buddhist temple, and the mosque having a history going back to the colonial times showcase how coexistence was the norm even back in the day. Accentuating this experience was the exemplary sceneries and the friendly people I spoke to. In short, Galle was one-of-a-kind.
When the time came for me to leave, I felt quite sad to leave so soon. The ever-changing vistas, the friendly people, customs, culture, and heritage all made me realise how even a small island can hold some of the best surprises for any traveller.