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The Ceylon Press
Companion to Sri Lanka

A, a

Abeysekera, Karunaratne

“Come mild wind and convey my sad feelings,” wrote Abeysekera. Ours too - for the poet song-writer, who died in his early fifties, in 1983, was a much-loved, much-missed literary and cricket all-rounder. Beginning his career at a jejune 20 years old, he went on to write the lines of well over 2,000 songs. His award-winning lyrics underwrote the careers of some of the island’s most popular singers; and called to mind a gentle, kinder world, where there was room enough for emotion, feelings – and, of course, love. “My eyes are closing, and your image alone is seen,” he wrote in one of his most renowned hits. His fascination with cricket won him a place as the first notable Singhala broadcaster on the subject, his agile creativity well up to the task of having to invent cricketing terms for actions then unknown in the Singhala language.

Abrar Mosque

Claimed as the island’s oldest mosque, Beruwala’s Abrar Mosque dates back to 920 CE - but was brutally improved in 1986 by a Provincial Governor. Indeed, over the recent centuries, so much of the ancient mosque has been forcibly renovated that its tangible antiquity is more a whisper than a certainty. But its claims to a deep and real history are strongly grounded, for Beruwala, located on the SW coast of the island, is said to be the country’s very first Muslim settlement, established sometime in the 10th CE by a Somali Sheikh - Yusuf bin Ahmad al-Kawneyn. A man much given to spreading the word of the Prophet to neighbours near and far, the Sheik was called "the most outstanding saint in Somaliland". The Sri Lankan Moor descendants of these early settlers make up the town’s majority population, and the masjid’s devotees, 3,000 of which can fit into its cool interior at any one time in answer to the shahadah, calling them in five times a day.


Night-time is lights-out time in Sri Lanka; the polluting sodium glare of millions of civic lights and lit shop windows is largely absent here, bringing no comfort to achluophobics but lots to the country’s many nocturnal creatures. By 9 p.m. in most towns and small cities barely a bulb glows. Except for insomniacs, the eternally overworked and slavish party animals, a Sri Lankan bedtime is early, in time for an early Sri Lankan bed rise.


A Buddhist country with deep Muslim and Hindu traditions, Sri Lanka could never be accused of minimalizing religion – so it is no surprise to learn that this was also the country to which Adam fled when exiled from the Garden of Eden. If so, he may have experienced a sharp sense of déjà vu upon arrival - for if ever there is a natural environment akin to that described in Genesis, it must surely be Sri Lanka. Archaeological or documentary corroboration of the Adam-in-Sri-Lanka myths are, at best, elusive; but it is believed that he left a foot print on the top of the sacred mountain of Sri Pada (Adam's Peak), although this is disputed by Buddhists who claim the footlike depression belongs to Lord Buddha. Hindus argue that it was left there by Hanuman or Shiva; whilst other Christians state it is actual a mark made by St Thomas. But if his eponymous mountain has because a mildly litigious landmark, Adam can also claim the remarkable Adam’s Bridge, the causeway that links Sri Lanka to the rest of the Asian landmass. His association, post expulsion, with super large things is not surprising given that one of Allah’s hadiths have him at sixty cubits tall – some 27 metres high.

Adam, The Star Of

Various price quotations have been given for the Star of Adam, a 1,444 carat sapphire pulled from Rathnapura’s mines in 2015 - and the difference between them is more than sufficient to power the economy of a small country for several months. $100 million; $175 million; even $300 million – all emerge as possible price points for this 280 ounce egg-shaped stone. Its discovery put to shade the 12-carat sapphire worn by Prince Diana on her engagement. What makes the stone so remarkable, size excepted, is the distinct 6-rayed star it displays, an effect known amongst jewellers as “asterism,” deriving from the complex make-up of the stone itself which produces an internal reflection effect. The stone’s owner, who has wisely chosen to remain anonymous, has gone to ground since announcing that he might be interested in a sale.

Adam’s Bridge

Until a cyclone hit it in 1470 you could just about walk - at low tide - from India to Sri Lanka. Today, you will need scuba gear – to glimpse the shattered path that still remains on 48 kilometres of partially sunken limestone banks stretching in salty shallows between the two countries. Named for the Biblical Adam, this thread of 103 coral reefs separates the Gulf of Mannar in the south from Palk Bay in the north, and connects Rameswaram, a modest fishing town in India’s Tamil Nadu to Thalaimannar, a still smaller fishing settlement on the tip of Sri Lanka’s Mannar Island. These salty stretches of reef platforms, sandy beaches and mangroves offer a unique home to thousands of species of fauna and flora – fish, lobsters, shrimps, crabs; and the now highly endangered dugon, a marine mammal heralded as the original mermaid by ancient sailors; and closely – if unexpectedly - related to elephants. The very shallowness of the waters means that sea faring traffic finds the aera almost impossible to sail through; and various schemes have, since the 18th century, suggested dredging the watery gaps to create a shipping throughfare. The most recent of these nakedly destructive and environmentally vandalistic schemes, the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project, sits atop on a dusty shelf policed by the governments of India and Sri Lanka - an on-off Plan that has been discussed since the mid-1950s and, thankfully, with a price tag of several billion US dollars, one that is unlikely to undergo a malign hatching.

Adam’s Peak

Few Sri Lankans, and fewer still visitors, have not taken the trouble to ascend Adam’s Peak, a 7,359 foot mountain in the south of the island, flanked by forest, home to elephants and leopards, glinting with rubies, and sapphires, and the source of three major rivers. So it is unsurprising that no less a tourist than Alexander the Great is said to have made a journey up the sacred mountain which carries a depression on its peak that is claimed by Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, and Hindus, as – respectively - the footprint of the Buddha, Adam, and Siva. Albeit somewhat late in the day, Ashraff, a 15th century Persian poet describes the royal visit, proceeded, he says, by obligatory orgies and partying, in his poem “Zaffer Namah Skendari”. A century before, the sweetly-named Arab explorer, Ibn Batuta (“son of the duckling”) describes coming across a grotto at the foot of the mountain inscribed with the word "Iskander," an Asian variant of the name “Alexander.” Fa Hein, a Chinese explorer, describes his trip uphill in 412 CE. and the Italian merchant Marco Polo mentions it in his Travels of 1298 CE. But long before this many a Sri Lankan king has made the ascent, starting with King Valagambahu who apparently discovered the famous footprint in around 100 BCE. Despite being the country’s second highest mountain, its unique teardrop shape leaves it standing out from the surrounding mountains like a giraffe among a zebra herd, its distinctive shape immortalized in the “Sixth Voyage of Sindbad the Sailor” in Scheherazade’s “Thousand and One Nights”. The engaging royal storyteller wrote of “marvels which are indescribable” and that “the mountain is conspicuous from a distance of three days, and it contains many rubies and other minerals, and spice trees of all sorts.” But perhaps what makes it most remarkable is the fact that it is respected as a place of pilgrimage for all the important religions on the island; and has been trouble-free for nearly its entire history. Three paths lead to the top – the Ratnapura route, the Kuruwita route and the Hatton route. The pilgrimage climb, regarded by all as exceptionally meritorious, takes several long hours, and is usually scheduled between December to April, a reliably dry period. More reckless pilgrims visit it out of season, battling heavy rain, extreme wind, and thick mist, more in search of rescue parties than God. The aim of all pilgrims to get to the top just before daybreak so as to witness a glorious sunrise prior to carrying out an variety of religious rites. It is not place for hermits: on weekends it is estimated that 20,000 people make the challenging ascent and up to five people a season die on the journey.

Adisham Hall

A comforting cross between the architectural outreaches of Kent’s Leeds Castle; and a cosy Cotswold Cottage, Adisham Hall overlooks the tea plantations around Haputale. Built in 1931, and standing proudly in a gentle time warp created by its architects R. Booth and F. Webster, it is as if the hit song of that year, Noël Coward’s "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" could still be heard drifting down its long green driveway. The house was built by Sir Thomas Villiers, a descendant of Lord John Russell, one of Britain’s most reforming prime ministers - but commerce not social enterprise ran in Villers’ veins – and he was to go onto become one of the principal businessmen of the colony. He retired in 1949, selling up and sailing back to England for the last ten years of his life. By 1963 his home had passed into the hands of The Benedictine Order and the house became Saint Benedict’s Monastery. Within its granite walls, many of the old rooms have been preserved, a Chapel created to house a chip of St Benedict himself; a shop set up to sell jams, cordials, and jellies; and inspirational quotations such as ”Lost time is never found again” dotted optimistically around its grounds and gardens.

