Letter from Sri Lanka

Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.
—Gautama Buddha

Dear H,

Sri Lanka assaulted our senses the moment we stepped outside the airport in Colombo and into the humid, lotus-scented air. Every scrap of earth not covered by pavement lay underwater or pushed up something green, or both. Even at 3:30 in the morning, after 30 hours of traveling, even with armed soldiers crisscrossing the departing lanes of traffic, the night pulsed with vegetable life, the squawks of birds, the bellows of frogs. I felt the fragility of human civilization when measured against the strength of nature, this jungle breathing all around us, waiting to reclaim its island.

Tea estate bordering Reservoir, near Hatton

Enclosed again in the car with our driver, leaving the airport, I saw my first Buddhist shrine within five minutes. First a light appeared in the darkness, then a white Buddha statue sitting in a glass box, deep in contemplation, hove into view. As we drew level, then passed the little temple, I glimpsed its solitary devotee: a black cat crouched over a bowl on a platform outside the box. Later I would know the feline was enjoying a bowl of rice, for rice, fresh fruit, lotus flowers—and money—are what supplicants bring to temples. Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment by learning to master his senses, and nowhere does it seem more difficult to do that than in Sri Lanka. Western travelers, like me, want to indulge our senses, and everything here rushes at them. Beyond the unfamiliar languages and the noise of traffic, one hears so much animal life: I registered the sounds of birds and dogs everywhere, water buffaloes in the villages, monkeys all over the ancient ruins, giant lizards (monitors) near forest cover. In the wildlife park we visited, elephants roamed freely, as did jackals and herds of deer, in addition to dozens of other species. Leopards live in the Uda Walawe park too, but far from the roads we traveled on. Our guide said, “You won’t see them here; they don’t like the big fellows [elephants].” On our next trip, we plan to stay in the Yala National Park, where leopards laze in trees and aren’t worried about elephants . . . or humans.

The smells of the island mix for me with its tastes—crisp-cooked curry leaves and cashews, breadfruit braised like potatoes, jackfruit stewed like meat, black tea, ripe mangoes, papaya with lime. The chilies burn as does, more subtly, the arrack liquor made from fermented coconuts. My favorite dessert, and breakfast too, involved the soft sweetness of buffalo curds (think crème fraiche, but with more flavor) and treacle, or “trickle” as homier places styled it, served with pineapple, watermelon, passionfruit and bananas.

In America, I’m used to grocery stores filled with produce, but rarely have I seen crops actually growing. Not so here, where rice paddies quilt the low, flat parts of Sri Lanka. Few sights move me more than the late afternoon light reflected off the watery surface of a rice field, its smoothness pierced only by the thin legs and long beaks of egrets dipping for bugs and crayfish. Early each day, the farmers hoe their fields, and thousands of years of rice lore inform their deft strokes: water flows according to the grids they carve out. White rice forms the base of every meal, moistened with curry sauces whose flavors include turmeric, cardamom, coconut, and much else I can’t name. My favorite dishes tasted both sweet and savory, like “brinjal curry”: eggplant cooked with pineapple, chili, and mustard seeds. Mango chutney appears often, and dhal features in every meal. Real dhal, not the soupy brown stuff you get in American Indian restaurants, but firm, yellow, wonderfully flavored lentils. Sweets include island-grown vanilla and cocoa, but Sri Lanka’s spice of record is cinnamon. The first European colonizers smelled Ceylon before they could see it from their ships, and cinnamon remains a major export here, though, as with tea, not many skilled workers remain who know precisely how to harvest the crop by hand.

We spent our first two nights and a full day in Colombo, our hotel just a few blocks from the Gangaramaya Temple. Jetlagged but determined, we wended our way on foot through and beside darting cars, trucks, motorcycles, bikes and tuk-tuks, shaking our heads at the solicitations of the latter and marveling when we reached a massive banyan tree centering a roundabout. A block before the temple, the offerings of supplicants began appearing beside the road. Printing presses, an iron locomotive, old cars, ancient machines I couldn’t even name edged the sidewalk. When we reached the outer gate, up reared a taxidermist’s masterwork, a massive stuffed elephant. Dozens of other tusks, removed from their owners, stood near it and throughout the temple. Buddha statues sat, stood, and reclined everywhere—some white, some colored, some small, some twenty feet tall. Inside the gates we removed our shoes and, despite the heat, as a sign of respect to the deity, I wore long pants and a shirt with sleeves. I only wish the orange- and saffron-robed monks I saw inside would do more to police the visitors who don’t respect a sacred space. Instead, I observed one bored monk lounging in a chair while a tourist near him blabbed on a cell phone. Could the monk have been deaf?

