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Of Buddha and Bawa in a Sri Lankan Hideaway
chillibreeze writer — Rupa Chatterjee
The winding red path took us deeper into the wilderness. The foliage wasn’t thick enough to blot out the hot midday sun but it was just lush enough to block out the rest of the world, immediately rewarding us with the sense of escape we had come to seek in this Sri Lankan hideaway.
Surrounded by beautiful woods and low hills, Kandalama in the island nation’s central province lies off the beaten tourist track. If solitude and serenity are what you yearn, this is where you should head. The only things Kandalama is known for are a placid man-made reservoir, a secluded luxury hotel, and proximity to a host of breathtaking Buddhist world heritage sites.
Kandalama transports you to an ideal state of disconnect from the cacophony of city life. You can spend the day here spotting birds in the surrounding woods. Every now and again you’ll find yourself staring back at a troop of monkeys out foraging. Roam the main path through the forest and you could even be rewarded by the appearance of deer, elk or elephants.
When you’ve had your fill of nature, hop into a van and go pay your homage to the Buddha. Just a 15-minute drive away is Dambulla, a tiny town that is home to an imposing new temple dwarfed by a gigantic golden Buddha. The modern shrine sits at the base of a rocky outcrop and on the summit lie ancient cave temples. A demanding climb takes you up to the elaborate complex of nearly 80 caves that could take you all day to explore. If you’re short on time, just visit the five caves housing the main attractions that include spectacular statues, murals and paintings.
A stone’s throw away in another direction from Kandalama is the rock fortress of Sigiriya (which in the national language Sinhala means Lion’s Rock). It’s a punishing climb to the top, but once you get there you’re treated to sweeping views of geometric gardens, pools, fountains and – of course – the surrounding countryside. The complex, believed to have been built by King Kasyapa who reigned from AD 477-495, was once home to a Buddhist monastery. The site is famous for its ancient frescos that bear a close resemblance to those found in the Ajanta caves in India.
Another historical gem you absolutely cannot miss is the ancient city of Anuradhapura, the first capital of Buddhist Sri Lanka. An hour-and-a-half’s drive away from Kandalama, Anuradhapura is dotted with stunning ruins. It’s worth investing an entire day – better still, a couple of days – in the heritage city if you really want to do it justice.
Anuradhapura is the proud home of the Mahabodhi, an offspring of the Bodhi tree in India under which the Buddha is believed to have attained enlightenment. The Mahabodhi is one of Sri Lanka’s most heavily guarded religious sites, so expect to be frisked several times before you finally get to see the ageing tree.
Many imposing pagodas (locally known as dagobas) dominate Anuradhapura’s skyline, the most majestic being the all-brick Jetavana Dagoba and the Abhayagiri Dagoba. It took more than 90 millions bricks to build the Jetavana Dagoba, apparently enough to construct a great wall spanning the 500-km distance from London to Edinburgh. It is Sri Lanka’s largest pagoda.
In case you’re planning to visit these religious sites, make sure you’re dressed appropriately. You should be modestly clothed, your legs covered at all times. Footwear isn’t allowed inside the shrines. If it’s warm, you’d be well advised to keep a thick pair of socks on because the floors and asphalt can get scorching hot. And carry plenty of water because there’s a fair bit of trekking involved.
Ancient mastery isn’t all that Kandalama has to entice you with if you enjoy architecture. The Heritance Kandalama hotel is a modern marvel in its own right. A creation of an iconic Sri Lankan architect, the late Geoffrey Bawa, the Kandalama hotel blends seamlessly into the wooded rock it has been built on. Clever design makes the mammoth 900-metre-structure hard to spot even from close range. Floor-to-ceiling windows run the length of the building, flooding it with natural light. And terrace gardens camouflage the structure completely.
I’m now a confirmed fan of Bawa. His designs never take away from the natural beauty of the setting, yet are themselves spectacular. In Kandalama he has created a building of delightful simplicity, but with remarkable features. Bawa integrated large chunks of the rock around which the hotel was built into his design. So you have portions where the rock serves as the wall.
Most of the corridors have been left open, so you have rooms along one side while the hill and the woods lie at arm’s length on the other. And the natural acoustics of the building are absolutely amazing. A flautist gave a recital most evenings near the lobby, which lies in the middle of the structure. A microphone just wasn’t required. You could hear him from the private balcony in your room all the way in either end of the building!
You don’t have to pay a king’s ransom for the privilege of staying at this luxury property. A three-night stay in a luxury suite, with breakfast thrown in, sets you back by about $1,100. A deluxe room for two comes to about $700 for three nights. And, yes, if you’re staying at this famous hotel, be prepared to put on a bit more holiday weight than you anticipate. The Heritance Kandalama’s kitchens have won a whole host of awards, so it is going to be hard to resist the treats rolling out of them.
In all the din and hype about Sri Lanka’s beach destinations, one rarely hears of Kandalama. But if you choose to trudge off the beaten path and unwind in this quaint hideaway, you’ll immediately surrender to its charms. It’s sort of like the Buddha’s doctrines and Bawa’s craft. You find yourself reaching a perfect state of inner equilibrium.
Chillibreeze's disclaimer: This is a contributed article and was published on Chillibreeze in December, 2009. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the views of Chillibreeze as a company. Chillibreeze has a strict anti-plagiarism policy. Please contact us to report any copyright issues related to this article. The relevance of the facts and figures cited (if any) could change after a period of time.
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