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Sri Lanka Travel Now

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Photo: Ian Allen

“The beauty and the horror,” the Sri Lankan–Canadian writer Shyam Selvadurai said to me in Jaffna. “Both things must be there. Otherwise, it’s not Sri Lanka.”

We sat in a busy restaurant in a city ravaged by war. I was at the end of a journey north across this island country and the writer’s remark felt now almost like shared knowledge. But it was something that had come to me slowly, this awareness of the Sri Lankan duality, of the creeping horror. Because, 12 days before, when I had first landed in Colombo, there had been no trace of it. Then there had been only the beauty.

The land even from the air had made a beguiling impression. Of red earth, of glossy tropical greenery, of tiled roofs blackening in the sea air. A sea that was much bluer and more hypnotic than any I had seen in India, from where I had flown in that morning. It appeared suddenly, in the full glitter of the afternoon sun, as we drove down Galle Face Road. I had just arrived, but I was already late. I was meeting Chandraguptha Thenuwara, a conceptual artist whose work during the war had earned him an international reputation.

The war had been a fixture of my childhood. My mother, a reporter in Delhi, where I grew up, had covered it for the Indian papers. I had memories of her returning from Colombo with cameras and transistor radios, which, though widely available in Sri Lanka, were denied us in Socialist India. Sri Lanka then, with its excellent position in the Indian Ocean, had dreamed of being a second Singapore. But the war, which long outlasted my mother’s career as a reporter, derailed those ambitions. And it was only the other day, it seemed—in 2009—that Sri Lanka, after what was among the longest and bloodiest conflicts in modern memory, and after the devastation of the 2004 tsunami, groped its way out into the light again. For the first time in three decades, it was a country at peace. It was this that I had come to see: the Sri Lankan peace, and what measure of light and shade it contained.

The effects of postwar development were real and tangible—the city was full of a new optimism. Places that had been decaying and falling apart, like the old racecourse building, were freshly painted and now housed restaurants; in the area around the Dutch Hospital, which during the war had been a no-man’s-land of barriers and soldiers, there were elegant shops and restaurants, including the delicious Ministry of Crab. There were glamorous new boutique hotels like the Tintagel, once the prime minister’s house. And in the old office of the great Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, there was the Gallery Café, a place of long drinks and slow-wheeling fans painted black, which, with its nouvelle cuisine, felt like a tropical version of the Costes in Paris. Colombo’s revival was visible enough. But to some, beautification was a dirty word.

“Postwar color wash!” Thenuwara spat. He was heavyset, with an impish face, and unruly whitening sideburns that gave him the air of a figure from fable. He had become famous in the war years for his “barrelism,” a project that made artistic use of the barrels that had turned the city into a fortress. The barrels were gone now, and Colombo, for the first time in decades, felt safer than Delhi. But Thenuwara was not impressed. He spoke of Colombo’s revival as if it were the achievement of a fascistic enterprise, one that could do little more than make the trains run on time. “Beautification,” he said to me as we sat on the terrace of the Galle Face Hotel, overlooking the sea, “is erasing memories. Whether we like them or not, we must keep the memories.”

He was the first person I spoke seriously to in Sri Lanka, and though at times I felt he was being alarmist, our conversation gave me an atmospheric sense of something that would remain with me throughout my trip: that this was a place where one could not trust one’s first impressions. His distrust of the Sri Lankan peace colored my view of the city. It gave a charcoal outline to what until then had been an enchanting scene of boutiques and bungalows, of gabled colonial buildings with deep verandas and pretty eaves, of flowering trees and clubs with evocative names. It was a city enveloped in a permanent feeling of afternoon, where now, it felt, the briny breath of the sea merged easily with a hint of menace.

That night I saw Colombo through the eyes of an architect. Channa Daswatte had been a student and protégé of Bawa, who pioneered the island’s “tropical modernism” in the late 1950’s, an architectural style that was at once deeply local and very modern. Bawa’s influence was immense, and it made Sri Lanka one of the few postcolonial countries that had excellent modern architecture, always so telling an indication of a culture’s morale.

