I didn’t really know what to expect on arrival in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, but whatever I thought was wrong. First, it’s not the capital after all. While Colombo is Sri Lanka’s commercial capital and largest city – and is often referred to as the capital – technically the capital is Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte. Kotte, as it is commonly called, is a near-in suburb of Colombo and very much a part of Colombo’s urban area but technically a separate city that is itself the nation’s capital. (To give a sense of this confusion, Wikipedia describes Kotte as “… the official capital of Sri Lanka, a satellite city and within the urban area of Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo.” Confusing indeed.)
Second and more important, to the extent I thought I knew something, I was expecting kind of a mini-India. Sri Lanka is, after all, just this little island dangling off the southern tip of India; it must be pretty similar, right? Probably a lot like India but with a big disadvantage in that Sri Lanka has only recently emerged from an ugly civil war. From 1983 to 2009 the Tamil minority battled for rights and then independence from the Sinhalese majority. Ultimately they lost but I was still expecting basically an India without the advantage of relative peace.
Wow, was I wrong about all that. Yes, the people look and dress similarly, but we were blown away by the cultural differences. None of the dirt and chaos of India. Streets are clean. Animals are controlled. Traffic is … regular. No more horn honking than you’d find in Boston. Parks. Grocery stores. Restaurants. It was as though we’d traveled a thousand miles from India.
Why the difference? Importantly, Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country while India is primarily Hindu. (Estimates are that about 70 percent of Sri Lankans are Buddhist, 13 percent Hindu, and 10 percent Moslem.) And because the cow is sacred in India they roam everywhere and leave cow shit everywhere. Mark & I both guessed – maybe simplistically, but maybe not – that in India, once you’ve accepted cow shit everywhere it just doesn’t make sense to be all that concerned about keeping everything else clean and neat. In Sri Lanka, no cows wandering, no cow shit, and things are clean and neat. Maybe it’s more complicated than that, but I just can’t overstate the difference walking around. Like night and day.
Except for just the knock-you-over-the-head change after five weeks in India, there’s not a lot to actually see or do in Colombo. It’s on the coast but what little they have that passes for “beach” is pretty limited. There are no great cathedrals or temples that you have to see, and the national museum that I spent some time in was … OK. We did stop during one long walk around town in a café for tea, something you just have to do in what was once Ceylon, but that was about it for excitement.
That said, we loved it. Maybe if we hadn’t just come from India and wasn’t anticipating a war-ravaged environment I wouldn’t have been so impressed. But it just had this great Southeast Asia feel to it that is enchanting. Now we’re eager to go inland and see more of this strange, unknown country.
Oh, one more thing. About that name, Sri Lanka. When I was growing up, of course, this was Ceylon. What’s the connection between the names? To the natives, the island was always Lanka. (Moslem traders called it Serendib, “Island of Jewels” and the root of our word serendipity.) When the Portuguese came they called it Sinhala-dvipa (Island of the Sinhalese) which somehow morphed into Ceilão. The Dutch came next and called it Ceylan and then the British changed that to Ceylon. Finally in 1972 the now-independent government changed the name back to Lanka, adding Sri, a title of respect, to the name. Mystery solved.