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Sri Lanka, the Emerald Isle

Sri lanka beach photo

Two hours by air south of Mumbai lies the Emerald isle of Sri Lanka. A visit to the island nation unveils its unique, sometimes whimsical identity. Do not expect Ravana here;  expect more European and Buddhist influences  in the idyllic island. 

 


BY MANALI ROHINESH

Endless white seashores edged by groves of coconut trees ran for miles, parallel to the road we were driving down, from Colombo to Bentota. Sri Lanka is the ‘Emerald Isle’ of South Asia and with good reason. For me, as an Indian, Sri Lanka is a two hour flight to the south and because this country features prominently in one of our epics – the Ramayana, as the kingdom of the demon-king Ravana. But in Sri Lanka itself, there is no sign of him. He is neirher feared or revered; he could as well be declared absconding!

 The real reason being, the Sri Lankans do not consider their country to be the abode of Ravana that the Ramayana describes and calls ‘Lanka’. Hence, there is no acknowledgement of Ravana having interfered in India’s domestic policy even back then! But as we fly over the north of Sri Lanka, the pilot urges us to look out of the windows to our right and points out the remains of the ancient bridge connecting the two countries. The same bridge, over which Lord Ram led an army into Lanka to rescue his wife, Sita, who was abducted by subterfuge by Ravana.

Besides myths and legends, Sri Lanka and India sport lots of similarities, while the dissimilarities are stark and obvious. We seem to share an abundant coastline, a rich culture, love of scrumptious seafood and people with happy, sunny dispositions. But there the similarities end.

After we land in Colombo and drive across the city, I realize this just could not be Mumbai. The architecture differs by far. Both cities are commercial capitals of their respective countries, but the British influence is felt in our Mumbai's Gothic buildings that we inherited after Independence. In Colombo, the architecture is Art Deco and sometimes Classical or just plain whimsical. Dutch influences are everywhere, but so are British names, which live to this day. I drove through Colombo's exclusive Cinnamon Gardens enclave, where the foreign embassies are located and saw plaques with names like Barnes Road, Kinsey Road and Norton Road. This was an absolutely delightful, quiet and verdant section of the city – more along the lines of Colaba than Breach Candy.

The city’s skyline has not been cluttered with skyscrapers. But the buildings compete to outdo each other with grandiose spires, temples on the terrace, or elevators on the outside façade of the buildings. Only on one occasion did I see a staircase in front of a shopping mall that extended perpendicularly from the second floor and dropped from there in a sinuous twist – it was designed to look like a curvy coconut tree trunk!

Across te entire city, buildings did not go beyond the third floor. Each section had a very distinctive look. The Cinnamon Gardens area was all white stone and tiled roof with intricately carved lintel and lovely wrought iron balconies and gates. Most shopping malls were two-storey glass affairs that blazed a vivid yellow, airy blue or electric red, depending on the colour of the reflective films they were coated with and imparted that crazy-fun atmosphere.

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BY MANALI ROHINESH

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