Sri Lanka’s west coast is the island’s front door and – via the international airport at Katunayake just outside Colombo – the point of arrival for all visitors to the country (at least pending the opening of the new international terminal at Hambantota). This is Sri Lanka at its most developed and populous: the busiest, brashest and most Westernized region in the country, home to the capital city and the principal coastal resorts, which have now all but fused into an unbroken ribbon of concrete which meanders along the seaboard for over a hundred kilometres.
Situated about two-thirds of the way down the west coast, Sri Lanka’s sprawling capital, Colombo, is usually low on visitors’ list of priorities, although beneath the unprepossessing surface lies an intriguing and characterful city which offers a fascinating microcosm of contemporary Sri Lanka. North of Colombo is the busy resort of Negombo, whose proximity to the airport makes it a popular first or last stop on many itineraries, while further up the coast is the idyllic Kalpitiya peninsula, with deserted beaches and superb dolphin-watching, and – a short drive inland – the vast Wilpattu National Park, now slowly regaining its former glory after decades of upheaval during the civil war.
South of the capital lie the island’s main beach resorts. The principal areas – Kalutara, Beruwala and Bentota – are home to endless oversized hotels catering to vacationing Europeans on two-week packages. Pockets of serenity remain, even so, along with some characterful hotels and guesthouses, while further south lies Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka’s original hippy hangout, now rather past its best, though it does retain a certain down-at-heel charm and (by sleepy Sri Lankan standards at any rate) a refreshingly upbeat atmosphere thanks to the backpackers who still flock here for cheap sun, sand and surf.
Sri Lanka’s dynamic capital, COLOMBO, seems totally out of proportion with the rest of the country, stretching for 50km along the island’s western seaboard in a long and formless urban straggle that is now home to around three million people. The city’s sprawling layout and congested streets make it difficult to get to grips with, while a lack of obvious charms means that it’s unlikely to win many immediate friends, especially if your first taste of the capital is via the hour-long drive from the airport through the northern breeze-block suburbs and hooting files of weaving traffic.
There’s plenty to enjoy beneath the unpromising exterior, especially if you’re interested in getting behind the tourist clichés and finding out what makes contemporary Sri Lanka tick – it’s definitely a place that grows on you the longer you stay, and is worth a day out of even the shortest itinerary. The city musters few specific sights, but offers plenty of atmosphere and quirky character: a heady admixture of Asian anarchy, colonial charm and modern chic. Shiny office blocks rub shoulders with tumbledown local cafés and shops, while serene Buddhist shrines and colonial churches stand next to the garishly multicoloured towers of Hindu temples – all evidence of the rich stew of races and religions that have gone into the making of this surprisingly cosmopolitan city. And for sheer adrenaline, a walk through the crowded bazaars of the Pettah or a high-speed rickshaw ride amid the kamikaze traffic of the Galle Road have no rival anywhere else in the country.
In the context of Sri Lanka’s almost 2500 years of recorded history, Colombo is a relative upstart. Situated on the delta of the island’s fourth-longest river, the Kelani Ganga, the Colombo area had been long settled by Muslim traders who established a flourishing trading settlement here from the eighth century onwards, but only rose to nationwide prominence at the start of the colonial period. The Sinhalese called the port Kolamba, which the poetically inclined Portuguese believed was derived from the Sinhalese word for mango trees (kola meaning “leaves”, and amba meaning “mango”); it’s more likely, though, that kolamba was an old Sinhala word meaning “port” or “ferry”.
The first significant settlement in the area was 13km northeast of the modern city centre at Kelaniya, site of a famous Buddhist shrine which had developed by the thirteenth century into a major town; the nearby settlement of Kotte, 11km southeast of the modern city, served as the capital of the island’s main Sinhalese lowland kingdom from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries. Despite the proximity of both Kelaniya and Kotte, however, Colombo remained a relatively insignificant fishing and trading port until the arrival of the Portuguese in 1518. The Portuguese constructed the fort that subsequently formed the nucleus of modern Colombo and, in 1597, attacked and destroyed both Kotte and Kelaniya. Portuguese control of Colombo only lasted until 1656, however, when they were ousted by the Dutch after a seven-month siege. The Dutch remained in control for almost 150 years, rebuilding the fort, reclaiming land from the swampy delta using the system of canals that survive to this day, and creating spacious new tree-lined suburbs.
