How to Find Enlightenment in Sri Lanka (Despite Growing Tourism)

Among temples and tea shops, our writer learns you can still find a moment for yourself in Sri Lanka.


The Sacred City

Stepping off the bus in the Sri Lankan city of Anuradhapura, I spot young women in white dresses clutching ample bouquets of nearly–blooming lotus. But these flowers are not for me, they’re for someone far more important: the Buddha. I’ve arrived at Ruwanwelisaya, an ancient sacred structure, and one of eight places of worship in the city, which was founded in 380 BC and is itself a Unesco World Heritage Site. At the entrance, a sign in English, nestled among others in Sinhalese, reminds me of the passage of time: No selfie with the Buddha.

December 5, 2018
Pilgrims on the path at the Mirisawetiya stupa
Pilgrims on the path at the Mirisawetiya stupa in the ancient city of Anuradhapura.
Two visitors gaze into the baths at Kuttam Pokuna in Anuradhapura
Two visitors gaze into the baths at Kuttam Pokuna in Anuradhapura.

I slip out of my shoes and follow the crowd walking to the sound of sacred singing until we reach the stupa, an immaculate hemispherical monument crowned with a golden spire. I’m not a follower of Theravāda, one of the oldest branches of Buddhism, so I hover behind the long–haired women who are praying, their hands holding flowers that they touch against their foreheads.

A ceremonial alter covered with water lilies and lotus flowers
A blooming altar in front of the Ruwanwelisaya stupa.
davulas keep the beat during a ceremonial procession at the Ruwanwelisaya stupa
Davulas keep the beat during a ceremonial procession at the Ruwanwelisaya stupa.

As an outsider, I think about how to bring meaning to my visit to this sacred place. Sri Lanka has been touted as a hot new travel destination but many of the tourist draws are more suited for quiet reflection than for Instagramming. I stand in front of the statue of Buddha, who is seated with an open palm resting on a knee and the other hand pointing to the ground. Sam, my guide, joins me and explains that this position represents the Buddha’s moment of enlightenment. My thoughts turn to my father, who recently passed away. Could or should my presence here bring me enlightenment? Words come to mind that my wise father used to say to me when I was being particularly impatient: We’ll cross the bridge when we get to the river. I relax a little and tell myself that the time will come.

A large rocky mountain called Lion Rock
Step it up: You’ll be climbing over 1,200 of them to get to the top of Sigiriya, which means Lion Rock.


The Fortress

Near the centre of the island, Sigiriya is an ancient fortress on a rock 370 metres high in the heart of the jungle, built 1,500 years ago by Kashyapa, a patricidal king who grew nervous about the potential consequences of his actions. But with a magnificent garden at its base and an irrigation system maintaining a swimming pool at the summit, it’s more of a palace than a fortress. Halfway up, a fork in the trail takes you to a spiral staircase leading to a white–painted crevice that hides the Sigiriya ladies – frescoes covering the rock wall depict ornately–dressed women, eyes half closed and mischievous smiles still distinguishable despite obvious signs of aging. Of the 500 original portraits Kashyapa commissioned to bear witness to his greatness (because a fortress built on a giant monolith somehow isn’t enough), only 21 remain.

People hiking up a mountainous rock
Sigiriya’s summit shows off ethereal, mountainous surroundings.

Climbing more than 1,200 uneven steps in flip–flops might not be a great idea, but it’s worth it for the view. In the distance, as the sun sinks and brings out the pink tones in the rocks, the area is enveloped in a fine haze that lends a dreamlike quality to the neighbouring mountains. Sigiriya has always been a popular archeological site among visitors, but as I take in my surroundings, captivating in the afternoon light, it seems to have reached a new crowd, one more interested in photography than history.

Climbing up the mountain

What goes up must come down.

In one direction there’s a woman in a polka–dot dress standing on tiptoe with her arms held back, as if she’s ready to take flight, while her friend takes her photo. In the other direction two young men, hair up in buns, are shooting a time–lapse video. They’re seated in the lotus position and facing the horizon, on top of a low wall displaying a sign that reads “Don’t walk on the ruins.” Dutiful daughter of a straight–as–an–arrow lawyer that I am, this disregard for the rules bothers me.

As tourism to Sri Lanka has increased – the country had more than 2 million visitors in 2017 – it’s placed a great deal of pressure on ancient, sacred sites. I wonder how one can honour a country’s history and culture without exploiting it?

Observation post in a coconut plantation
Tree’s company in Habarana, where a platform is used as an observation post in a coconut plantation.
Preme navigating a boat ride in Habarana
Preme takes us out for a boat ride in Habarana.


The Village

The bus drops off our group at a dirt track lined with a few houses. The sounds of trucks passing at high speed on the roadway slowly abate and are replaced by the increasing clang of zebus’ bells, the droopy–skinned, humped cattle waiting to take us on a wagon ride. This kind of up–close–and–personal experience is still only possible through guided visits, but our hosts, a community of farmers working with tour operators to help tourists discover a slice of ultra–local culture, are relaxed and smiling, as though they are giving a tour of their property to friends. The wheels creak and the zebus dig into the red mud as their drivers yell Mut, mut! to advance us across a basmati rice field to a river, where small boats will take us out on a lake.