Administrative Structures

A country’s structural divisions are rarely able to inspire even the merest flicker of excitement, but even so, it helps one’s basic orientation to have some sort of semblance of order. During the time of the Anuradhapura kings, the country was divided into 3 areas, but time has inflated this to 9 provinces. The quickest way to envisage them is: 3 Gaze Seaward; 3 Gaze over Hills; 2 are Very Flat; 1 is tiny but busy. The largest, the North Central Province, ranges over 10,000 square kilometres of dry evergreen forest and, though centred on the old capital of Anuradhapura itself, supports a modest population. At just under 10,000 square kilometres, is the long Eastern seaboard province, dominated by Tamils and Sri Lankan Moors and managed from Trincomalee. The sparsely populated Northern Province, run from Jaffna and dominated by Tamils stretches over nearly 9,000 square kilometres – similar in size and population to Uva Province, though Uva, centred on Badulla, with its massive lakes and reservoirs and mighty mountains is as different to the flat dry north as it is possible to be. At just under 8,000 square kilometres is the North Eastern Province, paddy and coconut rich flat lands that stretch from the capital at Kurunegala to the lagoons of Puttalam and supporting a population nudging 3 million. Next door, smaller in size and larger in population is the lush tea-rich Central Province, centred on Kandy - similar in size and population to the long seaboard Southern Province, centred on Galle. At just under 5000 square kilometres is Sabaragamuwa Province, sparsely populated and centred around the gem-rich town of Ratnapura, leaving the Colombo-dominated Western Province as the smallest in size (under 4,000 square kilometres) and the largest in population. For the determinately bureaucratic these 9 administrative divisions open out onto yet more complexity – 25 districts that are split again into 331 Divisional Secretary's Divisions, under which come 14,022 Grama Niladhari Divisions, centred around villages. Order is the greatest grace, as John Dryden remarked; and it is to be found all across Sri Lanka, should you wish to find it.


A modest coastal town near Galle, noted for Geoffrey Bawa's Heritance Ahungalla Hotel.


A Muslim dominated town on the south east coast, situated at the entrance to the vast Periya Kalappu lagoon.

Anjali Mudra, The

For those looking to make an easy start on the Byzantium symbolism of the hand gestures of Lord Buddha, The Anjali Mudra is a perfect place to start. Press your palms together at heart level, thumbs resting on the chest – and you have done it, made a 1 on 1 respectful gesture of greeting.


Had Andy Warhol ever taken the trouble to visit Avissawella, some 50 kilometres east of Colombo, he might have rephrased his famous quip to read “In the past, everywhere was famous for at least 15 minutes.” For Avissawella, sleepy town that it is today, was once the seething capital of a nascent and short lived kingdom, forged at the fulcrum of the island’s fightback against its first European colonial invaders. Briefly did Avissawella glitter as the capital of the Kingdom of Sitawaka, a realm ruled from 1521 to 1593 by King Mayadunne and his son Rajasinghe the First. A younger son and later brother of the more senior King of Kotte, Mayadunne had carved out his own kingdom in protest at his family’s collaboration with the Portuguese who had first arrived on the island in 1505. Endless battles against the Iberian invaders followed; and when the old king died, his son continued the fight, despite an avalanche of patricide allegations that set him and the Buddhist religious establishment at odds just when unity might have been a more helpful position. Rajasinghe’s death - of a festering wound in March 1592 - effectively ended his kingdom’s fight and Avissawella returned slowly back into the background. The opening up of the interior of Sir Lanka in the early 1900s by trains and train track gave the area a new jolt of life Today, it is best visited for being a stone’s throw from Seethawaka Botanical Garden, which specialises in conserving the most threatened endemic plants found in Sinharaja Rain Forest.


Past the occasional roadside shop, barber salon and office for Birth, Deaths, and Marriages, and almost lost in the jungle many miles north of Dambulla, the tiny village of Avukana hints at a more glorious past with its stunning 14 metre statue of Lord Buddha. Academics (as they do) argue about whether the statue is 5th or 8th century - but whomsoever wins that fringe debate, there is no argument about the sheer beauty of the piece. The lofty standing Buddha is captured by his unknown sculptor making a gesture of blessing - but the way in which his delicate pleated clothing clings with astonishing realism to his body indicates that the sculptor was familiar with two key regional art movements - the naturalistic Hellenistic Gandhara school, and the more sensuous Amaravati school. There is - in such records as do exist – a tantalising hint as to its creator. A mere 15 kilometres away, at Sasseruwa, stands an almost exact copy of this statue – almost, but not quite as good; and one fatally left unfinished. The local villagers tell of a competition between a master sculptor and his pupil to finish the commission first; and the master won. Sadly, as the two statues are at least 400 years apart in age, this lovely tale could only have some residual truth in a parallel universe – but it amply shows how rich and ready are local folk tales to help fill in the many gaps in the island’s long and sometimes impenetrable history.

B, b

BCE, Sri Lankan History Before The Common Era


In 1470 a storm raged across Adam’s Bridge’s, ripping apart the 48 kilometres of partially sunken limestone banks that connected India and Sri Lanka. Before this, at extreme low tides, it had still be possible to simply walk from one land mass to the other. Of course, for hundreds of years before 1470, the “Bridge” had been, at best, a most treacherous route. Unpredictable, and uneven, sailing had long been the better option. But for Sri Lanka’s first settlers – who had still to master boats – a short walk from India was all it took. Scientists have demonstrated that the sea level around Adam’s Bridge could have dropped on at least seventeen occasions in the last seven hundred thousand years alone, creating a perfect land connection across which Sri Lanka’s Homo Erectus walked. And walking was what they did: Stone Age Mesolithic migrants from the Indian mainland who simply strolled across, their effortless travel belying the extreme complexity that hundreds of years later would colour Sri Lanka’s relationship with India – from war, intermarriage, Buddhism itself - and the borrowing of kings.


Beguiling hints of their existence are still only just emerging. Excavations conducted in 1984 by Prof. S. Krishnarajah near Point Pedro, north east of Jaffna revealed Stone Age tools and axes that are anything from 500,000 to 1.6 million years old. Hundreds of millennia later, one of their Stone Age descendants was to leave behind the most anatomically perfect modern human remains yet uncovered on the island. Balangoda Man, as he was to be named, was found in the hills south of Horton Palins inland from Matara – a complete 30,000 year old skeleton, bewitchingly life-like. It was found, with no irony intended, a short walk from the birthplace of Sirimavo Bandaranaike whose rule over Sri Lanka in the last 40 years of the 20th century is notable for the communal violence her policies did, at best, so little to quell. Probing his remains, scientists have concluded that Balangoda Man and his heirs were eager consumers of raw meat, from snails and snakes to elephants. And artistic too, as evidenced in the ornamental fish bones, sea shell beads and pendants left behind. All across the island, similar finds have been discovered, pointing to a sparce but widespread population of hunter gathers, living in caves – with later evidence indicating that many also made the transition to a more settled lifestyle, growing, at least by 15,000 BC, oats, and barley on what is now Horton Plains.


