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Ayurveda in Sri Lanka

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Everything You Need To Know About Ayurveda

Ayurveda is a traditional style of medicine which uses completely natural treatments and emphasizes a balanced lifestyle. Although predominantly associated with India, it’s massively popular in Sri Lanka, where you can’t walk a block without finding another ayurvedic dispensary or clinic. Ayurveda has also gained a foothold in Europe and, predictably, an unending line of hotels and spas in Sri Lanka (always quick to capitalize on tourists) have started to offer ayurvedic vacations from a week to a month long.

shirodhara

I’m skeptical of alternative medicine, but ayurveda has such a long history and so many practitioners that it’d be folly to completely dismiss it. With over 3500 years of practice, refinement and experience, ayurveda’s tenets are certainly well-tested. Much of it is common-sense and impossible to refute — healthy living, hygiene, balanced diet — but other aspects are more peculiar.

Ayurveda teaches that there are three basic types of people: Vata, Pitta and Kapha. Vata-types are delicate and easily excitable. Pitta are sensitive people with an average build, who can easily maintain their weight, and have sharp, yellow teeth (?!) The Kapha are large, oily people with a strong constitution. Depending on your type, you must concentrate on various areas of health and watch out for diseases to which you’re especially susceptible. For example, I was told that I’m a Pitta, and so must limit the amount of salt I eat, and avoid over-heating.

I received my diagnosis from an authority: the resident doctor at the Wedamedura Clinic in Kandy. Aching and exhausted from our busy first few weeks in Sri Lanka, we decided to award ourselves with Wedamedura’s “Full Treatment”. For two and a half blissful hours, our bodies were poked, rubbed, prodded and dripped upon.

It began with an extremely thorough full-body massage; head, face, feet, toes, arms, back, shoulders, chest and stomach (you might be thinking to yourself that a “stomach massage” sounds awful; you’d be right). Afterwards, we were set in front of large bowls of hot water and oil and, with towels draped on our heads, made to inhale the steam. This was rough, but my face and throat felt great afterwards.

Then I was brought into a separate room and made to lay down on a table. My eyes were covered and hot oil was dripped onto my forehead, while my captors cackled together in an unintelligible tongue behind me. Sounds like a torture scene out of some bad 80s flick, but this was my introduction to shirodhara massage. And I loved it. For roughly five minutes, a variety of hot oils were poured slowly out onto the middle of my forehead. By gently massaging the “third eye” (think of the Hindu’s forehead dot), shirodhara relaxes the muscles in the brain and head. The warm oil spreading into my hair felt like a scalp massage from ghost fingers.

Ayurveda-Steam-Herb-Bath

The treatment ended with a steam bath, a strong shower, and a checkup with the doctor. She remarked that my blood pressure was “excellent” — after a deeply relaxing 150-minute massage, I would hope so.

We loved our experience at Wedamedura. Unlike many (in fact, almost all) of the packages offered by Sri Lanka’s various resorts and hotels, this a legitimately ayurvedic place, with a staff trained and licensed in the practice. In addition to massages of varying lengths, they offer week-long ayurvedic vacations which encompass everything from yoga and diet, to sightseeing around Kandy.

So, ayurveda. I don’t know. The massage was incredible, and now that I’ve learnt my “type”, I think I’ll have to do a bit more research. Although I can’t imagine myself gnawing on tree bark anytime soon, there’s surely a lot of practical wisdom to be gleaned from this ancient system of medicine.

Link: Wedamedura Ayurveda Clinic
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March 2, 2012 at 11:18 am Comments (4)

The Kandy Garrison Cemetery

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Tucked just behind the Temple of the Tooth is an odd relic from the kingdom’s colonial days. The Kandy Garrison Cemetery holds the remains of about 150 British souls, who were buried far from home in the early 19th century. The weathered tombstones and neatly-kept grounds make for an atmospheric escape from the throngs of people at the temple.

Kandy Christian Cemetery

Walking around the graves and reading the names and ages of the people interred within, it’s impossible not to imagine their lives. Most of the Brits here died young, victims of malaria, war or cholera. 23 years of life seemed to be about the average; I saw only one man, a doctor, who made it past 50. It was mostly soldiers, but there were infants and women as well — I kept picturing tearful goodbye scenes in London or Bristol, as a young girl says goodbye to her family for distant Ceylon, where she would die months later.