In 1796, Colombo fell to the British, following Dutch capitulation to the French in the Napoleonic Wars. The city was made capital of Ceylon, while new road and rail links with Kandy further enhanced the city’s burgeoning prosperity. With the construction of a new harbour at the end of the nineteenth century, Colombo overtook Galle as the island’s main port, becoming one of the great entrepôts of Asia and acquiring the sobriquet the “Charing Cross of the East” thanks to its location at the crossroads of Indian Ocean trade.
Colombo retained its importance following independence, and has continued to expand at an exponential rate ever since, though not without sometimes disastrous side effects. Growing islandwide Sinhalese–Tamil tensions erupted with tragic results in mid-1983, during the month subsequently christened Black July, when Sinhalese mobs, with the apparent connivance and encouragement of the police and army, went on the rampage throughout the city, murdering perhaps as many as two thousand innocent Tamils and reducing significant portions of the Pettah to ruins – a watershed in Sinhalese–Tamil relations which led, almost inevitably, to fully fledged civil war. During the civil war itself, the city was repeatedly targeted by LTTE suicide bombers, most notably in 1996, when the massive truck-bombing of the Central Bank killed almost a hundred people and succeeded, along with other attacks, in reducing Colombo’s historic Fort district to a heavily militarized ghost town which is only now slowly recovering from its wartime trauma.
Despite its traumatic recent past, the city’s irrepressible commercial and cultural life continues apace, now mainly concentrated in the southern suburbs of Kollupitiya and Bambalapitiya, and in the rebuilt and revitalized Pettah. And for all its problems, Colombo remains a fascinating melting pot of the island’s Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, Burgher and expatriate communities, who combine to give the place a uniquely forward-thinking and outward-looking character quite unlike anywhere else in the island – one which gives a glimpse of what a multi-ethnic, twenty-first-century Sri Lanka might become, communal tensions permitting.
Colombo is a confusing city. There’s no single focal point, and it’s more helpful to think of it as a collection of disparate neighbourhoods than as a single, coherent urban space. At the heart of the old colonial city, the moribund and bomb-afflicted Fort district, Colombo’s former administrative and financial centre, offers a stark reminder of the conflicts which have beset modern Sri Lanka, while to the east and south lie the bustling mercantile district of the Pettah and the engaging temples and old-fashioned street life of Slave Island. From here, it’s a short walk or tuktuk ride to Galle Face Green – perfect, after a hard day’s exploring, for an evening stroll along the seafront promenade and a sundowner at the historic Galle Face Hotel.
South of the Green, the sulphurous Galle Road runs through the suburbs of Kollupitiya and Bambalapitiya, the heart of the modern city, and home to many of Colombo’s best shopping and eating venues. Inland, the leafy streets of Cinnamon Gardens conceal further places to stay, eat and drink, as well as the tropical oasis of the Viharamahadevi Park and the city’s excellent National Museum. Further south are the more downmarket suburbs of Wellawatta and Dehiwala, home to the national zoo, and the attractive beachside suburb of Mount Lavinia, 10km from the city centre.
Colombo has an over-supply of top-end hotels aimed at business travellers, plus a growing number of chic boutique hotels. Unfortunately, there’s a paucity of good budget options. It pays to book in advance, especially if you’re planning on staying at one of the smaller guesthouses, when you may need to reserve a week or more ahead. Never turn up at a small family-run guesthouse unannounced; you’re unlikely to find a vacancy and the owners won’t appreciate having unexpected visitors on their doorsteps, especially if you arrive at some ungodly hour of the night or morning.
Although there are limited options for Bugdet hotels in Colombo, they do exist if you can be patient and look for them. Most families offer guest houses however there are also a range of hostels and cheap-hotels to choose from.
Island Hostels is a chain of hostels in various cities across Sri Lanka. Their hostel in Colombo is especially nice, and somewhat luxurious for a hostel. The accommodation includes a beautiful garden terrace and swimming pool. The dormitory rooms are pod-like with modern interior, reception is open 24 hours and it is located close to sites that are of high interest in the city such as the Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple.
