Tropical Sri Lanka blasts us with sauna-like heat. Our eyes soak up the vivid greens of lush foliage and forests of swaying palms as we breeze along the expressway from the airport into the capital, Colombo. This island country, known as Ceylon from the early 1800's until 1972, lies in the Indian Ocean off the southeastern coast of India.
Still bleary-eyed, my husband Rick and I rise early the next morning for the Poya Day celebration at Kelaniya Temple. "Poya", our taxi driver Amal says, "is the name for our Buddhist holidays that fall on the full moon of each month, also civic and bank holidays…and "veggie days," he adds with a smile, "as we fast from meat on these days."
Amal drops us at the edge of an overflowing parking area. We join the stream of worshippers aimed at the temple. The perfume of flowers for temple-offerings competes with the tantalizing odours of fast food vendors along the way. The ice-cream wagon is most popular on this scorching day.
Sizable arches rise up from two sets of steps; one for entering and the other for exiting the temple area. I pad up the entry side barefoot (as is the custom) which opens into a courtyard and the temple. I shuffle along with the throng through the temple rooms of ancient wall paintings. People speak quietly, yet the sheer number results in a continuous beehive hum. A sizable reclining gold-plated Buddha image behind a gauzy white net brings worshippers to a stop for a few moments of prayer and to place their offerings.
The temple exit leads past people sitting on every inch of concrete and grass where scriptures are being read over a speaker system. The richness of the Buddhist heritage leaves me in awe.
Sri Lanka has a long history of Buddhism, introduced into the country in 247 BCE and since has been practiced by the Sinhalese (ethnic group native to Sri Lanka, comprising 75% of the population). Sri Lanka also has a strong Tamil Hindu heritage; the Tamils brought to the country for plantation work under British colonization, and accordingly the two official languages of Sri Lanka are Sinhala and Tamil.
Back in Colombo we settle quite nicely into our hood - close to the ocean, lots of great cappuccino and lunch spots. Walks along Galle Face Green, the grassy space along the sea and seeking out architecture from the colonial past fill our time. After 2,000 years of rule by local kingdoms, Sri Lanka was colonized in turn by the Portuguese, Dutch and British, with independence realized in 1948. It gained republic status in 1972 (with the name change from Ceylon to Sri Lanka, meaning "resplendent island" in Sanskrit) and was officially named the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka in 1978. Six years later a civil war erupted between the majority Buddhist Sinhalese and insurgent minority of Hindu Tamils, ending only in 2009.
On one 'feeling-energetic' day, we wend our way about thirty city-blocks to Gangaramaya Temple, that locals claim, "is not to be missed." Near the tranquil oasis of Beira Lake, this spectacular temple is a mix of Sri Lankan, Thai, Indian and Chinese in its architecture.
Ganesh, my favourite Hindu god, guards the entrance of the main temple. Inside, the walls dance with colourful paintings around the grandest of Buddha statues.
Colombo is a fine start on our first visit to Sri Lanka. It provides us with a base from which to launch into much longer explorations.
Rick Butler Slideshow