A very beautiful, evocative cemetery. It gave me the idea that every tombstone should have a little notebook attached to it, so you can learn about the life of whoever was buried underneath. That’s a good idea in general and, if I’m ever dictator of the world, I’ll implement it. In Kandy’s Garrison Cemetery, it would make for especially interesting reading.

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March 1, 2012 at 8:15 am Comments (3)

Sri Lankan Wood Working at Rajanima Craft

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During our weeks in Kandy, we passed by the Rajanima Craft shop a number of times and finally decided to visit on our second-to-last day in the city. One of the guys working there was happy to take some time out, show us around the shop and explain a little about the craft.

Buddha Carving

About 25 guys work in the shop, all of them educated in the best way possible for this kind of job — by their fathers, who learnt from their fathers, who learnt from theirs. It’s a family affair and, as we watched them whittling away at what would soon be an elephant, or hammering on an intricate latticework, you could tell that the craft was in their blood. When you’ve spent your childhood watching your dad do it, then grabbed a chisel as soon as you were old enough to grip, you’re probably going to be pretty talented.

We were introduced to the ten types of wood used in the shop. Native woods with strange names like Mara, Kaduru, Sapu and Milla. Coconut wood, which has lovely dark and light fibers and makes beautifully patterned bowls. And the amazing rainbow wood, whose shavings can be combined with substances such as boiling water or chalk, stirred with a rod of iron, or just left in the sun to create a wide array of colors, which are then used to naturally paint the sculptures.

After we had watched the guys work for awhile, we went into the workshop’s basement store. An incredible collection of wood-worked crafts were on sale here, including more wooden elephants than the world could possibly need. Food and drinking water may be scarce, but Rajanima Craft has ensured that humanity will never want for wooden elephants.

All very cool, and we had a great time during our visit. If you’re in the market for some quality hand-crafted wooden furniture or decorations, or just want to take an inside look at one of Sri Lanka’s favorite exports, check out Rajanima Craft while you’re in town.

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March 1, 2012 at 5:55 am Comments (4)

The Udawattakele Sanctuary

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The small, densely-forested Udawattakele Sanctuary is home to a huge variety of plants and animals, and offers a number of long, secluded paths for exploration. During the morning we spent there, we felt completely alone, almost frighteningly so. Amazing, considering the fact that Uduwattakele is basically in the middle of Kandy.

Cave Buddhist

The Sanctuary’s entrance is just a couple hundred meters past the Temple of the Tooth. Tickets cost around $6 for foreigners, but there’s a lot to see and you could spend hours on the various tracks. We chose a path which would bring us past cave temples and deep into the jungle.

Udawattakele is full of life. Huge trees block out the sun almost entirely, and are entwined by giant creeping vines. With over 80 types of birds, including endemic and threatened species, the park is famous as a bird-watcher’s paradise. Most of the mammals which inhabit the woods are nocturnal; fine by us, since I wasn’t eager to run into a wild boar or greater bandicoot rat. We did, however, see monkeys and a snake.

We had followed a path down the side of a hill overgrown with jungle shrubbery and spiderwebs to a cave sanctuary hollowed out of the stone. A quiet sense of evil pervaded the place, made worse by a creepy collection of art — the legs of a reclining Buddha posing without the rest of the body, an elephant molded into the wall peering out with one great white eye, and a disturbing sculpture of a starved human corpse abandoned half-done on the ground. A curtain hung over the entrance to the sanctuary and, after calling out to see if anyone was home, I steeled my nerves and swung it open. The only thing I saw was a small serpent retreating into the blackness.

Udawattakele isn’t just a sanctuary for nature, but also for the religious. A number of hermitages dot the grounds, and the cave sanctuary we found was built for crazy enlightened people who’ve decided to live on their own in the woods. I’m not sure anyone lives there now, but it’s certainly possible. We hurriedly got back onto the main path, before the monk could return home and invite us in for a cup of rice and snake meat.

If the noise and congestion of Kandy are getting to you, Udawattakele is a great place to escape and let your mind unwind. The fact that an area of such wild, pristine nature exists within the country’s second-biggest city is incredible.

