If you think of Sri Lanka as a minuscule island that lies to the south of India, you may be right, but if you think that it is too small to offer much diversity, you had better plan a trip there sometime soon. Because if indications are anything to go by, the somnolent country that battled its share of political problems and come out a winner, could be the next hot destination for the international set, and then, the present sleepy charm of its towns and villages will change forever.
I had always thought of Sri Lanka as the tiny country cousin of giant India. A week on the island, and I’m embarrassed at my warped perspective. “Our society is composed of Arab traders, Sinhalese Buddhists, Malay soldiers, British, Dutch (Burgher) and Portuguese settlers, Parsees, Afghan moneylenders, Sindhis, Memons, Bohra Muslims, Tamils including plantation workers and many others,” says Ghazzali Mohideen, General Manager of Cinnamon Lodge, Habarana, a resort of stunning beauty, that has been created inside a forest. Mohideen has conjured up a magnificent lunch for me, as an introduction to the cuisine of his beloved Sri Lanka that has a slightly rustic touch in deference to our surroundings amidst nature.
With the wealth of sub-cuisines and subtly different styles in Sri Lanka, I am dismayed to learn that Indian food is much in demand. I mentally make a note to avoid it to the extent possible. “Just don’t get invited to a Muslim wedding,” Mohideen laughs. “The food is 100 percent Indian: mince samosas, biryanis, kaliyas, even butter chicken is the order of the day.” The seaside town of Bentota and the southern tip of the island, Galle, are the catchment areas for recruiting chefs in the hospitality industry, so according to Mohideen, what passes for Sri Lankan food is actually the food of these regions.
Indeed, during my stay at the Cinnamon Grand, Colombo, the cooking demonstrations by Chef Anil Rodrigo showed me curries and mellams (chutneys) that were spicy yet made use of a melange of spices. “Cinnamon goes into just about every dish in our cuisine,” he tells me. Indeed, the name of the chain of hotels is far from random. Cinnamon, the bark of the eponymous tree, grows only in Sri Lanka and nowhere else. “Cinnamon has to be distinguished from its close relative, cassia bark. Cinnamon is far more lively than cassia and once you’ve used it, cassia doesn’t seem all that attractive a flavour.”
Outside the hotel, the first thing that strikes me is the diversity. Some parts of capital Colombo are like Panjim and others like Kochi. Not surprisingly, considering that it takes longer to drive to the airport than to fly from some airports in South India to Colombo. It’s not just about being located on the seaside – the fact that the Dutch left their imprint gives it a deliciously familiar flavour. Yet, unlike Christian Goa or the three religions of Kerala, in Sri Lanka it is Buddhism that has shaped the graciousness of the people just as much as the location of their city by the sea has shaped its fortunes.
The one fact that impressed me about Colombo was the shopping. Walk into Odel, a colonial bungalow turned lifestyle store and you will go mad at the sheer wealth of clothes to try on, books to read, handicrafts and spa products made in Sri Lanka. Unlike India where ‘export rejects’ are rather grubby and are sold from sheets spread out on pavements, Sri Lanka has a decidedly more sophisticated way of handling their export surplus. They are sold in apparel stores – Odel is the most upmarket and stylish, but there are others as well, known to all taxi and three-wheeler drivers. Colour-coordinated and hung neatly in rows, according to design and style, you could be in a London branch of H&M except for the unbelievably low prices. Sri Lanka is a well-known manufacturing source of readymade garments for the international market, and not only for tropical wear: I reached home with ski jackets, woollen caps and trendy gloves, sold around the year.
Then there is the Noritake porcelain that is manufactured in Sri Lanka and sold in a couple of dedicated stores in Colombo; style shops of which Paradise Road and Barefoot Gallery are the best-known and supermarkets where you can browse around for ingredients for cooking simple curries once you are back home.
Cinnamon – the real spice, not the thick, rough cassia bark that is from the same genus but a different species – grows a little inland from Bentota. Through a supremely resourceful friend in Colombo, I managed to visit Habarugala near the Kadirigale Mountains where the Mahawila Estate was located. A plantation owner has a certain ring to it that conjures up images of landed gentry sipping gin and tonics on the balcony of their countryside villa, but that was assuredly not the case with the humble plantation owner who took me around his estate and then offered me tea and orange cream biscuits in his house. In the next room, his wife cooked the family’s lunch on firewood made of the branches of cinnamon bushes after the all-important bark had been stripped off.
Take a short drive into the interiors from Colombo, and you’ll feel that you’re in the lush verdant villages of Goa, but before your eye can register the mango trees jostling with the coconut palms and bright bougainvillea counterpointing intensely white cottages, you’re in Kandy, a charming hill town that could be Mount Abu. There’s a tiny lake with enormous religious significance, the Temple of the Buddha’s Tooth and a form of architecture that would not be out of place in a small town anywhere in upland India. The snacks that you see on the road are different too, and they’re so delicious that it would be a crime not to try some of the coconut-based sweet treats sold in tiny stalls and supermarkets. But we’re not making a stop in Kandy for very long, for we have to climb up a mountainous road to Nuwara Eliya.
It turns out to be my favourite place on the island, both for its altitude and for the ‘cloud forests’ that I see for the very first time in my life. You’ve heard of a rain forest. Well, a cloud forest is perched on the very top of a hill and can be seen from lower down the opposite hill. It looks as if fingers are being run through its hair all through the day, because the rain-bearing clouds that hover around Nuwara Eliya’s hills usually move majestically low, so that the topmost branches of the trees gather the moisture from the clouds, hence the name. I had never heard of the phenomenon and was quite content to be transfixed to an easy chair in a small British-style bungalow while my travelling companions went around the tea gardens to see how tea was grown.
Sri Lanka has beach towns, the most famous of which is Galle; an elephant orphanage; a sizeable population of wild elephants; Buddhist temples and pilgrim spots; a tea industry that puts ours to shame, so well is the product packaged; a home décor industry that gives its large northern neighbour a run for its money; shopping that offers world-class products at unbelievable prices and a cuisine that is a melting pot of flavours brought in by the Dutch from Malaysia and from Gujarat in India yet is identifiably Sri Lankan.