There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Friday, 30 January 2015

Kataragama and the Yala National Park: Part 12 of Sri Lanka, Isle of Serendip


Leaving Sinharaja we started the long journey down from the rainforest, the narrow road twisting and turning as it descended to the plain.

Around one o'clock we paused for a refreshing coconut and by half past we were on the fast road across the southern plain we had used yesterday. We paused for a late lunch at a plush hotel near the Udawalawa National Park which proved that opulent surroundings do not always mean superior food. Lynne, still feeling queasy, opted for a chicken sandwich (were those thin slimy slices from a packet really chicken?) while I had a steak baguette (I do not know why, it was as tough as every other piece of beef in Sri Lanka.)

In the national park the same elephant was still trapped between the fence and the lake and the same youths were selling 'mango, elephant lunch'. Further on we saw elephants in the distance living more as nature intended.
Elephants in the Udawalawa National Park

We continued eastward to Tissamaharama (known as Tissa), a small town with a large white dagoba beside an artificial lake. Our hotel’s address was Tissa but Ravi turned north towards Kataragama some twenty kilometres away. Our itinerary for the day included the Kataragama shrine but it was late and Ravi had said earlier that it would be better to go there in the morning. When we were within five kilometres of Kataragama I began to wonder.

Possibly a pied kingfisher
Between Udawalawa and Tissa
'No,' Ravi said, 'your hotel is here.' He slowed as he scanned the sign boards by the roadside. Eventually be found what he was looking for but seemed uncertain if the sign was really pointing down the bumpy track behind. Deciding it was he started to turn right without noticing a motorcyclist bearing down on us. I do not know if my 'hold on!' made any difference but he stamped on the brakes leaving just enough space to for the motorcyclist to squeeze through. With his own brakes full on and not totally in control the rider missed the space and clipped the wing of the car. Ravi wound down the window. I hoped the motorcyclist would use angry words rather than fists, but as he took off his helmet I could see he was laughing. After an unaccountably jovial exchange he puttered off and we completed the last hundred metres of our journey.

Despite the scruffy entrance, the hotel was new, clean…. and empty.

Southern Sri Lanka
We left Sinharaja and crossed the southern plain to Tissa and Kataragama
We ordered dinner at check-in. Tired of rice and curry, and very tired of chicken, I chose a fried fillet of fish with green beans and potatoes while Lynne, still a little under the weather, went for soup.

When dinner time came the whole staff (young, inexperienced but very keen) had only us to look after so the service was attentive, to say the least. I had two fillets, either side, of a fish much smaller than a swordfish, but with a similar taste and texture. It was a little overcooked and the garlicky green beans were a little under and a touch squeaky on the teeth but the potato wedges were perfect, roasted to crispy perfection outside and soft fluffiness within. Lynne’s soup was fine and despite its faults the meal made a pleasant change

There was nothing to do then but retire to our large and well-appointed bedroom. Lynne turned in at 8.45 leaving me with plenty of time to read.


In the morning we discovered we did not have the entire hotel to ourselves when two interlopers turned up for breakfast. Lynne, still fretting about her stomach, settled for toast while I accepted the offer of soggy pancakes, though with little enthusiasm. Then Ravi turned up and they brought him hoppers which had not been offered to us.

After breakfast we made the short trip to Kataragama.

Kataragama is the name of a small town, a large shrine and a God. He is the patron deity (or at least one of them) of Sri Lanka and Ravi said that when his travels brought him here he liked to do Puja - if we did not mind. We didn't.
Outside the shrine, Kataragama

The Buddha never claimed to be a god or a prophet and Buddhism, despite its cosmology and belief in re-incarnation, is essentially a philosophy more than a religion. Many Buddhists, though, apparently feel the need for a god or gods. Kataragama is a Hindu god; Puja, the making of an offering, usually of food, is a Hindu practice. Ravi, however, is clear in his own mind that he is a Buddhist. And the shrine we were going to visit? Well, that has something for everyone - there is even a mosque.

The shrine is large and the car park quite a way from it. We had walked a small distance when rain started to fall. It was heavy, but brief and we sheltered under a tree.

