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Amazing Coral reefs of Nilaveli

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The Pigeon Island National Park is one of the two marine national parks in Sri Lanka. Located 14 kms North of Trincomalee in Nilaveli, the island is about 1 kilometer away from the shore. The second marine national park is in the South, in Hikkaduwa.

The island gets its name from the Rock Pigeons inhabiting the place. Of the two islands found close to each other, the big and small Pigeon Islands the larger one is surrounded by an impressive reef. Tickets are at the Wild Life Conservation office in front of the Anilana Hotel. A boat ride costing 2500 LKR, can be arranged just a little beyond that with the private boat service. The boats also rent snorkeling and diving gear. (You should ideally be dressed in your swim/ diving wear at this point, beyond this you will not find decent changing/ bathing place)

A twenty-minute ride across the sea you can easily arrive at the Pigeon Island where the Wild Life coast guards will guide you to places that have the greatest attractions. It’s worthwhile to leave early to the island to beat the crowds and try to enjoy at least a few hours of snorkeling in the shallow reefs. Around mid-day the place becomes busy and thick with tourists and locals.

Corals are amazing creatures. Until you have spent time observing them closely you would never believe they are alive. Obviously it’s hard to get to know them well because they are rare or to relate to them because of their strange names. (Acropora, Montipora, FaviidaeMussidae) They form a hard stony calcium carbonate structure of a reef upon which lives a thin living structure that’s vibrant in colour.

Having spent about an hour in the shallow water where beautiful corals grew and delightful bright fish roamed we took a short break on the benches underneath a shady grove. At the Wild Life guard hut, a lengthy poster of marine fish and corals featured most of the specimens we had seen.

The island is covered with thorny bush and rocks. The few available gnarled trees are sought by everyone for a little bit of shade while on shore. Groups of people ventured into the jungle, in the center up the rocky surface is the highest point. While the salt water dripped and dried on our bodies the skin was already burnt that I opted to stay back instead. The Sun was scorching hot. There was no cover for those who went up after a while.

Next we were going to explore the deeper sea, hopeful of spotting some sea turtles and shark. To have a local diver alongside was a big advantage when moving on to the ocean. In addition, there was a sense of security swimming with someone confident of the depth and currents. I chose to have my orange life jacket on me. I used a snorkeling mask but chose not to try the flippers. Getting on to the water with your flippers on requires you to walk backwards to avoid tripping over the long tips. Instead I was going to swim gently and allow the current to take me forward.

The underwater scenery changed with the vast depth. Yards of corrals could be viewed like light bulbs at the carnival, in a multitude of colours. At times my imagination would dispel the existence of water and I felt I was floating in a beautiful garden. Everything was not visible at once but you need to keep moving forwards and taking the bends. A green turtle swam up from the bottom. It was reaching the sun drenched surface to kiss the air. Shafts of light dappled on the water spreading scaled patterns similar to the pattern on its shell. Other divers who spotted it were milling around the turtle but it appeared to be accustomed to visitors. When time was right it dived in and swam into the deep.

Another highlight of our trip underwater was the sighting of a rare black-tipped shark as we rounded off the ocean in a large circle. It was a juvenile. I had this feeling we were too far out in the deep ocean but the local diver kept guiding us towards new terrains that was spectacular and seductively beautiful. We felt drawn towards the perimeters of the underwater garden. Shoals of small fish made their way in rivulets threading into the scenery. Everything else stood still and utterly silent. Immersed in water and probably feeling a little weightless we felt fishes ourselves.

The best times to visit the Pigeon Islands is during May – September. Visitors are advised to avoid the monsoon season when seas are rough.

 

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Taj Mahal – the tear-drop on the cheek of time

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When a grieving Shah Jehan the fifth Mughal emperor, built the timeless wonder of marble as a tribute to his wife Mumtaz Mahal, it was more than just art and architecture it was a great eulogy to sublime love.

Visiting Agra was by chance. I happen to be in New Delhi for a conference and was able to squeeze in a little time for sightseeing. As the distance between New Delhi and Agra is around 200 kms it was nearly impossible for anyone to get back by lunch. But we hired a Taxi and made the journey in the wee-hours of the night to reach Agra by the crack of dawn. There we were hoisting ourselves lazily out of a cramped Alto. It was winter in Delhi – the temperature as low as 4 degrees. Porters and camel attendants were stirring in their lots, waking up, as we stumbled to the ticket counter that had just opened. It was too early to get to know the party, and without much questioning the man at the counter issued us with tickets at the local rate.