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February 29, 2012 at 8:05 am Comments (0)

The Archaeological, National, and Elephant Museums of Kandy

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Just behind the Temple of the Tooth are a couple museums which might be worth a visit, depending on the degree to which looking at piles of old stuff turns your crank. The Archaeological Museum, hosted in the former King’s Palace, and the adjacent National Museum are stuffed to the gills with artifacts and treasures from days long gone by.

Kandy Royal Palace

We had just left the Vishnu Devale, which sits across the Temple of the Tooth’s moat. A hundred yards away, an old man was frantically waving at us. Curious and a little apprehensive, we approached him. With every step closer, the guy’s excitement level increased … at 50 yards, he started hopping up and down. At 25, he grinned and began directing us as though he were on a runway, holding glowing sticks. And when we were 10 yards away, I swear he started convulsing. As soon as we were within striking distance, he grabbed our hands and dragged us into the Archaeological Museum.

This museum is hosted in the former palace of the Kandyan Kings. Most of the palace has been destroyed, though the front door and some supporting structures remain intact. The museum displays artifacts found in and around the city, in a dusty and poorly-presented collection. If not for our guide, we wouldn’t have understood anything we were looking at — and even with him, it wasn’t all that interesting. Pots. Moonstones. Other, larger pots. Most of a statue. But, the museum was free (apart from a small tip) and we enjoyed the opportunity to step inside the former royal palace.

Sri Lanka Antigues

The nearby National Museum is far more compelling, though it costs 500 rupees to enter. Here, we found Kandyan-era weapons, like spears and bows, masks and ceremonial costumes, and a lot of information about the lives of the native people. There were ancient, but still legible, ola leaf manuscripts, as well as a copy of the 1858 Kandyan Treaty which ceded power to the Brits.

We should also mention the nearby Raja Tusker Museum, found inside the Temple of the Tooth complex. This is almost certainly the only museum I’ll ever visit which is dedicated to a single elephant. Raja Tusker was beloved by Sri Lankans and his death in 1988 sparked a period of national mourning. This bizarre museum is nothing more than a room decorated with photographs and, in the center, Raja Tusker’s enormous, taxidermied corpse.

None of these museums is essential during a trip to Kandy, but all are worth a peek if you have a few extra hours, or a deep interest in the history of the city.

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February 29, 2012 at 6:29 am Comments (0)

A Great View at Kandy’s Hotel Casamara

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Kandy is surrounded by mountains and steep hills, so it’s no surprise that there are a number of places from which to gain commanding views over the city. The Bahirawakanda Buddha is one of the most obvious. The viewpoint on Rajapihilla Mawatha (location) offers an unbeatable perspective over the lake and the Temple of the Tooth behind it. The Slightly Chilled Lounge on Anagarika Dharmapala Mawatha (location) serves up great Asian food and sports another excellent view from the east. But for us, the best lookout over the city is right downtown at the Hotel Casamara.

The Casamara doesn’t look like much from the outside but is the tallest building in its immediate vicinity and makes good use of its height with a top-floor bar. The view of Kandy is different from here, less romantic and more lively, because you’re in the middle of the city. Though the tuk-tuk-clogged chaos of the streets can be stressful when you’re down in it, it provides endless entertainment from above.

This was our favorite spot in town for a drink, and it’s largely ignored by both locals and tourists. We were almost always the only people inside. So if you’re in the mood to relax, and look down on the street life of Kandy like a haughty god, check out the Hotel Casamara.

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Another fun viewpoint, discovered while we were lost during our final days in Kandy, is at the Panorama Resort high up on a hill, on the eastern side of the city. You don’t actually have a view of the city here, but of the verdant valley to Kandy’s northeast. It’s a great place for a drink — I don’t know if I’ve ever had a more generous gin & tonic — and the view is amazing.

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February 28, 2012 at 12:33 pm Comment (1)

Kandyan Dance at the YMBA

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Kandyan Dance, an exuberant combination of drumming, costumes and athletic dancing, is the most famous cultural product of Sri Lanka. A few places in Kandy put on a daily show, and we decided to check out the performance at the YMBA. Yep, that stands for “Young Men’s Buddhist Association” — and good luck trying to spell it out with your arms.

