Of lotuses, elephants and dragonflies

Energized and elated by our brilliant experience on the Sorabora Lake, we piled into the car eagerly anticipating our next escapade. Our destination was the little village of Hasalaka, from where we would trek to Rathna Falls, one of the widest waterfalls in Sri Lanka. As our route took us through Mahiyanganaya however, we decided to make a stop at the Mahiyanganaya Rajamaha Viharaya, revered as the location of the Buddha’s first visit to Sri Lanka and also the site of the first dagoba ever to be built in the country.

As we bought two bunches of soft pink lotuses at the entrance to the Buddhist Temple, I drank in their subtle scent, which always reminds me of a large, serene body of water. It was almost as if the flowers held strong memories of their place of origin, and whenever I inhaled their fragrance they would tell me a wordless tale of their home. So evocative is their story, that an irrational desire grips me; the desire to drop everything at hand and go and see their place of birth. Unfortunately, I’ve been able to subdue the desire each time it has arisen.

Long-stemmed lotuses in hand, we passed by an adolescent elephant (he was 17) who seemed quite the rambunctious sort. Drawn to young Isuru by his playfulness, we decided to pay him a visit before we left.

A crowd of white-clad devotees had gathered around one of the little buildings of the temple. They thronged the stairway that led into the main chamber. We had arrived only ten minutes before the morning pooja (similar to a service) ended. The chamber is only open when a pooja is in progress, so we were fortunate enough to enter and see the golden casket that held several sacred relics of the Buddha. We placed a few of the lotuses by the casket, which is much like the one holding the Tooth Relic of the Buddha at the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy.

Devotees leave after the pooja

At the Image House of the temple, a statue of the meditating Buddha was placed before a table of lotuses and water lilies left in offering. I laid down a few more of my pink, fragrant friends and took a step back to gaze at the paintings on the walls. They depicted the story of the Buddha’s visit to Mahiyanganaya and the events that followed. I was able to get an inkling of the story, but as the narration under the murals was in very formal Sinhala, I didn’t understand all of it.

Finally, we made our way to the historic dagoba. Bathed in mid-morning sunlight, its brilliant-white exterior and perfectly symmetrical, bell-shaped form was an impressive sight. This was believed to be the site of the Buddha’s visit nine months after he had attained Enlightenment more than 2500 years ago. This dagoba is believed to have been built by God Saman, one of the four guardian deities of the country, and enshrined in it are two sacred relics of the Buddha: strands of his hair and his clavicle.

The brilliant white dagoba, thought to be the site of the Buddha’s first visit to Sri Lanka and the site of the first dagoba in the country

When we had offered up the last of our lotuses at a small statue of the Buddha placed by the dagoba, we still didn’t have all the pieces of the history of this special place. So we started to seek out someone who could fill up the gaps in the tale. When it comes to history and folklore it’s probably best to approach the elderly and that’s exactly what we did. He was a friendly old man with hardly any teeth. Although it was difficult to understand him, we were able to gather together the fragments of the story once we had politely asked him to repeat several times over.

Foreseeing that Sri Lanka would be a land where Buddhism would thrive for centuries, the Buddha had decided to visit Mahiyanganaya and convey a sermon to the four indigenous tribes living on the island. Saman, a chieftain of one of the tribes, was so inspired by what he had heard that he attained a higher state of spiritual being called Sovan. Later on, he came to be known as God Saman. Granting the request of Saman, the Buddha offered some strands of his hair, which Saman enshrined in a ten-foot tall dagoba built in the very location that the present day dagoba stands. While this was the first dagoba in Sri Lanka, it was built during the lifetime of the Buddha. Forty five years later, upon the death of the Buddha in India in 543 BC, Arahat Sarabhu Maha Thera retrieved the left clavicle of the Buddha and brought it to Mahiyanganaya, where it was also enshrined in the dagoba that Saman had built. In the years to come, several kings, including King Dutugemunu, renovated and enlarged the original dagoba and now it stands more than a hundred feet tall.