Marino Beach Hotel is one of those hotels that travellers can only dream of in a foreign country. The hotel boasts one of the best continental breakfasts that leaves guests feeling full and happy in the mornings. As given away by the name, the Marino sits on the beach and has an infinity pool with ocean views and a beautiful garden to explore. The rooms here range from average to luxurious making it ideal for every budget, you can choose from a regular hotel room for a fair price or a king suite with coastal views for a higher cost.
In Colombo, you will have no issues finding luxury accommodation. However, to make things easy here are the best rated in the city.
As with all cities, Shangri-La is often top of the list for luxury hotels. The Shangri-La in Colombo offers top of the range service and rooms with ocean and city views. The interior of the bar is typical stylish Sri Lankan decor as with their spa facilities. There is a terrace pool, an outdoor dining area and a variety of restaurants.
These boutique suites offer luxury alongside shabby chic interior. The kitchen, lounge and garden terrace are shared areas to socialise with other guests and rooms are spacious, with every detail of the decor thought-through. Beautiful gardens are free to roam and the onsite restaurant is well catered to all needs with options for vegan, halal and dairy-free.
If you are wanting to be close to nature there are many eco-lodges that focus on just this outside of the city.
This eco-lodge sits just outside of Colombo near the Sinharaja tropical rainforest. The lodges sit on a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a Biosphere Reserve making it a hot spot for biodiversity. The lodge runs on sustainable energy and water and has waste management schemes that significantly reduce their carbon footprint. If you are wanting to relax and be one with nature, this is the eco-lodge for you.
Colombo is far and away the best place to eat in Sri Lanka – the city boasts pretty much the full range of Asian and European cuisines, including an excellent selection of Sri Lankan, Chinese and Indian (both north and south) restaurants. If your stomach’s acclimatized, there are innumerable lively little local cafés – clustered all over Slave Island, down Galle Rd and around the Pettah – which really come alive after dark. Lunch packets are sold by pavement stalls and cafés all over the city – a decent-sized helping of simple rice and curry costs around Rs.150–200.
Colombo’s nightlife is gradually recovering some modest momentum following the conclusion of the war and increasingly relaxed security situation. There’s a fair spread of places to drink, although nightclubs are more or less nonexistent.
Gambling is legal in Sri Lanka making it a popular activity in regards to Colombo nightlife. The larger casinos are the best, where they offer trust and respect. Open 24 hours, they often use their tactics of free food and drinks to encourage tourists and locals alike to stay longer and play games. The best ones in Colombo are Bally's and Bellagio.
As you will notice with the nightlife in Colombo, the crowd is often enthusiastic travellers looking for a fun time. Many of the bars in Colombo are perfect for just this, and often they are kind to your wallet. From sophisticated rooftop bars such as ON14 to quirky bars that feature recycled interior such as Loft Lounge. As with most cities, Colombo also has an Irish bar hidden in Nawam Mawatha named Molly's Pub. The pub offers a warm and friendly atmosphere and often plays live music.
Finding a decent club in Colombo is more of a task as bars are the most popular option. However, do not be disheartened as there are clubs to choose from (although limited) should you wish for full-fledged clubbing. Clique and Disques are the top recommended, although expensive. Males are requested to pay an entrance fee and drinks are pricey but the music is considered good, with a range of hip-hop tunes and current hits.
If you don't fancy a night full of drinking in Colombo, there are other charming alternatives. You can take a guided night tour of the city and see Colombo from a new perspective. Cities often feel like two totally different places during the day and during the night, Colombo is no exception to this. The guide combines a boat ride on the Diyawana River and covers lots of interesting sites. Another alternative is to watch the sunset at Mount Lavinia.
Colombo has a good range of shops, and a day trawling through the city’s handicrafts emporia and chic boutiques can be an enjoyable way to end a visit and offload surplus rupees. You’ll find the best of Sri Lanka’s modest traditional handicraft production on sale at various places around the city, as well as at characterful modern shops, such as Barefoot, which offer chic contemporary takes on traditional designs – everything from stationery and stuffed toys to fabrics and kitchenware – and all at bargain-basement prices. The only fly in the soup is the fact that in virtually all establishments (except Barefoot) you’ll be tailed obsessively during your browsing by the shops’ under-employed sales assistants – though whether this is so that they can be of immediate service when required or because they suspect all foreigners of being closet shoplifters remains unclear. Colombo also boasts an excellent selection of bookshops, a plethora of jewellers and, of course, plenty of tea shops. When buying handicrafts, remember that the export of antiques (classified as any object more than fifty years old) is prohibited without a licence (see Average monthly temperatures and rainfall).