The Taj Mahal (meaning the crown of the palace) is a white-marble mausoleum on the South bank of Yamuna in Agra. It was commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor, Shah Jehan to house the tomb of his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Described by the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore as ‘the tear-drop on the cheek of time’ the Taj Mahal is universally acclaimed to be one of the 7 Wonders of the World.

The entrance to the Taj Mahal is through a fore-court leading to an imposing red sandstone gateway. Framed by this gateway with calligraphic inscriptions is the beautiful Taj Mahal appearing in the far distance dream-like, a jewel bathed in pink, dazzling and glowing in the soft morning light. An impressive lush green garden is laid out in the front like a Persian Charbargh, with trees, red sandstone pathways, water channels fountains and a marble pond in the middle. The water reflects the Taj in all its glory. Seated on a red stone bench right there we photographed ourselves against the beautiful backdrop.

Beyond the garden the Taj Mahal soars to a height of 75 meters, yet appears to be delicate and fragile. The unusual octagonal tomb stands in the middle of a square marble plinth. The four facades of the tomb are flanked by main arches which are followed by smaller arches. Also adding to the balance of the tomb are four tall and tapering three storied minarets. The crowning glory of the Taj is its ingeniously designed bulbous white double dome nestling among four marble cupolas which lie above the central octagonal.

Directly under the sheltering dome is the main cenotaph chamber, the heart of the entire monument. The tomb stone of Mumtaz Mahal lies in the center of the octagonal hall while that of Shah Jehan is on the right. Both lay side by side enclosed in bejeweled caskets done in exquisite floral designs inlayed with tiny precious stones. The tombs are enclosed with splendid marble screens, embellished with delicate filigree work giving out a fascinating interplay of light and sparkle into the chamber.

As the Mughal rulers were passionate about growing flowers it is natural that there is an abundance of flower motifs in the decorations of Taj. Visitors are overwhelmed by the stupendous decorations all around.

On either side of the Taj standing in contrast to its white architecture are two red stone structures – one on the right is a mosque where prayers are offered every evening at sunset. The identical building on the left is the guest house.

The Taj is indeed a flawless gem, a timeless wonder that has inspired many a poets and artists. As Tagore said – here on this dusty earth, it keeps death tenderly covered in the shroud of memory

Agra, January 2013

 

A Whimpy Dog’s Diary: A DOGS DAY OUT

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Today was a special Sunday. My family decided to dedicate the entire day in my company. I couldn’t be happier than that. It started off with a bowl of milk and our ritualistic walk in the morning. Oh! boy how I like to hit the turf. We must have walked for 5-10 minutes. Then I met Gota the young Pug living down the lane. He didn’t seem very interested in knowing me. Same to you I whispered. Then pushed on to complete the last lap and came to familiar territory beside a slow running canal. Mummy sat on the culvert indulging in thought and I sat beside her and watched the vehicles go pass by.

Back at home from the balcony grills I watched over the two other dogs who I see as my mates. They are Sandy and Spot a German Shepard and a Dalmatian pup. We exchange pleasantries and caught up with the latest news. It seems their freedom is quite limited these days and they have been confined to the back garden of the huge mansion.

On my part I am lucky I have no restrictions. Mummy believes in the freedom of dogs as much as the freedom of any other creature. She tells me I am part of the family and I should fit right where it’s comfortable for me.  I heard her say once “When I see into the eyes of a dog I see a living being, a friend and a soul”. There are not many things we disagree because we seem to have hooked on the right attitude from the very beginning.

In the evening Mummy and Master (the boy) took me on a ride in the car. The shutters were half way down so I could slightly poke my face out. I love to feel the wind under my skin (fur) and watch the landscape swish pass. We reached the playground in Kotte where dogs aren’t actually allowed on the turf. Lately several signboards have been erected informing the public. But dogs are allowed to walk along the road.

I walked alongside my master all the way to the Parliament and back to the place where the car was parked. I was feeling elated, imagine what benefit it must be for my health. Also the fresh air and the vast space gave a refreshing feeling. I sheepishly threw a grateful look of thanks. Mummy gave me some water and patted my head to say ‘you deserve it good boy’. Then while me and the boy sat languishing on the side walk she dashed for a quick jog around the perimeter. I watched the vehicles go past, not knowing how to count that many. I noted families, children by the dozen arriving at the park. Parents unpacking bikes and toys for the children to play. It’s a pity dogs are not allowed inside the park. Sigh! We should have one of our own right? Mummy was back hot on her heels and it was time for us to go.

