Dress Code Like No Other
The religious places all over the world have their dress codes and I don’t care enough about religions to complain about them. But Sri Lankans are the most bull-headed about its literal implementation, more than any other place I have been to till now (to their credit they hassle men and women alike – no sexism there!). In most other places they stop you only if your dress is blatantly improper and don’t get offended by every centimeter of departure from the prescribed length! Not in Sri Lanka. Their definition of covering the shoulders includes covering the upper arms too. This was the part I was not prepared for and had to go around with a jacket on my shoulders on the first day (it was HOT and HUMID!) and then a towel (Because, unlike what you would expect in tourist places, there weren’t even any vendors around selling stoles or sarongs to the trapped tourists)!
While at most places covering upper arms and a below-the-knee dress or trouser was enough, in Dambulla you were required to cover the legs all the way up to the ankles (there was also a totally unnecessary and super unpleasant encounter with a culture-supremacist uncle there, but I will skip the details). At Isurumuniya temple in Anuradhapura, there was a diktat against wearing black or dark-colored clothes. You should wear white! Our driver told us that they don’t impose that restriction on tourists and thankfully he was right. They didn’t bother me about my black shirt (perhaps it was compensated by my super white skirt).
Finally, hats and shoes have to come off almost everywhere. And the stupas, as they were being built, seemed to have gotten into a competition with their predecessors; so they kept getting bigger and bigger. Just to go around them, you have to walk over the stone-paved surfaces for a long time. At other times it is sand you are walking on. While scattered here and there may be some carpets, they are not available with any reliable frequency and they might also get dangerously hot besides being prickly depending on the material used. Not wearing socks proved daft. Did I burn my soles or what!
Taking all this into account, here are the suggested best practices:
- Wear full-length clothes. While below the knee works at most places, you never know where they decide to become more competitively pious and demand longer clothes.
- Cover upper arms. Perfectly modest, but sleeveless dress or shirt is not enough.
- Wear socks even if the heat doesn’t encourage it and even if your shoes don’t demand it. Your soles will thank you for it.
- Wear shoes that are easy to remove and put back on.
- Wear white or light-colored clothes. They would anyway be more comfortable in the heat. But even if worry about dirt tempts you towards black clothes, don’t give in.
Hindi in Sri Lanka via…?
The first site we visited was the fort at Yapahuwa and the person at the ticket counter immediately started talking in Hindi. He was pretty fluent too, unlike the waiter serving us our first meal in Italy. So, this time I managed to ask how he learned Hindi. It turned out that he had worked in Dubai for ten years and an obvious outcome was learning Hindi!
We also came across other people who could communicate a bit in broken Hindi.
Sri Lankans have been hygiene-aware for a long time, it seems. Urinal and lavatory stones in monasteries, lavatories & septic tanks in palaces and an ancient hospital speak to that. Urinal stones were the most decorated elements in some monasteries. Apparently to show the monks’ contempt for worldly beauty!
On and off the Tourist Map
Given the limited time, we decided to stick to the area called “Ancient Cities” for touristic purposes – specifically Anuradhapura, Mihintale, Polonnaruwa, Yapahuwa, Sigiriya, and Dambulla.
- Anuradhapura was the capital of the main Singhalese kingdoms from few centuries BC until 10th century AD.
- At that point, Cholas conquered them and ruled the kingdom briefly. They shifted the capital to Polonnaruwa. When a Singhalese king ousted them, he continued to rule from Polonnaruwa.
- After 13th-century the capital shifted again, and then through the usual complicated processes of successions, divisions, and assimilations different kingdoms and dynasties came, slowly capitulated first to the Portuguese, then to the Dutch and finally to the British.
- The last native kingdom remaining was Kandyan kingdom, with its capital in Kandy. It succumbed to the British in the 19th century. Among other things, they had patronized the already existing monastery at Dambulla and there are a bunch of cave paintings and statues there from the Kandyan period.
- Mihintale is a place near Anuradhapura, where Mahinda (Emperor Ashoka’s son who took Buddhism to Sri Lanka) is supposed to have met the Sri Lankan king who converted to Buddhism – Devnampiya Tissa.
- Yapahuwa was the capital for a short period in the 13th century, and currently has the ruins of the fortified city.
- We were planning to visit Ritigala too but skipped it because of lack of time. It houses an ancient monastery and is supposed to be the place from where Hanuman jumped back over the sea to reach Lord Rama after finding out the whereabouts of Sita.
Anuradhapura and Mihintale do not seem to be on the main tourist circuit. So, tourists are outdone in number by the local pilgrims. But these places have some of the oldest sights Sri Lanka has to offer to the history-lovers.
