On The Ramayana Trail in Sri Lanka

In the olden days Sri Lanka was known as “Serendip”( “dvip” meaning island ). This was the name used by Arab traders.

In the eighteenth century, the British writer and politician Horace Walpole, being inspired by what he had read of this magical island, invented the word “serendipity “ – meaning – a very pleasant surprise.

When great good fortune comes your way, unexpectedly, it is called serendipity.
I came away from my week’s tour of Sri Lanka with exactly this feeling.

Blessed with a pleasant climate and pollution-free environment, surrounded on all sides by water, nature’s bounty is visible all around – trees laden with avocado, rambutan and passion fruit ( not to mention the humble coconut and jackfruit ), flowers of many varieties and colours, well-maintained roads, regulated traffic and friendly people – all these go to make up Sri Lanka. Most major towns even have a natural lake studded with blue, white and pink lotuses, waterfowl and neat sidewalks, benches and flower borders – all of which helps to create the impression that even natives walking by are taking a vacation.

Ours was a group tour with eighty adults and twenty kids coming from different parts of India and the UAE. The direct Sri Lankan Airlines flight from Trivandrum to Colombo is only twenty minutes and can cost anything between INR 6,000 and 10,000 depending on when you book. But there is a cheaper, daily Spicejet flight from Madurai that takes an hour and costs only 3,000. You can get your visa online ( INR 1,500) or on arrival ( INR 2,500 ).

Halfway through the flight, the pilot pointed out the Rama Sethu but on my side, clouds got in the way of my view of it.

In Colombo which is a posh and formidably expensive city, we rented service apartments at the Lafala hotel . These 3 BHK apartments with kitchen facility cost 150USD per night but when shared by four to five members, became affordable. Lafala is forty kms from the airport and by the seashore. The unique thing here is that the railway track ( coastal railway ) runs along the shore. Some of us took a long joy ride in the local train for the pleasure of sea-gazing. In quite a few places, in addition to the LKR and USD , they were also willing to take INR. ( 1 INR = 2.20 LKR.)

We had a cooking team made up by volunteers from within our group and did our own cooking right through this trip, so this article has nothing to offer to readers looking for information about the local cuisine and eateries. But yes, we did sample their halwa called “dodur” made of red rice and coconut milk, available in superstores and bakeries. We also ate many rambutans as it was the season for this fruit which is similar to litchi. The durian fruit which looks like jackfruit and contains sweet flesh inside, we found to be repulsive because of its strong odour.

In addition to its natural beauty and resources, Sri Lanka is the proud custodian of several Ramayana sites – visiting a few of these sites was the actual objective of our yatra.
Sri Lanka has an excellent network of roads and we had hired high-floor, air-conditioned coaches to go from Colombo to Nuvara Eliya ( 180 kms away ) and then on to Kandy before returning to the capital to fly home.

Nuvara Eliya is a hill station at seven thousand feet above sea level whose cool temperate climate and flora made it a favourite haunt of the British in colonial times and earned it the nickname, “ Little England “.

Nuvara Eliya

Nuvara Eliya

We eventually got there after our bus had climbed winding mountain roads that went past several tea plantations with quaint English names. Some of these estates have a tea centre where you can sit and enjoy the view while tasting or buying tea. You can also go for a tour of the tea factory. Tea and cinnamon cultivation and tourism are the main sources of revenue for this country.

My first impression of Nuvara Eliya -especially of the beautiful lake with speed boats and coniferous trees in the background – was that it was like a slice of Europe.

Beautiful Ashokavanam

Beautiful Ashokavanam

Ashokavan or Ashokavatika lies in Nuvara Eliya. The demon-king Ravana brought Sita Devi and ensconced her here as a prisoner, ( in what he considered to be the most beautiful part of his kingdom ), hoping to impress her and calculating that the sylvan surroundings would make for a perfect romantic setting, to lull her and break down her resistance to his amorous advances.

Ashoka tree with red flowers

Ashoka tree with red flowers

The Ashoka tree ( Saraca asoca ) has fragrant flowers that are yellowish-orange and later turn crimson before wilting. They grow in clusters. Such is the heady scent of these flowers that they are said to be part of Kamadev’s quiver – for they have the power of seductive hypnosis. Ironically, this tree is known as the “sorrow-less tree” (“ashoka”means no grief ). Originally a rain forest tree, it is fast disappearing from its original habitats.