Pets have wonderful patience as they watch over their owners. They can trust us. We sympathize and empathize with our feelings. It is nice to be appreciated for the great friend you find in us. What you bestow on a dog, you will surely receive back in threefold. This is what I have heard.

Hiking in Ella – a piece of Heaven

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Attitude is the difference between an ordeal and an adventure.

The Badulla bound train from Colombo-Fort is packed with tourists right round the year and Ella is supposed to be on the three top destinations visited. I had reached Ella around 6.30 am taking the night mail train with a couple of my hiking friends. Sadly missing out on lovely scenery whooshing past large extent of it in the dead of night. We were saved by a glimpse of the quiet dawn over shrouded misty mountains. It’s a new day and a big day – as we were geared to teeth for hiking. We were off the train and straight on our way to scale the Little Adams Peak our first of many trails.

From the station to the town and 2kms along the Nanmunukula road we walked with our backpacks that stocked the bare-minimum, to carry anything in excess would be a burden. This team was clear that the trip was for the young at heart and sturdy, no whimper is to be tolerated. A road prominently marked for 98 Acres Hotel takes right and traveling along for 1.5 kms we pass the magnificent hotel complex. The hotel is apparently very popular among tourists. Those who had done the Little Adams Peak trail were returning pink faced and looking content. From there we take a stepped path along the ridge scaling 200 meter further up.

With strong winds blowing across the open area, the morning chill biting at the ankles the steps although not great leaps were found to be slippery. Years of girls scout training clipped-in on cue and help reduce feelings of uncertainty and fear. I had immediately taken the crawl position for safety. It was not yet time to enjoy the picturesque scenery. First I had to scale the ridge and take in that wow moment later.

Some say the Little Adam’s Peak is nothing like the Holy Mountain but did you know that it shared a similar shape. The peak offers wonderful 360 panoramic views of beautiful blue-green mountains melting into picture postcard creamy blue skies. It’s simply breathtaking and enchanting. Through the mist we could discern the Ella Rock another half-day hike if you wish, and also the Ravana Falls linking Indian Epic, the Ramayana and below the escarpment and through a fall of 400 meters you could spot the Wellawaya-Ella road snaking up the terrain.

Boulders and various rocks give place for seating and opportunity for the youngsters to be done with ‘Selfies’, 360-panoramic captures, Twittering and FB and Whatsapp updates. It absolutely true that Nature provides us in its bounty a piece of heaven and a place to yearn for, but for those without their senses glued to ground realities will surely meet an uncertainty death, tripping over whilst snapping those wonderful pictures.

Hunger pangs alerted that we have not had anything since boarding the train. We quickly took one last glimpse of the scenery and were bound downwards into the comfort zone of that most fantastic hotel. Where we stopped to buy a drink and while away. The 98 Acres is a luxury hotel that offers comfort hidden beneath its most deceiving rustic looks. From the train we saw dozen sloping roofs done in hay, each room built of wood and glass, a gallery showcasing the mountain landscapes. An idealistic spot for honeymooners yet rooms so exorbitantly priced probably suiting foreign tourists than local clientele.

Remembering this was no picnic but a hiking tour we regrouped at a cheaper outfit available in the town. A small shower came and petered out. Having replenished ourselves with a hearty breakfast of sausages, omelets and toasties we headed on our second trail. Walking towards Kitul Ella station we picked a local guide for the expedition. He led us on a gravel path some 300 meters beyond the quaint railway station. We crossed a stream that is supposed to feed the Ravana Falls and hiking further 2 kms and a little more we were able to reach the Ella Rock.

This time we opted using a local guide who could relate to the place like his own grounds. The young boy was around eighteen years of age and appeared to be fairly knowledgeable in natural history. Taking us through a Eucalyptus forest where the floor was barren due to the slow decay of its leaves he tried to explain the downside of these trees. They are said to emit compounds that inhibit other plants growing in the same area. Pines with razor sharp edges strewn everywhere we had to watch our steps. The tall tree growing so fast and endlessly the low realms had no branches and on top everything seemed knitted together, allowing very little light. Yet no plant was taking root in the bed of rough residue. Except for brightly coloured mushrooms and fungi like neon lights, eerily lighting up the path.

