Talking trees and silent stupas in Sri Lanka

History lives here: Anuradhapura, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka, is dotted with stupas, viharas and crumbling temples   -  ISTOCK.COM

Quiet contemplation in the company of the island’s Buddhist and architectural heritage

In Colombo’s tree-rich public gardens, the sorceress of the trumpet tree chooses her spells to weave a circular carpet of pastel pink flowers that mirror the colours of the flowering canopy overhead. Bewitched, the gaze is seldom allowed to shift elsewhere. At a temple complex in Jaffna, we stand on scorching sand near a different tree whose branches bear little cradles. This is an old Tamil practice and the cradles are symbols of fervent prayers for children sent out to the universe via trees.

From northern Sri Lanka, we head towards Anuradhapura in the Central Province. We deliberately veer off course towards Dambulla, in search of Geoffrey Bawa’s spectacular architectural feat. We are happy to have taken time out in order to admire Hotel Kandalama, built half-inside and around a mountain. It also overlooks the Kandalama Lake.

Kandalama in Tamil is a playful phrase that enquires; “Shall we see /Shall we visualise?” The long private drive to the hotel does not disappoint us. The hotel lobby is situated several floors above ground level. We walk past a section of mountain flank, left behind by design, and are greeted by the smiling hotel staff. We climb up a flight of stairs towards a glass-panelled large dining hall to partake of an expansive buffet lunch.

We savour the delicious food in the company of a giant tree, with its green foliage showcased behind glass in the manner of exotic exhibits. We pick up elegantly wrapped coconut and roasted chickpea toffees, and head out of the buffet room to the top of the pristine white hall staircase, where an enormous wooden owl sees us off.

The ballrooms and seminar rooms are termed Kattalama. This Tamil phrase indicates a query about ‘embracing’ or ‘resolving’ or ‘tying things up’. Irrespective of whether one is dancing or attending a conference, the recommendation is clear that embracing people and engaging with different ideas is a vital aspect of human vision. Kandalama is an enchanting watering hole for the well-heeled with lucre and leisure at their disposal.

As a modern woman standing in a foreign country, looking through glass at a gigantic tree, a recent memory tugs at the drawstrings of the mind. On a visit to Udaipur in Rajasthan, a local guide had drawn attention to a tree growing on a hill where the city palace had been built. This green sentinel from the king’s residence and fort in the hot desert terrain provided shade and comfort for generations of women whose everyday lives confined them within palace suites.

We resume our journey to Anuradhapura and reach our new destination — The Sanctuary at Tissawewa; a colonial property with a gorgeous woody front. Large spacious rooms with balconies overlook a driveway full of old trees. I see ebony trees for the first time in my life and stand entranced, recalling how this special wood was sourced, exploited and lodged in the homes of the privileged, in a different part of the world.

We visit various stupas in the ancient sacred capital of Anuradhapura to which a thoughtful Sangamitta brought a sapling of the now revered Mahabodhi (pipal) tree, all the way from India. This ancient tree towers over all the other trees in the complex. Younger specimens of Ficus Religiosa, the chosen receptacles of infant clothes, extend hopeful feelers. A solitary leaf from the Mahabodhi tree falls upon my friend and our eyes meet, recognising the benediction, while modernity restrains us from voicing it as such.

We walk past old monastic viharas, and peer into ancient stone troughs in which rice and porridge were once cooked for thousands of our human ancestors. The land around the viharas is verdant and tranquil. In the everyday life of communities, hundreds of years ago, beauty and serenity dovetailed into landscapes to form aspects of public platforms. One can see this in sculptured edifices, abandoned sites and monuments, in ancient hospital ruins, in ornamental and carved public bathing spaces and in objects of everyday use.

Centuries after, the mind boggles at the quantum shift in living patterns. The older public spaces are gone. Centres of health, study and meditation are no more. Older palaces have been taken over by new ones that strive to make the everyday exclusive.

On our last morning at Anuradhapura we wake up long before daybreak to the sounds of Buddhist chants. Stepping out on the balcony, the night sky encrusted with stars is resplendent. The trees in the compound are blurred shapes but there are lessons to be learnt from their intermittent whispers. Were we to continue listening, could we envision (Kandalama) and embrace (Kattalama) ideas in altogether different ways?

Ratna Raman is a freelance writer based in Delhi

Published on August 02, 2019

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