The island of Rama

Sri Lanka is the island where gods and mythical monkeys walked. Follow in their steps and revisit the places associated with the Ramayana.
A Sri Lankan mask
A Sri Lankan mask

&ldquoSri Lanka is the proud custodian of more than 50 Ramayana sites&rdquo, the invitation said, &ldquofrom the place of Seetha Devi's captivity to the battlefield where vast armies clashed... to where Lord Rama slew Ravana&rdquo. And I thought how does one respond to an invitation to see a mythical place From what I knew, the vast and ancient Sanskrit literary heritage comprising the Vedas, Brahmanas, the Mahabharata and Ramayana was purely literary no specific site, no relic, had conclusively been identified with the people who composed or who lived these verses.

On the other hand, this very lack of material evidence gave unbridled licence to various places &mdash from the Himalaya down to the edge of the Indian landmass and even beyond in Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka &mdash to claim intimacy with the epics and their events. The Ramayana had travelled far and wide, and it would be interesting, I thought, to see how this story assimilated a different place and a different culture.

So there we were, in a briefing session with Sri Lanka's Tourism Promotion Bureau and the main sponsors, SriLankan Airlines. There was a glint in their eyes when they argued Sri Lanka's case for promoting a 'Ramayana Trail'. The reasoning went thus the names of many places in India and outside offer a connection to Rama and his legend, but the glorious serendipity by which their country is currently called Sri Lanka (this land has had an unusually rich collection of names including Serendip, the name that gave us the word &lsquoserendipity&rsquo) makes them the proprietary claimants to the heritage of Ravana. And since no one else can offer you 'Ravana tours', the case was made.

A lead character at the briefing was Ashok Kainth, a Ramayana enthusiast who hails from Punjab, lives in Kuwait and is the instigator-in-chief of this Ramayana Trail. Kainth has spent a lot of the past four years identifying sites linked to the Ramayana in Sri Lanka. He has read most renderings of the epic and has diligently ploughed through scores of other ancient literary texts to get the detailed stories of the characters in the Ramayana. &ldquoRama was not years elder than his brothers. You see, their mothers, Kaushalya, Kaikeyi and Sumitra, got pregnant almost at the same time and the four brothers were born within a few hours of each other,&rdquo he said. A storehouse of such information, Kainth spoke of the characters in the Ramayana with as much ease and intimacy as if they were family.

Fifty-nine Ramayana sites have been &lsquoidentified&rsquo in Sri Lanka and we visited a few of these in the central and southwestern territories. Our journey began in Colombo and we drove north along the coast till Puttalam. From there we turned inward and drove east and south to Dambulla, and further on through Kandy and Nuwara Eliya till Bandarwela, and back westwards to Colombo.

The experience was a complicated one. None of the shrines we were taken to were very old, or seemed to hold architectural, historical or archaeological significance. About half the sites were natural formations hills, rocks, waterfalls... The tenuous connections to the Ramayana story usually came from place names not that these places are mentioned in the Ramayana, but that the names made some far-fetched connections possible. So, Wirangantota meant &lsquoa place for aircraft to land&rsquo, and this was sufficient to identify it as the place where Sita was brought in Ravana's vimana. Sita Kotuwa, meaning &lsquoSita&rsquos fort&rsquo, was the place where Sita was kept by Ravana. And Dunuvila (dhunu means &lsquoarrow&rsquo, vila means &lsquolake&rsquo), a scenic spot next to a lake at the edge of a forest, was where Rama fired the Brahmastra at Ravana &ldquoBrahmastra was a fire-weapon, Rama needed protection for himself, didn&rsquot he, so he chose a spot next to a lake to unleash it.&rdquo

The stories, on the other hand, were interesting. There was no dearth of them. There was the tale of how Ravana&rsquos body was kept after his death on a mountaintop from where he could be seen for miles around for the population to pay their last respects. And the sorrowful story of the pond that was formed by Sita&rsquos tears and which never dries up, even during severe droughts.

For me, the even more interesting aspect of the Ramayana Trail was that you could see myth in the making. Myths and legends usually draw their sustenance from being seemingly ageless, and because people have faith in them. However, they must have been created at some point in time, and here you could see, even participate if you wish, in that process. You could visit the Seetha Amman temple in a place called Seetha Eliya, visit the small kitschy shrine by the stream, look at some holes in a rock next to the water and believe them to be Hanuman's footprints made when he first visited Sita who was imprisoned there. Why do the footprints vary so much in size, you might ask, not yet believer enough. Of course, because Hanuman could transform himself into any size, and he was doing this here to convince Sita that he was indeed Hanuman.

Perhaps the best aspect of the trail is that you get to see a good slice of Sri Lanka &mdash its coastal flatlands, its central hilly provinces and its unique brand of Buddhism.

Kandy, with its surrounding hills and the lake in the middle, is a charming place. Said to be a sanctuary for traditional Sinhala culture, it is famed for the Temple of the Sacred Tooth. The tooth is believed to be the Buddha&rsquos and is Sri Lanka&rsquos most important relic of the Buddha. Here you can see faith in abundance &mdash people flock to the temple just to pray at the closed door behind which the tooth is enshrined &mdash a faith largely missing as yet from the sites of the Ramayana Trail.