Hanuman finally finds Mother Sita in Ashokavanam

Hanuman finally finds Mother Sita in Ashokavanam

Entrance to Sita Ram temple in Ashoka Vanam ( Nuvara Eliyah )

Entrance to Sita Ram temple in Ashoka Vanam ( Nuvara Eliyah )

The exact spot where Hanumanji found Sita devi after a long and desperate search and where he presented Lord Ram’s signet ring to Her is marked by a temple to Their Lordships. Hanumanji’s footprints are preserved and worshipped to this day. Nearby is Sita’s Tear Pond and the unique Sita flowers ( a variant of the Ashoka flower ) that are endemic to this region. In these flowers, the peculiar configuration of stamen and pistil gives the impression of a person holding a bow.
Later, when Ravana got wise to the fact that his hiding place for Sita had been discovered, he moved her out of Ashokavan. Hanuman had spied out the land and displayed his amazing pastimes of making himself tiny to pass in and out through a sleeping Ravana’s nostrils, uprooted trees and even set Lanka on fire with his tail – staging a sneak preview of his immense strength, arranged for his enemy’s enlightenment.

Then, the demon king became jittery and moved Sita Devi out of Ashokavan and into a cave on a mountain top which falls in today’s Ravana Ella Wildlife Sanctuary. You have to climb a lot of steep steps to get to this cave. For some relaxation, after the steep climb, you can bathe in the Ravana Waterfalls ( the cave and the falls are two kms apart ).

But actually, even before Sita was brought to Ashokavan, immediately after she was kidnapped from the Dandakaranya forest, Ravana transported her by his celestial aeroplane ( pushpaka vimana ) to a hideaway deep in the forest called Sita Kotuwa.

Sita kotuwa

Sita kotuwa

Here, her endless wailing and weeping and her refusal to eat anything offered to her, forced Ravana to move her to the beautiful Ashokavan.

So, the sequence was – Sita Kotuwa – Ashokavan – Sita cave – and later other hiding places.
Sita Kotuwa is only for the very adventurous. It’s an hour’s drive out of Kandy. By the time we reached, dusk was falling and having to climb down the mountainside ( and having to climb up again after night had fallen !! ) , trying to get a foothold amidst shaky stones and roots of ancient trees, with nothing to guide us but the light from mobile phones , hearing small jungle animals scurrying away, was an experience that some of us had mixed feelings about. When you get to the bottom of the slope, amidst the thick foliage is a clearing with the ruins ( foundation ) of Ravana’s palace hideaway. In the daytime, with sufficient daylight to see by, this trek ought to be do-able. But you have to go to that place to understand what Mother Sita’s feelings must have been – plucked out of idyllic Panchavatti and transported to unfamiliar lands, being at the mercy of a lusty, ten-headed rakshasa – all within just a few hours. It helps to remind us that this material world is a place where in a few moments our life can turn upside down and happiness and harmony can be replaced by tragedy.

It is believed that, here in Sita Kotuwa, Sita had Ravana’s queen Mandodari for company and despite the latter’s entreaties, would throw away the rice offered to her. These rice grains, over centuries have developed into small walnut like balls called “Sita Gooli” that are kept on private altars and worshipped. When broken open, they reveal grains that are said to have healing powers and resorted to, to combat disease.

world heritage site sigiriya

world heritage site sigiriya

The high point of our yatra was the visit to Sigiriya, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Sigiriya or Simha Giriya ( Lion Rock ) is a gigantic rock formation ( 660 ft high ) on top of which a complex capital city was built by one king Kashyap and which was said to have been later usurped by Ravana. Still later, it was used by Buddhists to promote their religion. The rock and its surroundings presents a unique concentration of urban planning, architecture, gardening, engineering, hydraulic technology and art.

Ravana palace gardens

Ravana palace gardens

Sigiriya Lion's paws

Sigiriya Lion’s paws

This rock gets its name from two giant lions’ paws ( something like the Sphinx in Giza, Egypt ) – this simha being suggestive of the founder of the Sinhalese race.

It is possible to climb to the very top . There is a staircase with handrails. ( Look carefully at the left hand side of the accompanying picture ( the first of the three Sigiriya pictures ) and you will see a human chain going up from the base of the rock monolith ).Even if you don’t have the stamina to make it to the top, its worth going halfway up where there is a gigantic picture gallery with remains of fresco paintings. And a splendid view of the surrounding countryside. The normal entry fee to this heritage site is USD30 but Indians can avail of a fifty percent discount on showing their passport.

On the way back from Sigiriya, we stopped at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage where the kids had great fun, bottle-feeding elephant calves and watching them being bathed in the river – all for a certain fee.

Walking up to the Rambhoda Hanuman temple

Walking up to the Rambhoda Hanuman temple

Returning to the theme of Sita’s abduction by Ravana, the Ramboda Bhakta Hanuman temple marks the spot where Hanumanji stopped to meditate on the great and difficult mission he had undertaken – to find the queen consort of his beloved Lord Ram and take Her back safely. The Chinmaya Mission has built a sixteen foot high statue of Hanuman where visitors throng to offer pujas. There are beautiful gardens, parks and a restaurant and gift shop. Picture 11 : View from Ramboda temple
Many of these Ramayana sites later passed into the custody of Buddhists and are well maintained. In such cases, Buddhist artwork in the form of stupas, images and paintings were added to the existing ones.