Astonishingly, the direct descendants of these first inhabitants, the Veddas, are still alive today. They make up less than 1% of the island’s total population, an aboriginal community with strong animist beliefs that has, against the odds, retained a distinctive identity. Leaner, and darker than modern Sri Lankans, their original religion, cherishing demons, and deities, was associated with the dead and the certainty that the spirits of dead relatives can cause good or bad outcomes. Their language, unique to them, is now almost extinct. For thousands of years, little changed - though there are tantalising hints of the Stone Ages’ transition into the Iron Age; and by 1500 BCE there is evidence of cinnamon being exported to the ancient Egyptians. At this point the restless souls of archaeologists take on a happier beat due to the findings of a series of major excavations in Anuradhapura which date from around 900 BC. The digs uncovered abundant treasure including artefacts that show the use of iron, the domestication of horses and cattle, the use of high-quality pottery and possibly even the cultivation of rice. The settlement they dug up was large – even by today’s standards: four hectares. Other equally large settlements undoubtedly wait still to be found. City living had arrived – whether as an independent island-wide development or because of the rapid spread of urbanised culture from northern India is impossible to know. Either way, from around 1000 BC and for the next five hundred years at least the country displayed remarkably similar megalithic burials, pottery, and even graffiti to that of Southern India. City living would have given way to city states, and it was into these states that Prince Vijaya stepped in 543 BC, the Founding Father of the country.

Bawa, Geoffrey

One of Asian’s most influential architects, Bawa’s buildings radically changed the way in which people lived and worked, his creativity inspiring generations of new architects throughout the region to challenge and transform the built environment.

The Guardian puts it best: "Bawa's portfolio of work included religious, social, cultural, educational, governmental, commercial and residential buildings, and in each of these areas he established a canon of new prototypes. Early experiments in what was known as tropical modernism were tempered by a growing interest in the traditional architecture and building materials of Sri Lanka. This led to the development of an architecture that was a blend of both modern and traditional, of east and west, of formal and picturesque, that broke down the barriers between inside and outside, between building and landscape, and that offered a blueprint for new ways to live and work in a tropical city."

Whilst this observation sets out well the context for his achievements, it has yet to capture the liberating experience of moving about within one of his buildings. His city houses most typically centred around an inner courtyard, one wisely constructed to keep the focus personal - all the better to keep the foolish world at bay. Within its cool quite spaces, there is intimacy, peace; the space to think and live with minimal interruptions. The homes he built in the countryside, not least for himself at Lunuganga, enlist fields, plantations, hills and valleys as extra rooms, the built landscape opening out onto the natural one, a series of interconnected rooms that sometime only seem to end on the horizon. His public buildings were clean massive confident occupations of space, rooms opening into one another, breathing together like a single organic city, a lofty forest of light cement, glass, wood and plants.

A lawyer, who retrained as an architect, Bawa spent much of his younger years partying or studying in Europe, especially the UK. Independence in 1948 brought him more firmly back to the country of his birth. A Burgher mix of Sinhalese, German and Scottish, he came from that slim, rich impossibly lavish section of society that flared briefly with barely a care in the world until the ethic and political demons caught up on the country’s daily life enmeshing it in civil war and economic chaos.

As many of his contemporaries fled, Bawa stayed put, building first his own home in Lunuganga; and then an architectural practice that promoted his new vision of architecture - not just in Sri Lanka but in India, Indonesia, Mauritius, Japan, Pakistan, Fiji, Egypt and Singapore too. His homes in Bentota and Colombo magnetised all who had talent and originality, local or traveller; and his parties and gift for hospitality are still talked about today.

His parents must have done something right for both Bawa and his brother were not just both gay – but also hugely talented landscape gardeners too; and their adjoining country house gardens would put to shame anything better known in Florence, Oxfordshire or the South of France.

Should your week ahead look a little pedestrian, give it some purpose and take a trip round all his surviving Sri Lankan buildings.

The easiest ones to visit are his old office – now the Gallery Café which offers a heart-warming menu of martinis; his old home in Colombo - Number 11; 33rd Lane, Bagatelle Road, Colombo 03 – now a museum, but one you can spend the night at; and his country house, Lunuganga in Bentota; also now a museum cum hotel. The balance of his surviving architecture is:

1948–97 LUNUGANGA GARDEN, Bentota. Open to the public.

1958–62 CLASSROOMS FOR ST. THOMAS’ SCHOOL, Galle Road, Colombo.

1960–61 HOUSE & SURGERY FOR DR ASH DE SILVA In Galle; a private residence.

1960–62 ESTATE BUNGALOW, Strathspey Estate, Maskeliya. By appointment only.

1959–60 OFFICES FOR AUTOMOBILE ASSOCIATION, Sir Marcan Markar Maw, Colombo.

1960–69 BAWA’S OWN TOWNHOUSE, 33rd Lane, Bagatelle Road, Colombo 3. Admission by ticket.

1961–63 BARTHOLOMEUSZ HOUSE, 2 Alfred House Gardens, Colombo 3, now The Gallery Café.

1961–62 NAZARETH CHAPEL FOR GOOD SHEPHERD CONVENT, Bandarawela. Open by permission.

1961–63 FLATS FOR MRS. AF WIJEMANNA on Ananda Coomaraswamy Maw., Colombo 7. Private residences.

1962–64 HOUSE FOR CHRIS & CARMEL RAFFEL, Ward Place, Colombo 7. A private residence.

1963–65 HOUSE FOR LEELA DIAS BANDARANAYAKE, Mount Lavinia. A private residence.

1963–64 MONTESSORI SCHOOL FOR ST. BRIDGET’S CONVENT, Maitland Crescent, Colombo 7. By appointment only.

1963–65 ESTATE BUNGALOW FOR BAUR & CO., Polontalawa, By appointment only.

1965–66 CLASSROOM BLOCK FOR LADIES COLLEGE, Ernest de Silva Mawatha, Colombo 7. By appointment only.

1965–66 YWCA BUILDING, Rotunda Gardens, Colombo. A public building.

1966–69 STEEL CORPORATION, offices, & staff housing in Oruwela. By appointment only.

1967–69 HOUSE FOR PIETER KEUNEMAN, now a beauty salon, Inner Flower Road, Colombo 3. Access by permission.

1967–69 BENTOTA RESORT, Railway Station & Tourist Village, Bentota. All public buildings.

1967–73 BENTOTA BEACH HOTEL, Bentota. A public building.

1967–74 SERENDIB HOTEL, Bentota. A public building.

1969–70 PUBLIC LIBRARY, Kalutara. A public building.

1969–71 OFFICE DEVELOPMENT opposite Matara Bus Station. A public building.

1970–72 4 ROW HOUSES FOR FC DE SARAM, 5th Lane Colombo 3. Only two remain, both private residences.

1971–73 HOUSE FOR STANLEY DE SARAM, Cambridge Place, Colombo 7. A private residence.

1972–74 HOUSE CONVERSION FOR MR & MRS H.E TENNAKOON in Bagatelle Road. A private residence.

1973–76 NEPTUNE HOTEL, Beruwala. A public building.

1974–76 AGRARIAN RESEARCH & TRAINING INSTITUTE, Wijerama Maw., Colombo 7. Access by permission.

1975–77 NATIONAL INSTITUTE FOR MANAGEMENT STUDIES, Vidya Maw., Colombo. Access by permission.

1975–79 OFFICES FOR STATE MORTGAGE BANK, Hyde Park Corner, Darley Road, Colombo. A public building.

1976–78 SEEMA MALAKA ORDINATION TEMPLE, Beira Lake, Colombo. A public building.

1978–80 INTEGRAL EDUCATION CENTRE, Subodhi, Bolgoda Lake. Access by permission.

1978–80 HOUSE FOR LIDIA GUNASEKERA, 87, Galle Road, Bentota. Now a guest house.

1978–79 TOURIST POLICE STATION, Galle Road, Beruwala. A public building.

1978–81 HERITANCE TRITON HOTEL, Ahungalla. A public building.

1978–80 STAFF HOUSING FOR THE MINISTRY OF POWER, Sarana Rd, Colombo 7. Private residences.

1979 THE RATNASIVARATNAM HOUSE, Bhaudaloka Mawatha, Geoffrey Bawa, Colombo .

1979–82 NEW SRI LANKA PARLIAMENT, Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte. Access by special permission.

1980–88 RUHUNU UNIVERSITY CAMPUS, Matara. Access by appointment.

1982–83 VOCATIONAL TRAINING CENTRE, Ladies College, Inner Flower Road, Colombo 3. Access by appointment.

1982–83 PILGRIMS’ REST HOUSE, Anuradhapura. A public building.