Nuwara Eliya, at 6,000ft, has just the right altitude for a British-established hill station, and that is indeed what it is. The country around glows with its pretty tea estates, often wrapped in mist and clouds that add to the beauty and hide the back-breaking low-paid work of the tea pickers who feature as the human element in most tourist brochures. It is Nuwara Eliya that hosts the most scenic of the sites connected to the Ramayana. In a tea estate called Labukelle, you go off from the main road towards Kondagalla village and walk past and above it to the top of a hillock. Here lies a small shrine, called Manikattutheru temple, just three stones in open air, with views of a stunningly-painted landscape all around. Hanuman on his way back to Rama after meeting Sita rested here &mdash it is indeed a restful place.

And then there was that steep mountain near Bandarwela town. Steps going up soon vanished into thick greenery, and a tough climb above us loomed the 100-ft-high mouth of a cave. Why were we here Because this was Ravana Cave. And there are other caves at Isthripura, Halagala, Labukelle, etc, all of them said to lead to interconnected tunnelled passages. These apparently served as a secret means of transport, networking &ldquothe important cities, airports and dairy farms&rdquo (says the brochure) in Ravana&rsquos kingdom.

It was not Ravana we visited on our first day of the tour, in Kelaniya town, on the outskirts of Colombo, but his brother Vibheeshana. Kelaniya has a Buddhist temple set among huge gardens close to a river, famous because of an old tradition that claims the Buddha came visiting. Both tradition and worship at this place go back several centuries, though the present structure was built in the 19th century after the Portuguese destroyed the older one.

As you climb the stairs to the temple, it is the back wall that presents itself to the visitor. A large central mural here depicts the crowning of a king. The king has an extraordinary denture, the two upper canines protruding over the lower lip, ostensibly depicting a rakshasa. This is locally believed to be Vibheeshana, Ravana&rsquos brother who crossed over to Rama&rsquos side, and after Ravana's death became king. Lakshmana is officiating at the coronation in the mural, because Rama was not supposed to enter any city during his exile. In a small shrine next to the main temple, devotees worship a painting of Vibheeshana, again identified by his two long jutting teeth. We learn that temples to Vibheeshana are not uncommon in Sri Lanka and that he is considered one of the four guardian deities of the land. Interestingly, though I was brought up being told that Ravana is revered in Sri Lanka, there is actually no tradition of Ravana-worship in the country.

Forays into the country&rsquos religious traditions and places of worship show the ample presence of Hinduism, not just in itself but also blended with Buddhist traditions. A majority of Sri Lankans speaks the Sinhala language and practises Buddhism &mdash ever since Ashoka&rsquos son Mihinda landed here and converted the king to Buddhism. Over centuries there was continuous contact between Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu, and the largely Hindu Tamil population in the north and the east of the island comes from this history. Many Tamils were indentured as tea-plantation workers in central Sri Lanka in the 19th century and they are known as &lsquoIndian Tamils&rsquo. It&rsquos not uncommon for Buddhist temples here to have idols of Vishnu, Ganesha or other Hindu deities, like Vibheeshana in Kelaniya, and conversely, the Buddha in Hindu shrines.

On our last day we were sipping morning tea on Negombo beach, when the sky darkened far to the west over the sea. The darkness travelled rapidly towards us across the Indian Ocean. Then the spectacle was on us, the spectacle I had wanted to see for years &mdash the monsoon as it comes in over endless waters. Was it the karma of following the Ramayana Trail

The information

The sites

Fifty-nine Ramayana sites have been identified in Sri Lanka so far. The most important ones are

Kelaniya near Colombo

Manawari and Muneswaram temples, near Chilaw town

Dunuvila, in Matale district (offers views of the Laggala and Yanhangala hills)

Seetha Kotuwa, near Hasalaka town

Manikattutheru temple, in Labukelle estate, near Nuwara Eliya

Seetha Amman temple, Seetha Eliya

Ravana Cave and Ravana Falls, near Bandarwela

Sites in south, west and central Sri Lanka are being promoted. The north and east are not considered tourism-worthy &mdash or safe &mdash at the moment.

The package

SriLankan Airlines is offering 4N/5D &lsquoRamayana Trails&rsquo packages for Rs 30,999 (3-star) to Rs 33,599 (5-star), ex-Delhi. The package tour takes in Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Bandarawela and Colombo. The price includes an economy-class return air ticket from Delhi to Colombo, all taxes, airport transfers, transport by air-conditioned coach, an English-speaking guide, and full-board accommodation in 3-star, 4-star or 5-star hotels on a twin-sharing basis. The packages will soon be offered from all the 11 destinations SriLankan Airlines serves in India.

For more information and to book, contact SriLankan Airlines in Delhi (011-41528630) or Mumbai (022-22853997). You could also contact Sri Lanka Tourism's representative in India at 011-23730477 (www.srilankatou)

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