Today begins my fortnight-long journey across Europe. There were two small — perhaps almost inconsequential — things I have always wanted to do: fly direct to Paris, and fly in an Airbus. As a Francophone, my first wish is understandable. The second was something I fulfilled earlier this year on a trip to Sri Lanka. This time round, it was a business class A330 on an (approximately) ten hour flight to Paris.
Boarding at Bangalore started at the strike of midnight, delayed by ten minutes due to security concerns of some sort. Once the plane took off, two things became clear: first of all, sleeping in planes is hellish; second, the earth is stunning. Cruising at nearly 950 km/h, the 8,000 km–long journey lasted seventeen minutes lesser than planned.
CDG is somewhat similar to BIA in more ways than one would want. This could be a one-off experience, and indeed I hope it is, but there are long queues, pointless security checks even for connecting flights, and even Sky Priority passengers like myself waited a good 30min at passport control — only four out of eight border police posts were in operation for some reason — and many missed their flights.
I pen this as I sit at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, waiting a three-hour period as my flight to Lisbon comes in. Having previously been to Germany, it seems to me, at first glance, that the French are friendlier. I would attribute this partly to the rich, multicultural society in France as opposed to the mostly white, Christian population of Germany. Nonetheless, these are two wonderful countries to visit. Portugal, now an hour-and-a-half away for me, is an unopened book.
In a series of brief write-ups that published here over the coming weeks, I will describe the interesting bits of my trip, focusing on any observations I might make that may entertain or inform future travelers. My itinerary for the coming days is as sturdy as flan: it has a shape, but is not set in stone. Flexibility, mingling with people, and diving into other cultures with a blindfold is how one must travel — those who haven’t travelled, said a wise man once, have only ever read one page of the book of life. ❖
I had heard a lot about Galle, the beautiful, colonial fortress town on the southern tip of Sri Lanka, and today was rightfully all about Galle. As I said yesterday, a perk about visiting Sri Lanka is that every nook and cranny of the country is no more than a few hours away from every other nook and cranny. Galle, it is said, was where King Solomon sent his ships. The solid Portuguese-Dutch fortress encircling the old town is also supposedly the reason why Galle fort (as it is called colloquially) still stands untouched today in spite of the calamity that was the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami while much of the main town of Galle outside the walls of the fortress was sadly wiped out: “Thousands died,” explained our driver, looking out into the sea just one last time as we prepared to leave Galle late in the evening and head out to the Colombo–Galle expressway, one of the many testaments to the government’s excellent work to rebuild parts of the island nation severely affected by the catastrophe. I want to address this once again in a while, albeit in a completely different light.
One of several graves at the restored Dutch church in Galle
The architecture in Galle is similar to the Portuguese architecture in Goa, India — and Portugal, certainly, but my point is that this lies along the trade route held in high regard by the various “East India” Companies of the British, the Dutch etc. Indeed the Portuguese lost this fort, like they did several others around that time, to either the Brits or the Dutch. In Galle it was the Dutch who took over and settled down, to the point of eventually (re)building a well-known local church atop the graves of the original settlers from the Netherlands. For instance, above is the grave of Carel Pieter Swensen, skipper and possibly horse cart attendant(? — it says equipagie but I do not understand Dutch except a handful of words). It also has his date of birth and death.
Just outside Galle, in the deep waters of the Indian ocean lies the island of Unawatuna. Besides scuba diving and rich coral reefs and shipwrecks, supposedly for the pleasure of beginner and intermediate divers, the island is known for its appearance in the Hindu epic, Ramayana. The word “Unawatuna” means “that which fell down”. The Ramayana speaks of Hanumantha, the forest-dwelling vanara Hindu god, being sent to retrieve the Sanjeevini plant to heal Lakshmana, the brother of Lord Rama, who was wounded in a war in Lanka, the kingdom of Ravana. Unable to identify the medicinal shrub, he uproots the entire mountain and carries it to the battle field in Lanka where a chunk of it cuts off and falls into the ocean. Following certain comparisons with Valmiki’s close-to-original text of the epic, scholars seem to agree that the Unawatuna beach is one of the beaches described by Valmiki in this context. Anyway, case in point: this place is strongly believed to be mentioned in the Ramayana and sounds true given that present day Sri Lanka was almost definitely Ravana’s kingdom.
The Indian Ocean, seen from Galle fort
Coming to more modern times, the Israeli king, Solomon, is believed to have had trade routes in this region, which is not surprising because his trade routes are said to exist in India as well. This is what surprises me somewhat because Galle, identified as Tarshish, seems incredibly similar to Poovar in Kerala, India, which is often similarly associated with Ophir. These are ports mentioned in the Bible but, unfortunately, these waters are murkier than the Ramayana — which is surprising because the Ramayana is a much older story. A closer look will put both Ophir and Tarshish all over the globe with Tarshish being either an adulteration of the Thiruketheeshwara temple near Jaffna, Sri Lanka, or England itself or Tamilakkam, present-day Tamil Nadu, or even Zimbabwe by some accounts; and Ophir has a similarly hazy location being, from most likely to least likely, either Poovar near present-day Trivandrum in India, to Djibouti to Afghanistan to China to — most recently, with the discovery of Ubar — the Arabian peninsula. In other words, nobody knows where Tarshish and Ophir really were but everyone has opinions. The reason why most seem to agree that it was either Southern India or Northern Sri Lanka was because the Dravidians living in these parts are more likely to have been aware of and dealt with gold, silver, pearls, peacocks, ivory, and sandalwood, than any other country on earth.