We drove through the spongy darkness of night in the tropics. Daswatte, with his architect’s feeling for public spaces, showed me the places in and around Independence Avenue and Police Park where the walls had been torn down. So long as they stood, they had turned the streets into trenches and Colombo into a city without vistas. Their coming down was a deeply emotional and symbolic thing; it had unstitched the city. “It was an urban gesture,” Daswatte said, pointing to an attractive esplanade of public buildings, “that seemed to say: we have not just brought peace, but demonstrated that there is peace.”

And peace there certainly was. But it had come at a great price. Had it been Pyrrhic?

Daswatte, like many Sri Lankans, could not help feeling that no price was too steep; that that war had gone on far too long and that it had to end. But he, like Thenuwara, was worried about the character of the peace; worried about tensions in the north; worried about a growing authoritarianism in the country; and worried, most of all, about an attack on dissent, which had manifested itself as a stifling of press freedoms. That night in his house, itself a triumph of the Bawa aesthetic, I saw a painting by the Tamil artist T. Shanaathanan that was a reminder of the other side of the Sri Lankan peace. It was a painting of two male figures and a kiss. In the swirling background, Daswatte pointed to a rooster and murmured, “Peter.” But he need hardly have said it: for, even to my visitor’s eye, it was clear the kiss was a Judas kiss, and the theme of the painting betrayal.

Sri Lanka is a majority Buddhist country, and my flight from India had been full of pilgrims: cloudy-eyed women in yellow caps, returning from visiting the Buddhist sites in India. Indian culture and religion had, for centuries, seeped into this place. But modern India was no preparation for Sri Lanka. It was not just that the sea was bluer, the country cleaner and more well-ordered; it was that the people, a dizzying mixture of Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, and Muslims, whose places of worship lined the road in from the airport, had, in the incubating context of an island, formed relations to one another—and, more important, lines of division—that were something apart from what I had known in India.

Of these none had been tenser than the one between the Tamils of the north and east, and the Sinhalese majority in the rest of the country. This was the line along which the war of three decades had been fought. But it was not the only line. In the seaside town of Galle, we encountered another, newer, and more volatile fault line. We ran smack into a protest led by the Bodu Bala Sena, an extremist Buddhist outfit. It was a Friday afternoon, and a group of saffron-clad monks, with peach fuzz and bad skin, led a small band of civilians along the edge of the Galle Fort. They were protesting what they claimed was a Muslim wish to impose halal and sharia on Sri Lanka. The protest, they were at pains to point out—they were Buddhists monks after all!—was nonviolent.

But it was a Friday afternoon—a Muslim time of prayer—and in the Fort, which was largely Muslim, many regarded the protest as hostile. Tariq, of Dairy King, which sold delicious homemade ice cream, said: “The Muslims are very calm, very quiet, but there are ruthless sections among us. And these people,” he said, gesturing ominously to the protesters, “they don’t know what they’re doing. The Tamils, they hit and ran. The Muslims will not run. They’ll stay and fight.”

It was an odd thing to hear, odd in its note of threat, especially in Galle, where Europeans had set up a small and incestuous community of expats known as the “Galle Set.” But it was a reminder of how, under the seeming placidity of the visitor’s Sri Lanka, a different Sri Lanka simmered away. No sooner had it appeared, this darker element, than it was gone; and I was back among the tittle-tattle of the Galle Set, drinking an arrack sour on the veranda of the Amangalla—an outpost of the five-star Amanresorts group—on a Saturday night. It was too rainy to be at the festive Wijaya Beach Club, or the chic Sun House hotel. Here, among the fanoos lanterns and planters chairs, one might hear—for these people were poisonous gossips!—of the handsome man who’d just walked in: “Oh, that’s P—. Such a lovely guy. Don’t know why his mother-in-law hates him so much. Just doesn’t think he’s good enough, I suppose.”

