By sunset I’m urinating something akin to treacle. The late summer sun has driven beads of tickling sweat down the back of my shirt all day, and I’ve not been able to drink Sri Lanka’s fine black tea quickly enough to rehydrate successfully.
The baking hot path leading among the shrines of the Koneswaram temple complex scorches my ghostly bare feet, while tiny angular stones prick at my soft soles since as cultural faux pas go, stepping onto holy ground without removing one’s shoes is about as serious as they come. My footwear gets placed carefully in a special tourist section of the shoe lockers midway along the path, protected by a soldier wearing fatigues.
Religion, even more than the military, has come to define Sri Lanka and its troubled recent past. The brightly-coloured pantheon that decorate the Shikhara towers of Hindu temples like Koneswaram jostle for space with mosques, Christian churches and effigies of Buddha. The proportion of each steadily shifts as I journey northeast from Colombo’s predominantly Buddhist population into the Tamil heartland of Trincomalee on the Bay of Bengal, roughly following the path of the country’s longest river, the Mahaweli Ganga. At about the same time the dress alters from thin sarongs to thicker, itchy-looking polyester saris.
The train journey out of Colombo is slow, the rising gradient less perceptible than the steady drop in temperature as we leave sea-level and the flat cultivated land of paddy fields for the slightly cooler climes of Sri Lanka’s central hills where the river has its source. Bananas seem to grow within touching distance of the single-track line; lilies and orchids like weeds.
I start to think about reaching for a sweater until a sudden downpour forces the sash windows shut and the temperature inside the carriage to jump back up, condensation growing like mould on the glass.
Over four hours the train takes me the 72 miles to Kandy, at the geographic heart of the country. It should have taken three hours rather than four, but proportionally the extra hour is no worse than delays I’ve routinely experienced on services from central London to my home in Cambridge, the landscape even more appealing.
In Kandy’s station building, destinations and departure times are still displayed in gilt lettering on interchangeable and carefully varnished hardwood boards, as if it were still the age of steam rather than the era of diesel. But a heritage railway this is not. The third class carriages are nowhere-to-move busy, like London at the height of a Monday morning rush hour. Even the seats reserved for the orange-clad monks are occupied, umbrellas slung over arms like British bankers, Dalai Lama glasses framing their shaven heads. At Kandy the multitude begin leaving the train before it has even come to a halt. The flow doesn’t cease for some minutes. It is as if all of Colombo has decided to up sticks and depart for the sweet city.
A former kingdom, Kandy is protected on three sides by a U in the course of the Mahaweli, and by one of Buddhism’s holiest relics: a tooth, now hidden from view in a bejewelled case any Catholic would be proud of, and reputed to have come from the mouth of Buddha himself. Housed in its very own temple, it is served day and night by its monks, and revered daily by the multitude of pilgrims that come.
The motor halting place, an early attempt at a bus-stop, opposite the Temple of the Tooth doesn’t seem to be very much in use in recent times. The Leyland buses that act as the backbone of Sri Lankan transport away from the train tracks avoid the lake-side centre whenever possible.
Their routes northward, from the holy sites of Buddhism to those of Hinduism, crisscross the Mahaweli Ganga, the Great Sandy River, to the north of the city. After easy, if long, journeys on good roads their diesel engines finally shudder to a halt, the din quietens, and the Mahaweli stretches out to greet the Bay of Bengal close to Trincomalee.
There are few signs of the civil war that brought about Trincomalee’s isolation until less than a decade ago, and nothing of the 2004 tsunami that ravaged the low-lying areas of the town save for post-wave signposts pointing towards the higher ground around the Koneswaram temple. To follow the signs even vaguely from the beaches and through Trincomalee’s narrow side-streets will lead to the entrance to Fort Fredrick, a long-bastioned promontory at the city’s highest point. Claimed by early Portuguese colonisers for its strategic position, it’s still in use by Sri Lanka’s military, there to do more than keep an eye on a tourist’s footwear.
The single road leading to the temple from its seventeenth-century gatehouse is lined with trinket stalls sure of the constant flow of pilgrims making for Koneswaram’s shrines and the vertical red and white stripped outer walls of the temple itself, watched over by a giant golden statue of Shiva, the Lord of Lords, gleaming in the harsh sunlight.
Amid trees festooned with short lengths of fraying sari cloth like a thousand types of blossom, and simple wooden crates hanging from thin branches, pilgrims break flaming coconuts against rocks overlooking the ultramarine waters of the cliff-lined bay as offerings.
There is a devotion – overwhelming, yet strangely comforting, and rarely witnessed in the western world where we hide our emotions and beliefs fastidiously. I sense a quiet pride too, a pleasure accompanied by relief perhaps, that pilgrimages that may have started more than 150 miles to Trincomalee’s south, in the cool of the neatly-clipped tea bushes of the hill country near Kandy, have been successfully accomplished.
It is a pilgrimage route that dates back centuries, recalling the Hindu belief that nearby India’s mighty River Ganges flowed from Shiva's hair. During Sri Lanka’s civil war the pilgrimage was all but impossible, with minefield after minefield ringing Trincomalee to keep Tamil Tiger rebels out and government forces in.
Less than a decade on, pilgrims can once more bring their journeys to an end here, at Swami Rock, under the belligerent sun of Sri Lanka’s east coast and the benevolent features of Shiva, as the hot equatorial day turns quickly to a hot equatorial night.
About the author:
Ian Packham is an adventurer, award-winning travel writer and motivational speaker. His biggest adventure to date was the first solo and unassisted circumnavigation of Africa by public transport, a journey of thirteen months and 25,000 miles! In addition to travelling the length of the Mahaweli Ganga, he has walked the coast of the Isle of Man and the length of Hadrian’s wall, and travelled through Scandinavia using a guidebook dating from the 1960s. His next adventure sees him travelling through North Africa and Italy retracing the steps of his great uncle during World War II. Visit encircleafrica.org for more info.