Crazy Dancer

We were lucky to get decent seats, because the first fifteen rows had been cordoned off for giant groups of tourists on package holidays. Okay, fine: it wasn’t exactly luck. For a small consideration, the guy selling tickets agreed to get us up front. Bribery is swell. Every chair in the small, sticky, mosquito-infested hall was filled with a white-faced European fresh off the bus. An authentic cultural experience, this wasn’t. Once the incredible show started, though, any annoyance I’d been feeling disappeared.

The style of dance particular to Kandy was actually brought to the region by Indian shamans, who used it to appease the god Kohomba and help cure a mysterious illness under which the Kandyan King had been suffering. After the king’s miraculous recovery, the style caught on, and is today considered the national dance of Sri Lanka.

We were entranced by the performance from the moment the drumming began until the climactic finale. The costumes were beautiful, the drumming skillful, and the dancing far more exciting than I’d expected. The show, which lasted about an hour, included ten different styles. Not all of them were strictly Kandyan Dance — one of my favorites, the thelme dance, came from the low countries of Sri Lanka. This involved dervish-like whirling, only much faster and more intense.

There was plate-spinning and acrobatics and ladies dressed like peacocks, but the highlight was the Ves Dance, which came towards the end of the show. The drumming built slowly in intensity and the dancers wore headgear with long tassels, which they swung about wildly.

I’m happy we decided to ignore our inner cynics and check out a show, especially since the tickets were only about $5 apiece. Well worth your time if you happen to be in Kandy.

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February 28, 2012 at 11:46 am Comments (2)

The Four Devales of Kandy

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According to popular belief, Kandy is protected by four gods, each with its own temple in the city center. These devales are special temples dedicated to a specific god, besides Buddha. Vishnu, Kataragama, Pattini and Natha. On one busy afternoon, we visited all of them. Yeah, we got that temple fever.

Vishnu Devale
Vishnu Temple Kandy

Vishnu is one of the supreme gods of Hinduism, surpassed in importance only by Brahma and perhaps Shiva. So what’s he doing in a Buddhist temple? Turns out that Sri Lankan Buddhism borrows frequently from Hinduism, because of the country’s closely-intertwined history with India. According to local lore, Vishnu is the god whom Buddha charged with guardianship of Sri Lanka. Probably not exactly what Hindus believe.

Vishnu’s devale in Kandy is just to the north of the Temple of the Tooth. Its most striking features are a large dancing pavilion (or digge) and a long set of stone steps which lead to the main shrine. Given its proximity to the Temple of the Tooth, this was a surprisingly serene and quiet place. The few worshipers present were sitting in the digge, quietly reading prayer books. We liked it.

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Kataragama Devale
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Kataragama is another god worshiped by both religions, and his temple in Kandy is definitely more Hindu than Buddhist in appearance. He’s one of the more popular deities in Sri Lanka, for the rather shallow reason that he grants wishes.

Hey, I’ve got a wish for you, Kataragama. I wish you’d force your little acolytes to stop hounding me for money! From the moment we stepped inside this devale, we were beset by schemers, offering to lead us on tours (for cash), asking to have their photos taken (for cash), and trying to tie wristbands on us (for cash). While I was checking out the temple’s Bo Tree, it magically spoke to me, asking me where I was from! I shouldn’t have been surprised when a sneaking orange-robed monk popped out from behind the tree with a beatific smile on his face. I lost all enthusiasm, knowing what was coming. “You like make donation?” Sigh.

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Pattini Devale

One of the most popular temples in Kandy is dedicated to the Indian goddess Pattini. A normal girl of humble origins, she was made a goddess after showing unwavering fealty to her no-good, cheating husband. When he was falsely accused of robbery, she protested his execution by tearing off her own breast and burning a city down with her pure, fiery rage. Today, she’s visited by pregnant women and those hoping to ward off disease.

Her devale in Kandy is found in the Temple of the Tooth, and is almost always crowded. We happened to visit during a ceremony and, maneuvering around a rooster, stepped inside. A priest at the front of the shrine was shaking a golden bracelet, while on the side, another guy was chanting like a drunk auctioneer. The place was packed full, and it was a cool experience.

