Explore Colombo and the west coast
The coast south of Colombo is home to Sri Lanka’s biggest concentration of resort hotels, catering particularly to a German and, increasingly, Russian clientele. This is the best-established package-holiday area on the island, and some parts, notably the main stretches of beach at Kalutara, Beruwala and Bentota, have largely sold out to the tourist dollar – if you’re looking for unspoilt beaches and a taste of local life, these aren’t the places to find them. Away from the big resort areas, pockets of interest can still be found, particularly at the lively town of Aluthgama, backing the Bentota lagoon, and Ambalangoda, the main centre for the production of the island’s eye-catching masks. Further south lies the old resort of Hikkaduwa, still one of the liveliest places along the coast, with good surfing, snorkelling and diving.
Heading south out of Colombo, the heaving Galle Road passes through a seemingly endless succession of ragtag suburbs before finally shaking itself clear of the capital, though even then a more or less continuous ribbon of development straggles all the way down the coast – according to Michael Ondaatje in his celebrated portrait of Sri Lanka, Running in the Family, it was said that a chicken could walk along the roofs of the houses between Galle and Colombo without once touching the ground. The endless seaside buildings mean that although the road and rail line run close to the coast for most of the way, you don’t see that much of the sea, beaches or actual resorts from either.Read More
Just over 40km from Colombo, bustling KALUTARA is the first town you reach travelling south to retain a recognizably separate identity from the capital. It’s one of the west coast’s largest settlements, but the long stretch of beach north of town remains reasonably unspoilt, dotted with a string of upmarket hotels. Sitting next to the broad estuary of the Kalu Ganga, or “Black River”, from which it takes its name, Kalutara was formerly an important spice-trading centre, controlled at various times by the Portuguese, Dutch and British. Nowadays, it’s more famous as the source of the island’s finest mangosteens.
- Bentota and around
The masks you’ll see at Ambalangoda (and elsewhere around the island) were originally produced to be worn by performers in low-country (southern) dances, either in devil dances or kolam. Many Sri Lankans still believe that diseases and illness can be caused by demons, and the purpose of the devil dance – more strictly known as an exorcism ceremony (bali) or healing dance (sunni yakuma) – is to summon up the demons who are causing a person sickness, make offerings to them and then politely request that they leave their victim in peace. There are various groups of demons – five yakka demons, twelve pali demons and eighteen sanni demons; each is believed to be responsible for certain diseases, and each is represented by its own mask, which is worn by a dancer during the exorcism ceremony (all 35 individual masks are sometimes combined into a single enormous medicine mask). Devil dances are still occasionally performed in rural villages, although you’d have to be very lucky to see one.
The origins of the kolam dance-drama are popularly claimed to date back to the mythical Queen Menikpala, who while pregnant developed a craving to witness a theatrical performance. Vishvakarma, the god of craftsmen and artists, is said to have given the king the first kolam masks and the plot of the entire entertainment. The traditional kolam performance features a sequence of dances held together by a rather tenuous plot based around the visit of the pregnant Queen Menikpala and her husband, King Maha Sammatha, to a village. The performance traditionally comprises a medley of satirical and royal dances, featuring characters such as the king’s drunken drummer, a lecherous village clerk, assorted village simpletons, a couple of propitious demons, a lion and, of course, the royal couple themselves. Unfortunately, complete kolam performances are no longer staged, so it’s impossible to experience this unique Sri Lankan medley of folk tale, demonic superstition and history (laced with a touch of Buddhism) – though you can at least still enjoy the masks.
As well as kolam and devil dances, the south is also home to a range of populist folk dances – though nowadays you’re more likely to see them performed in one of Kandy’s nightly cultural shows (see Kandyan dancing and drumming) than anywhere in the south itself. Popular dances include the stick dance (leekeli), harvest dance (kulu), pot dance (kalageldi) and the ever-popular raban dance, during which small raban drums (they actually look more like thick wooden plates than musical instruments) are spun on the fingers or on sticks balanced on the hands or head – an experienced performer can keep as many as eight rabans twirling simultaneously from various parts of his or her body.
A familiar sight along the Galle Road between Bentota and Hikkaduwa, particularly in Kosgoda, are the numerous battered signs for an ever-growing multitude of turtle hatcheries set up in recent years in response to the rapidly declining numbers of turtles visiting Sri Lanka’s beaches. Staffed by volunteers, and funded by tourist donations, the hatcheries buy the turtles’ eggs (at above market value) from local fishermen and rebury them in safe locations; once hatched, the babies are kept in concrete tubs for a few days before being released into the sea. Despite the hatcheries’ (mostly) laudable aims however, questions have long been raised over their effectiveness – it is almost impossible to replicate the turtles’ natural incubation and hatching conditions, and as a consequence the overwhelming majority succumb to disease or predators – and there is little evidence that they have helped to reverse the turtles’ declining fortunes.