Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Driving through Sri Lanka

We left on the morning of the fourth day to drive to Kandy - the last capital of the Singhala empire and where the relic of the Buddha's tooth is currently located. One thing we've learned about guided tours is that they always route you through sponsored shopping. This one was no exception.

We went to a spice garden. It was very nice seeing how various spices grow. Some I was familiar with like cinnamon and turmeric. Others like cardamom were a complete surprise. Apparently I did not take any photos because I can't find any. We also had to listen to a talk on the uses of spices but did get a nice cup of tea.

Then we got to visit a batik factory. I used to do batik in my youth so it was nice to see how professionals do it. Batik is a lot of work and the finished products were very nice but nothing that we wanted.

However, the third stop did get us interested. It was a wood-carving business and there were a number of really beautiful pieces. We ended up acquiring a piece which we had to lug around for the rest of the trip and also hand carry onto the plane back to Chennai. You know what they say about the best laid plans? We had plenty of carry-on luggage space as we had packed light. But the piece, when packed in bubble wrap and tape was just a tad too long to fit into the carry-on suitcase! So it lived in our hotel room or the trunk of the car and then fortunately fit into the overhead bin on the plane. Since it was wood, there were no issues with security and we didn't have to unwrap it till we got home. From India to the US, it went in one of our checked-in bags, mummified in bubble wrap as it was.
The process of negotiating and then packing the item ended up delaying us so we got stuck in the after-school traffic at Kandy. It was also very hot so we changed our plans to go to the Temple of the Buddha's Tooth Relic that afternoon. The itinerary called for us to go the temple, then to a cultural show and then to the hotel for dinner. The following morning was a visit to the botanical garden and then off to the next stop. But the traffic would have been worse near the temple so we put it off till the next morning. That also enabled us to see one of the worship services when the relic was actually visible to the public.

We debated going to the botanical garden but the heat convinced us to skip it. So we went to the hotel and did our laundry and were able to dry it on the balcony without fear of monkeys. There were no trees near-by! That evening we went to a cultural program of music and dance and fire-eating. I was primed with insect repellant for the mosquitoes so it was rather pleasant in the hall. Kandyan dance is quite a long-standing cultural tradition.

Our next morning started with breakfast with gorgeous views again.
A view of the city and the lake from the terrace above.
After breakfast, we left for the temple. On the way we drove around the lake.
The entrance to the temple
The relic is behind the red decorated door. Later, we were able to line up upstairs and file past it but I was not quick enough to capture a photo. The line had to move fast in order to let the worshippers all have a chance to see the relic and it is only made visible for a short while each day. Note the gorgeous elephant tusks.  It is no longer legal to buy/sell or trade in elephant ivory but these are old tusks that have been in the temple for decades if not centuries.
The temple was being renovated so there was a lot of scaffolding around. But we could see the gold lotus carvings on the roof.
There is an adjacent hall where people can sit and meditate and maybe it is also used for lectures and talks. There is a gold Buddha statue in there.
We walked through there to the audience hall - remember that this relic is what conferred divine right to the kings - so there was always a royal presence here till the kingdom was overthrown. The audience hall has ancient, carved pillars and roof. It is open on the four sides, though.

Looking out over the adjacent lawn and garden.
We also visited the library associated with the temple. There are palm leaf books with the teachings of the Buddha inscribed on them.

The stupa in the center of the library.
After this we went back to the temple to see the beginning of the worship service and line up to see the relic. The service opened with a procession carrying offerings preceded by drummers who played all the way through the service.
The curtain has been drawn back the reveal the carved doors behind it. All the worshippers have gone up to see the relic. We headed up there too. It was all very orderly and organized. After we viewed the relic, we left and headed out of Kandy on the way to Nuwara Eliya.

Nuwara Eliya is the center of the tea plantations and is up in the mountains. As we left the lowlands, the air became cooler and more pleasant. The road was winding with new vistas opening up at each curve.
Initially it was regular agriculture but as we climbed, we started to see rows upon orderly rows of tea.

We stopped at a tea factory to see how the tea is processed and had a cup of tea in a building with lovely views.

Along the way, we stopped at a hotel near a waterfall for lunch.
It was evening when we got to Nuwara Eliya. Our hotel was not in the town but outside, in an old tea factory. We started off by resting for a bit and then wandering through the gardens and tea plantation that surrounded the hotel. This was also a spectacular location.

The staff at the hotel were wonderful. The head gardener gave us a tour of his domain, pointing out flower varieties with pride. January is not the best time for the flowers so our opportunity to admire was limited. But there were a few.

The gardener was an innovative recycler. This raised bed is made from empty wine bottles from the hotel.
They also had a mini recycling station with compost heaps and other sustainable practices. We generally found Sri Lankans very environmentally conscious. I think they realize that they have a pristine beauty to care for and that tourism is a key part of their economy and they don't want to spoil it. It was refreshing to see this when so many other places are only focused on development.
There is also a mini tea factory in the hotel grounds. This was easier to view and understand compared to the production machines we had seen earlier. We weren't allowed to get close to those. But the lady in charge of this one was more than happy to take us around and show us how it is done. She was also of Tamil origin which made all of us happy. We conversed in a mixture of English and Tamil. The British imported Tamil workers from India to work the tea plantations and their descendants still live here. In the north of Sri Lanka, there are Tamils who crossed the small strait between India and Sri Lanka centuries ago. These Tamils are different. They are newer - only going back a couple of centuries.