Location on our Sri Lanka Map

Natha Devale
Oldest Temple in Kandy

Natha is the only purely Buddhist god of the four protectors of Kandy, and his temple is the oldest structure in the city, dating from sometime in the 14th century. Sri Lanka’s Natha corresponds to Avalokitesvara, who is an enlightened being that encompasses all the compassion in the world. Sounds like a nice fella, this Natha.

The Natha temple is one of the most important in Kandy, only eclipsed by the Temple of the Tooth. Because of the god’s importance, new Kings of Kandy were obligated to appear here to claim a name, before ascending to the throne. The main shrine is evidently ancient, and beautiful from the outside, though its interior is a bit of a let-down.

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February 22, 2012 at 12:42 pm Comments (2)

Leech Attack at the Knuckles Mountain Range

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About twenty kilometers east of Kandy lies the Knuckles Mountain Range, pronounced by locals as “nuck-less”. This is one of the most infrequently visited corners of Sri Lanka’s hill country, which is surprising, given its beautiful expanses of untouched forest, easy accessibility from Kandy, and softly curved mountaintops which indeed resemble knuckles. By all rights, this park should be one of the region’s touristic highlights.

Knuckles Sir Lanka

Maybe it’s the leeches. We intended to walk the Dothalugala Trail which leads past waterfalls and up to a viewpoint. Sure, we’d been warned that the path was infested with them, but whatever. We’re men, not sniveling sissy-boys who run squealing from harmless pests like leeches. Or so we thought…

Two kilometers into the hike, I noticed movement on the ground. A leech! Huh, the information was accurate after all, and I bent over to examine it. This wasn’t the black, full-bodied leech I’m used to, but a teensy worm-like thing crawling along the dusty ground. Almost cute! And, look, Jürgen, there’s another. And another! And oh my god the ground is covered with them! They are on me! Run!

And run we did. Back down the path, swatting at our legs in terror, every once in awhile pausing to bash leeches off our shoes with a rock, or flick them off our legs with a stick. During the panicked retreat, I knocked at least thirty leeches off me. Two managed to sink their hooks into my flesh, and one succeeded in latching onto Jürgen’s leg. It was like a scene out of the most horrifying terror movie you can imagine, only more horrifying. Once we reached safety back on the paved road, we immediately disrobed down to the undies and examined each other like overgrown monkeys.

Luckily, there was a second, leech-free hike out to a viewpoint known as Mini World’s End. This two-kilometer walk was a breeze, and soon enough we found ourselves at the edge of the mountain, with cliffs that dropped straight down to the plains below. The view was magnificent, stretching for miles in every direction. We sat down to drink some water, which felt blissfully cool against throats bruised raw from terror-squealing, and enjoyed the amazing scenery.

So in the end, it was worth the anguish. We were utterly alone in the Knuckles park, and didn’t see another tourist the entire day. To get there, we just hopped a bus bound for Mahiyangana, got off at Hunasgiriya, and then took a tuk-tuk for eight kilometers to the Conservation Center. Total journey time, one hour each way; round-trip cost, $3 per person. Not bad. If you go yourself, wear leech socks… or just be a little tougher than us. Shouldn’t be that hard.

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February 22, 2012 at 3:07 am Comments (12)

Images of Worship from the Temple of the Tooth

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We planned our visit to Kandy’s Temple of the Tooth with a poya, or full moon, day. Buddhists follow the lunar calendar and Poya Days are the most sacred of the year. So the temple — Sri Lanka’s most important — was packed full of worshipers. As you might imagine, there were a lot of photogenic moments just waiting to be captured.

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February 21, 2012 at 11:17 am Comments (4)

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Ayurveda in Sri Lanka Ayurveda is a traditional style of medicine which uses completely natural treatments and emphasizes a balanced lifestyle. Although predominantly associated with India, it's massively popular in Sri Lanka, where you can't walk a block without finding another ayurvedic dispensary or clinic. Ayurveda has also gained a foothold in Europe and, predictably, an unending line of hotels and spas in Sri Lanka (always quick to capitalize on tourists) have started to offer ayurvedic vacations from a week to a month long.
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