East of Fort, the helter-skelter bazaar district of the Pettah is Colombo’s most absorbing area, and feels quite unlike anywhere else in Sri Lanka. The crush and energy of the gridlocked streets, with merchandise piled high in tiny shops and on the pavements, holds an undeniable, chaotic fascination, although exploring can be a slow and rather exhausting process, made additionally perilous by the barrow boys and porters who charge through the crowds pulling or carrying huge loads and threatening the heads and limbs of unwary tourists.
Shops in the Pettah are still arranged in the traditional bazaar layout, with each street devoted to a different trade: Front Street, for example, is full of bags, suitcases and shoes; 1st Cross Street is devoted to hardware and electrical goods; 3rd Cross Street and Keyzer Street are stuffed with colourful fabrics, and so on. The wares on display are fairly mundane – unless you’re a big fan of Taiwanese household appliances or fake Barbie dolls – although traces of older and more colourful trades survive in places.
Unlike the rest of Colombo, the district retains a strongly Tamil (the name Pettah derives from the Tamil word pettai, meaning village) and Muslim flavour, as evidenced by its many pure veg and Muslim restaurants, quaint mosques, Hindu temples and colonial churches (many Sri Lankan Tamils are Christian rather than Hindu). Even the people look different here, with Tamil women in gorgeous saris, Muslim children dressed entirely in white and older men in brocaded skullcaps – a refreshing change from the boring skirts and shirts which pass muster in the rest of the city.
North of Chilaw (and about 8km before reaching the town of Puttalam), a side road branches off west, threading its way across the beautiful, windswept Kalpitiya peninsula, fringed with unspoilt beaches and bounded on opposite sides by sea and lagoon. The peninsula’s considerable tourist potential (especially given its relative proximity to the international airport) remains largely unexploited as yet, and government plans to establish a $4 billion tourist zone near Kalpitiya town, complete with luxury resort, golf course and airstrip, have thankfully so far come to naught. For the time being, tourism remains low-key, centred on the marvellous cluster of eco-resorts at beautiful Alankuda Beach.
Alankuda is also a prime spot for kitesurfing, thanks to the strong winds which blow down either side of the peninsula: beginners head for the calmer waters of the lagoon; more advanced kiters head out onto the ocean waves. There are two kitesurfing schools, one at Bar Reef Resort (May–Oct), and the independent Kitekuda (t 072 223 2952, wsrilankakiteschool.com), offering equipment and tuition from beginners to advanced levels, plus a kite camp with inexpensive bungalow accommodation. The best time for kiting is from May to September, when the winds gust most strongly; kiting at other times of year is also possible apart from April and November, when the winds die away to nothing.
In addition to kitesurfing, a range of other watersports including snorkelling, kayaking and deep-sea fishing can also be arranged. There’s particularly good diving in the nearby Bar Reef, home to some of Sri Lanka’s most pristine and biodiverse coral gardens, home to over 150 types of coral and almost 300 species of tropical fish.
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.
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.
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.
BERUWALA is Sri Lanka’s resort destination par excellence, perfect if you’re looking for an undemanding tropical holiday with hot sun, bland food and characterless accommodation. Big resort hotels stand shoulder to shoulder along the main section of the broad and still attractive beach – Beruwala’s so-called “Golden Mile” – often separated by stout fences and security guards from contact with the ordinary life of Sri Lanka outside.
That, at least, is the normal state of affairs, although at present Beruwala is undergoing a temporary hiatus thanks to major redevelopment all along the seafront. A couple of landmark hotels (the Riverina and Tropical Villas) are currently closed for renovations, while several new hotels, including the massive Chaaya Bey, are under construction further up the beach on the site of resorts destroyed in the tsunami. Much of the strip is thus currently an enormous building site, while the relative lack of visitors means that the whole place feels strangely deserted compared to its normal bustling self. Expect the whole resort to be back up and running again by sometime in 2014.
Beach and resorts aside, the area (including neighbouring Bentota) has also developed into Sri Lanka’s major centre for Ayurvedic treatments; most of the larger hotels offer massages and herbal or steam baths, and there are also a number of specialist resorts (see Ayurveda: the science of life).