Throughout my trip, I had felt the draw of the north. I think I sensed that it was the source of the darker element I had encountered only in snatches so far.

The north began after Kandy. I spent a night at the Kandy House, a jewel box of a hotel—with tuna so fresh you could still taste the sea in it—and the next day we entered a heavily forested country. Elephant country. We drove up along narrow highways full of butterflies, edged with electrified wire to keep the elephants in their corridors. Soon we were among the haunting ruins of Sri Lanka’s ancient capitals at Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura, and the spectacular fifth-century frescoes in the rock citadel of Sigiriya—places that still retained something of the sylvan mist of their 19th-century rediscovery. And then, almost as if the ruins were merging with the natural world, we were in a forest of decapitated Palmyra palms. The scene of the last battle.

We went up to Jaffna along the same route the Sri Lankan army had taken in 2009. All around us were the relics of war: graveyards of vehicles rotting in the moist air; bullet-scarred houses whose roofs were open to sky; and an abandoned ship in whose rusting port-side a gaping hole gave onto blue sea. Looking at this overgrown country, my guide said: “It feels like a desert.” Such a strange thing to say, for the land was so lush! But I knew exactly what he meant. He was referring to the feeling of desolation. And the land, though it was ravaged and overgrown, was also wild and beautiful, a land of lagoons and lotus ponds. In the towns we drove through, there was evidence of shattered communities creeping back to life. There were volleyball games in the yards of abandoned temples and candlelit services in dark corrugated steel sheds used as churches. The sight of these things, as evening fell, was deeply affecting: a testament to both the fragility and resilience of life. By nightfall, we were in Jaffna.

It had been on the road to Jaffna that my mother first lost her nerve for war reporting. But the Jaffna I found myself in, as perhaps with the capitals of so many past insurgencies—Diyarbakir, Srinagar, Grozny—was just a sleepy small town. Battered, but seductive. The surrounding peninsula was full of old Dutch churches and castles, of lagoons teeming with crabs, of decaying Malay-style houses, of nuns on bicycles, of an untouched and poetic countryside. There were only a handful of basic hotels, but things were changing fast. In Colombo I had met many people on their way to Jaffna, now for an art fair, now for a cultural festival. It would not be long, perhaps, before the north was rehabilitated. And yet—it had to be said—the place I visited was still suffering the effects of war and migration.

“There is a feeling of melancholia,” T. Shanaathanan told me one rainy morning in Jaffna. “We lost something but we do not know what.” It was his painting of betrayal that I had seen in Daswatte’s house. I had sought him out, in part because I had liked the painting, in part because I had wanted to gain some sense of what the mood was like among the people of the north.

And though there was little comfort in what he said, that night, in keeping with the shape-shifting quality of this strange journey in Sri Lanka, I found myself once again surrounded by beauty: An old ancestral house, set deep in that pastoral countryside of lagoons and paddy fields. It belonged to Daswatte’s assistant, a bright, ebullient woman named Ajantha, who was converting it into a hotel. It was impossible not to be affected by the hopefulness of her endeavor. It was an intimation—final and memorable—of what the north could be.

Daswatte, on the night when he showed me those places where the walls had come down, had, in describing the Sri Lankan duality, quoted a Blake poem. Later, when I asked him what it was (it was “The Sick Rose”) he had written: “It evokes those dark days when the utter beauty of my country only hid the invisible worm of death.” And this, I could see now, was the source of all that had been unnerving about Sri Lanka. It was a country that made you suspicious of beauty. For it was under the cover of its great beauty that its terrible past had occurred.

We left at dawn the next day. On our drive south to Colombo I received a text message from Selvadurai. He was worried he had not been helpful. When I reminded him of his excellent phrase—“the beauty and the horror”—which seemed to perfectly encapsulate the twin energies of this island country, he made an interesting qualification. “But the trick,” he wrote, “the hard part 4 me as a writer is to let them simply sit side by side not even in juxtaposition. Then I know I have Sri Lanka.”

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