The plantation around the hotel is small and only produces tea for the hotel's use. Tea leaves are picked daily and first dried to remove most of the water. This takes anywhere from a few hours to overnight. There are fans blowing air through the leaves to dry them.
Then they are chopped up. This is why they need to be dried - if they had all their moisture the result would be a big wet mass instead of chopped up leaves. This machine was not working because the leaves were still drying.
Then they are sorted by size.
Followed by fermentation for black tea.
Then another drying to get them to the state in which we would recognize them.
And finally another sorting by size to separate the leaves into the various grades for quality.
That is the lovely lady who showed us around and educated us on the finer points of tea.
There were still pickers out picking tea in the late afternoon.
There was a maze in the hotel. Not big enough to get lost in.
Tea pickers started trickling in with their loads going to the tea factory to drop them off. As I said earlier, the pickers are almost all Tamil women. That is my big fat finger in the corner.

I wandered off by myself for a walk. I was feeling restless after a day cooped up in the car.  First I saw more recycled wine bottles.
This was the hill I headed down.

This is what those neat rows look like from the underside. The top 2-3 leaves at the end of each branch are picked each day to make tea.
Close-up of the plants.
Houses of the plantation and hotel workers.
I walked down this path to get down the hill. This is how the workers come and go each day. Our hotel is at the top.
Vegetables are grown in the valleys. These are leeks but I saw cabbages and other cool weather crops growing. Most of these are produced in the mountains and we saw a lot of them planted next to houses and in open lots in the area. They are transported to other areas where such crops cannot grow due to the heat. The government has a distribution system for collecting the crops, moving them to centralized markets, where they are bought and sold and then transported to where they are consumed.
This is the path I followed down around the hill and the rows of tea plants.
And that is the hotel from the path.
After I retraced my way back, we had dinner and went to bed.

This was a long post but the story seemed to flow better to include both these two days into one post.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Elephants and ruins

On the third day, we headed out to Polonnaruwa, another UNESCO World Heritage site. Polonnaruwa was the second capital of the Sinhalese kingdom. The first one was Anuradhapura. We had originally planned to go to both but our guide warned us that they were both ruined cities that looked very similar. It was hot and humid and there were steep entrance fees for foreigners. So we picked Polonnaruwa and changed our itinerary to go look for wild elephants in the afternoon.

But our morning started with breakfast. We were seated next to a window for breakfast and guess who kept us company outside, eating their own breakfast? A troop of monkeys.

At Polonnaruwa, we stopped by a huge lake that was built by one of the great kings of the Singhala empire, Parakramabahu. The lake still provides irrigation to the local area and has since the 12th century BCE.
Sri Lanka is a bird watching paradise and we saw our fill of birds without looking for them.
We started at the library. Only the first story and steps are left. The rest was made of wood and was destroyed centuries ago. You can see the holes where the beams were inserted for the second story.
Steps leading up to the second story
Imagine yourself baking in the hot humid sunshine. This next building is the audience hall where the king conducted business.
Close-up of the carving on the sides.
We went past the audience hall to see the king's bath.
There are places to sit around and enjoy the cooling water.
Along with a good system of drainage.
We then moved on to the temple area. The king owned a sacred relic - a tooth of the Buddha. The Buddha visited Sri Lanka 3 times and the island is mostly Buddhist. But the possession of this relic is what gave the king his authority. So each of the 5 capitals has a temple of the tooth relic. The only one that is not in ruins is the one in Kandy, which was the last capital before the British overthrew the kingdom. That temple, which we will visit later, is still alive and the tooth relic is there.
These statues are not original, I think. They have been moved here for protection against the elements. But I could be mis-remembering.

Look at the columns. They are fashioned after lotus stems.
The entrance to each building has a moonstone with carvings in it. The moonstones here do not have cattle or lions in them, the former evidence of the Hindu influence and the latter the symbol of the Singhala kingdom. In Anuradhapura, there are cattle in the moonstones. Since one steps on them, it is not auspicious to put sacred animals underfoot.
The moonstone leads to steps that are flanked by guardian deities.
Many statues of the Buddha.
The buildings are beautifully laid out in symmetrical forms.
A very long, very ancient tablet.
With carvings on the ends.
We then moved on to another area of the ruins. A monastery with stupas.
This is one of the largest in the country. Kiri Vihara
Then we moved on to another section, which is a very sacred. A temple to the Buddha that is still active and thriving. But a respite for wildlife. A parrot in a tree.
And another iguana...
Finally, we came to the Gal Vihara, the heart of the city.
We took off our shoes/sandals and walked on the hot sand. There are three statues here of the Buddha. The first is when he is meditating - before he became the Buddha. The second is of him teaching. The third is after he died.
To the left is the meditating statue. The one to the right is the temple where people worship. Meditating...
The temple..
And after his passing. Some people say it is the Buddha sleeping. Our guide said it was after his passing. You decide.
A statue of the king.
After we left Polonnaruwa, we had a quick lunch and headed out to a safari to see wild elephants. This is the area where the jeeps are waiting while the drivers buy tickets to the national park. This one is called the Eco-park. There are multiple parks where the elephants roam, depending on the season. At this time of year, Eco-park is where they usually are.
We caught a glimpse of one rather quickly.
And then nothing. An eagle on a tree.
We drove for a long time. It was dusty and bumpy and hot. We kept our eyes peeled. We were almost out of the park when all of a sudden, there they were.
Mothers and babies.

Lots of jeeps clustered around the herd. They pretty much ignored us. We were quiet and just took pictures and watched in awe. And then we left, hot and dusty and satisfied.

My hair was matted and a giant nest. We went back to the hotel and showered and packed because we were leaving for Kandy the next day.