1984–86 STABLE CONVERSION FOR SUNETHRA, Bandaranaike Horagolla. A private residence.

1985–86 HOUSE FOR RICHARD FITZHERBERT, Dikwella, Tangalle. Now a guest house.

1985–91 House for Cecil & Chloe de Soysa. Off Dharmapala Maw., Colombo 3. A private residence.

1990 REMODELLING & EXTENSION TO SINBAD HOTEL, Kalutara. A public building.

1991–94 KANDALAMA HERITANCE HOTEL, Dambulla. A public building.

1991–95 HOUSE FOR ROHAN & DULANJALEE JAYAKODY, Park Street, Colombo 2. A private residence.

1995–97 LIGHTHOUSE HOTEL, Galle. A public building.

1996–98 BLUE WATER HOTEL, Waduwa. A public building.

1997-98 HOUSE FOR PRADEEP JAYAWARDENE, Red Cliffs, Mirissa. A private residence.

1997–98 HOUSE FOR DAVID SPENCER, Rosemead Place, Colombo 7. A private residence.

British Emblem of Ceylon, The

A variety of designs, mostly linked to the crown coat of arms, were used by the British in their government of Ceylon, before they eventually settled, close to the end of their occupation of the island, on a symbol unique to the country – that of an elephant, walking, as it had done since 1505 on the Portuguese Emblem, through coconut palms with mountains in the background.

Buddha, Hand Gestures of

Even the most serene and pacific statue of Lord Buddha offers a dynamic lesson in the evangelising of fundamental Buddhist beliefs – but such insight is only readily available to those amongst us who can interpret the gestures he is pictured making with his hands and fingers. For if ever hands can speak, those of Lord Buddha most certainly do. There are at least 11 core messages encoded in such hand signals, known as “mudras,” some with the most subtle of further variants; and most, but not all, in common use in Sri Lanka.

Easiest is all the “Anjali Mudra” - a 1 on 1 respectful gesture of greeting, palms pressed together at heart level, thumbs resting on the chest. At the other end, and not for the faint hearted, is the “Uttarabodhi Mudra.” Here, index fingers touch and point up; all other finger entwin at heart level – a bold gesture of supreme enlightenment, brought about by connecting oneself with divine universal energy. This Murda finds its nearest cousin in the “Jnana” or “Wisdom Mudra” - thumb tip and index finger touching as a circle and facing inwards, representing spiritual enlightenment.

The most popular Mudra is probably the “Karana Mudrā,” made by raising the index and little finger and folding all other digits, to ward off evil, negative thoughts – and demons. And not a hundred miles away from this is the “Abhaya Mudra” – or “gesture of fearlessness," a pose made with the right hand raised to shoulder height, arm crooked, palm facing outward, fingers upright; left hand hanging down at the side of the body. In this pose, Buddha represents protection, peace, and the dismissal of fear. Popular too is the “Bhumisparsha” – or “Earth Witness Mudra.” Here, all 5 fingers of the right hand touch the ground, to symbolise Buddha’s enlightenment under the bodhi tree. The left hand - held flat in his lap - symbolises the union of method and wisdom.

The remaining 5 Mudras are more complicated, eclectic, or doctrinal - or, quite possibly, all three.

The “Varada Mudra” is a largely one-handed affair. Here, the left hand hangs at the side of the body, palm open, facing forwards with all fingers extended – a representation of charity and compassion, one finger each for: Generosity; Morality; Patience; Effort; and Meditative Concentration.

The “Dhyana” or “Meditation Mudra” is made with one or both hands resting on the lap and is a gesture of mediation made when concentrating on Buddhism’s substantial body of “Good Laws” and the attainment of spiritual perfection.

The “Vajra Mudra” symbolises the unity of all Buddhist beliefs, the erect left hand of the forefinger being closed into the right fist, the tips of both fingers curled together.

The “Vitarka” or “Discussion Mudra” has the thumb and Index finger touching, the remaining fingers pointing straight, the gesture reflected with both hands and indicative of talking about and communicating Buddhist teaching.

And last of all is the famous “Wheel of Dharma” or “Dharmachakra Mudra.” Here the thumb and index finger of both hands touch at their tips to form a circle that represents the union of method and wisdom. To really complicate (or enrich) things, the 3 free fingers of both hands are also extended, and carry their own separate meanings. The 3 extended fingers of the left hand symbolize Buddha, the Dharma (the doctrine of universal truth), and the Sangha (the Buddhist monastic order, of monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen). Those of the right symbolize the 3 main tools for his teaching – namely: the Hearers - who practice the teachings they listen to and – after 3 lifetimes - achieve "small" enlightenment; the “Solitary Realizers” who cultivate merit and wisdom over a 100 eons to achieve "middling" enlightenment; and the Mahayana or 'Great Vehicle' - collectively, Buddhist traditions, texts, philosophies, and practices.

C, c


Proper caviar is almost impossible to find in Sri Lanka, though the odd tiny tin cylinder of the delicacy has occasionally shown up at the small food concession within Colombo’s House of Wine on Flower Road, next to the Prime Minister’s Office. However, the Faculty of Animal Science and Export Agriculture, at Uva Wellassa University, has busied itself investigating the most suitable methodology for producing simulated caviar using roe from Mrigal, a rare white Asian carp. The blinis are waiting, though the research, once so promising, appears to have stalled. Caviar’s absence – from even the fleshpots of Colombo and Galle, is a delicate reminder of how delicious are the foodstuffs more easily obtainable, the mangos, tuna, spices, cashew, to name but a few.

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Dehiwala - Mount Lavinia

Once the seaside playground for the inhabitants of Colombo, which lies just a few kilometres up the coast, Dehiwala - Mount Lavinia has become a garden suburb of the city, through it remains a municipality in its own right. To its south stretch the many inlets of Bolgoda Lake, a marshy wetland and freshwater landscape on whose shores rise the glittering facades of the prized, secluded mansions of the nicely rich. The area also boasts an old, small zoo with something of a mixed reputation. Dehiwala - Mount Lavinia’s diffident life as a collection of quiet villages during the Kotte kingdom and Portuguese and Dutch occupations came to an abrupt halt in 1806 when the colony’s British Governor, Sir Thomas Maitland, decided to build a private holiday home there on land known as Galkissa" (Mount Lavinia) - a small promontory with beaches on either side. In between governing and throwing parties, Maitland fell in love with a Portuguese Burger, a dancer named Lovinia, to whose house he had a secret tunnel constructed from his wine cellar. The affair must have ended by 1812 when Maitland was recalled to fight in the Peninsular War; and his house later became a hotel, one of the few in or near Colombo to look directly out across the beach into the Laccadive Sea.

Dharmachakra Mudra, The

Quite possibly the most complicated and involved hand gesture ascribed to Lord Buddha, the famous “Wheel of Dharma” takes a little bit of practice. The thumb and index finger of both hands touch at their tips to form a circle. This represents the union of method and wisdom. Next, the 3 free fingers of left hands are extended and symbolize Buddha, the Dharma (the doctrine of universal truth), and the Sangha (the Buddhist monastic order, of monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen). So too the right fingers, which, when extended, symbolize the 3 main tools for his teaching – namely: the Hearers - who practice the teachings they listen to and – after 3 lifetimes - achieve "small" enlightenment; the “Solitary Realizers” who cultivate merit and wisdom over a 100 eons to achieve "middling" enlightenment; and the Mahayana or 'Great Vehicle' - collectively, Buddhist traditions, texts, philosophies, and practices.

Dhyana Mudra, The

Best known as the Meditation Mudra, this piece of symbolic Buddhist hand gesturing is made with one or both hands resting on the lap. It envisages the practitioner meditating on Buddhism’s abundant body of “Good Laws” which can be used to attain spiritual perfection.


A coastal village near Matara, much loved by sea-seeking tourists; and by those moved by impressive Buddhist temples - for the little settlement boasts an 18th century statue of Lord Buddha that is 160 feet high. The statue sits outside a temple, much enlarged from its earliest beginnings 250 years ago. The temple is unusual in the space it gives to celebrating, in uncensored detail, what happens to sinners who fails to follow the path of enlightenment. Being swan into pieces, boiled alive or merely disembowelled are just three of the options available.

