THE AYURVEDA TRAIL IN SRI LANKA
Green mangoes at Horathapola Estate
Just flying in over Sri Lanka is as sensual as sinking your teeth into a juicy mango.
Tropical greens, lagoons, coral reefs and sandy beaches are lapped by the intense blue of the Indian Ocean as far as the eye can see. And there is always a faint whiff of frangipani blossom in the air.
Frangipani by Sri Lankan artist, Anupvega
Colombo is the largest city and former administrative capital of Sri Lanka. It is located on the west coast while the government is now situated in a modern building by a lake at Sri Jayewardenepura, a short distance from the city.
Sri Lanka is primarily a Buddhist country and abounds with temples and monasteries serving the 80% of its populace who follow this faith.
When a country has recently been at war, it is hard to know what to expect. However, the only battlefield I encountered in Sri Lanka was the traffic. On the Sri Lankan roads, elderly buses, overladen trucks, noisy tuk-tuks and people on bicycles, elephants and bullock carts all battle for a path through the chaos; everybody toots, yells or rings bells as they approach and pass: like ants.
Bullock and bird, Wadumunnegedara, Sri Lanka
My brief was to find out about the historical and practical aspects of Ayurvedic medicine in this tear-drop shaped country. With hindsight, that was rather ambitious. Over the next few days, I learned there really are no shortcuts with Ayurveda.
Horathapola Estate, No. 6, Wadumunnegedara
At the Sri Lankan Tourist Board desk, I was plied with brochures; there to welcome me was Mark Forbes, manager of a boutique hotel where I was to stay overnight. To my surprise, he spoke perfect English.
After an hour’s drive from the airport, we turned down a dirt path towards an elegant, early 20th century English planter’s mansion. With elephantine ankles from two flights and the tropical heat, I headed straight upstairs for a long, cool shower in my vast, breezy bathroom.
Artist Anupvega at Horathapola Estate, Sri Lanka
As local artist Anupvega was due to arrive, there was barely time to unpack and look around my antique-furnished bedroom with its king-size four-poster bed and starched white linen. This opened onto a vast verandah looking over lawns ideal for cricket and croquet.
Beyond this, as I was yet to discover, lie 50 acres of coconut, rice, cashew nuts, mangoes and other fruits, as well as spices and hardwood trees. Occasionally, a laid-back bullock can be found in the long grass with a bird in attendance – to remove annoying little bugs. Nature is marvelous.
Meanwhile, downstairs and still on Day One, we discussed art and mystical matters until it was time for a cooking demonstration on the preparation of Ayurvedic food. In charge of the kitchens at Horathapola are Wije and Nalin, who cook much of the food in earthenware pots on a traditional wood-burning stove.
Dinner that night included home-grown brown rice, eggplant moju, karavila sambal (bitter gourd), garlic curry, okra (ladies’ fingers) curry, black pork curry and mango curry. What a stunning introduction to the subtle flavours of Ayurvedic food.
A marvellous dinner at Horathapola Estate, Sri Lanka
Some of the spices used here are chilli powder, salt, cloves, pepper corns and cinnamon sticks. Additionally, there is roasted curry powder, turmeric powder, cardamom, fenugreek and cumin seeds.
Plentiful coconut milk softens the hotter elements and freshly chopped herbs and grated coconut are used to great effect.
Garlic curry, stage one, Horathapola, Sri Lanka
If food and art both lift the spirits at Horathapola, the mixture of natural friendliness and attention to detail by the staff is something be cherished.
Agreeing to meet manager, Mark Forbes at dawn for a trek around the estate, I slipped away early from dinner to get a few hours sleep.
An early start seemed propitious (it was my birthday) but there was nobody else up!
Later, coffee was served under the vast canopy of a 100-year-old frangipani tree and I had my walk around the estate. Then there was a bullock cart ride. After bumping around the property for a while, modern transport seemed much more attractive.