The ancient cities of Sri Lanka also boast of early expertise in water management and irrigation system. They were already pretty advanced in centuries before Christ. We saw Nuwara Wewa which is a tank built in 1st century BC and covers an area of 1200+ hectares. Two other tanks in Anuradhapura area are also spread over hundreds of hectares. Parakram Samudra in Polonnurawa is 2000+ hectares. The tanks and canals powered irrigation system was the backbone of this ancient civilization.
Other places on our list were more likely to be on typical tourist itineraries. But the most common places on tourist radar – Kandy and then the beaches in South – were not on our list this time. We didn’t have enough time. So, hopefully, there will be another trip!
Museum at Anuradhapura was sadly closed for renovation, but those at Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa were useful. If you take guides there, they would usually skip museums. But if you have time, visiting the museums is highly recommended. Dambulla Museum is a hidden gem, which most people don’t visit. But it is well-organized and gives just the right amount of information about Sri Lankan wall paintings through the ages. It also sets the right context before you visit Dambulla caves.
The Buddhist Country
Sri Lanka is an interesting country in that it has been Buddhist for a long time (since 4th century BC). Hinduism had a strong influence and the big Tamil minority continues to be mostly Hindu. There still are tribes whose faith is pre-Buddhist and there are also Muslim and Catholic minorities. But if there is a country that can lay claim to the longest, sustained Buddhist tradition, it would be Sri Lanka. The Buddhists have also diligently maintained the written history of the island (although those histories delve into fantasies too often to be comfortable to modern minds, but dealing with that is the fate of historians all over the world). Not only is the island, then, a rich source for Buddhist history, but also, given the strong Indian connection, for reconstructing the history of India. We would never have known that those inscriptions strewn all over the Indian subcontinent were from Emperor Ashoka, but for a Sri Lankan Buddhist source that mentioned that Devnampiya Piyadasi (the name mentioned in those inscriptions) was Ashoka himself.
In terms of tourist facilities, even Sri Lanka outdoes India. Usable toilets were easy to find. Although at some places, toilets for foreigners and locals were separate. Presumably to maintain better ones for the foreigners who paid a much higher price for the tickets. This segregation was uncomfortable, but hey, the toilets were clean and even had toilet paper available most of the times.
We had booked one taxi for all three days. So, we do not have any other experience of dealing with local taxis. But this one was a good experience. Unlike most tourist taxis in India, the driver was not trying to cut corners. Not only was he proactive in taking us to all the planned sights, he was equally comfortable with any additions and modifications. Not having to be on your toes all the time makes the experience so much better.
The experience with guides was mixed. In Mihintale, our homestay host was also a guide and we took him along because apart from his belief in the levitation abilities of Buddha and Mahinda, his knowledge of history seemed to be all right. He showed us all the sights and explained the finds in detail. In Yapahuwa there was limited number of things to see and we didn’t look for a guide.
In Anuradhapura and Polonnurawa, we spent almost an entire day each. So, we didn’t take a guide. Using our own research and the information available on the sites, we had a satisfactory experience. In Sigiriya, since we wanted to finish it quickly, we looked for a guide. Our driver was, by then, aware that we liked “going deep” and tried to arrange for a guide who would do that. That proved to be a counter-productive! They put forward a guide, an elderly man, who claimed to have a relevant university degree and assured us that he would explain it all to us. He also charged heftily. But he was worse than any guide we have ever had. We didn’t do much more than climbing up and down the hill with him. We got more information from the boards at the site and the museum we visited later. He didn’t show us even what we saw other non-university-graduate guides showing people. Next time we must warn any well-meaning drivers against looking for elite guides!
At Anuradhapura and Polonnurawa, the ticket price of Indian passport holders (perhaps for all SAARC countries) was half than that of other foreigners. It is always a good idea to ask if there is a discount, before purchasing the tickets.
Local food was good and mostly cheap. Our driver did a good job of taking us to nice places.
VISA and Currency
For Indians, you can apply for an ETA online. It is issued quickly and is valid for six months from the date of issue. Within a 30-day period in those six months, you can enter the country twice. ETA is as good as a VISA in the sense that you don’t have to separately get a VISA on arrival. You can go straight to the immigration queue.
Changing INR to Sri Lankan Rupee (LKR) is almost not possible. So, if you are depending on currency exchange, it is better to carry dollars. The exchange rate at the airport was the best and all the counters there had the same rate. At the places we visited, there weren’t many shops with clear signs for currency exchange, but it was possible to do it. Our driver guided us on that.
Almost every service we had booked in advance (taxi and homestays quoted prices in dollars and they were happy to accept dollars too). At some of the major sights (Anuradhapura and Polonnurawa), you can also pay for the tickets in dollars. But for other expenses, we stuck to converted LKR.
If you are depending on ATMs, be sure to withdraw money in major cities and towns. Along the highways or in smaller places, ATMs didn’t seem to be easily available. Credit card acceptance is limited in many of these places.