One of many Buddha statues at Gangarayama Temple

At the Gangaramaya, I understood what it means to be conquered when I saw the temple elephant, a blind old girl named Ganga, trotted out by her mahout to a nearby empty lot where he feeds and bathes her. Jonathan and I were startled when she suddenly appeared in the courtyard, then trotted through the gates at a fast clip (for an elephant), her chains rattling as her caretaker loped beside her, staff in hand. As the air of her passing swirled around us, we felt tugged into her wake and followed. At the bath spot, just a square of cement with a trough, under a tin roof held up by posts, the mahout threw buckets of water at Ganga’s massive flank and then handed her leafy tree branches that she grasped with her trunk and curled into her mouth, munching avidly. Despite her chains, Ganga seemed friendly. She stretched her trunk to Jonathan and let me stroke her cheek. I gave the mahout a hundred rupees, and, later, when we saw the free elephants of Uda Walawe, I wondered if Ganga feels sad living in the temple, promenading in finery for festivals but otherwise existing in chains far from the rest of her species. Puwa, our guide at Uda Walawe, said that there have been many petitions to free Ganga from the temple and let her live in one of the nature preserves, but the Buddhist temples that still have elephants don’t want to give them up.

Fernando (not his real name), our tour guide and driver for most of our visit, had a more nuanced perspective. He noted that the happiness of a chained elephant all comes down to her relationship with her caretaker, the mahout. Some mahouts are cruel to their charges, but many fall in love with them, and the love is reciprocated. Fernando said there were stories of mahouts getting drunk on festival days and the elephants carefully leading them home. I’d like to think Ganga liked her mahout. Certainly, she seemed energized in his presence.

After we left Gangaramaya, we wandered to another temple floating on South Beira Lake, the Seema Malaka. On a plaque dedicating the temple, I saw that the man who funded its construction had the same name as the original owner of the house, now a hotel, where we were staying. Salehboy Moosajee, our hotel’s brochure explained, had been a wealthy nineteenth-century barrister when he built this house. About the Seema Malaka temple, one of our guidebooks said the local businessman, Salehboy Moosajee, had been ostracized by his own (Muslim) community and so funded a temple for the Buddhists. The plaque at the site referred to Moosajee’s dead son. I was intrigued by what was obviously a poignant story, but Google utterly failed me when I tried to discover why the man had been ostracized or who the various Salehboy Moosajees (the name obviously echoed across generations) had been. Nevertheless, I could not help noting the generous, admirable deed of a man raised in one faith who built a temple—designed by famed architect Geoffrey Bawa—for the followers of another. My mind came back to this later when I discovered that some of the original kings in their ancient capitals (Kandy, Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura) had been Tamils who converted to Buddhism, hence mixing their Hindu cultural traditions with Sri Lanka’s dominant, Sinhalese Buddhist tradition. After all, only a leader in possession of the Sacred Tooth of the Buddha can rule the island, or so the Buddhists say.

When I told Fernando about the complacent monk I’d seen at the Gangaramaya, he observed that those monks have likely lost their ascetic zeal because it’s the most commercial temple in Sri Lanka. Tourists pour loads of money into it, and no one knows what the monks do with that money. Certainly, we saw coffers filled with banknotes, in addition to room after room of glass cabinets displaying jewelry, fine china, silver, gold, and innumerable Buddha statues fashioned out of jade and other precious stones. Fernando could not name good works done by the monks, but he had lots of examples of temple monks throwing away huge amounts of food brought as offerings, leaving it to rot when—he thought—it might have been donated to the poor. By now the reader will see that Fernando does not belong to the dominant religion of the island, Theravada Buddhism. However, he does respect all the island’s religions, including Buddhism, and feels the average Sri Lankan citizen resembles him in this.

