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xEurasia Odyssey

Sri Lankan Rituals and Safaris

SRI LANKA | Thursday, 8 May 2014 | Views [699]


Sri Lankan Rituals and Safaris


From Kandy we headed to a National Park in Wasgamuwa where we went on a jeep trip through the park and were fortunate to see wild elephants, water buffalo, and a multitude of various birds, including fisher eagles.   From there we drove through tea fields up to the starting point for the pilgrimage to Adam’s Peak.  Adam’s Peak is the most famous pilgrimage route in Sri Lanka, not the least because it is sacred to all the major religions in the country.  It is named Adam’s Peak because this is where Adam was placed after being kicked out of Eden; it is also called Sri Pada, for the footprints the Buddha left on one of his trips to Sri Lanka; for Hindu’s the footprints belong to Siva, who came down from Mt. Kailash to visit the island; and for Christians they are those of St. Thomas the Apostle who came across the strait from India.  Regardless of which religion, flocks of people head up the seemingly endless uneven stairs to the peak with the now white-satin covered cement block that covers the impressions in the summit rock to pray and to watch the sunrise over the lush green treed hills circumferenced by the sea and dotted with lakes.

It was raining when we arrived in the afternoon and the peak was completely covered by clouds.  For a brief moment I thought about going up just so that I could have the uphill slug behind me, but the thought of getting up there and not being able to see anything sent me back to my book.  Instead I got up at 2am to follow the rest of the worshippers and tourists up the path. (Meanwhile my travel companion decided to run up and down in the afternoon drizzle!) The government has placed streetlights all along the path and has them lit all night during the peak season, January to April. I was very grateful to have them as the last two thirds of the way was fairly steep and the steps were sometimes a normal eight inches, sometimes probably about twelve, and sometimes somewhere around fifteen; in other words, uneven, and when the lights were burned out and I couldn’t see, I wasn’t sure where to put my feet. The climb normally takes between 2 ½ to 3 ½ hours and I’m glad to say I did make it closer to the first. At the summit there is another set of normal stairs to the shrine with the footprints.  As with the Tooth Relic, people were lined up to go past very quickly making their offerings as they bowed or kissed the white and gold laced fabric protecting the block that hides the footprint indents. The footprints themselves, as with the Tooth Relic, remain covered. After viewing the shrine, I waited in the cold night air with probably hundreds of other pilgrims and tourists for the sun to pop up over the horizon.  It was a fairly long wait, but what the guidebook had said about it finally just appearing rather than slowly rising, was in fact the case.  A bright yellow ball just suddenly appears lighting up the entire sky. Within less than five minutes it is daytime.  During the descent it was wonderful to be able to see for miles and miles, but the downhill was actually worse on my knees and tendons; I felt the effects over the following few days. Nonetheless, the climb is definitely worth the effort even if one doesn’t believe any of the footprint legends.  Adam’s Peak sticks out as the highest lone summit in the area, which makes it a perfect place for stories and for viewing.


After breakfast we left to continue our journey through the tea plantations to our second national park, Udawalawe.  On our way we came across a number of processions to celebrate the Sinhalese New Year, which would begin at midnight. The first few processions had lots of people in the streets and a few with trucks/tractors with poles and or shrines with images.  When we got to the Kotiyagalla Estates in Bogawantalawa, however, we asked our driver to stop as there were two tractor-trailers on either side of the road with long bamboo poles extending off the back.  There were musicians and dancers near the vehicles dancing away and a crowd of people near one of them.  When we approached, we could see a couple of young men with ash covered backs with large hooks piercing either side of their spines.  Ropes were attached to each of the hooks.  The young men were casually laughing and talking as if there was nothing unusual going on.  The crowd on the opposite side of the street started to yell “Ravena, Ravena, Ravena” which didn’t make any sense to me, so I asked a gentlemen standing next to me holding a very young girl in a fancy pink dress what it was about.  He informed me that the festival was not for New Years, but was this village’s Kataragama Festival.  This festival is dedicated to Skanda, the Indian god of war, who has been incorporated into the Buddhist pantheon on the island.  As the village is Tamil Hindu, their festival is to honor the Hindu god.  Young men show their dedication and purity be volunteering to be pierced with the hooks and hung from the poles on the tractor/trucks and driven around the area while hang from their flesh.  The crowd was chanting to keep them in a trance while the priest inserted the hooks. I’m still not sure why it was Ravena, who according to the Ramayana was the demon king of Lanka, they were chanting, but it is also possible that I misheard and they were chanting ‘Ragama’ instead.  Either way, they were calling on the God of War to bear witness to the sanctity of the sacrificial act. After watching in stunned silence as they hung two of the men onto the poles, we turned back to our car leaving behind more singing and dancing and a village full of happy people. Customs differ and somehow these men defy the laws of physics as their skin does not tear and they seemingly feel no pain.  They are in the same kind of trance as the fire dancer we witnessed in Bali.  To us what they do is incomprehensible, but to them, it is an act of faith.


