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On the ancient trail of the Ramayana, in modern-day Sri Lanka: An 'epic' travel journal

“For all you know Ravana was a Sinhala king”, Vinosha, my friend who worked with Sri Lanka’s national television said, as we stood enjoying the evening breeze in Galle. The waves of the Indian ocean crashed below us on to the walls of the famous fort.

Up until then I hadn’t paid too much attention to Sri Lanka’s links with the Ramayana. But that moment onwards I grew increasingly conscious that the island country was ground zero of the great battle of Ramayana. In many ways, contemporary Sri Lanka is like the prosperous and beautiful kingdom of the demon king Ravana. It is lush green, gifted with nature’s bounty and like the mythical kingdom — has seen a war fairly recently. It was only in 2009 that Sri Lanka’s three-decade-long ethnic war came to a brutal end.

My quest to visit the places linked with the great epic took me to deep into the heart of the island nation. It all started with Dolukanda Sanjeewani. This mountain seems like it has almost fallen out of nowhere, in what is otherwise a pretty flat surrounding. According to a legend in the Ramayana, it is one of the five splinters which fell while Lord Hanuman was flying with the Sanjivani mountain placed on his palm.

Most of you will remember that Sanjivani was a mountain where medicinal herbs and plants grew in abundance. Almost as if confirming the legend, Dolukanda is said to have many Ayurvedic herbs which grow on the mountain top. Not very far from Dolukanda is an Ayurveda institute and right at the foot of this mountain stands a Buddhist temple.

View of Dolukanda Sanjeewani mountain. All images courtesy the writer

View of Dolukanda Sanjeewani mountain. All images courtesy the writer

The old caretaker gentleman told us, “This mountain is magic and only few people know their way to the top and back. But it has some miraculous plants and fruits. Most of us here believe this is the part of the Sanjivani mountain that was dropped by Lord Hanuman.”

The reverence in his words made me almost forget that he was not a Hindu. But that is how blurred lines are between these two religions on the island. Almost every Buddhist temple in the country has reserved space for Hindu gods and they are regarded with deep respect.

If you try hard enough, it is possible to visit all the five spots where the splinters of the legendary mountain fell in Sri Lanka. I managed to visit one more of these spots. Located on the south-western coast is the popular weekend destination of Unawatuna. It is here that you will find an interesting statue, one that is rarely spotted in the island country. That is the statue of Lord Hanuman in Rumassala, which is located next to the international peace pagoda built by the Japanese. Both these sites of religious relevance were built as a prayer for peace on the island.

Lord Hanuman statue at Rumassala, in Unawatuna

Lord Hanuman statue at Rumassala, in Unawatuna

View from Rumassala peace pagoda

View from Rumassala peace pagoda

My travels also took me to Trincomalee, one of the natural harbours around the world. It was attacked by the Japanese during the second world war. But it is as important to Hindu mythology as it is to contemporary Sri Lankan history. I had fallen in love with the azure views of the Indian ocean that a hillock close to Trincomalee’s harbour had to offer. This hill also hosted a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, known as Koneswaran Kovil. It was after I returned that I realised — this was the same temple where Ravana and his mother prayed to the reclusive but benevolent Hindu god. And the story goes that when the king’s mother was too ill to go to the temple, he decided to bring the temple closer to her.

It was only after the first blow to the hillock from Ravana’s sword that Lord Shiva appeared in front of him and asked him not to move the temple. Perhaps, Lord Shiva loved the view as much as mere mortals like me do.

But it was Ella that truly fascinated the mythology enthusiast in me. Ella is situated on the southern edge of Sri Lanka’s hill country and is a bit of a backpacker haven. Most young travellers, however, are unaware of the region’s mythological importance. I decided to brave a couple of back-breaking bus rides to get to hill town from Colombo.

The entrance of the Ravana cave in Ella

The entrance of the Ravana cave in Ella

The place is Ravana country and is considered central to his empire. Most attractions go by his name such as the waterfall which is called “Ravana Falls”. It is a nice spot to take a refreshing break from the heat. But the one place that captured my fascination was the Ravana cave. There are some interesting theories linked to this cave. Some say that it was possible to enter the cave in the past and it would lead to an underground lake and palace. I did not manage to find the cave entrance that would have led us down. But with the eerie silence and mysterious atmosphere, it was easy to convince myself that there was something demonic about the place.

A news channel reported in 2016 that some people who identified themselves as ‘devotees of Ravana’ descended into the cave. It is said that they believe that Ravana will resurrect some day.

Though this sounds next to impossible, it might be a good idea. I have so many questions that it would be good to get answers from the horse’s mouth!

Some academics in Sri Lanka are presenting a theory that Ravana was a Sinhala king and should be revered as one. The answers to these questions will always be shrouded in mystery. But there is no denying that many Sri Lankans do identify with the Ramayana and its antagonist, Ravana.

In fact even our governments are collaborating to promote the tourist trail of this epic. The Sri Lankans in return are being given easy passage to Buddhist sites across India.

There is one place in Sri Lanka without visiting which, the Ramayana trail would have come to an unsatisfactory end. That is Talaimannar, on the north-easter island of Mannar. Every time I look at the map, this place reminds me of Michelangelo’s ‘The Creation of Adam’. The Mannar island, where Talaimannar is located, almost seems like Sri Lanka’s 'finger' trying to touch India’s Dhanushkodi.

A fishing boat on Adam’s beach at Talaimannar

A fishing boat on Adam’s beach at Talaimannar

Closer look at the map, and you will notice islands that dot the sea between Talaimannar and Dhanushkodi in India. According to the Ramayana these islands would be part of the Rama-setu, the bridge built by Ram’s army of monkeys. The legend itself can be debated, but many journalists and historians claim that even if the bridge was a not a man-made marvel, it was possible to walk on foot between our two countries up until the 15th century. A cyclone around that time meant that the ocean claimed much of the limestone shoals that connect Dhanushkodi and Talaimannar.

The interesting fact is that these islands (which appear like sand dunes) are still accessible. Local fishermen call them the ‘dancing islands’. They are known so because they appear and disappear with the tides of the ocean. A more recent story attached with the ‘Rama-setu’ is that of people escaping the ethnic conflict. Many Tamils from northern Sri Lanka would pay boatmen a lot of money to get dropped off at points from where they could walk to Rameswaram in India. They would have had to wait for the tide to pass on these islands and then cross over when the waters would be shallow enough.

With or without the Ramayana, these limestone shoals are an important part of our geography, collective history and marine biology. Many environmentalists, historians and fishermen heaved a sigh of relief when India quietly abandoned the ‘Sethu-samudram’ project which was to cut through these limestone shoals to create a passage for ships.

Standing on either side of the bridge, in Dhanushkodi or Talaimannar is a special feeling (and I have had the good fortune of visiting both these places). One can only wish that the ferry service between Talaimannar and Dhanushkodi is restored one day, so wading through these waters and accessing our closely linked countries becomes possible for a lot more people.

And yes, I have a selfish reason attached to that wish. Someday I want to visit those ‘dancing islands’ and feel that I have stood on at least a part of Rama’s bridge. For as long as mythology inspires us, brings us closer rather than setting us apart, indulging in it is a lot of fun!

The writer has travelled to 14 countries, where he took learning-based challenges. Follow his adventures on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, or on Eccentrips.

Updated Date: Jun 11, 2017 10:15 AM

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