When the forest gave way to the summit it was a grand opening of breathtaking views. The boy pointed a finger at various peaks and ranges and named each one rather cleverly. Among them was Hakgala (double M), Thotupola Kanda, Numunukula range and the Little Adam’s Peak we had traversed early on. You would never regret benefiting from a local lad as your guide. They know too well and appear to love their surroundings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The guide also showed us the starting point of the Ravana falls, its beautiful long cascades resembling the areca flower with withering petals. The tumbling cascades is said to hide the cave in which the gallant King Ravana of Lanka hid Princess Sita according to legend. The Ravana falls form part of the Ravana Ella Wilderness Sanctuary and is around 6 kms away from the Ella Railway station.

Interestingly the boy relates to an opening to the very same cave found a kilometer along the Ella-Bandarawela road and a further 1.5 kms along a narrow path uphill to the Ravana Ella temple. We were too beat up to take upon another expedition. The boy claimed that archaeological excavations had revealed evidence of human habitation dating back 25,000 years.

From Whimpy’s Diary: Life is better with a dog

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Sometimes no words are needed to say how you feel about someone. The bonding with my mommy is something very special. With her and a few others I share telepathic communication that only animals can claim to have.

When mommy fell ill last week I knew it deep inside, even though I tried to tell her ‘Take a break. Please stay’ she had to put on a brave face and make it to that all-important workshop. By night fall mommy came home tired and just slumped on the couch grumping that every bone in her body was weary and aching. A million tiny darts hitting pinching nerve ends she complained. I licked her forehead and her fever measured 98 degrees!

‘I told you so, but you wouldn’t hear of it. Now look what you’ve gone and done’. Up with it I urged her because both of us were starving. I put my paw in her hand and pleaded for her to get up, with my nose I showed her in the direction of the kitchen. That night she fed me but for herself swallowed a bunch of pills and went to bed. For many days to follow I watched over her, every time the fever came up I filled my tongue with water and sloshed on the burning forehead. With my wet nose checked her vital points. She was so feeble I could push her over with my snout and slip into the warm crater she emptied on the feathered mattress.

When she was much better later in the week she gave me a cool bath to beat the April heat. I was so grateful knowing how much she must care for me to make it priority on the first signs of recovery from the viral flu. Then while she rested in between bouts of fever she did the most wonderful thing.

Good care is the best way to communicate your love for a pet. She gave me a full-body massage that no dog would complain. Reading a book on dogs ‘Whole Health for Happy Dogs’ out of sheer boredom when she could focus on nothing else, she learned of this new technique called ‘raindrops’. So using only the tips of the fingers in tiny pattering strokes across my body she caressed gently until I fell asleep. Deep in my slumber I kept smiling because of the pleasure of the raindrop strokes that mommy made on my side. I was nudged back into this world only when she flopped me to massage the other side. The funny fluffy feeling started all over again tingling every nook and vein into vigour. She continued ‘raindrop’ patter me till I went into deep, deep slumber again. O boy that must have been seventh heaven floating on puffy pillowed clouds, drifting in a mild summer breeze.

Benefits of a massage for a dog is similar to its effects on humans. It increases circulation and boosts energy points. In addition massages can be used for increased bonding between dog owners and pets and building of trust.

Thank you for the warm and gentle touch.

Mothering ways the choices we make

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We are losing sight of what Success is. Humanity is working hard to allow individuals to creativity and joyful living rather than simply working to survive. A full life includes laughter, play and love.

If I make 4% less money than my peers but aint plagued by depression and stress; if my children go to sleep, giggling and know the incomparable warmth of a little body melting into mine; in complete trust and dependency I will be deliriously happy.

It is not that career success is unimportant or unnecessary. Far from it. It is simply that it is not the whole picture. To have only a career and barely enough energy to see my child is not a good choice for me.

Women who don’t work have to think hard about how the role they have within the household is going to impact their children’s perception of what it means to be a woman to be a mother. Or else should your children grow up with the maid at home? Who will inspire their young minds and paint vivid pictures in their memories?

I’d like to answer: I hope my being at home will signal to my children that loving them, enjoying them and enjoying myself is more important than an extra 4% of income. I hope it tells them that woman’s role is more important than work. Remember we work to live and not the other way round.

I hope it tells women that we have to strive for real change: for a society that values caring and structures of paid work appreciate the role of motherhood. So that both men and women can support each other in fulfilling parenting duties.

To conclude here is a lovely poem to illustrate our children’s longing for us – Slow Down Mommy by R. Nigh.

They have only got you to fulfill their needs of love and security. Mothering is an investment in our offspring – spend quality time – speak softly and gently – and above all listen to their voices.

It’s your gift to your children. The feelings felt by children during their formative years are etched life-long inside. Your speech become their inner voice.

