Category Archives: Environment

Ancient temple of Gadaladeniya etched in stone

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Kandy is a beautiful city of culture located in the up country 115 kms and 3 hours ride from Colombo. Along the way past the Kadugannawa climb and close to Kandy are three major architecturally rich sites belonging to the Gampola period. The first of these important architectural sites is found in Pilimathawa and 7km interior along Daulagala road. Then you find the Gadaladeniya temple complex of the 14th century, perched on a rock outcrop.

Early morning mild winds blew over the hill area. As I clambered up the steps cut on the rock a striking building arose into view. It had close resemblance to a Hindu shrine with those tall Shikaras. As if the design was a battle between two, even though the temple had an unusual likelihood of a Hindu shrine, the one with taste for Buddhist architecture seem to have won. On top of massive, flat granite slabs, were bubble shaped pagodas. A large stupa was taking the center place with two other smaller ones on either sides. Through the main entrance and into the belly of the temple complex was the image house. Inside under a decorative Makara Thorana was a large statue of Buddha in seated position. Other images and paintings on the walls were fading with age. Taking the full circle around the temple complex two other smaller rooms were found to be shrines belonging to Hindu deities. Strong influence of Hinduisms flowed into Buddhist temples following the Polonnaruwa era and is even seen today.

Two small natural pools on the rocky surface were filled with water and had purple water lilies floating in them. Nature on its own accord pay respect to the many Gods, without human intervention. At the entrance to the image house are two elaborately carved stone pillars that were impressions to behold. On either side of the steps are two proud Gajasinghe carvings on granite with artfully curling tails and startling eyes. These mythical creatures are a combination of elephant and lion.

In close proximity to Gadaladeniya temple are two other places forming an architectural trinity of sorts beckoning travelers taking the Colombo-Kandy route. The other two are Embekke Devale and Lanakathilaka temple.

Me & baby elephants face-to-face on the road to Thanamalwila

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These little devils will break your heart with their rather amusing antics! I watched these two baby elephants (may be 6-9 months not more) rounds up the corner and reach the bar for their regular feed – ETH, Udawalawe

Uda Walawe National Park lies South of the central hills of the island, 180 kms from Colombo. It surrounds the man-made reservoir of Udawalawe, a mixture of abandoned teak plantation, scrub jungle and grassland. During the dry season many herds of elephant roam the park. Which is usually between May and September.

Traveling on Thanamalwila road about 10 kms before the park entrance is the Elephant Transit Home (ETH). The orphanage was established in 1995 by the Department of Wild Life with funding from Born Free (UK) to rescue and nurture baby elephants. The place was opened to the public eight years later. At the time of my visit about 25 baby elephants were in care. These juvenile elephants have strayed away from the sides of their nursing mothers and herd while roaming inside the vast expanse of the National Park. They have been rescued brought in by the small team of dedicated wildlife officers. Some animals carry the tell-tale signs of injuries – torn ears, scars or a broken leg. A juvenile of very tender age was wailing in its pen without the warmth of its mother’s company. These elephants are all nurtured and cured prior to been reintroduced into the park reserve.

The ideal way to visit the Elephant Transit Home is to combine with a visit to the Udawalawe National Park early in the morning or late afternoon. The orphans at the ETH can only be viewed when they are been fed. The feeding times are 9am, 12 noon, 3pm and 6pm. At this time they can be watched from the viewing platforms for about 20 minutes while they are given milk.

As the bell tolls the baby elephants are seen lining up in queue, slowly ambling into pens for feeding. Workers pour cow’s milk by the gallon and the babies guzzle hungrily at the bottles. The littlest ones appear hungriest and they actually refuse to go away without receiving some extra milk. The rest of the time the animals spend in the National Park out of the view of people, in preparation for their return to the wild when they are about four years old.

One adolescent male elephant stands out in my impressions, his name is Namal. Drawn to the animal who had a prosthesis hind leg I asked the caretaker for permission to get a close look. Many animals suffer injuries in the hands of cruel men who try to protect their cultivation by setting up crude devices. Namal’s injured leg makes him too vulnerable to return to the wilderness.