Angam – Sri Lankan Martial Art
After breakfast, we left to see a demonstration of martial arts at the Academy of Angam in Colombo. This is the sole surviving link to a very special part of Sri Lankan culture and pride.
Practiced in Sri Lanka since Kings ruled the land, when ‘the norm’ was for the ‘fittest to survive’, Angam remains a practice for those who are both spiritually and physically strong. The practice is carried forward from generation to generation and from father to son.
Dr Wickremasinghe, a senior Angam teacher with protagonist
Angam includes innovative fighting and defensive techniques, such as crowd-holding with whirling steel ribbons; thrilling to watch but definitely not something you would risk getting close to.
The execution of such techniques requires the unified strength of a strong body and the power of the mind. The academy in Colombo is headed by renowned Guru, G. Karunapala.
Both Guru Karunapala and another senior there, Dr Wickremasinghe (who treats many ailments, including snake bite), had a stillness and detachment to their movements and attitude that affected me deeply.
The good doctor said the Academy planned to take Angam north to teach to the youngsters, there. As with all martial arts, Angam provides a positive way for young people to focus and release energy.
Ayurvedic Lunch Thalangama Villas
Next, we went for an Ayurvedic lunch by the wetlands of Thalangama – an area with has a large bird population that has adapted well to the urban environment around it.
Talangama Lake, near the new capital of Sri Jayewardenepura, emerged in the 1970s as a waterfront development. It is a short drive past the parliament buildings designed by ‘super architect’, Geoffrey Bawa.
Pool at Villa Talangama, Colombo
Thalangama Villas is a small boutique hotel. The spacious master suite, with its own balcony looking over the lake, has a delightful bathroom, open to the wild.
Two other bedrooms on the first floor share a bathroom. There is a great deal of living space – inside and outside the villa and the best thing about Thalangama is that, once you book, the villa is saved for your exclusive use.
Lunch at Villa Talangama, Colombo
Lunch, at Villa Thalangama was fresh and wild. After the previous night, I recognised some of the ingredients and chose Sri Lankan dishes for preference.
My plate shows Red Rice, Lotus root curry, an Aubergine (egg plant) pickle, Gotukola salad with St John’s Wort, a Raita combining cucumber, onion and tomato with spices and curd, fried Seer fish, Papadam, Ghee Rice and Mango chutney.
In the centre of the picture is Jack fruit made into a white curry. The staff looked after us as though we were guests of the family.
In War and in Health
That evening, we visited Ayurveda 2009– an exhibition geared to foreign investors and exhibitors. It came just as war had ended in Sri Lanka and the two events fused together in my mind.
Masks to keep illness at bay, Ayurveda Fair, Colombo
In Sri Lanka, Ayurveda is regarded as ‘the future ofmedicine and healthcare’. They see ‘the world as turning away from chemical myth to natural herbs and towards traditional medicine’.
The identity of Sri Lanka, then, has been linked decisively with the image of Ayurveda and the National Chamber of Commerce in Sri Lanka has named the new approach as ‘a national mission of indigenous healthcare’.
If Ayurveda provides a powerful symbol of holistic integrity in the country, it is to be hoped that the ending of war in Sri Lanka provides a similar opportunity for its inhabitants to work together as a whole. As with healing the body, so with the country.
The opening address by the President and Commander-in- Chief of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, at the historic Parliamentary fourth session on May 19th, 2009, seemed to bear this hope out.
“All the people of this country should live in safety without fear and suspicion. All should live with equal rights. That is my aim. Let us all get together and build up this nation,” he said.
Speaking in Tamil, he added, “This is our country. This is our motherland. We should live in this country as children of one mother. No differences of race, caste and religion should prevail here.”
Cinnamon Grand Hotel
On arrival at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel, a Sri Lankan Tourist Board representative suggested that we visit one of the integral restaurants and choose our dinner, then have it delivered by them to our rooms.
