Rising like a phoenix from the ashes after the Easter bombings, Sri Lanka has many draws, but none more beautiful than the intrinsic happiness of its people in the face of all odds
Words & Photographs: SAMARPAN BHOWMIK
A storm is brewing. Enormous ranks of clouds, heavy with rain and illuminated in flashes by streaks of lightning, gather on the horizon. Below us, the silver crests of crashing waves stand out in the darkness. It’s 2am and there’s not another soul in sight for miles around. The stern of the little boat we’re in rides up as we gain speed, skipping over the gentle undulations of the lagoon. I am in Bentota, Sri Lanka, on board a tiny motorised boat rapidly approaching the confluence of the Bentota estuary and the Indian Ocean.
The trip started off in the capital, Colombo, a day earlier. A common misconception is that the airport is in Colombo; it’s not. It’s actually around 40km north of the city. We take a three-lane expressway south towards the capital as we exit Bandaranaike International Airport. The road heads south, clinging to the coast, affording us a glimpse of the deep blue of the Indian Ocean. Colombo, when we reach it, is neat and well planned. The roads are tree-lined, with generous sidewalks, begging you to explore on foot. The motorists are well behaved, perhaps owing to the strict enforcement of traffic rules in the country, or simply because Sri Lankans are a considerate bunch. There will be many times over the six days I spend in the country when I would be given right of way by all vehicles when crossing roads. Not one honk nor impatient acceleration. Our first stop in Colombo is the Independence Memorial Hall, a tribute to the country’s independence from the British Empire. It’s an impressive-looking structure, graceful without being ostentatious. The gardens surrounding the square are lush, well-maintained and clean. We notice the armed forces personnel stationed at every building, monument and location of importance. Since the devastating attacks at Easter, the government has not taken any chances. Although most of the security measures have been relaxed with a view to promote tourism, the presence of the armed forces is a reassuring sight. Perhaps the most significant stop we make in Colombo is at St Anthony’s Church, Kochikade, near Pettah Bazaar, one of the sites that was attacked and where nearly a hundred lost their lives. Kochikade gets its name from the many of the local community who migrated here from Kochi after India’s independence. The church draws the faithful from across economic, social and even religious lines.
At the church, aside from the navy recruits carrying building materials in, there are few reminders of the terrible tragedy. There is, of course, the constant sound of hammering, levelling and scraping ringing through the near-empty place of worship on a weekday afternoon, as reconstruction continues in full earnest. In the main building, we see a portion of the floor near the entrance that was gouged out by the force of the explosives. Father Dilusha Chamara Perera, the assistant administrator, is a busy man; he was upstairs, preparing for Mass, when he heard the explosion rip through the structure. When he ran downstairs, he was met by chaos, mangled bodies and screaming innocents. Despite the devastating loss of life, the two most important highlights of the church, the ‘miracle statue’ and the casket containing the body of its patron, St Anthony, were spared. Fr Perera talks of the crucial support provided by the government and the armed forces in restoring things to normalcy; the building was rebuilt in just 52 days.
Spirits uplifted, we carry on towards the Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct, one of the most well-preserved signs of the earliest colonisers of the country. While the complex hosts bars and famous eateries such as the renowned Ministry of Crab in quaint buildings, the sky-piercing World Trade Centre towers across the street to provide a modern contrast. As dusk rolls in, we venture towards Galle Face, a stretch of seafront that hosts some of Colombo’s oldest and grandest hotels. The promenade is not too busy on a weekday evening, and the street food vendors make sure they’re heard over the crashing waves. We sample some local delicacies such as isso vadei (prawns in a spice paste spread on a base of rice flour), and stroll out onto the pier, past canoodling couples and noisy groups of youngsters. The waves hit the pier’s base with enough force to send shudders up to us. Colombo by night is as beautiful as it is in the day.