Dutch Emblem of Ceylon, The

The emblem used by the Dutch to administer Ceylon was almost identical to that of of the Portuguese – featuring an elephant walking though palm trees with mountains behind. But they added a key new detail, one that fitted very nearly with their entire economic purpose of being on the island at all – a few bales of the ultra-valuable cinnamon crop that they harvested across the island. More interesting each sub district they governed had its own version of the heraldic arms. In Trincomalee a mercenary soldier from Java is included. In Mannar a plant, hedyotis puberula, cherished for its dyes, was adopted. A fort and a bridge dominate the shield of Matara; and a single fort the shield of Kalpitiya. Ships features on the symbols of Chilaw and Puttalam; and a clay pitcher for Negombo.

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Emblem of Sri Lanka, The

National emblems differ from national flags in as much as they are used by the state to validate their administration of the country. Sri Lanka’s colonial overlords adopted emblems for the island featuring elephants that they ran alongside their national flags (or in the case of the Dutch, the arms of the VOC). But by 1972 the country has developed an entirely new Emblem, which is still in use today. It was designed by the Venerable Mapalagama Wipulasara Maha Thera, a Buddhist monk and artist and features the traditional lion of the national flag. The lion sits within a round frame of lotus leaves and rice grains, the Wheel of Dharma above his head and Sinhalese sun and moon symbols beneath him.


A suburb of Batticaloa, facing inland into a large eponymous lagoon.

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Fort Printers

A small eighteenth century building in Galle, Fort Printer’s is now run as a boutique hotel. Its restaurant serves some of the very best food on the island, a dazzling gustation played out on Sri Lankan, Lebanese, and Pakistani themes.

Founding Fathers, The


Expelled from either Bengal or Gujarat (scholars argue, as scholars do) by his father, Prince Vijaya was the founding father of an eponymous royal dynasty. His arrival on the island in 543 BCE brought with it the start of recorded Singhala history. The many conflicting stories surrounding his arrival, his fights with man-eating wives, protection under Buddha and willingness to swap his local wife, Kuveni, for a more glamorous and aristocratic Indian princess, are part of the country’s cherished creation myths. His greatest achievement was less what he did than what he left behind – a dynasty that ran (ignoring regnal interruptions) for over 600 years, putting it comfortably ahead of Mings and Moguls, Valois, French Bourbons, German Hohenzollerns, Tudors, Stuarts, and Aztecs. The very earliest foundation stories of the Sinhala nation start with him, covering 37 monarchs, from Vijaya to Yassalalaka Thissa, ruling 3 ever larger kingdoms - Tambapanni, Upatissa Nuwara and Anuradhapura, facing off three major Tamil invasions, until in the end, they toppled themselves. Of course, Prince Vijaya did not step into a vacuum – though what was here can still only really be guessed at. As the remains of Balangoda Man (thirty eight thousand years ago) testify, the island was not exactly deserted when they arrived. And over the many millennia since Balangoda Man set up home in his cave near Horton Palins, his offspring would have created villages, towns – and a variety of pre-existing communities, possibly even kingdoms, that doubtless busily preoccupied themselves with interminable wars; not least in the south of the island: Ruhuna, that was time after time to prove to be the country’s last redoubt and fulcrum of its next salvation. But history is, of course, written by the victors and the Vijayan dynasty was a victor like few others.

543 BCE

The young prince Vijaya was to found the Kingdom of Tambapaṇṇī - the island’s the first Sinhalese kingdom, situated in the north east around Mannar and Puttalam. Yet, even as it began in 543 BCE, it almost came to a premature end for Prince Vijaya died in 505 BC, after a 38 year reign, leaving no credible son to inherit the throne. Fortunately one of his followers – possibly his chief minister, Upatissa - had founded a little kingdom of his own - Upatissa Nuwara - close by. And he appears to have loyally stepped into the breach when the king died, ruling for a year until Panduvasdeva, Vijaya’s nephew arrived from India to assume the throne. The time of kings was robustly on its way, albeit at first, little different from the many kingdoms that vied with one another across Tamil Nadu and into India. We know something about Vijayan rule, thanks to The Mahāvaṃsa (The Great Chronicle), an epic poem written by a Buddhist monk (with later additions) in the ancient Pali script that begins with Prince Vijaya’s arrival and ends in 302 CE (A sequel to The Mahāvaṃsa was later added: the Lesser Chronicle, or The Culavamsa, which covered events from 1825, making the pair the world’s oldest, longest historical chronicle). Although much of the poem sets out myths and legends as verified history for which there has been little to no subsequent archaeological verification, enough corroboration exists to be able to paint a history of those times.


Ruling for 30 years (504 - 474 BCE), Panduvasdeva was just what the nascent dynasty needed to entrench itself, his greatest achievements being to rule for decades and produce heirs, albeit ones fixated on familicide. He moved his capital to the fortress of Vijithapura, close to what would later become its great capital, Anuradhapura. Today, he is chiefly remembered for the chaos that later enveloped the country as his sons battled against the morbid predictions of a court soothsayer who predicted that they would all be killed by their nephew, Pandukabhaya, son of their only sister, Princess Citta. Smart enough to know he had been promoted beyond his level of competence, Abhaya, Panduvasdeva’s eldest son took the throne from his father and ruled with what looks like wobbly certainty from 474 to 454 BCE, until being dethroning by his brother, Tissa. Spared his life, Abhaya retreated into a wise obscurity, sensibly declining his nephew’s later offer to retake the crown, settling instead for the far less pressured job of Mayor of Anuradhapura. Tissa, his immediate replacement, was something of a haunted man. Chief amongst his brothers, he was eager to head off the sinister predictions of the court soothsayer. But it was not to be. Repeated attempts to find and slay his nephew, Pandukabhaya, were all foiled and Tissa’s reign (454 BCE – 437 BCE) came to a predictable end when Pandukabhaya killed him in battle.


Pandukabhaya’s 70 year reign (437 to 367 BC) would have come as a blessed relief to family and subjects alike after so much dynastic squabbling. Credited with a smart intelligence that helped him see off repeated pre-ascension assassination attempts, the king set in train the real beginnings of the Anuradhapura Kingdom when he moved his capital to the site and, in Louis XIV-style, began building. From the start his rule respected his Vedda allies, the Yakkhas, Cittaraja and Kalavela, clans of the island’s earliest original inhabitants. The Mahāvaṃsa records his beneficial diligence:

“He settled the yakkha Kalavela on the east side of the city, the yakkha Cittaraja at the lower end of the Abhayatank…and on festival-days he sat with Cittaraja beside him on a seat of equal height, and having gods and men to dance before him, the king took his pleasure, in joyous and merry wise. He laid out also four suburbs as well as the Abhaya-tank, the common cemetery, the place of execution, and the chapel of the Queens of the West, the banyan-tree of Vessavana and the Palmyra-palm of the Demon of Maladies, the ground set apart for the Yonas and the house of the Great Sacrifice; all these he laid out near the west gate. He set 500 candalas to the work of cleaning the town, 200 candalas to the work of cleaning the sewers, 150 candalas he employed to bear the dead and as many candalas to be watchers in the cemetery. For these he built a village north-west of the cemetery and they continually carried out their duty as it was appointed. Toward the north-east of the candala-village he made the cemetery, called the Lower Cemetery, for the candala folk. North of this cemetery, between (it and) the Pasana-mountain, the line of huts for the huntsmen were built thenceforth. Northward from thence, as far as the Gamani-tank, a hermitage was made for many ascetics; eastward of that same cemetery the ruler built a house for the nigantha Jotiya. In that same region dwelt the nigantha named Giri and many ascetics of various heretical sects. And there the lord of the land built also a chapel for the nigantha Kumbhanda. Toward the west from thence and eastward of the street of the huntsmen lived five hundred families of heretical beliefs. On the further side of Jotiya’s house and on this side of the Gamani tank he likewise built a monastery for wandering mendicant monks, and a dwelling for the ajivakas and a residence for the brahmans, and in this place and that he built a lying-in shelter and a hall for those recovering from sickness. Ten years after his consecration did Pandukabhaya the ruler of Lanka establish the village-boundaries over the whole of the island of Lanka.”