Once the rain stopped we passed an interesting notice, which I reproduce without comment,…

No Comment

… and progressed up a wide avenue lined with stalls. Grey langur monkeys ran behind the stalls or sat on the fence dividing the secular avenue from the sacred parkland.
Grey langurs relax on the fence, Kataragama

At the last stall Ravi stopped to buy flowers and deposit shoes.
Ravi buys flowers, Kataragama

We entered the enclosure of the Kiri Vihara. a dagoba originally built in the 6th century but, as usual in Sri Lanka, has been rebuilt so many times its actual age is anybody's guess.
Kiri Vihara, Kataragama
Ravi went to present flowers to the Buddha image and insisted that we had a lotus blossom each so that we too could make an offering.
Lynne makes an offering at Kiri Vihara, Kataragama
From the dagoba an avenue of soft sand (our bare feet were grateful) led up to a cloister surrounding the temple of Kataragama and two smaller temples.
Ravi enters the cloistered enclosure, Kataragama
Inside the cloister Ravi went to buy the offerings for his Puja and suggested we have a look around. We had not gone far when we were hailed by a thin elderly man in white robes sitting in the shade of the cloister. He wanted to know where we came from and as he was sitting with a sheaf of notes and a large English dictionary on this knee, he was delighted to have someone to practice his English on. He had visited England and America, he said and was an avid listener to the BBC World Service. He was certainly well-informed and felt the need to explain his solutions to all the world's problems, working through Ukraine, Syria and how to deal with the Chinese. Although undoubtedly eccentric, his heart was in the right place.

After his lengthy monologue he showed us what he was writing and asked for suggestions to improve the English. We were unsure whether he was composing an advertisement to find free accommodation for a student, or for himself or perhaps writing with an altogether more spiritual interpretation of 'accommodation'. We made some suggestions which he noted and then Ravi re-appeared bearing a cardboard box containing among other things, flowers, a coconut and a pineapple. 'Coming for Puja?' he asked, shooting a suspicious glance at our new friend.

We got up from our perch on the cloister and I shook hands with the venerable sage though, given his holiness, he was less keen to shake a woman's hand. 'Was he after money?' Ravi asked as we followed him to the temple. 'No,' we said, 'only enlightenment.'

Lynne and the Venerable Sage not shaking hands, Kataragama
We joined the queue for Puja, a dozen people along the side of the locked temple. As the queue began to build a large and officious man came and hooked us and a couple of other Europeans out. We repositioned ourselves at the front of the temple and waited patiently. The same officious man soon moved us back and strung a rope across to keep us there. Lynne went to sit in the shade while I hung about unobtrusively.

Puja queue, Kataragama
A bell started clanging and a group of monks processed from the adjacent monastery bearing something hidden but obviously holy. They disappeared into the temple, the door closed behind them and the Puja queue continued to wait.

Carrying something holy, Kataragama
Another group of monks processed across, one with his ears and mouth covered with cloth.

Monk with his mouth and ears covered, Kataragama
A red carpet was unrolled from the monastery to the temple and after several more processions I was beginning to wonder if Puja would ever start.

Something holy on a red carpet, Katagarama
My thinking was disturbed by a major clanging of bells. The doors were flung open and the queue lurched forward, though not far, it was a small temple and only a few could fit in. A different official with a more pleasant demeanour came over and beckoned me to follow him. I called Lynne over from her refuge in the shade and he led us back to the Puja queue. After the next clang and shuffle we found ourselves tucked in at the rear of the temple.

There was little to see inside the small, darkened temple. There were a few images, but whatever holy artefacts had been brought in during the processions remained covered. Most importantly, we were in, the only Europeans there, and we were duly thankful to Ravi whose hand was clearly behind it. Along with the faithful, we were blessed as holy water was sprinkled over all, then the priest went round smearing ash to everyone’s foreheads and finally we all received a gift of food, a small parcel of spiced dhal - much tastier than a communion wafer.

As we filed out our benefactor grabbed us and led us into the space between two temples and gestured that we should sit on the wall. He disappeared and returned moments later with a machete and two coconuts. At coconut stalls we always used the straws provided though many locals did not bother. There is a knack to drinking straight from the coconut, and if I had had that knack I would have spilt less on my shirt. As we finished Ravi arrived with a conspiratorial grin on his face and more fruit in his hand.
A school party at the Kataragama shrine wearing the universal all-white school uniform.
Dresses with ties? Yes, that is the rule.
We shared some watermelon and a pineapple with Ravi and his friend and then, with juice still on our faces, retraced our steps through the complex. To complete the symmetry there was another short sharp rain shower as we left, and another tree to shelter under. From Sinharaja rainforest in the southwest we had crossed the island to the extreme southeast; it was monsoon season in the northeast, so I suppose we were catching the edge of the monsoon rains.

