Early December, 180 km east of Colombo, I found my own piece of personal
nirvana. For three days, I was free from the cycle of heat, humidity and the incessant Colombo rain. Added to my physical revival was an intense dose of spiritual reawakening: even for an unyielding believer like me, walking around half a dozen temples in three days, barefooted and hands clasped in veneration, was nothing short of a minor rebirth.
The pilgrim trail
Unlike other tourists, I didn't go to the picturesque hill district of Nuwara Eliya (NE) to enjoy its crisp and cold winter, trim tea gardens, its bungalows with white picket fences, cheerful gardens or the placid lake offering boat rides.
The sole purpose of my trip was to visit a few of the 50-odd designated sites related to the Ramayana across Sri Lanka, which through years of legend and belief and a new, focused marketing strategy, has become the much-touted religious tour of the region - four-five days of intense tracking of sites over bhajans and vegetarian food culminating in a day or two of retail therapy in Colombo. The focus of this well-marketed trail of course is on Ram's devotees from India.
When I was posted here in 2008, friends steeped in a fathomless sense of history that matured over adolescent stacks of Amar Chitra Katha comics,
told me that I was visiting the land of Ravana. As it turns out, Sri Lanka is the land of a large chunk of the Ramayana. Nobody believes it more seriously than the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau (SLTPB).
"The events of the epic poem, which supposedly took place in Sri Lanka, have permeated the nation's psyche; there are an extraordinary number of places - jungle shrines, mountains, streams, ponds and hot springs among them - associated with the epic. Pick up a map and plan an individual itinerary that will take you on a fascinating journey on the trail of a legend," the SLTPB website said.
So I picked up a brochure that listed some 10 Ramayana-related sites around NE, and left Colombo on a Saturday morning. The journey, except for the final 40 km, was on a smooth road, gradually climbing to 6,180 feet through sharp turns covered in eucalyptus and pine. Scores of gushing waterfalls falling out of moss-covered rock faces reminded me of the Himalayan foothills.
Unlike India's dhabas, here you get clean bakeries on the highways. Besides an assortment of cakes, buns, rolls and bread, these bakeries - also at breakfast - serve chicken, beef and fish curries with rice and hoppers. Since I personally didn't believe in beginning a semi-pilgrimage trip on a fasting stomach, I ate.
Anula Munasinghe from the Ramayana Research Committee had told me that the area around NE was once Ravana's Ashoka Vatika, or pleasure garden where the abducted wife of Ram was kept. I liked Ravana's taste. So did the British it seems, who made NE their pleasure garden while ruling the country.
At a fairly high altitude, the area is markedly different from other parts of the country and the small, hilly towns are cleaner, less polluted and less populated than Indian hill stations.
A temple tour
But I focused on the trail. The first stop on the map was the Seetha Amman
temple, some nine km from NE. (Sita will be spelt as Seetha because that's the way her name is spelt in Ravana's Lanka.)
"Any donation, you can put in here," temple manager A Yogarajah's opening
statement put me at my ease. Instead of a donation, I had questions. "The
original statues here are very old. Maybe 5,000 years old. Seetha Maata was kept here by Ravana. This was where Hanumanji came to visit her," Yogarajah told me while showing me around the temple.
He also showed me the new Ram and Seetha idols, donated in 1999 by the Kolkata-based Modi Foundation. Behind the temple was a fast-flowing hill stream - also ancient it seems, as Seetha apparently bathed in it. In the middle was a rock formation with five large holes: "Hanuman's footprints,"
Yogarajah said. Hanging around the quiet temple were docile monkeys.
"There are 55 at least," he confirmed.
I went through the temple logbook. In June, the Madhya Pradesh CM Shivraj Singh Chauhan wrote in flowing Hindi that his experience was overwhelming. But a Bangalore resident added a remark of dissent: "Could not find any
evidence about Ravana and Sita."
Who was I to judge, I thought, moving to Divurumpola, a town 15 km from Nuwara Eliya. This is said to be where Seetha Devi underwent 'Agni Pariksha' and is a popular place of worship.
Divurumpola means 'place of oath' in Sinhala. "The legal system permits and accepts the swearing done at this temple while settling disputes between parties," the brochure said. What it did not tell me was that the temple could only be found after 45 minutes of asking residents. Located inside a white Buddhist stupa, the only indication of Seetha's presence was a signboard in English and Sinhala. Resting against a Bo tree, it said: "...sacred place where Queen Seetha took her oath." At the back of the temple were large wall paintings very broadly outlining the epic, including the 'pariksha'.
I next headed for Ella, a small, hilly town with many cafes and hotels, to
look at two more sites: "The Ravana Ella Cave, situated in the massive Ella Rock. Then there is Ravana Ella Falls (and a nearby pool bored out of the rock by the gushing waters, where Sita is said to have bathed)," the SLTPB website said.
The area around the waterfall is a popular tourist spot. The waterfall is
imposing, gushing out of a high rockface and allowing enough space for people to bathe and others to take photographs. The signboards didn't mention much about the Ramayana; they warned against wanton bathing under the waterfall.
The Ella cave, as the SLTPB said, was massive indeed; what it did not mention was that the cave was located at the top of a cliff, a winding climb for a kilometre and then 720 steep steps through thick foliage up a rock face. Danushka, 8, and teenager Chintana, boys from the neighbourhood, accompanied me as I inhaled, exhaled, cursed and prayed up those 720 steps. It was worth the effort: the cave appeared primeval and eerie, water seeping down the black rocks from unseen sources, an ancient silence around it and the startled flutter of the occasional bird flying out from its deep inside. I wouldn't at all be shocked if Ravana had actually hidden Seetha in it.
"It is part of the cave network Ravana built to move around with ease," S
Kalaiselvam, director general of the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority, had earlier told me with a straight face.
A scene to remember
The next day, I failed to locate the site known as the 'chariot path' - a
jungle route by which Ravana took Seetha to show her the beauty of his
kingdom. Brandishing the brochure at residents was of no help.
Instead, my driver Palitha took me to a Hanuman temple on top of a
hillock. Alas, though a Hanuman temple built by the Chinmaya Mission, it
had no connection to the trail. But it's beautifully located on the Nuwara
Eliya-Kandy road, overlooking a thickly forested area and the upper Kotmale dam in the valley below.
The view looked especially bright over a cup of green tea at a nearby tea
estate. Charmingly, all the tea estates offer free cups of tea to tourists.
In fact, there are many Hindu temples in the area, some new, some old. These were built by Indian-origin Tamils - transported to the region in the 19th century by the British to work in tea estates.
There are critics who say that it was the years of worship of Hindu deities by these I