Credited with ending the guerrilla warfare that marked the resistance of the original island dwellers against the Vijayans, Pandukabhaya’s long, prosperous reign not only brought stability but bequeathed future constancy to the island, as his own son, Mutasiva, came to the throne for a reign that was almost as golden. Sometimes, not often, a country gets lucky, and with this father-son duet, Sri Lanka undoubtedly did. Despite little being know about Mutasiva’s reign, he ruled for a solid 60 years, embedding Vijayan rule and the ascendency of the Anuradhapura Kingdom across the island from 367 to 307 BCE. He enlarged Anuradhapura creating Mahamevnāwa, an enormous park noted for its flowering trees and fruits. Mindful of his dynastic obligations, he also produced nine sons, five of whom would rule after him.


Mutasiva was succeeded by his second son, Devanampiya Tissa, described by The Mahāvaṃsa as being "foremost among all his brothers in virtue and intelligence". To get anywhere close to this remarkable monarch you should take yourself off to a mountain in Mihintale, 16 kilometres east of Anuradhapura. There stands a modest, much weathered, armless stone statute of the king, just over six feet high, gazing out across the grand ruins and remains of the religious citadel. It marks the very spot where Sri Lanka became Buddhist. Like the Vijayans, Buddhism also came from India - but it naturalised so completely across the island that it is impossible grasp any aspect of the country’s past or present, without first comprehending the centrality of this, its main religion. It arrived through a series of intimate stories in which faith follows friendship – for King Devanampiya Tissa had struck up a pen-pal relationship with the legendry Indian Buddhist emperor, Ashoka. Gifts followed letters, and a missionary followed the gifts when Ashoka despatched his son Mahinda to Sri Lanka. The young missionary prince was to live on the island for 48 years, out-living Devanampiya Tissa, and dying, aged 80 after a lifetime spent promoting Buddhism, the beneficiary of a state funeral at which his relics were interred in a stupa in Mihintale. For it was at Mihintale that Mahinda first met Devanampiya Tissa. The king, it was said, was out hunting. Expecting a stag, the ruler instead found himself a missionary. A testing exchange on the nature of things followed, and then a sutra was preached. The rest, as they say, was history. And the conversions began. Clearly, the young missionary had painted a compelling picture of his new island home in his letters home for he was soon joined by his sister, the nun, Sanghamittā. She brought with her a golden vase in which grew a sapling of Bodhi-Tree taken from the very one under which Buddha himself is said to have attained enlightenment in 500 BC. Accompanied by a number of other nuns, she landed in the north of the island and was met by the King himself. The party were ceremonially escorted to Anuradhapura along a road said to be softened with white sand. The Bodhi sapling was planted in the Mahāmeghavana Grove in Anuradhapura, where it still grows. Saṅghamittā later ordained Queen Anulā and the women of the court in Buddhism and stayed on in the island, promoting the religion. She died in 203 BC aged 79, her death triggering national mourning. A stupa was erected over her cremation site in front of the Bodhi-Tree in Anuradhapura. The king himself built a monastery and caves at Mihintale, a site that over successive years grew and grew. Other notable buildings followed: monasteries, palaces, the 550 acre Tissa Wewa water tank, still in use today; and the Thuparamaya of Anuradhapura, the county’s first stupa - which enshrined the right collarbone of Lord Buddha and whose remains today stretch out over 3 ½ acres. Mutasiva’s death after a 40 year reign brought to an end an almost 200 years of Vijayan peace and prosperity. What followed were decades of brotherly shambles; of decline, humiliation, and unrest.


Ruling for 10 years after the death of his brother, Devanampiya Tissa, Uththiya’s reign is a marvel of obscurity. He was succeeded by Mahasiwa, another brother who's 10 years on the throne goes almost as unremembered - apart from the fact that he built the Nagarangana Monastery. Another brother took over from him, Surathissa, whose reign ended in an ignominious death at the hands of a couple of Tamil horse traders, Sena and Guttik. Spotting the ultimate commercial opportunity (a kingdom) in the weak rule of King Surathissa, the traders appear to have met little resistance in conquering Anuradhapura. They were to rule it for 22 years, the first of a succession of Tamil invaders. Yet out there in the wilderness lay Asela, another son of old King Mutasiva. It is possible after his brother Surathissa was killed, Asela took refuge down south in the Kingdom of Ruhuna that had been established by Mahanaga, a son of King Mutasiva. Descending on the horse trader kings with much shattered dignity to put right, Asela killed them in battle only to see his own rule brought to an abrupt end 10 years later in 205 BCE when he himself was killed in battle by Ellara, an invading Tamil Chola. Ellara was to rule the Anuradhapuran Kingdom for 44 years, smashing the awesome edifice of Vijayan rule that had already given the island so much of its lasting cultural identity.


In the northern Tamil city of Jaffa stands a curious white clock tower, with Italianate windows, Roman pillars, and a little minaret. Built by subscription to honour the 1875 visit of Prince of Wales, it was damaged in the civil war and repaired, partly with the help of a later Prince of Wales, Charles, in 2002. Before it, as if leading a charge, is a golden elephant, ridden by a golden king – Elara, or in Tamil, Ellalan. Ellalan is a strange figure, his Tamilness eliciting not even a scintilla of condemnation in The Mahāvaṃsa, which notes instead “a Damila of noble descent, named Elara, who came hither from the Cola-country to seize on the kingdom, ruled when he had overpowered king Asela, forty-four years, with even justice toward friend and foe, on occasions of disputes at law.” The ancient text then goes onto illuminate his many acts of justice and generosity. Just, to the point of terrifying, he even executed his own son for transgressing the law. Virtuous though he was, Ellalan was all the same a footnote for the Vijayans were not yet finished with their rule. The main line of succession had been destroyed, but a cadet branch existed in the southern Kingdom of Ruhuna, a Vijayan redoubt ruled over by the descendants of King Devanampiya Tissa’s brother, Mahanaga.


The Kingdom of Ruhuna had never really been part of the Anuradhapura domain. Indeed, the Anuradhapura Kingdom itself had already begun to fracture, The Mahāvaṃsa pointing out the presence of 32 semi-independent Tamil states coexisting alongside King Ellalan’s Anuradhapura. The death of Ruhuna’s Vijayan King, Kavantissa, let loose a predictable sibling spat, carried out by his two sons, Dutugemunu and Tissa. In a series of trials involving elephants, the kidnapping of the dowager queen, and set-piece battles, Dutugemunu emerged victorious. A notable adherent of Walt Disney’s modus operandi (“Around here, however, we don't look backwards for very long”), Dutugemunu, throne secure, set off for the north with an army of chariots, monks, horses, a lucky spear, his favourite elephant (Kandula) and Ten Giant Warriors (Nandhimitra, Suranimala, Mahasena, Theraputtabhya, Gotaimbara, Bharana, Vasabha, Khanjadeva, Velusamanna, and Phussadeva). Having clearly learnt much from his father (a king remembered for his unusually sage strategy); he began by first mopping up the splintered Tamil statelets in the north. The campaigns reached their climax outside the walls of Anuradhapura. The old king Ellalan, mounted on his elephant Mahäpabbata, faced his younger rival, mounted on his elephant, Kandula. Did he tremble when he heard Dutugemunu call out 'none shall kill Ellalan but myself'? We can but guess. The ancient texts report that the deadly combat was honourable but decisive, a spear thrust finally ending Ellalan’s life. The records state that "the water in the tank there was dyed red with the blood of the slain'. And perhaps in acknowledgment of Ellalan’s fine reputation, the king had his victim cremated properly and a stupa constructed over the pyre. “Even to this day,” comments The Mahāvaṃsa, “the princes of Lanka, when they draw near to this place, are wont to silence their music'. For a glorious, albeit extended moment, it seems as if the Vijayan good times had returned. Dutugemunu's victory left him ruling nearly the whole of the island. And as if to confirm this, the construction of more buildings commenced. A large monastery, the Maricavatti, was erected, together with a nine-story chapter house for monks, with a bright copper-tiled roof; and most famous of all, what is today called the Ruwanweliseya, the Great Stupa which housed Buddha’s begging bowl. Trade opened up with the west, the ports busy with merchants from Arabia, Persia and possibly even Rome. But back at the palace, events were going less smoothly. Dutugemunu's heir, Saliya, having fallen for a girl from one of the lowest castes, was disinherited - and the king, dying before his eye-catching Stupa was finished, ensured the throne passed instead to his own brother, Saddhatissa in 137 BCE.