North of the resorts, scruffy Beruwala town is where Sri Lanka’s first recorded Muslim settlement was established, during the eighth century. On a headland overlooking the harbour at the northern end of town, the Kachimalai Mosque is believed to mark the site of this first Arab landing, and to be the oldest on the island. Containing the shrine of a tenth-century Muslim saint, it’s an important pilgrimage site at the end of Ramadan.
South of Aluthgama, BENTOTA offers a further clutch of package resorts, plus an outstanding selection of more upmarket places. The beach divides into two areas. At the north end, facing Aluthgama, lies Paradise Island (as it’s popularly known), a narrow spit of land beautifully sandwiched between the choppy breakers of the Indian Ocean and the calm waters of the Bentota lagoon, though sadly none of the few hotels here really lives up to the setting. Backing Paradise Island, the tranquil Bentota Ganga provides the setting for Sri Lanka’s biggest range of watersports, along with interesting boat trips up the river. The southern end of Bentota beach (south of Bentota train station) comprises a wide stretch of sand backed by dense thickets of corkscrew palms – one of the most attractive beaches on the island, although somewhat spoilt by the unsightly amounts of litter that get dumped here. This is also where you’ll find one of Sri Lanka’s finest clusters of top-end hotels and villas, set at discreet intervals from one another down the coast. Many of the hotels in the area are the work of local architect Geoffrey Bawa– it’s well worth splashing out to stay in one of his classic creations, whose artful combination of nature and artifice offers an experience both luxurious and aesthetic. Despite the number of visitors, Bentota beach remains surprisingly quiet, particularly south of the station. Unlike Hikkaduwa or Unawatuna, there’s virtually no beachlife here, and the oceanfront lacks even the modest smattering of impromptu cafés, handicraft shops and hawkers you’ll find at Beruwala – it’s this somnolent atmosphere which either appeals or repels, depending on which way your boat’s pointing.
The calm waters of the Bentota lagoon provide a year-round venue for all sorts of watersports including waterskiing, jetskiing, speed-boating, sailing, windsurfing, canoeing, lagoon boat trips, deep-sea fishing and banana-boating. There’s also good diving along the coast here and decent snorkelling around Lighthouse Island off the northern end of Beruwala beach – trips can be arranged with local boatmen who tout for custom along this stretch of beach (around Rs.1500 for the boat plus Rs.750 for snorkelling equipment). The following are the main operators, although there are plenty of other smaller outfits dotted around the area.
Back in the 1970s, HIKKADUWA was Sri Lanka’s original hippy hangout, a budget alternative to the fancier resort hotels at Beruwala and Bentota. Subsequent decades were not kind to the town: rampant over-development led to the systematic erosion of the beach and the creation of a memorable line of concrete eyesores masquerading as hotels, while the famous Coral Gardens were reduced to a circus of boats chasing traumatized fish through a labyrinth of dead coral.
Over the past few years, however, Hikkaduwa has begun to rise, cautiously, from its own ashes, as the tourist hordes have largely ignored the town, flocking to newer and less spoilt destinations further south, allowing Hikkaduwa to recapture some of its former sleepy, slightly hippified charm. The much abused beach and Coral Gardens are now being gradually rehabilitated, while following the tsunami many of the town’s bomb-shelter resort hotels were demolished or renovated, and the whole place is now looking better than it has for years, while even the formerly hectic and noxious traffic along the Galle Road has lessened somewhat following the opening of the Southern Expressway.
It’s still far from unspoilt, but compared to the somnolent resorts further north Hikkaduwa remains refreshingly lively, with plenty of restaurants, bars and shops to tempt you off the beach, and a crowd of predominantly young and independent travellers keeping things busy. Things are particularly lively during the annual Hikkaduwa Beach Fest, a three-day beach party in July/August with visiting international DJs and crowds of hedonistic locals and foreigners partying on the beach. Other attractions include excellent local surf, plus good diving and snorkelling. Beach and sea aside, there are also several interesting Buddhist temples around Hikkaduwa, all easily reachable by tuktuk or bicycle – though be very careful cycling along the treacherous Galle Road.