In stark contrast to Pinnawala Orphanage and elsewhere, where elephants are seen in captivity the ETH has completely done away with tethering the animals. While visitors are kept at safe distance the workers are familiar in handling the animals without the use of any harsh methods.

A small herd of wild elephants are seen grazing in the shore line of the reservoir. Their entrance to the road is barred by protective electric-wire fence. Close at dusk a drive across the dam and reservoir makes way for a picturesque view. The skies are enveloped in warm rays of pink and orange that melts into the far horizon of purple mountain ranges. The still lake is a mirror image of the grandeur of the beautiful sunset. The rippling water add texture to what could have been one of Turner’s oil paintings.

The Mangrove

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Just a couple of hours drive away from Colombo and nestled in a thicket of mangroves besides the Duvemodara Oya in Kosgoda is a serene bungalow that was soon to become my favourite spot for de-stress. Plying on the Southern Highway up to Welipanna exit point, taking a right turn and traveling some 25kms till the road joins the Galle Road I was able to reach Kosgoda passing picturesque scenery. Thereafter traveling south bound pass the Turtle Hatchery on the sea side and coming alongside the railway tracks we were soon running across a bridge that was a clear sign of approaching the said location. We crossed the rail lines to take a side lane to the left which lead us to the retreat.

The Mangrove otherwise known as Kos is hidden from the beaten path and set away from the popular sea frontal hotels. The bungalow takes on a traditional look of a local villa, but boasts of tasteful selection of colours and decorations giving it a warmer ambience than originally designed. The place was introduced by a friend of mine who loves Yellow Ochre as much as I do. The bungalow is bathed in Yellow Ochre making it appear rather vibrant against the emerald setting of trees and foliage. She referred it as a lovely place next to the lagoon and close enough to hear the ocean break on the beach. Once you’ve reach Kos you have a choice of kayaking or taking the boat.

The view across the placid waters was calming as the skies turn melon red. A fierce ball of fire dip along the horizon. Time stopped still in the twilight moment. A Colombo bound commuter train sped across the bridge and it shuddered. I kept on rowing underneath. A splendid array of colours fell on the lake surface. Water birds like cormorants, herons and kingfishers skimmed and dived playfully acknowledging the close of day. Monitor lizards kept a watchful eye from the banks of the lake should atleast one be slow in reaction, perhaps it’s a lucky day.

Before dusk I shoved the kayak into the water and hauled myself into the center of its pit. I decided to venture further down the lake where it was spread like the palm of a hand into several fingers. These narrow alleys although lacking in depth had interesting features to light up the imagination of those who cared to explore. Manuring into one of them carefully ducking under a canopy of vines I drove into a most remarkable mangrove forest. It was dark because of the thick foliage. The light seeped in through the curtain of vine in mesmerizing strands. A cacophony of bird calls was heard from the belly of the forest. Where birds of different feather were found amidst a debate trying to negotiate their nesting grounds. From the severity of their calling it seemed for some birds their territories had shifted. They didn’t seem to be happy about it. Swimming alongside the boat was a six foot monitor lizard, with a sleek head held above the water, the rest of the body camouflaged, a wiggly stroke waving in perfect tune to the rippling of water.

The mangrove or mangal is a distinct saline shrubland found along the coastal belt. They are salt tolerant trees also called halophytes. They are protected because of the important role played in balancing eco-systems.

In the thicket of the mangrove a fine tune was sung by a brilliantly coloured bird who made a fleeting appearance. Excitement rose within me of the prospect of discovering a new bird. As I paddled gently further looking for this elusive beauty, it was spotted perched on the upper branch of a tree. It’s beak was a dead- give-away for its identity. It indeed was a Kingfisher. In fact it was a rare orange breasted Kingfisher. When I reached a clearing it was finally possible to turn the kayak. Not knowing the art of doing this I twist-turned intuitively, bumping the pointed front several times in the thicket and using the paddle as a pivoting point, finally managed to get the boat in the right direction.

