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Return to Sri Lanka

Cedric Angeles Dameeka, an 11-year-old monk at Pidurangla Temple, at Sigiriya.

Photo: Cedric Angeles

So I hired a car and driver the next morning and left Colombo, stopping first at a Buddhist temple I'd heard of where the monks shelter an elephant donated by the Maharajah of Mysore. Penned by the tidy stucco walls surrounding the temple garden, the animal was mountainous but certainly tractable enough, standing on three legs, its shackled fourth cocked, as a mahout hosed and scrubbed its freckled hide.

I hand-fed it from a stalk of bananas bought by the roadside and then, feeling virtuous, went on my way. Only afterward did the driver mention something the monk had told him out of my earshot. The seemingly gentle temple beast once killed two keepers. The first he had flailed and stomped. The second, he had waltzed against a wall at bath time, an old trick of captive elephants, then wedged and neatly squashed. "You really shouldn't have been that close," the driver said.

And, of course, he was right. But the easy assumptions we all tend to make of personal immortality are essential tools packed into every primate's genetic kit—a necessity, if one is to keep from dwelling on Fate's caprice. Accidents happen, as we all know. But on that beautiful afternoon, accidental death, of the sort that would soon overtake whole swaths of the region, was the last thing on my mind.

I was in the gorgeous land Swift disguised thinly as the fabled isle of Serendip. Through the open car window, I was sipping in cool air that arose from a dew-moistened road running from Colombo to Kandy, home of the celebrated Temple of the Tooth. As the grade steepened and the terrain changed, the coastal scrub gave way to stands of towering old hardwoods, mighty tropical patriarchs worth, in some cases, $100,000 a tree.

Here were some of the island's famous spice plantations, patchwork plots that were oddly underwhelming in person, each seemingly given over to a specific spice—pepper vines both white and black, shaggy cinnamon trees, clove bushes, and other specimens of the culinary aromatics that for centuries lured the world to this small rich spot in the faraway Indian Ocean. The roadside market villages along one stretch of road were named for their primary product: Pineapple Town and Coconut Town and Cashew Town. Young women stood on the verges, waving down motorists and offering pineapples freshly peeled and skewered or plastic bags stuffed with cashews salted, unsalted, or coated with a searing chile dust.

Somewhere near here began the absurd clustered rainbows, special effects so cheap it was like wandering onto a blue-screen stage at DreamWorks. Dissolving and forming again, they were like triumphal gateways marking the way to my destination, itself also like a theater set of sorts: a great hotel designed in the 1990's by the Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa and built near the ancient Buddhist-temple town of Dambulla.

Of all of Bawa's contributions to architecture, the most important is not the obligatory open-air lobby so often aped in pursuit of Asian Modernism or the equally inevitable infinity pool, but the deeply harmonious way his buildings relate to their settings. It is as if the architect kept always in consultation with the protective spirits of a given place, careful not to offend the genius loci. As a result, few structures and fewer hotels I have seen are more sensitively fitted to their setting than is the Kandalama, a building nestled against a cliff and roofed with sod. Built without the use of earth-moving equipment, the hotel eventually came to resemble something organically accreted—a multistory pendant honeycomb, say, canted along a hillside, with hundreds of windowed chambers oriented to the sunlight and to views across a vast lake dug manually some 800 years ago.

Vines cloak the façade of the building. Troupes of gray langur monkeys swing from the struts. Come nightfall, small harmless bats carom along the ceiling of a stucco entry corridor cut from the live stone of the cliff. Airy, large, and fitted with handsome simple furniture made from local mahogany and dense-grained padauk, the rooms are monastic and restful. I can imagine spending weeks at the Kandalama, or months. I can imagine sitting for a very long time on the terrace, watching hawks kiting in thermals above the lake and eruptions of herons, their wings unbending with the creaky mechanics of umbrella spokes. That early winter, at least, very few rooms were occupied at the Kandalama, and while this felt odd to me, it did not seem prophetic. The hordes, I assumed, would arrive very soon.

My goal was to pass some days visiting the monasteries and ancient Buddhist sites of the Golden Triangle, an area whose perimeter can be charted on a map with outlines connecting Kandy, the last precolonial capital of the Sinhalese kingdom in old Ceylon, to Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. For decades, civil war had made these places too risky to visit—a discouraging thing, given that some of the greatest Buddhist sites in Asia are now off-limits, have degenerated badly, or else, in the case of Bamiyan, have been blown to smithereens.

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