Hikkaduwa has the largest selection of diving schools in Sri Lanka – the three operators listed below are the best-established, although other outfits come and go. As usual, the dive season runs from November to April. There’s a good range of dives close by, including reef dives down to 25m at the labyrinthine Hikkaduwa Gala complex, a well-known spot with swim-through caves, and the rocky-bottomed area of Kiralagala (22–36m deep). There are also some sixteen wrecks in the vicinity, including a much-dived old steam-driven oil tanker from the 1860s known as the Conch; the Earl of Shaftesbury sailing ship, wrecked in 1848; and the Rangoon, which sank near Galle in 1863.
On the south side of the Pettah, in front of Fort Railway Station, stands a statue of Henry Steel Olcott (1842–1907), perhaps the most influential foreigner in the modern history of Sri Lanka. Olcott was an American Buddhist and co-founder (with Madame Blavatsky, the celebrated Russian clairvoyant and spiritualist) of the Theosophical Society, a quasi-religious movement which set about promoting Asian philosophy in the West and reviving oriental spiritual traditions in the East, to protect them from the attacks of European missionary Christianity. The society’s utopian (if rather vague) objectives comprised a mixture of the scientific, the social, the spiritual and the downright bizarre: the mystical Madame Blavatsky, fount of the society’s more arcane tenets, believed that she had the ability to levitate, render herself invisible and communicate with the souls of the dead, as well as asserting that the Theosophical Society was run according to orders received from a group of “masters” – disembodied tutelary spirits who were believed to reside in Tibet.
In 1880, Blavatsky and Olcott arrived in Ceylon, formally embracing Buddhism and establishing the Buddhist Theosophical Society, which became one of the principal driving forces behind the remarkable worldwide spread of Buddhism during the twentieth century. Olcott spent many of his later years touring the island, organizing Buddhist schools and petitioning the British colonial authorities to respect Sri Lanka’s religious traditions, though his most visible legacy is the multicoloured Buddhist flag which he helped design, and which now decorates temples across the island.
Right next to the National Art Gallery, Nelum Pokuna Mawatha (still generally referred to by its colonial name of Green Path) is home to an enjoyable impromptu open-air art show every weekend, when local students and other part-time painters descend on the area, hanging their canvases from the railings along the side of the road. All artworks on display are for sale, often at very affordable prices.
Ayurveda – from the Sanskrit, meaning “the science of life” – is an ancient system of healthcare which is widely practised in India and Sri Lanka. Its roots reach back deep into Indian history – descriptions of a basic kind of Ayurvedic medical theory are found as far back as the second millennium BC, in the sacred proto-Hindu texts known as the Vedas.
Unlike allopathic Western medicines, which aim to determine what’s making you ill, then destroy it, Ayurveda is a holistic system which regards illness as the result of a derangement in a person’s basic make-up. The Ayurvedic system holds that all bodies are composed of varied combinations of five basic elements – ether, air, fire, water and earth – and that each body is governed by three doshas, or life forces: pitta (fire and water); kapha (water and earth); and vata (air and ether). Illness is seen as an imbalance in the proportions of three influences, and specific diseases are considered symptoms of more fundamental problems. Ayurvedic treatments aim to rectify such imbalances, and Ayurveda doctors will typically examine the whole of a patient’s lifestyle, habits, diets and emotional proclivities in order to find the roots of a disease – treatment often consists of establishing a more balanced lifestyle as much as administering specific therapies.
With the developed world’s increasing suspicion of Western medicine and pharmaceuticals, Ayurveda is gaining a growing following among non-Sri Lankans – it’s particularly popular with Germans, thousands of whom visit the island every year specifically to take Ayurvedic cures. Genuine courses of Ayurveda treatment need to last at least a week or two to have any effect, and treatment plans are usually customized by a local Ayurveda doctor to suit the needs of individual patients. Programmes usually consist of a range of herbal treatments and various types of baths and massages prescribed in combination with cleansing and revitalization techniques including yoga, meditation, special diets (usually vegetarian) and abstention from alcohol. Some of the more serious Ayurveda resorts and clinics offer the panchakarma, or “five-fold treatment”, comprising the five basic therapies of traditional Ayurveda: therapeutic vomiting; purging; enema; blood-letting; and the nasal administration of medicines – a rather stomach-turning catalogue which offers the serious devotee the physical equivalent of a thorough spring-cleaning. A few places offer other yet more weird and wonderful traditional therapies such as treatments with leeches and fire (“moxibustion”).