Sita Agnipariksha spot

Sita Agnipariksha spot

One such site is the spot where Sita devi, after being united with Lord Ram, undergoes the test by fire ( agnipariksha ) and comes out unscathed.

Sita Agnipariksha spot entrance

Sita Agnipariksha spot entrance

Wooden deity at Sita Agnipariksha

Wooden deity at Sita Agnipariksha

Buddha images in Sita Agnipariksha spot

Buddha images in Sita Agnipariksha spot

On the last day, we travelled to the Manavari and Muneeshvaran temples. The first of these is the spot where Lord Ram is said to have made a Shivlinga with sand to worship and seek permission before going to kill Ravana ( who himself was a great devotee of Shivji ).

The second of these temples is where Lord Ram once again worshipped Lord Shiva to atone for brahmahatya or the sin of having killed a Brahmana ( Ravana ).

Neither of these episodes figure in the Valmiki Ramayana and are considered to be later, fictitious additions . Scholars and devotees question the authenticity of these two temples –In the “parithraanaaya saadhunam,vinashaaya ca dushkrataam verse of the Bhagavad-gita ,( 4.8 ) it is stated that one of the reasons why the Lord comes in various incarnations is to annihilate miscreants and to restore peace and justice. So, why should the Supreme Personality ( Lord Rama ) have to apologize and atone for the act of killing a demon like Ravana ?

After Ravana’s defeat, his brother Vibhishana was crowned king by Ram and Lakshmana on the banks of the Keliniya Ganga . ( Ganga means river in the local language ). A huge Buddhist complex now stands on this site.

We learnt from locals that the country recovered from the political problems of the past by taking financial assistance from China and Japan. In order to pay back these loans, heavy tax is levied on all imported items and this makes life a struggle for the middle class. We were shocked to learn that the Nano car, imported from India costs 15 lakh LKR ( that would be 7 lakh INR approximately ).

Although we had cut costs considerably by doing our own cooking, the cost of vegetables at times gave us a jolt. A medium sized pumpkin cost LKR 1,000 !

There are over fifty Ramayana sites and we were able to cover only a handful of these in the time available.

For detailed information on this vast topic, please visit “ Ramayana sites in Sri Lanka “ on www.stephen-knapp.com

Also see “Ramayana :The Story of Lord Rama” by Bhakti Vikasa Swami, BVKS Trust, Surat, India.

8 Comments

  • Uday Baxi says:

    A very informative and interesting post. Thanks. Due to this post, I could see the places associated with Ramayana and situated in Mondern-day Sri Lanka. Incidentally, this post came up when I had just concluded a two-parts series about Panchwati, another places associated with Ramayana.
    Thanks again.
    Regards

  • Sugita Vani says:

    Thanks Uday. Yes I too noted the coincidence and enjoyed reading your articles. Hope to visit Panchavatti some day.

  • Sugita Vani says:

    A few people who read this article were confused by my description of Ravana as a brahmin ( towards the end of the article ).They asked how a rakshasa could be a brahmin at the same time ??!!

    Well, the answer to that is – his father was a brahmin ( Vishwasrava ) but his mother was an asura woman ( Kaikeshi ).

    Whats more , Ravana’s ten heads are said to be symbolic of the knowledge he had amassed , like a true brahmin . Four of his ten heads stood for the four Vedas ( Rig, Sama, Yajur, Atharva ) and the remaining six heads stood for the six systems of philosophy .

    Kubera, the god of wealth, was Ravana’s half-brother, same father, different mothers.

    In fact his father was descended from Sage Pulastya himself – quite a lineage, huh ?

  • Nandan Jha says:

    Quite a coincidence, I just read Uday’s Panchwati series and pops up this one. From Ghumakkar side, we must disclose that we didn’t plan it :-). But then as they say that these things get planned at a higher level.

    The Ashoka tree, one of the first photographs, look a bit different then the regular Ashoka I have been seeing in Delhi. May be there are many varieties of it.

    Good to know that one gets 2+ LKR for each INR but then a pumpkin at INR 500 doesn’t sound nice.

    Thank you Sugita for taking us around to lesser-known places. I am definitely much more informed about Lanka now, then before. Please keep writing.

  • Muskan says:

    That was a really interesting post to read. Since all of us know the Ramayana tale and to know that those places does exit is tremendous.. Thank you for sharing.. Looking forward for more posts from you.

    • Sugita Vani says:

      Thank you Muskan. Quite a few of these sites have been taken over by Buddhists and they are maintained nicely . Sri Lanka itself is a beautiful country.

  • Beautiful post with proper description :). I loved reading your complete post with pictures :) Craving to visit these spots with the help of your post… Keep inspiring us :)

  • Sugita Vani says:

    Thank you Pamela for your encouraging comment.

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