Sri Lanka: From Dust To Luxury

But the ancient urban planning makes for a worthwhile spectacle. You go up past frescoes of harem beauties, past a yellowing rock wall so polished it is called a mirror, through a gate that used to be the maw of a massive lion (only its gargantuan paws remain), and ascend to a plateau of ruined palaces and ample pools overlooking central Sri Lanka.

Buddhists like stairs, apparently, and we next climbed the 364 steps to the top of the nearby Dambulla rock temples—mountain caves claimed as a holy site more than 2,000 years ago and drenched in colorful Buddhist and Hindu scriptural imagery of deities. The main hub of this historical area is Kandy, which surrounds a lake and is full of sundry shops and winding alleys and cafes. Everywhere, it seems, the new Sri Lanka is moving toward a coherentidentity that reconciles its ancient history, the long shadows of colonialism, and the vitality of a country reawakened by peace to its own civility. We visited the Temple of the Tooth, where one of the Buddha’s molars is kept {odd to pay tribute to an enduring tooth in a place called Kandy), and whose frescoed walls were restored after a 1998 LTTE bombing.

Sigiriya

Sigiriya Fortress

We stopped by the eerie Helga’s Folly, a decrepit 1930s hotel that feels like a tropical outpost of The Addams Family, with dingy black rooms full of far-fetched Victorian furnishings and the waxy residue of a thousand (come for a drink, but not more); then cooled off at the vast botanical gardens nearby—a vestige of British colonial rule, full of impossibly tufted trees and delicious ferns. It would be wrong to believe that a cultural tour of Sri Lanka involves only historical monuments. The island-nation has always been a crossroads of trade and of cultures, which has kept it a vibrant nexus of creativity and intellect in its modern era, as in the one before. Not far from Sigiriya and Dambulla is the late architect Geoffrey Bawa’s iconic Kandalama Hotel, built in 1947.


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