On our way out of the temple, we saw Isuru by the Saman Devale (a shrine dedicated to God Saman). He was still impatiently swaying and his naughty antics had drawn a crowd of enchanted children and amused adults. All Isuru could think about, it appeared, was food. Already several people had fed him little snacks of bananas, pineapples and other fruits. But the insatiable Isuru kept reaching out and searching people with his trunk.

I took a seat on a little log by him so that I could watch his childlike mischief. One of my friends suggested we buy him some annasi, or pineapple, and at the mention of the word Isuru turned around, started to lean towards us and reach out with his trunk. Someone once told me that teenage boys are just gigantic appetites with skin wrapped around them; Isuru certainly seemed to fit the bill! I laughed at his eagerness and reached out to him with my hand, which he held in his trunk only for a split second. As soon as he realized there was no food there, he let go and went searching elsewhere. He must’ve had a cold, because he left my hand wet with snot!

Snotty-nosed Isuru

For all his impishness, Isuru was actually a good elephant. As soon as his mahout gave him the order, he stood absolutely still. A mother had handed over her baby to the mahout, who – with the baby in his arms – began walking under Isuru’s great belly a few times. There is a belief that the cure for being startled awake by nightmares is to walk under an elephant. Wrapped up in her soft quilt and sleeping soundly, it looked like the walk under Isuru’s belly had already started working its magic for the baby. So if you ever meet Isuru, don’t take his ridiculous behaviour at face value; he’s got some serious powers.

The drive to Hasalaka took us through lime-green paddy fields and the rising temperature lulled us almost into a happy stupor. That is, until it was time to get out of the comfy car and trek through the humid jungle! The little village was charming with its narrow lanes, stretches of paddy and surrounding forest.

By this time I had started to feel the exhaustion from a sleepless night inside a lurching tent catching up with me. Fortunately, the walk to the falls, although long, was easy. There was a bit of an uphill climb in the beginning, during which we passed by rice fields set out in steps on the side of the hill. Some were green with tender rice shoots and others were still messy with mud. A totally nonchalant herd of tame buffalo sat in one of the muddy sections, chewing absently and persistently staring at us as we passed by, which was a little disconcerting for us.

At the end of the relatively steep climb we were met by a narrow canal that channelled water from the river that the Rathna Falls flowed into. Its shallow bed was pebble strewn and its clear ripples exuded a promise of refreshing coolness. For the remainder of our walk we followed the little canal along a trail that led gently uphill, which meant there were many times when I was tempted to step into the little stream to continue my walk; so sultry was the afternoon. But I managed to resist and stay on the narrow concrete ledge that rimmed the canal.

The rim of the canal sometimes led us over large boulders like this one

The walk was fabulously laid-back. We kept up an easy pace so the climb was almost effortless. To our right the canal gurgled at the foot of a steep hill and on our left the jungle-clad incline continued downhill. Soon enough there was a clearing in the thick forest that looked down into a valley of rice fields, and beyond, cascading down coal grey rocks, was a glimpse of the Rathna Falls. Even at this distance the falls appeared striking as it spilled down in frothy layers and disappeared behind a field of rice.

A view of Rathna Falls from a distance

The falls disappears behind lime-green paddy fields

A short walk after our brief sight of the falls brought us to the bank of the river. Following some embarrassingly klutzy acrobatics that got us from the edge of the canal to the rocky bank of the river, we stopped a while to take in our surroundings. The jungle was thick on either side of the river and much of the rocky riverbed was exposed due to the delayed monsoon. Having had an endless stream of water slide over it for millennia, the rock had been indented with large grooves and crevices. Wherever there was enough water flowing, the gaps and crannies filled up to make shallow pools of invigorating, cold water. As tempting as it was to immerse ourselves in one of the pools we decided to continue to the waterfall and then give ourselves the reward.

The walk to the falls from this point was a little challenging. Given the thick forest on the banks of the river, the best way to proceed was along the middle of the river. The trick was to negotiate a path through the labyrinth of boulders and pools of water along the way. I had to use my hands, my feet, my knees and my bum to make any kind of progress through that boulder-strewn riverbed. By this time I had changed into swimmies and shorts because an ill-placed foot could easily have landed me in one of the pools. Needless to say, grace had completely abandoned me. But hey, I scored high on perseverance.