Fernando blames politicians for allowing the long civil war to happen and thinks the government should have made peace with its Tamil dissidents sixty years ago. He believes that men eager to get elected and control the nation have fomented conflicts between people of different ethnic groups and religions in order to claim that only they can protect citizens from terrorism. “But then,” said Fernando, “I am an eternal optimist. Even now I believe the new president [Gotabaya Rajapaksa] hopes to heal the rifts caused by the civil war, and to bring the country together.” Fernando, who guides tourists for a travel agency, had no work for months after the terrorist bombings in April 2019. Would-be visitors canceled their reservations, so the hotels had no guests, the chauffeurs no passengers. Layoffs happened throughout the hospitality sector, with one silver lining for locals: hotels desperate for any revenue slashed their rates to a level that enabled some lucky Sri Lankans to enjoy a luxurious vacation on their own island. Fernando said his grown children supported him and his wife until the tourists returned, which they are finally beginning to do.

Fernando hopes, as do we, that the Rajapaksa brothers (Gotabaya named his brother Mahinda—the former president—his prime minister) want to keep Sri Lanka safe for visitors because so much of the economy since 2009, when the civil war ended, depends on tourism. Imagine the honor the Rajapaksa family would earn if the brothers made it their mission to create harmony and tolerance among the various groups who make up the citizenry of Sri Lanka. Not only would they increase the health and the wealth of the country, but by creating an inclusive society, Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapaksa would be venerated forever as the leaders who healed the war wounds of Sri Lanka. Whatever sins they committed in the past would be atoned for by their compassion and their encouragement of compassion in others. It’s infinitely harder to unite people than to divide them, but humanity gives its greatest love to those who try, from Jesus Christ to Mahatma Gandhi. Certainly, it’s what the Buddha would do.

History shows that the ancient kings of the island took seriously the well-being of all their subjects. Not only did they build palaces, they dug massive reservoirs that captured the monsoon rains as well as the moisture falling regularly in the mountains. These waters were shared with the villages under their protection and used for irrigation. Although many of the early kings were of Tamil origin, and thus Hindu in their beliefs, the power of Buddhism here caused them to change their religion. A thousand years ago, Buddhism and Hinduism mixed freely, and the ancient city of Polonnaruwa’s ruins show that clearly as Buddha sculptures share space with those dedicated to Ganesh, Vishnu, and Parvati. The epic history of the country, the Mahāvaṃsa, details the battles between kings for control of the country. It’s not pretty in its depictions of sons killing their fathers, or brothers pitted against brothers, but epics the world over read similarly.

The first powerful people who came here hailed from India. The indigenous people, the Vedda, melted into the forest when the voyagers arrived. Tamil and Sinhalese invaders, from South and North India, respectively, vied for dominance. Great civilizations were built and sacked. Beginning with the Portuguese in 1505, the arrival of the Europeans posed fresh challenges to the locals. The kings whose families had been here for many centuries fought back against the successive waves of colonizers, cannily manipulating the Dutch to defeat the Portuguese by offering them coastal lands. Unfortunately for the last kingdoms in the central part of the country, the Dutch never left, they burgeoned. It took the Napoleonic Wars to unseat them; defeats in Europe forced them to give their island jewel to the English in 1802. The British proved the most persistent of the imperialist forces; the kings of Kandy thwarted them for years, but finally lost the battle in 1815. Great Britain dominated the country for the next century and a half until independence was achieved in 1948.

Our first real night in Colombo, I read up on the part of town we were staying in. Nowadays people call it Colombo 2, but its eighteenth-century name has a much more ominous ring: Slave Island. Lake Beira bounds the land on three sides, and it’s where the Dutch eventually kept the slaves they’d brought to Ceylon. After some slaves owned by a cruel family massacred them in their house, the Dutch ferried all their “kaffirs” to the island every night and brought them back to work in Colombo in the morning. To discourage any slave from trying to swim to freedom, they dumped crocodiles into the lake waters. Colonial history is brutal, as we saw again and again.