A woman scrapes the inside of a coconut to make coconut milk.
Chandrawathie scrapes the inside of a coconut and mixes its pulp and water to get the freshest coconut milk.
A mix of rice, lentils, eggplant curry and winged bean salad
Lunch is served: a mix of rice, lentils, eggplant curry and winged bean salad to eat with your hands.

We arrive back in the village each wearing a hat fashioned from a giant water lily leaf, which our boat captain seemed to find great delight in making for us. A traditional buffet awaits, featuring eight dishes served in terracotta bowls, including eggplant curry, winged bean salad, fried fish and rice. I’m starving, but food here is eaten with one’s hands, to stimulate as many senses as possible, Sam explains. Following a brief demonstration, I dip the fingers of my right hand into the plate to gather a ball of rice and then mix it with some curry and salad. Each bit that makes it to my mouth is a personal victory. There’s a Zenlike aspect to eating this slowly that allows me to enjoy the textures, flavours and aromas. After a 30–minute effort, my plate is empty, my stomach is full and my senses are gratified.

A herd of elephants.
A herd of elephants gathers in Kaudulla National Park.


The National Park

In Sri Lanka, elephants are both feared for the crop damage they can inflict, as well as revered. Their presence is felt everywhere, in sculptures in front of stupas, in frescoes and even on streets during traditional weddings. A huge elephant gateway at the Temple of the Tooth in the city of Kandy lets you take stock of their grandeur – physical and cultural – without even having seen one.

The skeleton of an elephant on display
The skeleton in the room at the Elephant Transit Home, a centre for orphaned elephants just outside of Udawalawe.
Observers on the lookout for elephants
Observers on the lookout for elephants in Udawalawe National Park.

Today the focus is on protecting and rehabilitating the pachyderm population. Located near a reservoir on the border of the country’s wet and dry zones six hours south of Anuradhapura, Udawalawe National Park was established in 1972 and has become the best–known place in the world to observe Elephas maximus, the Asian elephant. In the Jeep, my eyes glued to binoculars, I’m on the lookout for one of the 500 elephant residents in this 30,000–hectare park. I soon spot several families, headed by imposing females; elephants are matriarchal. Their very nature makes them easy to spot: There’s nothing less hurried – or more adorable – than a young elephant taking a bath. A deft swimmer, this one disappears underwater using her trunk as a snorkel, emerging several metres away with a splash. She rinses and repeats.

When we head back, I’m tossed about as we cross the bumpy terrain until our seasoned driver hits the brakes at the sight of a branch moving up ahead. A few seconds later, two water buffalo emerge from the thicket and block the road, a reminder that no matter how many visitors come here, the animals still reign supreme.

A woman holding a tea pot
It’s tea time at Sthree Café, a community organization in Kandy that employs women and supports women entrepreneur.

Sthree Café

The Community Organization

Having spent a few days travelling the long roads of the interior, I’m happy to be back in the bustling city of Kandy, located on a plateau in central Sri Lanka. Built on tiers on the mountainside, houses seem to float above the trees in a wonderful explosion of colours, while others stand more discreetly among palm trees. Kandy Lake sits at the city centre, its square island home to a stand of slender palm trees that seems to imitate a nearby fountain. It’s an artificial landscape, but it brings a calming vibe to an area where crossing the street is an extreme sport. The city of 125,000 has a well–established tourism program with a royal botanical garden, a sapphire museum, a handful of Ayurvedic centres and a traditional dance troupe that includes fire breathers.

I’ve seen so much since my arrival in this country that my brain is overflowing in a way that reminds me of my days in lecture halls at university. This is the kind of learning I thrive on, but I’m starting to miss human contact. At the Sthree Café, I find what’s lacking. The space was created in collaboration with the Women’s Development Centre, an organization that provides employment opportunities to women and supports women entrepreneurs in the region (all profits are reinvested into the organization). “Sthree” means woman in Tamil and Sinhalese. I meet three sthrees here, one of whom is Isuru Harshana, who invites me to sit down before serving smoky black tea in a coconut teapot, followed by rolled crepes, coconut caramel and kokis.

Kids dressed up for a wedding celebration
Two kids sporting their best at a wedding in Kandy.
A mural at the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy.
A mural at the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy.

As I sip my tea, cooks in the kitchen hand–prepare halape, a sweetened millet dough placed in a kanda leaf and folded in half. In the boutique at the front, local products are sold, including tapestries, doilies and items made with coconut wood. A weaver is working the pedals of her loom, on which a blue and red tablecloth is slowly taking shape – much like Sri Lankan tourism. Yes, a few less–than–conscientious visitors may leave unwanted traces. On the other hand, organizations like Sthree thrive on extra revenue, which can mean more jobs and benefits for the local community. And for the first time since my arrival, I can imagine gently immersing myself in the lives of these women to experience a slice of everyday culture. This may not be as powerful as enlightenment, but it’s just as sacred.