Dambulla, a small town in central Sri Lanka, can be quite the shape-shifter. Aruna Rathod finds quiet and revelry, a world-heritage site and a forest reserve, depending on where she looks in this unassuming province
Dambulla, Sri Lanka
Best time to visit: All year
You need: 2 days
Just a two-and-a-half hour flight from Mumbai lies a discerning traveller's haven — a laidback vibe, verdant hills as far as the naked eye can see, rolling tea estates, pristine beaches and an experimental cuisine to match. Dambulla, a town in the Matale district in central Sri Lanka, relaxes you thoroughly, and it doesn't even have to try.
The Golden Temple at Dambulla has a gargantuan golden Buddha on the outside, flanked by monks draped in orange
Dambulla is four hours away from Colombo by road. We have been driving for a while, and I finally ask our chauffeur, Niran, "When will we hit the highway?" He chuckles and replies, "Ma'am, we don't have highways in Sri Lanka." He coolly drives down a regular two-lane road, and what a drive it is. Not once am I cheated out of the scenery. Hills in all shades of green, rice fields, rivulets and quaint country homes are ample here, as is my wonder.
It is breakfast time, and hunger pangs hit me. I remember that buffets are big in Sri Lanka, where all meals, even snacks, are served in buffet style. I yearn for idiyappams (string hoppers) and appams doused with chicken curry or fish gravy. What I have loved about Sri Lanka is how it isn't partial to the carnivores — vegetarians have an amazing choice too. Between moong dal (a staple in Sri Lanka) seasonal veggies, yam, tapioca, sweet potatoes and pumpkins, great vegetarian dishes are abundantly on offer.
And, of course, no meal in Sri Lanka is complete without the sambols (coconut chutneys with a flavouring of Maldive fish) and the singular flavour it adds to any dish it is eaten with. But my cravings will have to wait, I chide myself, even as I dream of the quaint earthenware all food in Sri Lanka is cooked and served in.
Devotion, in gold
To experience how devoutly Buddhism is practised in this country, I head to the Golden Temple, also the main attraction of Dambulla. A mammoth statue of a seated golden Buddha, unveiled in 2001, seems to touch the skies. A line of equally well-sculpted praying priests lends a sense of piety to this site. The site also has a three-storeyed museum, and one of the best cave-temple complexes in the world. The cave paintings are excellently-preserved examples of 18th century Sri Lankan art, and leave me fascinated with the detail of their storytelling.
At Sigiriya (Lion Rock), lion paws flank the entrance to the Lion Gate
We head back to the city for lunch, but I see there aren't too many options around. So, we settle for the Bentota Bake House. Only women wait on tables here, and the décor is simple and efficient. We have two choices for lunch — the fried rice or a regular rice buffet, both come with at least six accompaniments — a root vegetable, spicy chicken curry, a green vegetable, fish curry, sambols, mango chutney, fried papads cut into small pieces and the ubiquitous moong dal. You can, of course, down the meal with a soft drink, but I recommend the country's famous Ceylon tea post lunch.
After a nap at the resort, Heritance Kandalama, designed by the late Geoffrey Bawa, a renowned Sri Lankan architect who promoted the concept of environment-friendly stay experiences more than 20 years ago, it's time to visit the Kandalama reservoir. More than 160 species of migratory birds flock here.
The interiors of the Golden Temple have breathtaking cave paintings
Sure enough, I spot babblers, barbets, bulbuls, parakeets, woodpeckers and sunbirds here like nowhere else. The silence is rejuvenating, and one can sit for hours listening to the sound of water as it cascades into a valley. The only building one can see amid the dense jungle greenery is the Kandalama Heritance Hotel, and it is a marvel how the hotel was built into the existing rock formation. The dusk turns into night and I know my first day in Dambulla has been memorable.
On day two, it's time to explore Sigiriya (Lion Rock), an ancient city and a must-visit site when in Dambulla. Declared a World Heritage site in 1982, Sigiriya is touted to be the 'eighth wonder of the world'. I spot the famousm massive 600 ft-high rock against the blue sky. Many galleries and 1,600-year-old staircases emerge from the mouth of the massive stone lion, and the result is magnificent. The entire site is devoid of human waste and is pristine.
A fresco inside one of the the caves at Golden Temple. Pic/Aruna Rathod
The story of Sigiriya goes back to King Kasyapa who ruled Sri Lanka between 477 and 495 AD. The king, filled with guilt and fear after killing his father, abandoned his capital of Anuradhapura and fled to the forests. He built a new capital in Sigiriya, and regularly beautified it. On the black rock, he built himself a new capital, resplendent with lush gardens, ponds, palaces and pavilions.
A lion was sculpted out of the hill, like a guardian to the entrance to his city. The King finally committed suicide, leaving behind remains of an ambitiously-built kingdom. However, what makes Sigiriya stand out is an unusual monolith rock's shape — its top is flat and nearly an acre in size, which was used to build King Kasyapa's fortress complex.
We begin our journey to the top, treading carefully as the steps are steep, uneven and can be treacherously slippery. A spiral staircase has been installed to take visitors up to the 'mirror' wall (the rock face here is highly reflective, and hence is called 'mirror'), where frescoes have been well-maintained. The last leg of the climb, which is particularly steep, ascends from the paws of the lion. The only remains of this lion figure here are the gigantic paws, sculpted into the side of the rock, that I admire as I catch my breath.
In Sri Lanka, you can get special masks for prosperity, good health, relationships, warding off the evil-eye and to bring good luck. Pic/Aruna Rathod
When we are back at sea level, we stop by a mask factory. Sri Lanka is famous for its masks. There are special masks for prosperity, good health, relationships, warding off the evil eye and to bring good luck. A whole different set of vibrant masks is used for cultural performances around the country. Dambulla, I realise by the end of my trip, is the perfect mix of the quaint and the magnificent. Its sites are, no doubt, larger than life, and its vibe is unpretentious, and lulls me into comfort like I have rarely known.
Getting there: Jet Airways and Sri Lankan Airlines have direct two-and-half-hour flights to Colombo, with return fares starting at Rs 12,000
Where to stay: Heritance Kandalama is a luxury resort at the foothills and amidst a lush reserve forest, by the beautiful lake. Rooms from Rs 8,000 a night
Top tip: Carry your passport while visiting Sigiriya; SAARC citizens get 50 per cent discount on the Rs 4,000 entry fee