I rowed back in silence towards the bungalow after experiencing a wonderful sun-down. Night was fast on its heels, the pink skies now residing, a sliver of slivery moon shone above. A single dog gazing at the moon howls an eerie tone, its silhouette visible even from a distance. I shook off the chilling feeling – no I had no reason to be frightened. I loved nature no matter what time of day it was.

The Mangrove by the side of a placid lake is a wonderful haven on earth – a peaceful place to recoup. Not far from the busy city or the touristy southern hot spots. It is close to the Turtle Hatchery where sea turtles are said to be nurtured in a far-fetching conservation drive. A fifteen minutes’ walk in the morning brought us across the Galle Road to the sea side where we were the only people to enjoy the beach.

Sri Pada the Holy Mountain

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A trail of sparkling lights ascended until it became indistinguishable among the stars. A hundred people or more were chanting and carrying on ahead of me. One step at a time, we were getting closer to the realm.

It was around 6 am and I was at the top of the world. A veil of mist lifted to bring forth golden rays across a rosy pink sky. The mountains peaked above cottony clouds, airbrushed in shades of peach. The Adam’s Peak is a mountain summit you should attempt climbing atleast once. There is an old saying – you would indeed be a fool not to climb it atleast once and again, a fool to do so more than once. I have been there thrice.

The sheer ascent covering a distance of 6 kms and alleviation of 1000 m is nothing short of been arduous. However the serenity and breathtaking views makes it worthwhile. There are four routes to reach Adam’s Peak, of which the longer route from Palabathgala in Rathnapura (8.5 km) is said to be the most enjoyable one. With a group of hikers you may be able to attempt the ascent following this trail. Whereas I was joined by a throng of pilgrims on the Hatton-Nallathanni route during the onset of the season. Every year with the dawning of the Uduwap full moon in December the season commences for Buddhists who visit the Adam’s Peak. In the lofty high heavens atop the mountain is the indention of the (left) footprint. Which according to the chronicles was placed by the Buddha during his third visit (520 BC) to the island.

Rolling back 2500 plus years this beautiful conical mountain cradled in the central hills of Ratnapura was a tourist attraction. It was called Samankuta after the deity Sumanasaman and even today a small devala (shrine) atop the mountain attracts Buddhist worshippers. All other religions also lay claim to the peak and thus attracts close upon a lakh of people during December – May each year. The rest of the year only seasoned hikers geared to meet the challenges take up the trail, as wet weather and lack of proper lighting make the arduous climb very daunting.

Upon the arrival of British colonists the mountain peak was claimed by the Christians as the place where Adam spent time exiled from Eden. This gave the mountain its popular name Adam’s Peak. The Muslims are agreeable – they claim it to be the footprint of Al Rohun (soul) or Adam the prophet. To add to the milieu Hindus believe it is the footprint of Lord Siva, and calls it Sivan Adipadham or Sivanolipatha Malai.

Amazing views of the Adam’s Peak has promoted Sri Lanka as a beautiful paradise location in the modern day. Interestingly in terms of height the mountain ranks fifth. I have been to the three highest peaks Piduruthalagala, Kirigalpoththa and Thotupolakanda during the trailing of the misty mountains. The profound claim of history as well as the physical challenge of this ascent, the trial of patience and endurance attracts people like me.

Arriving at Hatton by railway and having commuted the short distance to the tea plantain town of Nallathanni by tuk-tuk, I found a comfortable place to rest and recoup. The trail was set early morning where I was joined by a group who would start the ascent by 2 am. The timing is said to be just right to reach the summit at dawn. Along the path we were accompanied by the croaking of frogs, cacophony of the crickets, rustling of leaves and dear calls alerting of predators as we made way through the forest. At a small plateau known as the Indikatupana we reached a post that was knotted with thousands of white threads. A ritual followed by many a pilgrims probably as a sign of leaving a trail marking. The elderly rested here and their families waited on. Chanting and singing of songs help groups of people up the climb. It is taboo to return to base without making it to the summit.