The boulder-strewn riverbed

Figuring out my way past a pool of water

The clear, fresh water spills over rocks on its way downstream

A knarled old tree trunk seems to fuse with one of the boulders

After scrambling up a particularly hefty rock, we found a large, calm pool of water into which the Rathna Falls poured. Thankfully, from this point onwards there was a bit of riverbank to walk on; the pool was much too deep for inept swimmers like myself. My feet sank a little in the spongey-soft soil as I waded in, all ready to sit inert and neck-deep in water for the next hour or so. But no, my trigger-happy photographer friend wanted to climb up the vertical cliff down which the falls tumbled, to get the best pictures possible.

The Rathna Falls: this was the view I was treated to when I could finally sit still in the water

So for the next 20 minutes or so I did a bit of unskilled, although very cautious, rock climbing. We found ourselves right next to a gushing torrent of water that fell over the rocks below and ended up in the round pool. It was exhilarating to be so close to the surging water. But this wasn’t the summit of the waterfall and there was no approach we could see that would lead us there from where we were. We climbed back down so my friend could find another way up. I decided to wallow in the shallow water until he came back.

My view after I’d done a bit of rock climbing

Little rivulets of water surge out to create the wide Rathna Falls

What my friend saw when he went climbing up the hill

So mad at myself that I didn’t go with him!

Jealous!

He had a spectacular view down river

I found the perfect spot, where I could rest my head on a conveniently placed rock and gaze up at the falls. It seemed the water had the same relaxing effect on the fish. Tiny schools of them appeared to sit almost perfectly still next to me; they looked as lazy as I felt. Sunning herself on the rock by me was a pretty, brown dragonfly. I sat with my newfound friends and we all watched the incessantly falling water in front of us. A little while later I started to feel cold so I hopped up onto the rock next to the dragonfly. As I folded my legs under me, I was afraid I would scare the dainty creature, now so close to me. But I was happily surprised to find she didn’t flutter a wing. So I settled down to enjoy the sun and admire the dragonfly’s delicate beauty. Occasionally, I would see the miniature figure of my human friend on the hill before me, sometimes making his way up the rock and disappearing behind trees, sometimes waving down at me.

My dainty little friend

As fast-paced and hectic as this journey has been for us, it has also paved the way to the rarest of nature’s treasures that inspire wonder and peace. Rathna Falls was one of those special places; a little bit of a challenge to reach, but once there we felt entirely enveloped by the magic of being alone with nature. So when it was time to leave I went with the happy anticipation of more rare experiences ahead of me.

© The Magic-Bean Trippers
Prior written consent of the authors must be obtained to reproduce, copy, modify or adapt any part of this blog or any of its contents.
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Shifting Shades on the Sorabora

I woke up with a jolt. The surface of my little tent was thrashing against me, entirely at the mercy of the bellowing wind. Outside, I could hear the trees being buffeted and the saucepans from our campsite dinner being hurled around and lashed against the rocky ground. The tent was fluttering around me so violently that there were moments I felt certain it would be blown away. In fact, Nishantha, our guide, and Pokutu Aiya, who ran the campsite, came rushing up to the water’s edge several times during the night to make sure everything (tents and rafts) was still tethered securely to the bank.

When I first learned it was possible to spend a night in a tent hitched up on a raft gently bobbing by the shore of the Sorabora Weva (Lake), about 2 kilometres from Mahiyanganaya, the last thing I had imagined was a sleepless night inside a delicate tent that the wind had set its mind on hurling this way and that. Instead, I pictured gentle breezes across the moonlit surface of the water and the raft softly rocking us to sleep in the tent. And, from the time we got to the Weva until we were snuggled up in our tents for the night, there was never a reason to think otherwise.

It was late afternoon when we arrived at the Weva. The sun was still warm on my skin, the sky a fine blue and the clouds were billowy white puffs. Passing by the hefty stone sluice gate of the Weva, it was plain to see that an awesome effort had been put into the creation of this reservoir. Great chunks of solid rock had been hewn asunder to create both sluice-gates. I could understand why it is believed that a giant had crafted the lake; it seemed beyond the capabilities of ordinary human beings.

