On the Lankan Heritage Trail

Published in Villa 88 magazine, Autumn 2016 issue

Exploring Sri Lankan history and heritage through its boutique hotels sheds light on some amusing, colorful and delightful stories, writes Priyanka Pradhan

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In the morning sun, colorful little birds gather for a quick dip in the small, tiled fountain which forms the center of the open courtyard, inside what was formerly an 18th century Dutch mansion. Gigantic pillars create tall shadows in the corridors of the refurbished mansion, while the pale walls and high ceilings offer a sepia-toned throwback to Dutch-era Sri Lanka.

As sunbeams illuminate the ancient doors and windows on the façade of the iconic Galle Fort Hotel, stories from the pages of Sri Lanka’s history come to life. The estate has seen times of strife and turmoil as well as that of prosperity, as it morphed from a princely Dutch mansion to barracks for the Royal Air Force (RAF) during World War II, a post office, a bakery, and most recently, a pitch for Galle’s adolescent cricketers, before it was finally refurbished to become The Galle Fort Hotel in 2003.

The boutique hotel offers some unique insights into Sri Lanka’s journey through the ages. For instance, a suite named after a seven-foot tall eunuch, the Chinese Admiral Cheng Ho, commemorates his visit to Galle in 1406. The admiral had halted at Galle en route to an expedition to explore the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific with seven voyages, long before Cristopher Columbus set his anchor down on the sandy shores of Ceylon.

Recipient of the UNESCO Asia Pacific Heritage Award of Distinction, The Galle Fort Hotel is a treasure trove of such stories unearthed from history, culture and folklore. The architecture of the renovated estate also reflects more than one style and school of design. While a majority of the boutique hotel retains its Dutch charm, parts of it pay tribute to Sri Lanka’s British heritage as well as its ethnic Sinhalese flavor.

The Galle Fort Hotel’s sister property, the Thotalagala estate pays homage to this indigenous Lankan flavor. About 5 hours from Galle, in Sri Lanka’s northern Haputale district, a sprawling heritage boutique bungalow is nestled in the lap of hills, among 8,000 hectares of lush green. Formerly a tea planter’s bungalow, the 145-year-old property is restored to give connoisseurs from across the world an opportunity to sample the rich, homegrown essence of Ceylon tea. As the estate is fully functional, guests of the boutique property have the privilege of going tea picking with the planters for a more immersive experience and a glimpse into the traditional lifestyle of a tea planter.

A closer look inside the bungalow reveals seven luxury- themed suites based on personalities that shaped the history of tea culture in Sri Lanka- particularly Sir Thomas Lipton, who has the master suite dedicated to him in honor of his contribution to Lankan tea. Memorabilia from the British Colonial era, picnic breakfasts in the tea country and the traditional English cigar room in the bungalow make for an indulgent experience. Add to that, a kitchen with an exhaustive menu of local and international gourmet cuisines and on-demand services, Thotalagala aims to offer a decadent experience.

As the sun sets over the sea of green, just over the edge of the high tea table, it illuminates the not just the panorama of peaks and valleys but also that of history and heritage waiting to be explored through Sri Lanka’s luxury boutique stays. galleforthotel.com

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The Elephant Trail

Published in Al Nawras, in-flight magazine for Air Arabia, February 2016 issue.

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A close encounter with these giants in Sri Lanka- Published in Al Nawras, Inflight magazine for Air Arabia. 

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The forest is eerily still at times, especially at noon. Breaking the silence every now and then, though, is an earth-shaking thud in the far distance. There’s a nervous rustling of trees and a deep rumble that gets louder, as those thunderous footsteps get closer. Smaller animals scurry past us, clearing the pathway in anticipation.

The jungle knows; Rani’s herd is on its way to the watering hole.

Deep inside Hurulu Eco Park in Sri Lanka’s Habarana province, our small jeep safari waits patiently for the 62-year-old matriarch, Rani, to lead the way. Hands trembling from excitement and, in part, from the heart-stopping footsteps of more than 16 mammoths moving together, we wait with bated breath.

After a long interval under a canopy of leaves, we see the herd saunter towards the water, about six metres away.

Two little calves in the herd tug at their mothers’ tails and an adolescent male tries to match step with his grandmother.

The elephant family unit is tightly knit and protective grandmothers often babysit little ones while the parents are away. Here, Rani was taking charge of the young ones, gently nudging them into the water.

She surveys us from a distance. Unimpressed, she continues to perform her duties.

Ten thousand hectares of teak plantations and waterways are home to Rani and more than 12 other herds of elephants at the Eco Park, part of the Hurulu forest reserve. A 22-kilometre safari across the reserve takes us over narrow mud trails and windy hillocks that o er spectacular vistas of the forest, interrupted only by breath-taking encounters with the Lankan giants along the way.

Standing tall at 3.5 metres, Sri Lankan pachyderms are the largest of the Asian species, and tend to intimidate at rst sight. However, their interaction with other members of the herd, and even other animal species that share their home, reveals their inherent gentle nature and complex emotional range. In fact, it is believed elephants can recognise each other even after a separation of 20 years, and ‘catch up’ through touching each other’s scars.

Close by, is the Kaudulla National Park, located o the Habarana-Trincomalee road within what is known as Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle. A 6,656-hectare ‘elephant corridor’ runs across this park, where most of the country’s elephant population pass through – a natural migratory pattern of the Sri Lankan elephants, at certain times of year when water dries up in areas.

The corridor also runs across Minneriya National Park, nestled inside an evergreen forest, o Habarana-Polonnaruwa Road. At the heart of the park lies the ancient Minneriya tank, built in the 3rd century AD by King Mahasena, where huge ocks of painted stork and spot-billed pelicans accompany the elephants on their

grazing trips. It is not uncommon to see a gathering of more than 100 elephants at a time, cooling o and grazing together in the meadows.

For a closer and cruelty-free encounter, one can visit the Elephant Transit Home, about ve kilometres west of Udawalawe National Park. As an orphanage for abandoned, injured and rescued elephants, the home helps rehabilitate elephants and release them into the wild. Visitors can observe the elephants at feeding time but physical interaction with the animals is not permitted.

The home is also supported by international animal rights NGO Born Free Foundation, which has endorsed the orphanage for best practices of animal care.

The best way to wrap up the elephant trail is by stopping at a watering hole to watch elephants cool off. As Rani’s herd emerges from the water, we watch the jungle prepare yet again, for the regal departure.

WHERE TO GO
As opposed to orphanages and private elephant farms, national parks can be a better way to see elephants as they are in their natural habitat. Below are some of the places where the animals are treated well and visitors can observe elephants at close proximity without being intrusive.

HURULU ECO PARK
Habarana-Trincomalee Road, Habarana, Sri Lanka

KAUDULLA NATIONAL PARK
Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

MINNERIYA NATIONAL PARK
Habarana-Polonnaruwa Road, Habarana, Sri Lanka

ELEPHANT TRANSIT HOME
Ratnapura, 70190, Sri Lanka

UDAWALAWE NATIONAL PARK
7th Mile Post, Sevanagala, Monaragala, Uva Province, Sri Lanka