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The Soul of Sri Lanka

May 12, 2014

There is a seductive, melancholy beauty about Sri Lanka, a nation recovering from years of civil war. From Colombo to Galle to Kandy and beyond, Aatish Taseer finds new hotels, opinionated artists and writers, and a growing sense of hope. Photographed by Ian Allen.

Published on May 12, 2014

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"The beauty and the horror," the Sri Lankan–Canadian writer Shyam Selvadurai said to me in Jaffna. "Both things must be there. Otherwise, it's not Sri Lanka."

We sat in a busy restaurant in a city ravaged by war. I was at the end of a journey north across this island country and the writer's remark felt now almost like shared knowledge. But it was something that had come to me slowly, this awareness of the Sri Lankan duality, of the creeping horror. Because, 12 days before, when I had first landed in Colombo, there had been no trace of it. Then there had been only the beauty.

The land even from the air had made a beguiling impression. Of red earth, of glossy tropical greenery, of tiled roofs blackening in the sea air. A sea that was much bluer and more hypnotic than any I had seen in India, from where I had flown in that morning. It appeared suddenly, in the full glitter of the afternoon sun, as we drove down Galle Face Road. I had just arrived, but I was already late. I was meeting Chandraguptha Thenuwara, a conceptual artist whose work during the war had earned him an international reputation.

shores of Galle
Fishermen on the shores of Galle

The war had been a fixture of my childhood. My mother, a reporter in Delhi, where I grew up, had covered it for the Indian papers. I had memories of her returning from Colombo with cameras and transistor radios, which, though widely available in Sri Lanka, were denied us in Socialist India. Sri Lanka then, with its excellent position in the Indian Ocean, had dreamed of being a second Singapore. But the war, which long outlasted my mother's career as a reporter, derailed those ambitions. And it was only the other day, it seemed—in 2009—that Sri Lanka, after what was among the longest and bloodiest conflicts in modern memory, and after the devastation of the 2004 tsunami, groped its way out into the light again. For the first time in three decades, it was a country at peace. It was this that I had come to see: the Sri Lankan peace, and what measure of light and shade it contained.

The effects of postwar development were real and tangible—the city was full of a new optimism. Places that had been decaying and falling apart, like the old racecourse building, were freshly painted and now housed restaurants; in the area around the Dutch Hospital, which during the war had been a no-man's-land of barriers and soldiers, there were elegant shops and restaurants, including the delicious Ministry of Crab. There were glamorous new boutique hotels like the Tintagel, once the prime minister's house. And in the old office of the great Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, there was the Gallery Café, a place of long drinks and slow-wheeling fans painted black, which, with its nouvelle cuisine, felt like a tropical version of the Costes in Paris. Colombo's revival was visible enough. But to some, beautification was a dirty word.

Geoffrey Bawa Residence
Inside the Geoffrey Bawa Residence, in Colombo

"Postwar color wash!" Thenuwara spat. He was heavyset, with an impish face, and unruly whitening sideburns that gave him the air of a figure from fable. He had become famous in the war years for his "barrelism," a project that made artistic use of the barrels that had turned the city into a fortress. The barrels were gone now, and Colombo, for the first time in decades, felt safer than Delhi. But Thenuwara was not impressed. He spoke of Colombo's revival as if it were the achievement of a fascistic enterprise, one that could do little more than make the trains run on time. "Beautification," he said to me as we sat on the terrace of the Galle Face Hotel, overlooking the sea, "is erasing memories. Whether we like them or not, we must keep the memories."

Sigiriya rock fortress
Sigiriya rock fortress

He was the first person I spoke seriously to in Sri Lanka, and though at times I felt he was being alarmist, our conversation gave me an atmospheric sense of something that would remain with me throughout my trip: that this was a place where one could not trust one's first impressions. His distrust of the Sri Lankan peace colored my view of the city. It gave a charcoal outline to what until then had been an enchanting scene of boutiques and bungalows, of gabled colonial buildings with deep verandas and pretty eaves, of flowering trees and clubs with evocative names. It was a city enveloped in a permanent feeling of afternoon, where now, it felt, the briny breath of the sea merged easily with a hint of menace.

That night I saw Colombo through the eyes of an architect. Channa Daswatte had been a student and protégé of Bawa, who pioneered the island's "tropical modernism" in the late 1950's, an architectural style that was at once deeply local and very modern. Bawa's influence was immense, and it made Sri Lanka one of the few postcolonial countries that had excellent modern architecture, always so telling an indication of a culture's morale.

We drove through the spongy darkness of night in the tropics. Daswatte, with his architect's feeling for public spaces, showed me the places in and around Independence Avenue and Police Park where the walls had been torn down. So long as they stood, they had turned the streets into trenches and Colombo into a city without vistas. Their coming down was a deeply emotional and symbolic thing; it had unstitched the city. "It was an urban gesture," Daswatte said, pointing to an attractive esplanade of public buildings, "that seemed to say: we have not just brought peace, but demonstrated that there is peace."

Tea Plantation
A tea plantation in Nuwara Eliya, south of Kandy

And peace there certainly was. But it had come at a great price. Had it been Pyrrhic?

Daswatte, like many Sri Lankans, could not help feeling that no price was too steep; that that war had gone on far too long and that it had to end. But he, like Thenuwara, was worried about the character of the peace; worried about tensions in the north; worried about a growing authoritarianism in the country; and worried, most of all, about an attack on dissent, which had manifested itself as a stifling of press freedoms. That night in his house, itself a triumph of the Bawa aesthetic, I saw a painting by the Tamil artist T. Shanaathanan that was a reminder of the other side of the Sri Lankan peace. It was a painting of two male figures and a kiss. In the swirling background, Daswatte pointed to a rooster and murmured, "Peter." But he need hardly have said it: for, even to my visitor's eye, it was clear the kiss was a Judas kiss, and the theme of the painting betrayal.

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