On Thursday it was time to head south for the beach town of Hikkaduwa. We decided against getting the train, because we would have had to go north into Colombo and rumor had it that it was often hard to get a seat. A taxi sounded like a less exhausting option so we hired Ananda, the owner of Randoni Villa, as a driver and headed out at 10 in the morning.
He said he’d been in the tourist business for thirty years. For the last ten years he’d been working for a company that specialized in luxury tourism—many of his clients were the kind of traveler willing to pay $1000 a night for a hotel room, bypassing all the tourist traps and making a beeline for secluded jungle palaces offering exclusive spa treatments, personal safaris and helicopter rides to cloud-kissed mountain peaks. It was just recently that he’d started running the hotel, with the indispensable help of his family.
Learning that we liked wildlife, snorkeling and historical sites, he started giving us tentative recommendations.
“Sri Lanka has a lot of history, you know,” he said, blowing out his cheeks. “More than 4,000 years. The country has had no less than nine capitals.” At which point he listed them all, in mellifluous but incomprehensible recitation.
“The first capital, for many centuries, maybe a thousand years, was Anuradhapura. This was a very beautiful city, one of the wonders of the world. It was a center for Theravada Buddhism after the king Devanampiya Tissa (307-267 BCE) converted. He did that because he was friends with the Indian Emperor Ashoka (268-232 BCE), who helped spread Buddhism through all Asia.”
“Ah,” John said, “He’s mentioned in the epic, Mahavamsa isn’t he?”
“Yes, exactly, the Mahavamsa. Actually, the site of Tissa’s conversion, Mihintale, is still one of the country’s most sacred Buddhist sites. You can visit it these days. Though Anuradhapura is not so good now. In 993, the city was captured and destroyed by the Chola Empire. Chola were Tamil, from Southern India and they ruined everything. Actually they had tried to attack many times before but didn’t succeed. This time they succeeded because the king wasn’t very good in Anuradhapura just then.
“In the eleventh century, Vijayabahu I took back the island from the Tamils and made Polonnaruwa the new capital—capital number two. But this capital didn’t last for even one hundred years because there was a lot of infighting and another invasion, also from south India, and Polonnaruwa was burned down. But even so, it is better preserved than Anuradhapura.”
“After that, the capital under the Tamil, Hindu, Jaffna Kingdom was Nallur, up in the far north. And it went on like this—kingdoms warring against each other–until the Portuguese came in the 16th century. The Portuguese gradually took the coastal towns and the Sinhalese moved their capital then to Kandy, high in the mountains, from where they couldn’t be moved. By the way, the Portuguese converted many people to Catholicism, but only on the coast where their ports were. And even today, most of Sri Lanka’s Christian population—about 7%–lives on the coast or in Colombo.”
“Then there were the Dutch. When the Dutch come, first everyone was glad and the king made a deal with them to kick out the Portuguese. But then afterwards they felt like they’d given a ginger and got a chilli. The Dutch built many forts all around the island, but the one that still looks good—almost like new—is at Galle. It’s very big. They had a whole town inside the fort, with a hospital and everything. You should go, it’s not far from Hikkaduwa. The Dutch managed to take everywhere in the island except for the capital, Kandy. It was very strong. Another thing about the Dutch is that they married local people and their descendants are now called Dutch Burghers. They have their own language, their own customs, but a lot of them left. Many now live in Australia.
“As soon as Britain took over in 1804, straight away they tried to attack Kandy, but they couldn’t. They only took it in 1815 because some local people were not happy with the king and they sided with the British. That’s the only reason, because the town is very well defended. The king was taken and put in jail in Southern India, and he died there.
“By the way, in Kandy there is the Temple of the Tooth, you know?”
“Yes, we want to go there,” I said.
“Well, you know that it is a temple made to keep a tooth of the Buddha. It is very sacred to Buddists. In fact, in every capital in history, there was a temple of the tooth. The king was its guardian and the centre of power was wherever the tooth was.”
After this crash course in history, Ananda went on to describe some of the nature parks and activities. He said that it was not really the best time for snorkeling—that started in April—but that there were some great whale-watching boat rides. In the middle of this, he suddenly stopped the car and started to reverse. When the car stopped, he pointed up into the sky and said, “Green bee eater!”
Craning our necks, we saw a bird on a wire over a field. Suddenly, it fluttered up and did a little aerial dance.
“Now he is catching an insect. Soon you will see, he will return to his place to eat.”
Sure enough, that’s what it did. And a few more times after that.
“I’m interested in birds too,” he said. “I love watching out for them. You have to know where to look. I once had an American stay at the villa and he said to me, ‘In your garden alone, I counted 62 birds. Sixty-two!’”
He certainly did seem to have a good eye for our feathered friends. He pointed out a hawk eagle, a serpent eagle, two kinds of egret, a kingfisher and, as we neared the beaches of Hikkaduwa, a pair of red-wattled lapwings. In Colombo we’d already seen pelicans, skinny crows, terns and ibises. Maybe not 62, but enough to keep our interest.
All in all, it was a very informative ride and an intriguing introduction to some of the mysteries that awaited us on this island. As we pulled into our hotel, we thanked Ananda and made sure that we got his email address, as he clearly knows the island like the back of his hand.