Past Indikatupana the trail grew steeper. The lights of Nallathanni twinkled far below. I looked back across the route and felt elated that I had made it thus far, and a little more to carry on. The high elevation made breathing impossible and the chilling winds made us huddled into our jerseys. Morning dew caught in the cap moist and dribbling. Just as the nocturnal animals accompanied us on the trail bird calls – a distinct sign of break of light was heard as we progressed.

A watermelon red spread around the summit marking the dawn of day. A thousand butterflies said to traverse the contours of the mountain like pilgrims. A bunch of fluttering butter-yellow wings made ahead of me dotting the path that once was lit by lights in the inky darkness. At the peak around the slab of granite that was the footprint of great holiness, many of these gentle souls were laid to rest. The bells chimed in deafening proportions and the most wonderful feeling of triumph was enjoyed.

I reached the bell to ring it thrice marking my third ascent of Adam’s Peak, the pinnacle of physical endurance and determination. A sublime calm silence took over in the next few minutes. I was reminded of the words of Denis Diderot, ‘Only passions, great passions can elevate the soul to great things’. You should try atleast once, before the season ends.

Demodara – where the train loops around its tail

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demodara-stationDemodara railway station a quaint building painted peach could easily be mistaken for a house if not for the rail lines that runs behind it. The third station from Badulla on the main line enroute to Colombo Demodara is notable for the spiral rail line that makes the train loop around the mountain and take the tunnel beneath it. This innovative design was done by one of Sri Lanka’s greatest engineers D. J. Wimalasurendra around 1923 when they discovered that the elevation was too difficult for the constructors to handle. The locals say that the railway engineer, Wimaladurendara was inspired by the Kankany in the tea estate undo his Talappawa (turban) and retie it around his head.

The train blowing the whistle emerges from the tunnel and travels 6 kms down to Ella station. Along this stretch is another phenomenal structure following British architecture of stone viaducts. The Nine Arch Bridge was done two years before the main line reached Demodara. It is nearly a hundred feet in height and spans the gap between two mountains. Viewing from below where the water flows thinly, the nine arches take the form of a child’s drawing of clouds in the sky. Hence the Sinhalese name for the bridge came to be Ahas Nawa Palama or Nine Skies Bridge. The bridge of was done in brick, stone and cement without any use of steel for reinforcement. The arches are purpose built to press against each other spreading the weight equally across the span of the bridge.

nine-arches-brodgeWay back in 1921 the construction of the bridge may have seemed impossible as the connection between the mountains was over a terrible quagmire and the builders had no way getting started. The story around the amazing feat is retold by the builder’s grandson. R. M. Piyathilaka to Mawbima newspaper. According to him P. K Appuhamy his grandfather an artisan from Welimada, Kappetipola met the British engineer quite by chance and took upon himself the challenge. He filled the boggy with rocks and started building the bridge with a band of men. According to folklore the construction had taken several years. Once completed the British engineer had expressed his doubt of its stability apparently because the full amount allocated for the construction had not been used. The builder is said to have then laid himself beneath the bridge as the first train took its journey. Impressed of his bravery the British engineer had gifted the balance silver in three cartloads to the builder.

A series of stamps and a first day cover was issued in February 2014 to commemorate the Nine Arch Viaduct and the spiral railway at Demodara.

Once I reached the Ella station I traced the bridge using the inner roads, taking a narrow path uphill. After walking close upon 3 kms I reached the bridge. Here standing with other travelers we waited for the opportune moment to capture the blue train emerge from the tunnel. It is also possible to trail down the slopes to the bottom and check out the girth of the massive columns.

The curious traveler needs one full day to explore these two items on the itinerary. I had reached the first station by road early in the morning and was able to watch the train take the spiral and arrive an hour later in Ella. There I was able to catch a glimpse of the second train from Badulla travebogoda-bridgeling over the Nine Arch Bridge. It is possible to then take the train back around 1.30 pm to Badulla to experience the ride over the bridge and loop the rail lines set in the shape of a turban. That way you have missed nothing.

