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Friday, 02 May 2014 11:56

Surprising Sri Lanka

Written by  Roberta Sotonoff

Asia-indiaThe call is punctual but surprising - monkeys pounding on the window. Not the traditional wake-up call. That comes later.

So begins my Sri Lankan odyssey. I am surprised that this island country south of India -- slightly larger than West Virginia - is home to eight World Heritage Sites, Buddhist holy sites, safaris, a very unique festival, Ceylon tea and hordes of elephants. Nor am I prepared for the heat, humidity, heart-stopping traffic and the cacophony of
beeping horns.

 

A welcome reprieve from crazy traffic is a visit to some of the numerous ruins of unique monasteries, stupas (pagodas) and temples, like Anuradhapura. This Buddhist pilgrimage destination contains monastery ruins and a 2,300-year-old bodhi tree, like the one under which Buddha is said to have meditated. It also is home to the world’s largest pagoda. Mr. H. C. P. Bell, a former British governor, said the stupa had enough bricks to make a 3-ft wide and 6-ft high wall from London to Edinburgh.

Another World Heritage Site, Sigiriya, has a palace on top. It reminded me of Israel’s Masada. The, 1,000-year-old, 656-foot-high, rock fortress once resembled a lion. All that remains are the lion’s paws at the “lion’s throat“ entrance.

Elephants
But it isn’t just Sri Lanka’s ruins and religious sites that astonished me. It is the reverence the natives give to elephants. When religious rites and elephants are combined, the result is truly amazing.

In July and August, the city of Kandy hosts the 10-day Perahera (Tooth Relic Festival). Commemorating their possession of Buddha’s tooth, they host a nightly, four-hour procession of constant drumming, acrobats, flame throwers, stilt walkers, jugglers, dancers and elephants. Onlookers watch from bleacher seats. Another surprise - not one I expected at a Sri Lankan celebration - before the procession began, a guy fanned the audience taking orders for Domino’s pizza.  

The most exciting part of the parade are 82 elephants “dressed to the trunk” in silk and satin embroidered robes, golden tusk covers, plus illuminated ears and trunk covers. They move their trunks to the beat of the drums. The glowing lights make these goliaths almost phantom-like. The highlight? Three elephants march in tandem. The center pachyderm carries the tooth on his back. Canopy covered, it is encased in seven golden caskets. This year, the festival dates are August 1 - 11.

During the year, the relic, purported to have been retrieved from Buddha’s ashes, is kept in Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth Relic), an original part of the Royal Palace. Every morning at 10am, an elephant and his mahout (trainer) bring flowers and bow in front of its entrance.

Sri Lankans love elephants so much there is even an orphanage, Pinnawala, near the capital, Colombo. Visitors can obtain baby bottles and feed the “little ones” as well as purchase “poo paper” made from elephant dung. It doesn’t look much different than regular paper, but it’s a funny souvenir.

Safari Adventures
In late afternoon, herds of elephants roam Minneriya National Park. Others went on this safari in Land Rovers, but for some reason, I got an old, funky Jeep that had to be pushed to start. After bumping down a rutty road bordered by bamboo and forest, some monkeys and a lake appear in the clearing. About 100 elephants - babies, moms, aunts, cousins - munch on the grassy shore. Egrets are their companions. A lonely crocodile sits on the shoreline. The animals make the beat-up jeep
ride worthwhile.

But Minnerya pales next to Yala National Park, where no one has to push the vehicle to get it started. Not long into the ride, animals begin to appear, water buffalos, spotted deer, more elephants, wild pigs and a beautiful bird called a Green Bee Eater. Then, Benny, the driver/guide gets a phone call from one of the other guides. Our car zooms off, leaving only a cloud of dust in its wake. We drive toward the water and stop.

Seven other vehicles are there. Suddenly, the bush is moving. An oversized cat leaps passed. Leopards! Then, out of the bush, a mama and a baby leopard leisurely stroll across the road. There are only 38 of these incredible animals in the park and they are rarely seen. We are lucky.
On the way back, there is a wild boar. He stops at each vehicle, looking for a handout. They roam the hotel grounds.

Wild boars, leopards, monkeys, elephants, Buddhist temples and World Heritage sites. Just a sample of my encounters. Like the safari, Sri Lanka is full of exotic sites and surprises.

Trip to Sri Lanka are very reasonably priced, and can be arranged by Indus Tours. Visit www.indus.travel, or call 866-978-2997.

Visit www.srilanka.travel

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