For the next 33 years it seemed as if life had got back to normal, or to whatever passed for normal amidst the seemingly indestructible building and gardens of Anuradhapura. King Saddha Tissa busied himself building the obligatory new monastery and, more usefully, a tremendous water tank, the Duratissa Reservoir which held 336 million cubic feet of water. But as the late British prime minister Harold Macmillan remarked on the unpredictability of politics, the sudden appearance of “events, dear boy, events,” was to unseat everything. Saddha Tissa’s death, 18 years later, set off a power struggle, with his younger son, Thulatthana, seizing the throne – though not for long. Just a year later he was despatched by his older brother, Lanja Tissa. Lanja Tissa stayed the course for 10 years before his death in 109 BCE brought yet another son of King Saddha Tissa to the throne, Khallata Naga. By now however, the deadly inward focus of the Anuradhapuran kings was starting to give other ideas about taking control. Khallata Naga found himself unexpectedly busy quelling rebellions – but to no avail. Killed by his own chief general just 3 years later, another messy power struggle broke out before Valagamba – yet another son of King Saddha Tissa – took the throne in 103 BCE by killing the general and – in an act of reckless trust - adopted the general’s son and marrying his wife. By now 33 years of royal misrule had set in train a reaping of deadly consequences. Within months, a rebellion broke out in Rohana. A devastating drought began. The kingdom’s preeminent port, Māhatittha (now Mantota, opposite Mannar) fell to seven Dravidian Tamil invaders. And at a battle at Kolambalaka, the hapless Valagamba was defeated, racing from the battlefield in a chariot lightened by the (accidental?) exit of his wife, Queen Somadevi.


In a 14 year tableau reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s novel “Five Little Pigs” the grand Anuradhapura Kingdom was manhandled to atrophy. Two of the Dravidians returned to India, leaving one of the remaining five, Pulahatta, to rule from 104-101 BCE, with history struggling to keep up. Pulahatta was killed by Bahiya, another of the five remaining Dravidians and head of the army, who was in turn murdered in 99 BCE by Panayamara, the third Dravidian who had been most unwisely promoted to run the army. Proving those who do not read history are doomed to repeat it, Panayamara was assassinated in 92 BCE by his general, the fourth Dravidian, Pilayamara. Seven months was all Pilayamara managed to last - before dying in skirmishes with rebels and passing the throne to the last Dravidian and army commander, Dathika who ruled until 89 BCE.


Bouncing back to power in 89 BCE, Valagamba took back his crown with small, successful incremental skirmishes. Given the murderous incompetence of his Dravidian interlopers, it may have been like pushing on an open door. He ruled on for a further 12 years, building a monastery, stupa and more memorably converting the Dambulla caves in which he hid during his wilderness years, into the famous Rock Temple that exists today. Less adroitly, he managed to drive a wedge between the monks, his favouritism of one sect for another, setting in motion the island’s first Buddhist schism. Despite this, it was under his patronage that 30 miles north of Kandy 500 monks gathered at the Aluvihare Rock Temple to write down the precepts of Buddhism. It was to be momentous moment. Until then Buddha’s teachings had been passed on orally - but repeated Chola invasions from India left the monks fearful that his teachings would be lost. The challenge they had set themselves was immense. Firstly, they had to recite the doctrines. That would have taken several years. Then they had to agree on an acceptable version of the teachings before transcription. That must have taken even longer. Finally came the lengthy work of transcribing them, using ola leaves from talipot palms. The Pāli Canon became the standard scriptures of Theravada Buddhism’s, written in the now extinct Pāli language, an ancient Indian language, thought to be the language spoken by Buddha and used in Sri Lanka until the fifth century CE. Scholars argue (as they do) about how much of the work can be attributed to one person or to Buddha himself – but believers are largely free of such elaborate debates. The Cannon lays out in clear and unambiguous terms the doctrines, and rules of conduct Buddhists should follow. It is made up of three parts:

1. The Vinaya concerns itself mainly with the rules for monks and nuns.
2. The Sutta Pitaka is the Cannon’s practical heart, comprising around 10,000 teachings and poems of Buddha and his close companions that focus on the typical challenges of life.
3. The Abhidhamma Piṭaka is where the higher teachings sit – the ones most focused around Enlightenment.

Running to some 80,000 pages, the Pali Canon is roughly the size of a dozen Bibles. The cave temple still exists, with numerous caverns and old inscriptions to view, despite parts of it having being destroyed in the 19th CE Matale Rebellion.The monks were probably still hard at work on The Pāli Canon when Valagamba died in 76 BCE, bringing his adopted son, Mahakuli Mahatissa to power for 14 years. History hints that the succession may not have been entirely orderly; if so, then Valagambam’s earlier trust in adopting the son of his slain and traitorous enemy, can be read as a suicidal move. But however, he came to the throne, Mahakuli Mahatissa stayed the course, though whether he did anything constructive remains a niggling historical curiosity. What is known however, is that what came next proved right the astute observation made by Calvin and Hobbes: “It's never so bad that it can't get any worse."


On the face of it, Mahakuli Mahatissa’s succession seemed to go according to plan. His stepbrother, Choura Naga, the son of King Valagamba took the throne in 62 BCE and married Anula. Anula would turn out to be one of the island’s more colourful characters. What little is known of poor King Choura Naga is that he managed to get himself poisoned by Anula in 50 BCE. The widowed queen placed his little step nephew, Kuda Thissa on the throne. But not for long. Anula was ever a lady short of patience. Tiring of her ward, she poisoned him in 47 BCE and installed her lover, a palace guard, as Siva I. Clearly the problems they faced in their relationship were beyond mere counselling for Siva was despatched in the same tried and tested method, and the queen installed a new lover, Vatuka, to the throne in 46 BCE. This was something of a promotion for the Tamil who had, till then, been living the blameless life of a carpenter. By now Anula was well into her stride. The following year the carpenter was replaced in similar fashion by Darubhatika Tissa, a wood carrier – who also failed to measure up. Her last throw of the love dice was Niliya, a palace priest who she installed as king in 44 BCE before feeding him something he ought not to have eaten. At this point Anula must have reached the logical conclusion: if you want something done well, do it yourself. And so, from 43 to 42 BCE she ruled in her own name, Asia’s first female head of state, beating President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga by two thousand and thirty six years. Her own reign ended at the hands of her brother-in-law, Kutakanna Tissa, who, having sensibly become a Buddhist monk during Anula’s reign, was alive and so able to rescue the monarchy. He did so by burning the queen alive in her own palace, bringing down the curtains on a career that eclipsed that of the entire Borgia clan put together.


As the queen’s palace fragmented into ash, clockwork royal leadership took the place of palace coups. Eighteen blissfully uneventful years followed, the monkish king Kutakanna Tissa succeeded by his son, Bhathika Abhaya in 20 BC, and King Bhathika Abhaya succeeded 29 years later by his younger brother Mahadatika Mahanaga in 9 AD. Another son of Mahadatika Mahanaga took over in 21 AD ruling for 10 years as King Amandagamani Abhaya, at which point, clearly bored by years of calm, the Vijayan Anuradhapuran kings, jazzed things up again.