At last I come to Badulla – a big building painted white like a local mansion (Walawwa) and surrounded by tall shady trees is the station. In the front of this sprawling building are Anthurims growing in several window boxes splashing brilliant hues of red and orange in dappled light. Before I go chasing water falls (the Dunhinda, Bambarakanda and Diyaluma) I had to see the wooden bridge that everyone was talking about. From there I hired a tuk-tuk to get me to the famous Bogoda wooden bridge that is hidden in a village. The bridge built 400 years ago is done entirely of wood, the columns as well as the roofing rafts and ornate fences is according to Kandian style. This 49 foot long bridge now in disuse, helped people cross the Gallanda Oya linking Badulla and Kandy in an ancient route. The bridge belonging to the 16th century, Dhambadeniya period is said to be the oldest surviving wooden bridge in the country.

 

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First Day Cover Commemorating Sri Lanka’s great engineering feats

 

Round trip in Trinco Bay

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Trincomalee Harbour situated on the northeast coast of Sri Lanka is the fifth largest natural harbour in the World. It is steeped with history, legends and beauty and its strategic placing in the Bay of Bengal has shaped its long history with many battles to take control of the harbour.

To trail the edge of the bay from the narrow peninsula where the Koneswaram temple is located to the Foul Point Lighthouse in Mutur, is around 45 kilometers. As you take the curving route many bays and coves are found along the shoreline: China Bay, Marble beach and Clappenburg are places that have earned their name for been wonderful places. Adding to its vast historical and natural heritage are a number of forts, temples, lighthouses, naval dockyard, piers, jetties, highlands, islands and wrecks.

21My favourite is an early morning walk along the beach and onwards a ridge where Koneswaran temple is perched on Swami Rock. Access to this Hindu shrine is through Fort Fredrick (built by Portuguese in 1623). As the fort is occupied by the Army almost entirely it cannot be explored easily.  The road leading to the top is lined with large shady trees. At the summit there are great views of the sea, especially at sun rise. A small group of deer were roaming under the Banyan trees and the shrill of the peacock call was heard from a distance. Just below and on to the right of the shrine is a huge rock with a sheer gap through which you can see the sea about 50 meters down. According to Ramayan tales the rock was split in to two by King Rama in a bout of anger and frustration at the delay in fulfilling his desires. The place which is also known as the Lover’s Leap has recently been fortified with a series of pillars to prevent accidents.  I was trying to get a glimpse of the rising sun through the concrete fence. Seconds later loud chiming of bells and a burst of chanting commenced the morning rituals. Trailing further down I found a wonderful low seat and the view from there was undisturbed. The sun was a red ball against a silky sky. Below across a dazzlingly sea a few fishing boats were sailing quietly. Two Navy boast were patrolling, their engines at full throttle can be heard even before they are spotted. 24At the far end of the bay you cannot miss the lighthouse that has been guiding seafarers for decades. The Foul Point Lighthouse stands 32 meters tall with a diameter of 25 meters at its base. Two other lighthouses built by the British (Chapel Hill and Round Island) are lying side by side on two small islands inside the harbour. These were not in my view.

As I continued my morning walk trailing the same route I took before I come in close proximity to the Dockyard. With prior permission visitors are allowed into the Naval Dockyard where Fort Ostenburg and Hoods Tower Museum can be explored. From there you can also see the Great Sober and Little Sober islands. People say the drunkards from the ships that came into the harbour were sent to these two islands where cut off from the mainland they were able to sober within a few weeks.

Taking a turn and heading towards my hotel, I am greeted by a pleasant lady near the court complex. I had bought some buns the day before from her shop on Dockyard road. She recognizes me and leads me to her humble home where she offers me plain tea and bread. Easily I fell into conversation and got to know her family.