Although a sizeable number of people visit Sri Lankan Ayurvedic centres for the serious treatment of chronic diseases, the majority of treatments offered here are essentially cosmetic, so-called “soft” Ayurveda – herbal and steam baths, and various forms of massage are the overwhelming staples, promoted by virtually every larger resort hotel along the west coast. These are glorified beauty and de-stress treatments rather than genuine medicinal therapies, and whether there’s anything truly Ayurvedic about many of them is a moot point, but they’re enjoyable enough, if you take them for what they are and don’t confuse them with genuine Ayurveda.
We have a marvellous tradition of building in this country that has got lost. It got lost because people followed outside influences over their own good instincts. They never built right “through” the landscape…You must “run” with the site; after all, you don’t want to push nature out with the building.
One of the twentieth century’s foremost Asian architects, Geoffrey Bawa (1919–2003) was born to a wealthy family of Colombo Burghers boasting English, Dutch, German, Sinhalese and Scottish ancestors – a heady cocktail of cultures which mirrors the eclectic mix of European and local influences so apparent in his work.
Bawa spent a large proportion of his first forty years abroad, mainly in Europe. Having studied English at Cambridge and law in London, Bawa finally dragged himself back to Sri Lanka and followed his father and grandfather into the legal profession, though without much enthusiasm – his only positive experience of the law seems to have been driving around Colombo in his Rolls-Royce whilst wearing his lawyer’s robes and wig. After scarcely a year he threw in his legal career and went to Italy, where he planned to buy a villa and settle down.
Fortunately for Sri Lanka, the Italian villa didn’t work out, and Bawa returned, staying with his brother Bevis at the latter’s estate at Brief Garden. Inspired by his brother’s example, Bawa decided to do something similar himself, purchasing the nearby house and gardens which he christened Lunuganga, and beginning to enthusiastically remodel the estate’s buildings and grounds. The architectural bug having finally bitten, Bawa returned to England to train as a professional architect, finally qualifiying at the advanced age of 38, after which he returned to Colombo and flung himself into his new career.
Bawa’s early leanings were modernist, encouraged by his training in London and by his close working relationship with the Danish architect Ulrik Plesner, a keen student of functional Scandinavian design. The style of his early buildings is often described as “Tropical Modernism”, but local conditions gradually changed Bawa’s architectural philosophy. The pure white surfaces favoured by European modernists weathered badly in the tropics, while their flat rooflines were unsuitable in monsoonal climates – and in any case, shortages of imported materials like steel and glass encouraged Bawa to look for traditional local materials and indigenous solutions to age-old architectural conundrums.
The result was a style in which the strong and simple forms of modernism were softened and enriched by local influences, materials and landscapes. Bawa revived the huge overhanging tiled roofs traditionally used by colonial architects in the tropics, whose broad eaves and spacious verandas offered protection against both sun and rain, while buildings were designed to blend harmoniously with their surrounding landscape (Bawa often and famously designed buildings to fit around existing trees, for example, rather than just cutting them down). In addition, the use of open, interconnecting spaces avoided the need for air-conditioning as well as blurring the distinction between interior and exterior spaces, allowing architecture and landscape to merge seamlessly into one.
The arrival of package tourism in the 1960s brought with it the need for modern hotels, a genre with which Bawa became inextricably associated – see Basics for a list of his principal hotels. His first major effort, the Bentota Beach Hotel, established a style which many hotels across the island would subsequently follow. The main wooden pavilion, topped by a hipped roof, used natural local materials throughout and paid distant homage to traditional Kandyan architecture in its overall shape and conception; at its centre lay a beautifully rustic courtyard and pond set within a cluster of frangipani trees, giving the sense of nature not only being around the building, but also within.
Around a dozen other hotels followed – most notably the Kandalama in Dambulla and the Lighthouse in Galle – as well as major public commissions including the mammoth new Sri Lankan Parliament building in Kotte. Bawa’s architectural practice became the largest on the island during the 1970s, and most of Sri Lanka’s finest young architects started their careers working for him. Many took his influence with them when they left, and buildings (hotels especially) all over the island continue to show the trappings of the Bawa style, executed with varying degrees of competence and imagination.
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.