The island’s spices and jewels seduced the imperialists. Recognizing the wealth of the country’s resources, the colonizers hastened to mine, harvest, and extend them. The Dutch and then the English planted coffee and coconuts, then rubber and tea, and in the process imported slaves from Africa or coolies from India to tend the crops. Through five centuries, the European colonizers took a great deal from the island, but they left a lot too: their architecture, their languages, and a good bit of their DNA. Beautiful Sri Lanka, once Ceylon, once Serendib, once Taprobane, the glittering earring hanging off the lobe of India, seduces everyone who reaches her shores. By force of arms, successions of besotted visitors have possessed the land that for millennia before them had been the province of a people who understood they were only one species in a jungle teeming with other ones. Although the Vedda are no longer allowed to hunt and gather in the forests of the island, instead being reduced to selling carved wooden animals and other souvenirs, something tells me that one day they will reclaim their place as the island’s caretakers.

Monkeys among the ruins in Polonnaruwa

Why? Because every day I spent surrounded by birdsong, greenery bursting from any crack in the pavement, dominating the landscape wherever it can, every day I walked past more flowers than I could name, and more ripe fruits, I realized that this land, the island itself, controls its destiny. Every ruined monastery or ancient civilization we visited had to be excavated from the jungle, and even now the trees and vines and growth over and under long to come back. The forest-dwelling macaques already cavort over the old stones, bedding down in the trees around the ruins. They’re wise enough to live in the moment, happy enough to steal the meat of a king coconut out of a visitor’s hand (mine, at Polonnaruwa), but adept, too, at dining on what the trees and grasses offer them. There’s a lot of what Andrew Marvell referred to as “vegetable love” here, and it would easily grow larger than an empire, and not slowly either, if our species winked out, or something massively reduced our numbers. The jungle can’t count on malaria anymore to do the trick, but something is bound to come along.

Macaque in a ruined fifth century palace

Not long after this thought of the sentient island caught my fancy, we reached Sigiriya, where the ruins of a fifth-century fortress lie atop the massive rock that dominates the landscape. We stayed in a hotel looking onto the red rock, and in our room I found a 1930 book by John Still, an Englishman who came to Ceylon as a teenager in 1897 to work on a tea plantation, but ultimately became one of the archaeologists who uncovered ruins of several Kandyan kingdoms and many ancient monastic sites. John Still studied the past and envisioned the future.

[Imagine a future in which] elephants browse where tea is now plucked, antiquaries will unearth the ancient bungalows of the British period, or even of the Scottish which will lie beneath it, and classify the different kinds of bottles found among the ruins, and arrange them in museums. Having both planted tea and arranged the antiquities of a museum, I venture to prophesy that this picture will be realized in very much less than fifteen centuries, perhaps in one-fifth of that, or perhaps in one-tenth.

Still published Jungle Tide in 1930; Lanka (as he called Ceylon) became his spiritual home, even when he left it to fight for the British in the Great War (he was a soldier in Gallipoli and spent three years as a prisoner of war in Turkey) or to try to recover from life-threatening bouts of malaria. He spent a great deal of his time traversing the jungles, first hunting and then simply observing animals. He made friends of trackers, many of them descended from the original people of Sri Lanka, the Vedda. He became a conservationist early in his life, recognizing that the trees were the key to the ecosystem of the island: “Their leaf-fall gives back all and more than they take, and through this eternal commerce the forest is enriched until at last it excites the cupidity of man, the spendthrift who uses in years the stores that millenniums have assembled.”

John Still sounds like Richard Powers in The Overstory, though it was nearly a hundred years ago that Still wrote, “Coffee and tea have destroyed so much of the wonderful forest life of the mountain zone that it is more than time something was done to preserve and safeguard forever all that remains unspoiled.” I don’t know enough about the fate of the great hardwood forests of the island since his book came out in 1930, but the island has dedicated many acres of land in a variety of locations to the preservation of wild animals, particularly elephants. Considering Sri Lanka is about the size of West Virginia, those protected lands are a huge credit to the conservationists and the government that supports them.