We continued on our way to the national park and were blessed with a fabulous jeep ride during which we saw more wild elephants, water buffalo, large monitor lizards, crocodiles, deer, a fox and again incredible birds.  This time the eagles actually stayed in place posing for us.  We also saw hornbills up close. One of the most amazing moments happened when we came across a wild bull elephant about 10 feet from the jeep track.  He was happily stomping in a mud hole squirting the mushy dirt onto his back and between his legs as protection from insects.  He looked directly at us and I swear he was doing a dance just for us.  He could just as easily have attacked the open jeep, but instead seemed to be enjoying putting on a performance. These creatures can seem more human than many of us. Udawalawe is fabulous for viewing wildlife and our trip through the park proved that the reputation was well earned. It wasn’t as densely covered as Wasgamuwa, which made it easier to spot the animals and birds.


The next day was the Sinhalese New Year, which was ushered in with the beating of the Bera Drum. The drumming continued all day long, not stopping until midnight. As I was bringing my suitcase down, I noticed the hotel staff had set up a pot of milk on some wood in the middle of the lobby.  When I asked they said that the fire for boiling the milk was to be lit at exactly seventeen minutes past eleven in the morning. The milk represents good fortune and every Sinhalese household throughout the country was going to light their pots at the same time initiating a beneficial new year. The old and new years are separated by an interlude in which people are supposed to concentrate on their spiritual rather than physical lives, which is why the milk isn’t boiled at midnight. The celebration, for the end of the harvest season, is always on April 13th, except in leap years when it is on April 14th, although the Lankans usually do not use the Gregorian calendar for their religious festivals. This year’s celebration was doubly noteworthy as it fell on a full moon, which is normally a separate festival. For Sinhalese New Year most families stay home or visit relatives. It is supposed to be more time for reflection and meditation rather than for drunken parties. The streets were empty on New Year’s morning and most shops were closed for two days afterwards to compensate for the loss of the regular Full Moon holiday.


From viewing the largest terrestrial mammal we journeyed onward to see the largest mammal on earth, one that swims in the oceans, the blue whale.  I had tried to see a ‘Blue’ in the St. Lawrence years ago, but had never been lucky enough. Marissa is famous for its whales, so I hoped that my luck would change.  It did.  After about an hour on the boat we saw the first blows from a large black hump that the crew identified as a ‘Blue’.  We tracked it for a while, lost it, then saw another blow in a different direction, went after that and so on for about a forty-five minutes, until the area was surrounded by boats.  In order to give the whales a break, our captain turned us to another route and within ten minutes we were surrounded by whole schools of pilot whales and dolphins. The pilot whales not only showed themselves by swimming near the surface but also by bobbing up so that their heads would stick out like black knobs from the blue waters. It was a incredible sight.  The dolphins jumped and spun and played with the whales.  The voyage only lasted about three hours, but we saw more marine life in that time than I had seen in years of ocean-watching.


The beach at Marissa is also wonderful. The white sands seem to stretch forever along the shore backed by palm trees, which try to hide the line of hotels.  The water in April is bathtub warm, with the waves strong enough to make them good for body surfing but not so strong as to pull one under for long.  After our extensive travels, it was good to soak up beach-time for an afternoon before heading to the modern capital city the next morning.


The last day in Sri Lanka was in Colombo, and was spent mostly at the extensive National Museum.  It was a fitting conclusion to this Sri Lankan adventure as the museum is laid out chronologically as most of our trip was.  It was good to revisit the Dambulla caves, Anuradhapura’s art, Sigiriya’s history, Polonaruwa’s sculpture, and Kandy’s royal residence as I wandered through the various rooms of the museum. There is so much to learn about Sri Lanka, its art, and its role in the development of Buddhism that I sometimes felt completely overwhelmed.  The museum does a nice job of breaking things down into time period with explanations that are concise enough to make sense.


As in Vietnam, Laos, Bali, Borneo, I was very sad to leave as I felt I was leaving so much unfinished, but grateful to have had the opportunity to visit this magnificent country.  From Colombo I flew back to Bangkok for a day before returning to Salt Lake for Easter. My SE Asian adventure had come to a conclusion.  It was an amazing trip where everything fell beautifully into place. While I was not able to trace the beginning of the Buddha flat finger convention, I was able to place the differences in cultural style in the images across eras with the SE Asian and broader Asian contexts. It was a journey graced with legends, art, incredible wildlife and wonderful people. It will take awhile to organize the photos and stories into material for my classes, which will be much richer for these personal experiences.

I want to thank everyone who made this extensive trip possible and so very memorable.


After about a week in Utah, I got on another plane bound for Vienna to begin the next phase of this year’s odyssey.

P.S. the photo above was taken by Paul Statton





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