I was familiar with the story of how Bulatha, the giant, had constructed the lake during the reign of King Dutugemunu in 162 BC. The giant’s duty was to ensure the king had a regular supply of bulath, or betel leaves; hence, his name. Bulatha made frequent walks past a river that he saw was not being made any use of. That was when he decided to harness the water to create a lake. Once complete, he presented the lake to King Dutugemunu, who was very happy with the giant’s work.

That’s why I was surprised when I heard Pokutu Aiya’s version of how the lake had got its name. Apparently, instead of being happy, the king was resentful of Bulatha’s great accomplishment, beheaded him and disposed of his body in the very lake that he had built. The deed was done in secrecy, the Sinhala word for which is hora; and the blood of Bulatha was believed to have turned the water murky, or bora. So the lake came to be known as Horabora and over time it changed to Sorabora, said Pokutu Aiya. As grim and full of intrigue as this variation of the tale was, we were a rapt audience as he related the story.

Evening was closing in by the time we stepped aboard the raft that would take us to the other side of the Weva, where our campsite had been set up by Pokutu Aiya. It was a lovely time to be on the water. Twilight cast a mellow glow over the fishing boats, the glassy water and the hills surrounding the lake. We dipped our feet in the cool water as the boat glided over to the far bank.

The sights that surrounded us as we rowed over the lake. Twilight had begun to incessantly change the colours of the sky.

Our campsite was basic but wonderfully cosy. Mats had been spread out on an elevated rock floor. On one side a campfire was set up, on the other the jungle loomed and before us was the Weva, darkening under a colour-changing sky. We stepped into the lake for a bath at precisely this time and were treated to a rapidly shifting series of works of art on the canvas of the sky. Soon it grew dark and the display was over. Hurriedly finishing our bathing, we went back to the campsite where a raging fire was going and a few fiery torches surrounded the space.

The view from our campsite

Our bathing spot

The evening stretched out lazily ahead of us and we didn’t do much other than chat, laugh a lot, eat a load of barbecued fish, caught fresh from the lake, and lie around gazing at the star-filled sky. After we had stuffed ourselves close to bursting with fish, Pokutu Aiya let us know that this was just a snack; our proper dinner was on the way. Then he continued to barbecue more fish! Needless to say, after a delicious dinner of rice, chicken curry, boiled manioc and dhal on top of all the fish – oh, and vela (ripe jackfruit) for dessert – we were happy as clams and were content to do more lying around and staring at the sky.

Fiery torches light up the campsite

Pokutu Aiya by the campfire

Enjoying doing nothing

Campfire

Lake fish being barbecued

Trying to illuminate our food!

As soon as the tents were painstakingly set up by Pokutu Aiya and his son, we were more than happy to turn in. All that eating had tired us out. Besides, to catch the sunrise, which is supposed to be a magnificent spectacle over the lake, we would have to be up by 5.30 at least. Little did we know that we wouldn’t get much sleep that night. Stepping on the raft and crawling into our tents, we found the inside was a happy surprise. It was soft and snug with mattresses, pillows and blankets. But as the night was warm, we decided to leave the flaps open to let in the cool, gentle breeze.

I lay down, perfectly comfortable, and stayed awake for a little while, enjoying the gentle rocking of the boat and the silvery light of a starry sky streaming into the tent through the little net-covered square in the roof. Lower in the sky, through the flimsy material of the tent, I could make out a grey-blue splodge of light. I knew this was the half-moon, slowly rising in the sky.

I may have fallen asleep then, because the next thing I remember was being jolted awake by the fiercely swaying tent and the roaring of the wind. From that point onwards I remember hoping we would get through the night safely. I remember spending most of the night trying to sleep. I remember being startled awake several times over until, close to morning, I gave up trying to sleep. Oh well, at least the mini hurricane had kept the mosquitoes away.

Around 4 o’clock, the moon – a perfect half – had risen right above the square in the roof of the tent. It was difficult not to admire its soft, lustrous beauty, despite the raging wind outside. Then I noticed a point of light low in the east, again through the thin fabric of the tent. What, other than the moon, could emit a glow brilliant enough to pierce through the tent? Was it Venus?

