My vehicle came to an abrupt stop, and then I heard the driver ‘shush’ and put his finger to his lips: twenty plus elephants were crossing the road just in front of us, as quiet as tip toeing through the night, unaware that they were being watched, in awe, and as fast as I came upon them, they disappeared into the tropical bush, the sound of gentle crashing slowly disappearing into the distance. It all happened so wonderfully fast. These elephants are one of three recognized sub-species of the Asian elephant, a healthy population of over 5,000 currently on the island. “We live harmoniously with the elephants and respect that this is their place” said Chari, my Buddhist guide, a spiritual and enthusiastic young man with the almond eyes of a wizened sage, and with expressive, delicate fingers and hands like a celestial dancer, eerily identical to the carvings one sees on the spectacular temples that dot the landscape.
The Arabs referred to the island as Serendib, derived from a fairytale of Three Princes who were always making discoveries of great things they were not in search of, hence the origin of the word “serendipity” – the facility of making fortunate discoveries by accident. Ceilão was the name given to the island by the Portuguese when they arrived in 1505, and later the English translated it to Ceylon. In 1972 it finally became Sri Lanka, a Sanskrit word meaning “resplendent island”.
I had not come to this earthly paradise by accident, quite the contrary. The island recently ended a thirty-year civil war in 2009 and since then has been steadily rebuilding infrastructure, particularly in the north where the civil war took its toll. This morning I had come to see the royal, ancient city of Polonnaruwa, one of an incredible seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka and the second most ancient of the island’s kingdoms. What remains today of this 12th century city are magnificent buildings and monuments of exquisite design, layout and construction. Buddhism came to the island from India in the 3rd century BC and the sublime monasteries at this site are among the most splendid anywhere in the world.
The sudden vision of four huge Buddhas carved from a grey, granite rock face rendered me speechless. Gal Viharaya or “rock temple” is a miracle of artistic statuary. Carved in the open air by Sinhalese artists, this shrine consists of a seated, sitting, standing and an astonishing 46-foot-long reclining Buddha, all perfect in execution, detail and composition. It was here in the 12th century that a congregation of monks purified the Buddhist priesthood. A subsequent code of conduct was drawn up and was later inscribed on the same rock face. As the birds sang, a calm awareness embraced me, and the tranquility of this place reverberated in its silence.
Still satiated in gratitude for the experience, I discussed the enrichment of Buddhism on the island with Chari as we slowly made our way along very good, new roads to Ulagalla, an exquisite hotel buried off a side lane in the middle of nowhere. Formerly a private mansion, this hidden gem has been meticulously restored and now comprises 20 individual guest chalets or villas, spread out over 58 acres of paddy fields and lush, tropical vegetation. A member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, this extraordinary place pampers at every turn. This is one of several new properties on the island that caters to a new traveler, intent on experiencing the plentitude – past and present – which the island has to offer.
The next day I journey to UNESCO World Heritage Anuradhapura, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world dating from the 4th century BC, and up until the 11th century, one of the most creative and stable centers of political power and urban life in the South Asia. There is not a western tourist or traveler in sight, but small groups of locals and saffron-robed monks make their way along dirt paths, through the spectacularly carved ruins, shaded by the tropical evergreens that flutter and sway in the warm breeze.
Aside from the temple ruins, Sri Lanka’s landscapes are jaw-dropping seductive, manicured and wild, and among the most bio-diverse in the world. Besides elephants, there are leopards, monkeys, crocodiles, and an innumerable species of birds. Even whale watching off the southern coast. I end up back in the nation’s capital Colombo, a now thriving, cosmopolitan and trendy city of about half a million inhabitants, and a fantastic collage of decaying colonial buildings, swaying palms, ancient temples, modern high rises, and everywhere someone going somewhere, in that hurried yet laid-back island way of life.