Little did bel-esprit Horace Walpole realize, as his Grand Tour ended under a cloud in Northern Italy, that he would never come closer to Serendib. The teardrop ‘Paradise Island’ off the coast of India beloved of Arabian seafarers is the home of the blissful state the christened serendipity – the “faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident”. Sri Lanka’s history has not always been happy; the unexpected, however, can certainly occur round every corner.

To the ancient Greeks, Sri Lanka was Taprobane; to the Indians, Lanka, the ‘Resplendent Land’, to the Moors the ‘Isle of Delight’, and to the Chinese the ‘Jewelled Island’. The Victorians called it the ‘Pearl of the Indian Ocean’ when they imposed the Pax Britannica on the last kings of Kandy, in the wake of the Portuguese and Dutch traders. They also quelled the invading Indian armies from both ends of the subcontinent – the Sinhalese and Tamils whose Buddhist and Hindu beliefs mingle freely today in shared rites without eradicating the political differences which still divide the island.

Lush and green across much of its area, laced by rivers and with ebony and satin-wood forests clothing the central mountains surrounding the sacred Adam’s Peak, this oval island north of the Equador – smaller than Ireland – also contains arid scrubland and inhospitable wilderness. Its landscapes, both harsh and seductive, overawe or intimidate in turns. In some places the changes are so abrupt that the moods clash, as if the transition from dry mountain air to tropical humidity causes centuries-old resentments to bubble to the surface. But there is also magic in the air, hovering prosaically over daily life in the ubiquitous charms and superstitions and given a more sublime artistic expression in dance. From the exorcist rituals of the masked ‘devil-dances’ of the south coast to the intricate acrobatics of the torchlit ceremonies of Kandy, the vigor of the predominantly male dancers and the rhythms of the accompanying drums have a cathartic effect.

Fanning out from Colombo, Sri Lanka’s road pass through rolling plains and steamy jungles, soaring to cloudy peaks past fragrant hillside tea gardens and plunging beside roaring waterfalls to hidden temples and forgotten villages. Apes chatter in the treetops, the jade-eye leopard stalks through the undergrowth, and somewhere in the bush an elephant trumpets. The grunt pride of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya, the wondrous capitals of long-lost civilizations, haunts the imagination as the gentle climate and folkloric charm of sweet Kandy soothe the spirit. Until the advent of more peaceful times, Jaffna and the North, as well as the Trincomalee area, remind out-of-bounds to visitors. But, shimmering beside the talcum-powder beaches, the sea is never far away.

Sri Lanka’s fabled rubies and sapphires have found their way into the coronation regalia or trinket-boxer of the world’s potentates from King Solomon onwards, and mining remains an important source of foreign exchange today. Since independence, a band of manufacturing industries has been established around the capital: textiles, ceramics, fertilizers and cement. Tea is the main cash crop, followed by rubber and coconuts; subsistence rice farming makes up the rest.

Despite the inevitable forays into the realms of Western cuisine in the larger towns, the curry-and-rice basis of the Sri Lankan diet reminds unchallenged. Curry powder is an individual blend of a dozen spices, with coconut milk often counterbalancing the incendiary chilli and the traditional clay chutty imparting a rich, earthy flavor. Although toddy and the sweet water of the thambili, or king coconut, are popular drinks, the serendipitous cuppa still reigns supreme. Have a pot of Flowery Orange Pekoe at its source!

* Sri Lanka
* Colombo - The Sights and Attractions
- Where to Stay and Hangout
* Kandy

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