King Amandagamani Abhaya’s rule ended abruptly when he was murdered by his brother, Kanirajanu Tissa in 31 CE. Kanirajanu Tissa’s own reign terminated after just 3 suspiciously short years when in 33 CE, Chulabhaya, son of the assassinated Amandagamani Abhaya became king. Three years later he too was dead, and his sister Sivali took the throne in 35 CE. Lacking the staying power of Anula, time was called on Sivali’s innings after just 4 months when Ilanaga, nephew of the slain King Amandagamani Abhaya dethroned her. Within months he too was gone, imprisoned by the powerful Lambakarna Clan. The Lambakarna, a caste of royal attendants, had had their elite noses put utterly out of joint when Ilanaga demoted them to untouchables for failing to attend to him in what he regarded as a right and proper fashion. But foolishly, the Lambakarna Clan left the old king alive. King Amandagamani Abhaya managed to escape to the hill country, returning 3 years later to take back his throne in 38 CE. His reign lasted another 7 years, before his son Chandra Mukha Siva succeeded in 44 CE. But not for long. Chandra Mukha Siva was himself murdered by his brother Yassalalaka Thissa in 52 BCE - so setting the stage for one of most eccentric periods of island governance.


With a story too bathetic to be encumbered by any inconvenient disbelief, The Mahāvaṃsa recounts the bizarre end of this once great dynasty in 60 CE. “Now a son of Datta the gate-watchman, named Subha, who was himself a gate-watchman, bore a close likeness to the king. And this palace-guard Subha did the king Yasalalaka, in jest, bedeck with the royal ornaments and place upon the throne and binding the guard's turban about his own head, and taking himself his place, staff in band, at the gate, he made merry over the ministers as they paid homage to Subha sitting on the throne. Thus, was he wont to do, from time to time. Now one day the guard cried out to the king, who was laughing: `Why does this guard laugh in my presence?' And Subha the guard ordered to slay the king, and he himself reigned here six years under the name Subharaja.” Despatched by his own lookalike, the last Vijayan king died, one hopes, seeing the unexpectedly funny side of assassination. Or perhaps, like Sophocles’ Electra, he had more dynastic intimations: “I am at the end. I exist no more.” King Subha’s own reign lasted 6 years when, whetted by a 3 year rule back in 35 CE, the Lambakarna clan took royal matters back into their own hand and put the ex-palace guard to death. A new king, Vasabha, was now to take the throne.


After 609 years, the Vijayan dynasty had come to an inglorious end. Despite a rich choice of murderous would-be rulers, its possession of such extraordinary kings as Vijaya, Pandukabhaya, Mutasiva, Devanampiya Tissa, and Dutugemunu, ensured that the new country enjoyed almost everything it could hope for from its first royal dynasty. With a writ running at times across the entire island, they transformed a series of unremarkable warring statelets and villages into a nation. They had been able to establish the confidence, culture, and mindset of an entire nation, giving it the ballast and energy necessary to propel itself forward for centuries to come. And they bequeathed it with a legacy of literature, architecture, religion, and infrastructure that no other dynasty bettered. Looking out at water rippling still over the great tanks they built with cutting-edge engineering; sitting in the shade of the magnificent palaces and courts constructed at Anuradhapura, reading inscriptions that point to the bounty of trade routes extending from the island to places as far away as Rome; in the ancient chants of Buddhist priests, the coinage, delicate statutory, frescos and books that survive to this day: in taking all of this in, you take as said an early nation every bit as impressive as any in the ancient world – and way ahead of most. Its laws regulated an dynamic state, its armies and weapons defended it with a rigour that was effective. Even as they disappeared from history, the achievements of the Vijayans lay before them, the indispensable foundations of an entire island-nation state.

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Gallery Café, The

In a fair just and equitable world, one would go to The Gallery Café simply to appreciate its stunning architecture. The business address of the architect Geoffrey Bawa, the beguiling building leads you ever deeper into peace, a benign Pied Piper. Once through the gates, the humid decibels of Colombo mute; and as you walk through the building, the inner courtyard patrolled by languid koi, the calm cool rooms beyond and a garden and verandas beyond that, the hustle of the city all but evaporates. Surrounded by Ugly Sisters, this Cinderella of a building just keeps giving, for it now houses one of the more edible parts of Shanth Fernando’s Paradise Road empire, the café’s menu guaranteed to lock you in for several happy hours; and its walls, home to a changing gallery of contemporary Sri Lanka art, guaranteed to infuriate, delight or seduce you, depending on what is on show. Rarely does one building satisfy so many desires.

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A village with uncertain pretentions to becoming a town, Habarana is situated bang in the middle of the northern part of the island. It is the gateway to the Minneriya National Park, elephant safari central, where, at the right time of the year, the big beasts gather in their migrating hundreds.


Nestling in the heart of the hill country south of Ella, Haputale is a craggy cool world of lush tea plantations, and misty cloud-festooned mountains. The town is largely Tamil - yet also houses a miniature Anglican church, St. Andrew's, circa 1869; and, in an adjacent valley, an almost abandoned 1st BCE Buddhist cave temple, reached through the remains of an ancient Ambalama, its tiny stupa protected by overhanging rocks. From its famous pass, much enjoyed by Sir Thomas Lipton, the southern plains of the country open out, a luxuriant panorama of tea, tea, and tea. This was a view much enjoyed by Sir Thomas Lipton, the once penniless, probably gay, Glaswegian tea baron, who did so much to put the island’s tea into the living rooms of homes the world over. His Seat, literally a seat to sit down on, in order to enjoy the view, is now probably one of the most visited outdoor armchairs in the world, with tea-loving tourists flocking to perch on its planks. And just outside the little town is Adisham Hall, the faux Tudor country house folly built by a much later tea baron, Sir Thomas Villers.

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Independence Arcade

With unexpectedly droll humour, the authorities at the Urban Development Authority (UDA) converted the Jawatte Lunatic Asylum into one of Colombo’s top shopping malls. Within its beautiful 1889 colonnaded walls, the Independence Arcade houses a cinema, and scores of top trademark shops, and restaurants that will allow you to stretch your credit ratings. The renovation has been done with evident care and effectiveness. Even so, luxury brand shopping has yet to really catch on in the country. It has, for example, some considerable way to go before it replaces religion - as it has done with such notable success in the West. But a start, albeit modest and disquieting, has been made.

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A sturdy, burgeoning town on the indices of major roads to Colombo, Katunayake, Gampaha, Negombo and Kandy, Ja-Ela is, more interestingly something of an etymological puzzle. “Ela” in Singhala means stream – but “Ja” in both Malay and Singhala, means Javanese. Quite how the name came to be is a trail long gone cold. Buddhist invaders from Java are recorded as having briefly ruled over Jaffna; and possibly elsewhere on the island; whilst later Dutch colonists favoured Sri Lanka as a place of exile for the many Javan chieftains they destoned as they conquered Indonesia. Little but such tantalising cross cultural names remain and almost none of the descending Malay Moors speak Sri Lankan Malay today. To paraphrase Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “tomorrow we disappear into the unknown. This account I am transmitting …may be our last word to those who are interested in our fate.”

Jnana Mudra, The

One of Lord Buddha’s most winning symbolic hand gestures. Thumb tip and index finger touch as a circle and face inward. In this simple bit of symbolism, you have the signal for wisdom and spiritual enlightenment.

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Snug within its mountainous walls, the kingdom of Kandy resisted colonial occupation until the British tricked their way inside, in February 1815. An ancient Singhalese prophesy had foretold that no foreigner would ever rule the kingdom if it was unable to piece its mountains. And so, when constructing the 1820 road from Colombo to Kandy, the British did just that, choosing, it is said, to include a tunnel on the road – the Kadugannawa Pass, a small section of pierced rock for which the little village of Kadugannawa claims its gentle fame. Many dispute the veracity of the story, but it has a wily charm about it and so deserves to be true even if it is not. The construction of the road itself, a mere five years after capturing the kingdom and the country, was something of an engineering feat – and one carried out by the relatively junior Captain William Dawson. Although he never saw the completion of his work, being bitten by a poisonous snake three years before it was completed, his memory lives on in the village’s Dawson Tower, erected in his honour, and still standing. A wayside Ambalama, or resting place for weary travellers, was also erected in the village which has, since the opening of the National Railway Museum in 2009 also become a favoured place for ferroequinologists, eager to photograph old motors, trains, rail autos, trolleys, carriages, and other railway memorabilia not still used on the current railway grid.