"When you think of Paris, you think of the Eiffel Tower," my guide said, standing in a plaza before the Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy. "The Taj Mahal is the symbol of India. For Sri Lanka, it is here."
He gestured to the grand building behind us, then continued, "I am a tour guide. It's my profession. It's how I make my living. But when I come here, it's very personal. Every time, I feel it here," he concluded, putting his hand on his heart.
In most instances I have a preference for independent travel over guided tours, but on this trip to Sri Lanka with my family, I was very glad to be in the hands of Sudesh Wickramaratna, a guide for Intrepid Travel. The trip was designed by the company's Private Group division. (Disclosure: I was a guest of Intrepid, and I paid for my family to accompany me.)
Wickramaratna provided a crucial portal into Sri Lanka that opened to a much deeper understanding of the nation, its religions and culture. His knowledge of various sites was impressive, but he also brought the country to life with extras that were not site-specific, from teaching us a Sinhalese word of the day each morning to evening instruction in Buddhist meditation. On our last day, he brought us to have lunch with a local family: his own.
And, standing in front of the Temple of the Tooth Relic, his low-key passion helped us fully understand the special and sacred status of the building we were about to enter. My 13- and 15-year-old sons watched and imitated his respectful bearing. We all did.
In an urn inside a chamber off a hall in the temple is what tradition holds to be a fragment of Buddha's tooth. Wickramaratna timed our visit to coincide with the few minutes each evening when the chamber door is opened and visitors file past to catch a glimpse of the urn.
Although the temple is, as Wickramaratna explained, the country's best-known religious site, it is not the only unusual and impressive expression of Buddhist influence. About 75% of the country practices the religion, and earlier that day we had visited Dambulla, a first-century B.C. complex comprising five caves filled with a dizzying array of statues that represent Buddha's life, enlightenment and repose after death. On the walls of the caves are murals with abstract designs and depictions of religious and historical scenes.
By that point in the trip, we weren't surprised to find that a small Hindu temple was also on the grounds. We had visited several places where Buddhist and Hindu temples, mosques and churches were in close proximity.
Sri Lanka's civil war had its roots in religious and ethnic strife. Hindu Tamils, concentrated primarily in the northwest part of the country, demanded autonomy from the Buddhist majority. The war was bitter and long, but in discussions with our guide and others, there was no surface evidence of lingering intercommunal discord, at least in the central and southern parts of the country where we traveled. The rebels, whose tactics included suicide bombings throughout the country, were commonly referenced by people we met as "extremists" rather than Tamils.
A tray holding various grades of tea produced in the Dambatenne Tea Factory near Haputale. The factory was founded by Thomas Lipton in 1890 and is open for tours that demonstrate the stages of tea production: fermentation, drying, rolling, cutting, sieving and grading. Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann
Tamils make up the majority of the workforce in the tea industry, which was established largely in the mountainous region surrounding the town of Haputale. We toured a large factory that had been established by none other than Thomas Lipton and went up a winding mountain road to get to the highest point in the region, known as Lipton's Seat. Standing next to a bronze statue of a seated Lipton, one is treated to a stunning panorama of five provinces in central Sri Lanka.
Switchbacks etch a narrow path through the tea fields to get to the top, and along the way we passed a mostly female workforce picking tea leaves and throwing them into baskets on their backs. Toward the bottom of the mountain was a weigh station where the women lined up, each with a large sack representing her morning's harvest.
Lunch that day was combined with a deeper look at Tamil life. A local guide, Kolandevan Sivaneson, had joined us, and we headed down a trail to his house. His wife, welcoming us as we approached, applied red bindi dots to our foreheads before we entered their small, simply furnished home.
We were invited into the kitchen to hang out with Sivaneson's mother as she prepared dosay, etaly, dal and wadi on a wood-fired stove.