Sri Lanka has shaken off the trauma of its decades-long ethnic conflict, pulled up the shutters on its tourism industry and is ready, once again, to stake its claim to being South Asia’s most idyllic and easy-going travel destination.
Many travellers are lured here by images of palm-fringed beaches, leopards stalking through lush jungle, or sari-clad tea pickers weaving their way through contours of deep green tea bushes. Yet the source of Sri Lanka’s irresistible charm lies deeper, in the way it interweaves modernity with agelessness, human creativity with wild beauty.
While cranes tower over Colombo’s new Dubai-lite Port City and Google helium balloons beam down internet from the stratosphere, this remains an island deeply enmeshed in its traditions. Commuters murmur prayers as they flash past roadside temples, technology tycoons leave air-conditioned offices to make barefoot climbs to holy peaks, white-robed pilgrims gather in their thousands each full moon, and, in the far north, Tamil painters swarm over temples left abandoned for years, restoring colour and glory to the Hindu pantheon on towering gopurams.
That Sri Lanka’s diverse ethnic groups have clung fiercely to their traditions is not surprising in the wake of centuries of invasion by foreign powers. The island’s early settlers migrated from India and established a Buddhist tradition that survives here as a potent 2500-year-old symbol of national identity. In establishing this identity, monks and kings of old hewed their temples, monasteries and palaces from the living rock. The forest-wreathed hill of Mihintale, the painted cave temples of Dambulla, the rocktop fortress of Sigiriya and the serene carvings of Polonnaruwa are all evidence that the most sublime Sri Lankan artistry is not imposed upon the landscape but interwoven with it.
What’s more, this intoxicating mix of cultures, landscapes and histories is so easy to access, even in only a brief visit. When Marco Polo described Sri Lanka as “the finest island of its size in the world”, he sold it short.