Retracing our steps past the flower sellers Kataragama
We drove south to Tissa stopping at a hotel beside the big white dagoba, a good place for lunch, Ravi said.

There was a wedding in progress and the dining room was unavailable so we were directed to a bare and unattractive overspill room.

I was bored with chicken, beef is always tough and I did not fancy fish so I ordered an egg curry which came with noodles. I questioned my wisdom as I ordered it, but it was cheap and a change. It was also wrong; egg curry and noodles is a match made somewhere other than heaven. Lynne's plate of chips, a heap of comfort food, possibly indicated that a return to digestive health was on its way.
Curried egg and noodles - a poor combination and a poor choice

Lunch over, we waited in the car park for the jeep that was to take us to the Yala National Park. The wedding celebrations were continuing outside and the men were dancing, not all looking entirely sober, while the women sat in a circle tutting at them – or so it looked to me.

The sightseeing vehicles in the Yala National Park are converted jeeps with bench seats for six or more perched on the back; more than enough space for the two of us, and Ravi.
A bumpy ride to the Yala National Park
The drive to the park was brief and we bounced along with a good view over the surrounding countryside. We were still outside the park when we saw probably the most exciting animal of the day, a pair of jackals sitting in the grass barely fifty metres from the road.

Jackals outside the Yala National Park
Shame about the power line, but there was no way to move it!
At the park entrance we discovered we were back to the £16 individual entrance fees and as much again for the vehicle - and the hire charge for that would come later. It was no cheap day out. A sign said cards were accepted, so to avoid being cleaned out of cash I waved mine at them. This caused much head-shaking in the office, and a murmur of discontent in the queue behind me, but they coped. I make no apology for my small contribution to dragging them into the modern world – if they want to charge these fees they had better get used to it.

Yala is a wonderful place. Almost 1000km² in area, it has been a nature reserve since 1900 and has a rich biodiversity with 44 different mammals including many elephants and some 200 leopards, reputedly 1 per km² in the sector open to the public, the greatest concentration anywhere..

An as yet identified bird of prey, Yala National Park
That is the good news. The bad news is that no-one is going to see a leopard. The Rough Guide says ‘they have become …habituated to .. humans and … stroll fearlessly along the tracks in the park..’ Maybe that was once true but the government is using the park as a cash cow and there are far too many jeeps rattling around the often dusty but today muddy dirt roads. As word passes round that something can be seen at a certain watering hole, or in such a tree they all converge on the spot causing jams of snarling diesels on roads often too narrow for two vehicles to pass. No self-respecting leopard sticks around for that.
Egret and Ibis, Yala National Park

We saw mammals; buffalo, deer and wild pigs - one bounded across the road right in front of us -….
Wild Pigs, Yala National Park

…and mongooses (that is the correct plural), were common, as they are everywhere in Sri Lanka.’

Mongoose, Yala National Park

Monitor lizards, only slightly smaller than the mongooses, were also plentiful.

Peacock, Yala National Park
We saw ibis, egrets and peacocks by the dozen. It is always strange to see what we think of as an ornamental parkland bird in the wild - those tails seem a serious hindrance.

Peacock in a tree, Yala National Park
Those tails are something of a struggle
Several areas were alive with bee-eaters. Green bee-eaters are hardly rare, but they are pretty little birds and although rarely still, one kindly posed for me.

Small green bee-eater, Yala National Park
We spent the whole afternoon wandering round looking for certain animals and usually finding something else. At the first hint of dusk most of the jeeps bolted for the exit, but our driver set off in the opposite direction. I had not realised we were so near the coast until we arrived at an isolated bay.
We reach a clearing by the coast, Yala National Park
 There was nothing to see there apart from the bay itself, but that was justification enough.
At the coast, Yala National Park
Then we too made for the exit. Just before leaving the park we saw a huge hornbill in a tree right in front of us. Like Sinharaja, Yala had kept its best to last, but also like Sinharaja I have to rely on Thimundu and Wikipedia for a photograph.

Malabar pied hornbill
Photographed by Thimundi, sourced from Wikipedia
 We returned to the hotel in Tissa where we had eaten lunch and paid off the jeep driver. Ravi thought we should eat there, but we demurred and once he had picked up his laundry -  so that was why he was so keen to go there - we drove to a restaurant a little way up the road towards Kataragama. I had devilled fish which made a change while Lynne had a rather un-Sri Lankan French onion soup, then we made our way back to our hotel and our life of solitary splendour.

Sri Lanka, The Isle of Serendip

No comments:

Post a Comment