In 2019, Sri Lanka will mark a decade at peace – explore the northern regions of our number one Best in Travel country as they open up to visitors keen to take a path less trodden, among vivid temples and islands shaded by palm fronds
Words RORY GOULDING
Photographs JONATHAN STOKES
The road from Colombo to Trincomalee take around seven hours to drive, if you don’t get held up by elephants wandering across it. The tendrils of the west-coast capital – its billboards and roadside eateries – extend deep into a tropical countryside of coconut palms, banana plants and rice paddies. Eventually, the buzz of three-wheelers and motorbikes recedes, and there are long miles through a savannah-like landscape where the stamp of heavy grey feet is never far away, before travellers reach the east-coast port of Trincomalee.
The line that this highway makes on the map of Sri Lanka has served until recently as a kind of mental boundary for visitors, with most of the country’s big draws lying to its south. The north of the island is a different story: this area saw most of the fighting in Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war. On May 18, 2009, the conflict ended for good, and almost a decade on, the north is gradually reappearing in travellers’ plans.
It’s this opportunity that I’m taking, and the first stop on my journey is Anuradhapura: the northernmost of Sri Lanka’s ancient capitals. Buddhism flowered here 2,200 years ago, and the modern city shares its space with the ruins and jungle, which seems always ready to close in. It’s a low-rise place, except for its dagobas – solid brick domes, each built to enshrine a relic – which grew like a pearl around its seed.
“In Sri Lanka, we think more about the relic inside the dagoba than its size,” says local guide Manjula Kumara Jayarathne. We follow a line of white-clad pilgrims who are headed at the close of the day to the Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba, holding aloft a long bolt of saffron-coloured cloth. They are performing the kapruka pooja ritual, in which they wind this strip around the base of the dagoba, to the sound of drums and flutes, and amid clouds of incense. “They consider the dagoba to be like a living Buddha,” says Manjula. “So here they are putting a robe on it.”
Anuradhapura was built on the plains to be a great centre of Buddhism, but the following morning I find its more secluded counterweight on the hilltop of Mihintale 13km to the east. Its rounded rocks stand like lookout towers above the treetops. The dawn mist has cleared from this temple complex, and Uparathana Thero goes out as he does most mornings to sweep the sand level around the Ambasthale Dagoba. The monk first came to Mihintale aged 11, and, 18 years on, he also leads spiritual tours in the surrounding forests. “My master allows me to travel,” he says. “He knows I don’t want to stay in one place too long.”
His morning task completed, he guides me to some favoured meditation spots, including hermitages high among the rocks – one-room dwellings with signs outside requesting silence. As a newcomer, it’s easy on this hilltop to feel like you have somehow been lifted to a more spiritual plane; Uparathana is more equivocal. “In the beginning, location is important for meditation,” he says. “But when I went to Taiwan I meditated in the airport.”
Buddhism is followed by most people in Sri Lanka, largely among the three quarters of the population who identify as Sinhalese. By the time the road north from Mihintale reaches the town of Vavuniya, 48km away, the floridly looping Sinhalese script on signs has largely given way to the Tamil alphabet, where curves and right angles keep each other in check. From here on, too, the rounded form of the Buddhist dagoba becomes less frequent, and it’s more common to pass a Hindu temple, or kovil. These are announced by a gopuram: a wide, tapering tower at the entrance, covered in massed statues of animals, people, deities and all categories in between.
I stop at a roadside rest house for tea (strong, milky, sugary) before continuing on the drive west to Mannar Island. Until a decade ago, this road marked the front line between mainly Sinhalese government forces and separatists fighting for a Tamil state in the north and east. Along the highway today, there are small but encouraging signs of rebuilding, with many a newly-painted gopuram, and also roadside shrines to the Virgin Mary. Catholicism is still strong in pockets of the country, 360 years after Dutch colonisers drove out the Portuguese.
A short causeway leads to Mannar Island, though in the dry season the intervening lagoon has disappeared, creating a peninsula. Mannar was once a gateway to Sri Lanka, its herds of miniature donkeys a legacy of long-departed Arab traders. Most visitors to the island now come in search of wind for kitesurfing, flamingos in spring, or a sense of the forgotten. This is one of the driest parts of the country, yet its tree cover shows another sign of northern distinctiveness. The coconut palms that are such a hallmark of the south are still seen here in large numbers, their curving trunks seemingly too slender to support the heavy fronds that hang like long, wet hair drying in the breeze. But they are joined – and increasingly outnumbered on the way north – by the palmyra, a palm that prefers to grow bolt upright, ending in a globe-like burst of leaves that looks like a green firework frozen a split second after the bang.
Both types line the beach at Talaimannar, which runs past tied-up fishing boats and a weathered lighthouse to a set of railway tracks that ends by the shore, and a fenced-off wooden pier that has seen better days. This was where trains from Colombo used to discharge goods and passengers onto ferries that made the 48km journey across to a matching rail terminus in India, before cyclone damage and conflict brought an end to the link.
The two countries remain tantalisingly close at this point: a chain of islets and sandbars known as Adam’s Bridge runs between India and Sri Lanka, and, in places, the sea is shallow enough to wade across. In the Ramayana, these stepping-stones were laid by an army of ape-men sent by the God Rama to rescue his wife from the demon-king of Lanka. There have been proposals to restart the ferry link, or even build a bridge to India, without monkey aid this time. For now, though, the island continues in its sun-baked slumber.