The old street circling Galle runs along the fort wall
In any case, Galle seems to have too much of a history — even though quite a lot of it remains uncertain — from the Ramayana and the Bible of yore to the Portuguese and Dutch traders of more recent centuries. Facts we know, however, are interesting themselves, even if nowhere near as remarkable. I saw four prisoners being led out of the court in Galle to the prison bus, which was not something I liked (I do not believe anyone, human or animal or criminal, must be handcuffed). Above that, it was surprising to me that a place as small as Galle has criminals at all. The waters were rough this season which is why absolutely nobody entered, and glimpses of people jumping into the ocean was something I missed. There were also no glass-bottomed boats available and no scuba diving — not that I would have dived anyway because (rather unfortunately) I am not too fond of water-dwelling beings, although I love being in water. However, the point is, Galle deserves another visit and I will hopefully be able to return soon. ❖
The initial flight to Colombo, LK, was delayed by about five minutes. This, believe it or not, is the first time I have experienced a delayed flight; given how often and how many people complain about it, it might come as a surprise to you that I have, till date, never seen a flight come in late. Quite the contrary: flights have come in early, and I remember a flight last year even landed with ten minutes to spare. In any case, it was raining heavily and little was visible outside and we had soon reached our cruising altitude that our captain explained was 35,000 feet and a ground speed of 820 km per hour. It was an Airbus, which is another first to me because every plane I have traveled in so far has been a Boeing.
And then, like a jewel glowing in the dark, a metropolis beneath shines yellow. It is light pollution, it is the din of humankind, a turn off to see in person and worse still to be surrounded by it, the constriction, the stuffy society, the manmade encroachment into nature, and, although not always a bad thing, severe urbanisation. And yet, from so far up in the sky, it looks beautiful, like a testament of man’s survival on Earth.
The onboard snack was a hit and miss. The tea was great (somehow I always enjoy tea on flights) but the Lankan food, not so much. Perhaps it takes time to get used to? The landing descent was a 35min procedure and was exceedingly smooth. As soon as we landed, customs was a breeze — which is, once again, surprising because if you travel to Europe things get stuffier, the possibilities of smooth baggage claim gets less certain, and port and customs officers get more stringent. Perhaps it is Sri Lanka’s way of welcoming more tourists. In any case the place was secure while also being lenient, which was refreshing to say the least.
My exchange at the Thomas Cook counter was interesting: “Could you please suggest a good mobile network around here?” — “Dialog.” He said it with an uncanny amount of enthusiasm, almost as if he was taking a commission from Dialog to direct potential customers towards them. However, a security cop and a baggage claim supervisor both had said the same thing to be moments earlier. (I was getting second opinions.) Sure enough Dialog seems to be good. I’m getting a constant 3G network throughout the western region, 9GB of free data, and a hundred minutes of free call time at LKR 1,300, valid for the whole month. Fair enough.
Two things quickly become apparent when you move around Sri Lanka:
The country is incredibly small (you can literally go end-to-end in half a day)
The roads (at least around the western region) are excellent; in addition, the traffic density is low.
This is something I have previously remarked with reference to Europe. Low population density makes governance extremely effective. Perhaps not any easier, but certainly a lot more effective. It is no wonder, to that extent, then, that India struggles to ensure that the smallest of things from its legislative bodies reaches the people its decisions matter to — often in vain. This is precisely why every inch of the highway is so well laid out and monitored here (there are fewer stretches of highway than in a single province in neighbouring India), and the mobile coverage is pretty good (the whole country is ~2% the size of India — I calculated).
All said and done, the odd guy who cuts across three lanes of traffic, prompting loud honks and angry glares is here too. He is in every country I’ve been to. So far the journey has been pleasant; it has only begun, but I think the a memorable beginning is the most important part and it keeps spirits high through the rest of the journey. The next stop will be the famous city of Galle, all the way down south, by the majestic Indian Ocean.
This is not so much a travelogue as it is a bunch of random thoughts penned in conclusion to my recent trip across the Switzerland of the East. I have always loved clouds and fog and coniferous trees, and I was surrounded by all these for the past few days. (This article only has a few photographs; you can find others on my VSCO journal which I will soon publishmy VSCO journal entry.)
I had been to Manthralayam purely by mistake a few months back. Manthralayam — or Manthralaya — is a Hindu pilgrimage site in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. I did not visit the temple there, of course, bust instead spent close to an hour outside, photographing the devotees.
How I came to visit this place is not worth discussion: I was traveling to another city and decided to visit this because it was on the way and we had surplus time on hand. What piqued my interest in visiting Manthralaya was not its burial of the Madhwa saint, Raghavendra Swami (hence the pilgrimage), but the fact that, in 2009, the Tungabhadra river, which flows through the town, had submerged it in heavy floods.