Outside Colombo, the bird life picked up. I began to see peacocks with regularity, and they only increased when we visited Uda Walawe and, later, Sigiriya. Peacocks are not the national bird of Sri Lanka—that honor goes to an orange-wattled chicken known as the Ceylon junglefowl—but they might as well be. They’re beautiful and ubiquitous. In fact, I began to wonder how they manage to be everywhere, because based on my several observations of their mating behavior, the species should be extinct. On half a dozen occasions, Jonathan and I witnessed a male peacock spreading out his iridescent blue, green, and gold tail for the delectation of a peahen. When the males do this, you realize how much energy it takes—those massive tails are heavy, and the peacock doesn’t just stand there, he dances. Yet every single time we witnessed a courtship scene, the peahen, far from being bewitched by her shimmering, dancing, colorful suitor, appeared completely bored. Most peahens watched only for a moment, then began pecking around for food, and all of them turned their backs on their suitors within thirty seconds and simply walked off. Maybe we were there at the wrong time of year, but the peahens we saw had no interest in hooking up with their admirers. The peacocks, however, never give up. When we stayed in hotels with a large population of them strutting around, their shrieks were endless. They sound like cats stuck up in trees, and the first time I heard one, I looked in vain for a feline. Then you see them atop rooftops or high in trees and realize the peacock’s strident voice belies his gorgeous plumage.

My favorite birds, though, are the common bee-eaters. Their lovely green bodies come in the same shade as the most popular Subaru Forester, but there are many varieties of them, just as there are of kingfishers, though the white-throated kingfisher with his blue back remains the most striking. Parakeets and laughing warblers appear as often in the back gardens of humble houses as in the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, and the marshy areas teem with herons, egrets, ibis, cormorants, and anhinga. In the mixed grasslands of the Uda Walawe nature preserve, we also spotted many raptors, including a serpent eagle, a sea eagle, and a crested hawk eagle who sat on a branch three-feet from our jeep, head cocked and one eye fixed on a small pond where he waited for a frog to surface.

The only denizens of Sri Lanka that I didn’t like were leeches and snakes. In the otherwise spectacularly beautiful Hill Country, where we stayed in a remodeled tea planter’s bungalow and looked out on a scene strongly reminiscent of the Lake District (lake-sized reservoir, with English gardens and a variety of trees running down to the water), leeches were a problem. Before I learned that salt water (the hotel provided us with a small spray bottle of it) or a section of lime will make the leeches let go, I found one on my hand. I’d reached down to pick up something in the grass, and when I came up I saw what I thought was the stem of a leaf on the back of my index finger. Then it began to wiggle, and I began to freak out. Fernando removed it for me, then later discovered it had latched onto his ankle. Jonathan also got nailed once when we visited a Buddhist temple in the rain. He removed his shoes to go in, and when we returned to get our footwear, his ankle was pouring blood. Luckily, these leeches don’t hurt. In fact, if you don’t see them, you don’t even know they’ve latched. They have a strange life, actually. They hook onto a blood source, plump up in a matter of minutes, then drop off and split into a bunch of other leeches who carry on by doing the same thing, over and over and over.

As for snakes, I was very afraid I’d see loads of them, but I only saw two. One was in the botanical gardens near Kandy, slithering smoothly into a rock wall that surrounded some flowering shrubs. The other was in the hands of a snake charmer near the ruins of an ancient queen’s bathing pool. The charmer was a Kuravan, or “gypsy,” who like the ancient Vedda live in or near the forests. Having grown up in Florida, I have a healthy fear of snakes, so I turned on my heel when the man pulled his cobra out of a basket and began waving it at me. I’m a wimp, the opposite of John Still. In his memoir Jungle Tide, you discover he loved all the animals of Sri Lanka, and owned pet leopards, bears, and snakes. Once, a woodsman he befriended gifted him a female cobra. John named her Mary, and “to cure my servant of unreasonable fear of her, I kept Mary on my dining-table throughout a meal when he served it, and occasionally I asked her to sit up.” (Readers won’t be surprised to discover that the next time Still left his house on a hunting trip, Mary “escaped.”) Still met many people who kept snake stones that they believed cured snake bites. He found some of these carved stones himself in the jungle and realized they were ancient. “Cobras with many heads are common motives in Sinhalese sculpture, and are called Nagas, a word that means cobra in many of India’s languages.” Still, who helped uncover palaces and monasteries that dated back thousands of years, recognized that “submerged traces of pre-Buddhist culture of many kinds” lay even deeper than that.