7-2She has spent most part of her adult life in Trincomalee having moved in after marriage during the 1980s. I am warmed by her candid rantings and very pleased that she made it through the many years of war. She recalled a Sinhala family that trusted their home in her care, how it was nearly destroyed during the height of troubles in the late 1990s. The place fell vacant thereafter and she was offered at a very low price since the owners had by then moved South. Her two children have found jobs, gotten married and moved on. The couple is doing business – a small grocery shop and bicycle repair center run side by side. Their house extends in a tapered narrow strip and at the rear is a small well stuck in a tiny garden, just four by four feet. Happy and content with life the two of them have enough to spare for a stranger like me.

There are many places for meals in Trinco but I had made a friend to whom I can come back to enjoy some home-made pol-sambol and roast paan.

 

Mystic Misty Mountains – part 2

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141The Horton Plains takes its name from the British Governor Sir Robert Horton. The plains served as hunting grounds for Sambar and to a lesser extent Elephants and Wild Boar. Also the British converted the lower grassy slopes into coffee cultivation and later introduced tea. During the in 1960s a large extent was terraced and used for potatoe cultivation. It was much later people realized the value of Horton Plains as catchment area feeding some of the most important rivers. The Horton Plains was designated a National Park in 1988.

The block of Montane forest found on Horton Plains along with adjacent Knuckle Mountains is considered the most important in terms of its wealth of species and protection of watersheds according to a national conservation review done in 1992-97. It is home to a wonderful array of plants and animals species, many of which are endemic and only found in this area. The park authorities said disturbances from the large number of visitors arriving, as well as other factors like air pollution and spread of invasive species is threatening habitat on the plains.

The charm of the plateau and encircling mountain ranges often concealed in the mist is enhanced by Baker’s Falls and two escarpments –Small World’s End (274 m) and World’s End (884 m). There are three trails found on Horton Plains- the Worlds’ End and Baker’s Falls circuit, Kirigalpoththa and Thotupolakanda trails.

The last of these trails which is to the peak of the third highest mountain (2,357 m) is said to be the easiest as the ascend covers just 200 meters in elevation, 1.6 kms in distance and takes around an hour. Thotupolakanda trail allows hikers to experience the unique mountain forest ecosystem, and is less crowded since most people do not know of its existence. A small board on the left hand, 400m to the park entrance, indicates the starting point to the trail.

According to Ramayan tales this location marks the landing place for king Rama’s plane ‘Dadumonara’ (a wooden flying object in shape of a peacock) as he was bringing his lady love, Princess Sita to Lanka. Thotu-pola in local language, Sinhala means landing site.

We decided to take the first of the three trails since only one of these is possible in a day. Barely visible in the thick mist we headed in the direction of Bakers Falls around 9 in the morning. The first stretch is a warming-up along the undulating paths snaking its way into higher elevation. A stream where Rainbow Trouts are said to be found, flowed crisscrossing our path. Morning dew dusted the tops of wild fern and thorny bushes that lined the stream, like tiny, shining jewels. A steep, precarious descend got us to the base of the Baker’s falls. Having got there with some difficulty we ventured further down to get a better view of the cascades This lead us to a an open clearing through a new path which connected with the route we were on. In a moment if panic we were lost, we looked-up Google maps for directions to the World’s End. Minutes later sounds of approaching visitors finally put our fears at rest.

The mist was reducing as the skies cleared and a bright sun was shining. This meant that terrific views of the valley below was awaiting those who reached the World’s End around 10 am. A tea factory and several houses were seen the size of match boxes. My legs turned into jelly as I searched for more details. Giving up – I turned my focus towards the far away mountains in shades of fading blues and greys. I worried as a bunch of youngsters were trailing the edge for a good shot. A miss of a footing will take the unfortunate hiker plummeting hundreds of feet down. We continued on the route a further 6 kms to reach the Small World’s End which been at a lower elevation was completely covered by mist. As we completed the trail we met many local families, large parties of young people and dozens of tourists who were doing the route. Some children were seen riding on the shoulders of their fathers or helped by their mothers. We reached the Farr Inn a little after 11 am, whereas heading to the canteen enjoyed  some warm tea and fresh roti with spicy lunu-miris.

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