The reason: most service staff in the hotel had been seconded to a huge, very chic wedding. So – from choice, after two days on the run and little sleep – I had a solitary birthday dinner. It was great to stop and ‘chill’.
Cinnamon Hotel, Colombo
For starters, I ordered oysters followed by rare pigeon with steamed vegetables and finished with a decadent dessert. Dinner came with a smile and was beautifully laid out on a mobile, semi-circular table, complete with flowers and sparkling glasses.
Rare pigeon with Garnish – Cinnamon Room Delivery
On another occasion, I would explore the Cinnamon’s extensive facilities. They have two swimming pools –one of them, the largest outdoor pool in the city, and there is an extensive spa, a bookshop and an art gallery.
Kids can be looked after and amused in their own special playroom – a supervised and completely safe environment.
Nilambe Buddhist Meditation Centre
In Sri Lanka, they say that ‘Meditation’ means awareness. ‘Whatever you do with awareness is meditation. Watching your breath is meditation; listening to birds is meditation. As long as these activities are free from any other distraction to the mind, it is effective meditation.’
Novices staying at Nilambe Buddhist Meditation Centre, Kandy
The Nilambe Buddhist Meditation is a ‘lay’ meditation centre for western travellers and backpackers and is non-sectarian.
The monastery is located in a former tea estate above Peradeniya, under the auspices of Guru, Upul Gamage (pictured). Yoga is practiced here on a daily basis.
Upul Gamage talks about meditation techniques at Nilambe Buddhist Centre, Kandy
Pupils are taught how to free their minds from the world they live in, and how to look at every situation with detachment.
People who are serious about meditation can stay at Nilambe and follow their daily schedule. As with other religious sites, women are asked to cover their legs and arms.
For me, group meditation was a welcome opportunity to recharge on a spiritual level.
Susantha Spice & Herbal Garden, Hingula
After leaving Kandy, we went to Susantha Gardens. Although the visit to these government-run, organic gardens was interesting, the knowledge came at a price.
My own interest related to an over-sensitive stomach and underactive thyroid but I asked academic questions about psoriasis, arthritis and lung problems. We were then given an ‘opportunity to buy products from their store’.
Fresh fruit enroute from Kandy
The medicines were not priced. When I discovered what they would cost, I rejected several items but Susantha’s man kept switching ‘my discarded bottles’ with others at the till, insisting, “You need this… this… “
Despite my driver looking over my shoulder to see the bill, he failed to explain what was going on. It was not until I reached home that I realised ‘the game’ at Susantha Gardens was not exactly cricket.
Ceylon Tea Fort
In contrast to Susantha, a visit to the old ‘Ceylon’ Tea Fort, purportedly the island’s most exclusive chain of tea shops, proved entirely worthwhile. They have a smart restaurant, too, but this was not on our schedule. Another day…
I bought several kinds of tea, including a Polpala Cloth bag of teas for improving the kidney function – it really does the trick – plus some good UVA Highland tea, extra special Silver Tip tea and green tea. The prices were displayed clearly and reasonable in price; it was a real pleasure to visit the Mlesna Tea Fort.
Summer (off season) in Sri Lanka is 1 May to 31 Oct. Winter is 1 Nov to 30 April.
- Horathapola Estate, No. 6, Wadumunnegedara (from £160pn)
- Taj Samudra , Colombo (Single Superior Room from £105pn)
- Siddhalepa Ayurveda Resort, Wadduwa (06 – Nights Ayurveda Therapy Package
( Ayur. + Full Board + Yoga + Meditation from £580)
- Villa Talangama - near Colombo (three rooms to rent by the room)
- Cinnamon Grand Hotel, Colombo (Solo, weekend special £95pn)
- Senses Holiday for travel arrangements and an English-speaking driver
- Meditation Centre in Sri Lanka
- Angam – Sri Lankan Martial Art
- Off the Beaten Track in Sri Lanka
- Emirates - London to Colombo, Sri Lanka (£553 return 31 Aug – 9 Dec 2012)