The many layers of Sri Lanka

Tea estate, Sri Lanka

Terraced tea slopes in Sri Lanka

On every sensual and intellectual level, Sri Lanka is not just a country to visit but a place to experience. The overwhelming, haunting quality of the island is of spirituality and harmony. From the muted thunder of the waves lapping its coral shores, to the jade-green jungle and terraced slopes of tea and fern, a visitor stands to be rewarded by a richness that no other place on earth can offer.

Of the four major religions practised on the island, Buddhism predominates. It is a way of life rather than a religion. Festivals, such as the ritual requesting the gods for rain (Esala Perahera), date back to the 3rd century BC and continue to this day. Combined with a ceremony from the time when the Sacred Tooth was brought to the island in the early 4th century AD, over a hundred gaily caparisoned elephants accompanied by drummers, dancers, whip-crackers, flag and fire bearers escort a magnificent tusker carrying the golden casket containing the sacred relics of the Lord Buddha. The annual Kandy Perahera is a great display of old royal splendour persisting into modern times.

Demon mask Sri Lanka

A Sri Lankan demon mask

An ancient tradition found to this day is demon worship. Demons believed to be living in trees and mountains are classified as mythological, demonic, animal-spirit and human figures. According to Sinhalese thinking, the world is divided into several levels (lokha). The three main ones are: the world of the gods (deva lokha), the world of the humans (manussa lokha), and the underworld of demons (amanussa lokha). This entire cosmic order is under Buddha’s command. Because Buddha has achieved Nirvana, he is outside and above everyone else, including the gods. Demon masks are still used in healing rituals in Sri Lanka, particularly in the south of the island. The authentic masks and masking traditions of Sri Lanka are an extraordinary cultural phenomenon not found anywhere else in the world.

Sigiriya Maidens Sri Lanka

The Sigiriya Maidens of Sri Lanka

Many remnants of the island’s ancient and medieval civilisations are now world heritage sites. The fortress palace of Sigiriya, rising 370 metres above the surrounding jungle and the nearby Golden Cave temple of Dambulla with hundreds of Buddha images are the island’s most visited locations. Other legendary sites boasting beautiful stupas and rock sculptures are dotted throughout the island.

Palaces, monasteries, shrines and temples bear witness to once-thriving kingdoms and the complex system of irrigation, canals, enormous reservoirs and artificial water works are evidence of how highly-developed these societies were. Sri Lanka’s famous Chronicles provide an exceptional record for the history of the island from about the 6th century BC. Filming the movie adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s famous novel The Outcast, the English director Sir Carol Reed commented that the ‘whole island is a giant movie set’.