You will be the candle that sheds lights into their futures…

 

 

Beside a lake in Kandalama where tranquility abounds

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Perched on a rock overlooking the Kandalama lake

Dambulla in Malate District is considered a central location for goods and people coming from all directions. Around 12 km interior from Dambulla town is a languorous lake and village by the name of Kandalama. While one famous hotel calls itself by the name of a different lake the other uses the Sinhala alphabet ‘ක’ or Kandalama.

Before Kandalama became a renowned place for travelers Dambulla was well known as a historical site for the 3rd century BC Golden Temple that is perched on a tall magnificent rock. Where King Valagamba is said to have been protected by Buddhist monks from his enemies for over a decade, the cave temple found today is a result of the King’s gratitude. The Golden Temple complex was recognized by UNESCO in 1991 as a World Heritage site.

I remember making it up the large rock as a child of about 5 years. It is these visits that beckon me revisiting the rock temple again. It is also a place of great tranquility that appeals to my heart.

The noon sun was scorched mercilessly as I clambered up the weathered steps cut on the rock. The cool breeze made it somewhat bearable to climb until I reached the top. After which the caves become a welcome break from the heat. There are five caves actually. All of them are dim lit by the natural light coming through the entrance. The caves hold precious statues of the Buddha and Bodhisattva (the Buddha in previous birth) and receives veneration from pilgrims. Above, the ceiling is adorned with intricate paintings that date back to the 11th century.  Since then many other kings have added to the precincts. For example King Nissanka Malla of Polonnaruwa kingdom is said to have gilded the caves while the Kandyan kings restored them and had them painted.

The Golden Temple Complex in Dambulla – a World Heritage Site (1991)

Knowing the history of a place add value to a visitor. For me it gives great honour to be walking where generations have gone before me.

Going back a millennium Dambulla was still, a central point for those living in this island. Archeologist claim they have discovered burial sites of human skeletons that are 2700 years old in the area, at Ibbankatuwa near the Dambulla cave complexes.

On our way to Kandalama we did two things before we reached the hotel. We went off the beaten track in search of the mysterious Kaludiya Pokuna and ventured along the tank bund to find a quiet spot. Both of these made us exuberant whereas the luxury hotel offered us some comfort.

Since Dambulla has turned to be an important location on the map due to the attention given by our ancestors, it suddenly became rather important that Kaludiya Pokuna forest reserve and the ancient ruins in Kandalama was also explored. The forest reserve had been well protected for many years and is home to a number of endemic flora and fauna. The gravel path across woody areas led to a clearing where the ancient ruins (from 2nd century BC) of a monastery was. It is possible a hospice too was available at that time, considering the number of medicinal plants and trees found on site.  Pass a pagoda of some significance in total brickwork and a little beyond you would stumble upon the said pond – Kaludiya Pokuna. The water in the little pond was as you can guess, dark.

Gravel path to Kaludiya Pokuna across the woods

Many birds, some rather rare ones such as the Stork-billed Kingfisher and Sri Lankan Spur Fowl (Haban Kukula) can been spotted in this compound.

Some archeological sites make me very depressed. I suspect it is the clinical presentation of restored artifacts placed upright that really put me off. Usually the area is cleared leaving no signs of the digging and plastered with green turf using rather modern landscaping techniques. I mention this because at this site like all other ancient sites of lesser importance such distilling has not reached. This makes the experience all the richer for the discerning traveler or historian.

Peeling ourselves from the site we proceed towards the hotel and stumble upon an exquisite place. How wonderful for the wandering traveler to find a rock no less important than the Sigiriya rock because she followed the path of a magnificent eagle. It was a Grey-headed Fish Eagle lurking close to the water’s edge hunting for its meal. Stunned by its appearance I quietly got off the vehicle to capture it,. Wings spread full span and surfing like a kite at very low elevation and then its dives effortlessly to rise with a prize (fish) caught in its beak. The path  led up to a rock which to my surprise was like a paw of the lion in Sigiriya – well helped by a little imagination of course.

I hurriedly clambered up on from the talons (claws) to the paw in the form of a lovely flat rock overlooking the Kandalama Lake. And there I was triumphantly taking in all of the beauty – the lake, the aquatic birds stepping daintily across the leaves and white lotus blooms nestling among a profusion of floating plants. Reeds holding up majestically their banners and waving with every passing wind. The place offered the ultimate tranquility. Beside the lake of Kandalama I lay for a while, my eyes closed to dream. Through the canopy of Tamarind I took one last glimpse recapturing the scene.

There I was, like a lonely kite lost in flight – lost in space and time.