`Swarnadweep’- the Isle of Gold- is what Sri Lanka was called once upon a time. A Sanskrit word which was eventually adopted by the Arabs, who summarily converted it into sarandib. And that, as any self-respecting etymologist knows, is what led to the Persian fairytale The Three Princes of Serendib- which Horace Walpole later used to coin the word `serendipity’- the `faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for’(according to Merriam-Webster- I haven’t made that up!).
Whew. A long way for a word to travel, but that’s how it is- and really, I can think of hardly any other place which qualifies so well as the root for a word as evocative as serendipity.
And now that the facts are out of the way, let’s get down to business. To talking about the Isle of Gold. It’s also been called the `Pearl of the Orient’, so maybe all those gemstones which the country digs up every year haven’t gone unnoticed. But really- Sri Lanka isn’t all gems and gold; there’s a lot more to it. Food so spicy it’ll blow the top of your head off, but leave you clamouring for more. Silver domed churches and gold-plated temples. Elephant orphanages and fragrant spice gardens. And plenty, plenty more- and the best thing about it all is that so much of it is so easily accessible from the capital, Colombo.
I went to Sri Lanka, with five other friends, as part of an exchange programme. A short programme, may I add- just about a week. Long enough, we thought, for such a small country. Sri Lanka is, after all, pretty tiny- compared to India, at least- so how much could there possibly be to see? Enlightenment dawned, but it took some time. By the time we’d been through Colombo and Kandy, Nuwara-Eliya and Welimada, we were really wondering if we could possibly extend the trip a bit.
But to start at the beginning. Kattunayake International Airport, where we’d touched down, is a 45-minute drive through lush green paddy fields and shady coconut groves, to Colombo. The capital, a manageably small city spread along the banks of the Kelani river, is a combination of Gothic-Victorian buildings, spire-topped and bulbous-domed Buddhist chaityas, sleek glass-fronted skyscrapers and a culture which is firmly grounded in South Asia, but has a strangely Western feel to it. The women wear the Sri Lankan sari, with its neat little peplum- but plenty of them wear skirts. Our driver, a cheerful blue-eyed, brown-haired burgher called Tex looks anything but Sri Lankan- but he is. The shops are so crowded with Swiss chocolates, Austrian liqueurs and French wines that they look more European than Sri Lankan- but they are; the curry pastes and spice packets are there to prove it.
There’s an all-pervasive smell (ad nauseum is the general level) of coconut oil, occasionally interrupted by a salty whiff of sea breeze or the fragrance of jasmine from a passing woman’s plait. All in all, a highly interesting city: and we’re here to discover it- or whatever we can discover in seven days.
We’re taken around town by our Sri Lankan friends- to the spotlessly white Town Hall and the unusual Buddhist chaitya which straddles Chaitya Road. The Parliament House, guarded by alert sentries, is off-limits for mere tourists, but we compensate by stopping for a good while at Independence Square, a memorial which is liberally littered with ornate stone lions. The drive also takes us past the somewhat sinister Slave Island, where slaves were once kept prisoner- and then we’re taken to the markets.
Across the pavements sprawl stalls- selling a mishmash of things beautifully Sri Lankan: basketry, colourful good-luck masks called `garas’, jewellery (of course! Sri Lanka’s one of the best places in the world for precious stones), batik, and other goodies. There are the ubiquitous `I love Sri Lanka’ T-shirts, gaily painted skirts, and synthetic fabric- but what really intrigues us are the huge pinkish-grey blocks we see lying outside some shops. They look a bit like stone, perhaps chalk- and turn out to be incense.
Evenings are spent strolling down Colombo’s main promenade, Galle Face; watching the sun set beyond Mount Lavinia Beach, and drinking coconut water from golden-hued king coconuts. And, when we’ve worked up an appetite, a meal of string hoppers with beef curry- fiery as it gets- doused with quarts of fresh passionfruit juice. It’s all pure Sri Lanka, as original as it gets- and all amazingly likeable.
Serendipity? Yes, I suppose that’s an apt enough word to describe Sri Lanka. The surprises here are many- and pleasant- and they come up, zooming around a corner, when you least expect them to. Vivid, colourful, joyous and remarkably unforgettable.