On our trip, we hiked around ruins, strolled beside the Indian Ocean, and witnessed stilt fishermen plying their trade, saw tea leaves plucked by the descendants of Tamil coolies, then processed through a series of antique machines. I visited a cinnamon plantation and watched a cinnamon peeler wearing only a sarong deftly strip branches with his curved knife. We rode a train from Hatton to Kandy, where I leaned out of the open door between cars as the jungle, the rice paddies, and the teeming, metal-roofed towns streamed by. In the hot, coastal town of Galle, Fernando told us about the tsunami that had washed away so much of the land here on December 26, 2004 and killed so many people. He, like many of his countrymen, had no idea what was happening because they were intent on watching a cricket match between Sri Lanka and New Zealand. Even the people in the affected areas had never seen a tsunami and were caught off-guard. Only the animals who could had gone inland: they knew.

Cinnamon peeler

Though whole neighborhoods were washed away, the Galle fort, originally built by the Portuguese, withstood the water. The Dutch took over the fort and held it for years before giving it up to the British, and the logo of the Dutch East India Company, “V.O.C.,” appears throughout the town. As the heat radiated off the cobblestones, I drank a glass of the island’s most refreshing drink, lime soda (fresh lime juice and sugar mixed with soda water). That town, its old Dutch church and my great thirst, made me think of the Sri Lankan-born, Canadian-claimed poet and fiction writer, Michael Ondaatje. In anticipation of this trip, I reread Running in the Family, his memoir of returning to the island in the late 1970s to discover the roots of his family.

The book depicts his Dutch-Ceylon family, or Burghers as they are known on the island, as members of an elite class who, in the 1920s and ’30s, lived in the lowlands but summered in the Hill Country, raced horses, danced, partied and drank like Hollywood movie stars. Ondaatje confects a family romance, so the drinkers of this book, particularly his father Mervyn, are gently or humorously portrayed: “Ondaatjes liked liquor, sometimes to excess.” Mervyn, for example, buried gin bottles all over the yard and would drink for days before finally passing out. One relative was “a sweet drunk,” another “loud and cheerful,” but almost all were wed to the bottle, ultimately losing their fortunes and their places in the high society of the island.

Michael’s mother left Mervyn Ondaatje, who couldn’t stop drinking and was also obviously bipolar (the author doesn’t name the illness, but several bizarre incidents are described that make it clear to readers). In the end, unable to support herself and her children in Sri Lanka, she immigrated to England and worked as a housekeeper in a hotel. Michael ultimately wound up in Toronto, becoming a fine poet and novelist who achieved global fame with The English Patient. I don’t know much about Michael Ondaatje’s personal life, but the book begins with a moment of truth, in vino, veritas. “Once a friend had told me that it was only when I was drunk that I seemed to know exactly what I wanted.” What he wanted in the late ’70s, in his mid-30s, was to go home again and see the island where he’d lived until age 11.

It took me a long time to understand the way Ondaatje used the analogy of drinking to describe both his family and their homeland. In fact, for most of the book the positive spin on alcoholism positively annoyed me, and on the margin of page 120, I wrote, “This book could be subtitled ‘The Drunks of Ceylon,’ or ‘They Don’t Drink Tea in Ceylon.’” Why did the author make addiction sound fun when, in reality, the people who live closest to alcoholics spend most of their time traumatized? But by page 141, I finally got what he was doing, and it made sense. By this point in the memoir, Ondaatje and his daughters are in Wilpattu, one of the spectacular national parks on the island. Just as they reach the cabin where they’ll be staying, a sudden downpour breaks the suffocating heat. They bathe in the rain, then listen to it on the tin roof of their lodging. Ondaatje writes, “We are slightly drunk with this place—the beautiful house, the animals which are appearing now, and this tough cold rain turning the hard-baked earth into red mud.” The boldface is mine, but apt, because Sri Lanka is a place that intoxicates the senses. I realize that I, too, was drunk with it for the weeks we were there, and like an addict, I’m already feeling strong urges to return.
Susan Balée