The half moon in its mellow, understated beauty

When I finally decided to get out of bed and off the boat, it was around 4.30. I was tired of trying to sleep and getting none. Besides, my bladder desperately needed relieving by this time. So off to the bush I went. It’s strange to be awed by how fantastically beautiful your surroundings are while you’re peeing, but that’s exactly what I was! The wind was hurtling wisps of cloud across a steel-grey sky; the heavens were crowded with stars; the extensive face of the lake was only a few shades of grey darker than the sky; and the little peaks and valleys bordering the other side of the lake were so dark, they were almost pitch black. Business done, I grabbed a blanket from the tent, wrapped it around myself and made my way to the front of the raft, where I sat with an unobstructed view of the expanse of the lake and the eastern sky.

Everything appeared metallic silver in the light of the moon, most of all the water. It glistened and lit up wherever the moon touched it. Dark knots of vegetation atop hills on the far bank took on a feathery texture as light and shadow played. As it had done all night, the gale kept picking up and dying down. Winged silhouettes occasionally soared in the sky or dove close to shore, accompanied by the unmistakeable call of the Red-wattled Lapwing.

The sun’s long rays had already reached the eastern horizon. It was a pale shade of blue. Still, it was dark enough for Orion, just above the sphere of the world, to twinkle distinctly. And yes, a little way up the sky, only second to the moon in brilliance, was Venus. High above me, I could see the Pleiades. Sitting there, seemingly all alone in the midst of such splendour, absolute contentment with undertones of pure wonder was what I felt.

Our shelter for the night; and in the background the approaching dawn on a star-sprinkled horizon

Approaching voices told me that I wouldn’t be alone for much longer though. “Ah, she’s already awake,” someone said. Nishantha and Pokutu Aiya had come to row us out to the middle of the lake, where there was a better view of the sunrise. We all piled into one raft, and discussed the happenings of the night as we silently floated across the dark waters. This was the first time that he had experienced such extreme weather in all the years he had been bringing people camping by the Sorabora Lake, said Pokutu Aiya. I guess we’re special somehow 🙂

As dawn began to seep across the sky, the stars slowly faded. The lake’s vibrant birdlife soon surrounded us; kites wheeled above emitting their strange cries and swooping down for fish; storks stood on bits of wood that stuck out of the water; kingfishers created lightning streaks of bright greens and blues; and woodpeckers laughing derisively in the trees beckoned us for a closer look.

By now, warm orange and red shades had appeared in the east. We kept a close watch for the sun to burst forth, but a thin strip of cloud was delaying its arrival. As we waited, we chatted about the birds and the other animals that frequent the lake. On some mornings herds of wild elephants would swim across the Sorabora Lake, said Nishantha. What an impressive sight that would be, I thought. It wasn’t to be for us that day though. We didn’t see any elephants. But a spectacular sunrise more than made up for it.

We kept a close watch for the sun to burst forth

We had taken our eyes off the eastern horizon and become engrossed in a search for a woodpecker, when I happened to turn around and was staggered by a pale blue sky dappled with bits of salmon pink cloud. Exclamations ensued as eyes and cameras focussed on the dazzling sunrise that had begun to unfold.

We were on tenterhooks by this time!

All it took was a chink of the fiery disk to reveal itself from behind the cloud, for all the colours in the sky to change again. The lake rippled golden as if to match the loveliness above it. The sun continued to hold the sky in an enchantment and transformed it completely every time it moved so much as an inch. And we in turn were spellbound.

The sun finally peeks out

Distant hills are transformed into silhouettes of varying shades of grey

In the west the mountains of the central hills were clear against a blue sky. The Knuckles rose and fell and invisible windscreens reflected flashes of light from the faraway Daha-ata Wanguwa snaking down the mountain. It was only the day before that we had zigzagged our way through that road. Brilliant blue sky and puffy white clouds were mirrored in the lake. The entire scene brought to my mind images of Alpine landscapes. How perfectly surreal!

The western skyline resembling an Alpine landscape

The Knuckles mountain range looms large on the west

As the sun broke free of the horizon and the fiery shades it had projected into the sky mellowed into yellow daylight, a satisfied glow settled around us. That was probably the most resplendent daybreak we’d ever witnessed.

Pokutu Aiya and Nishantha row us around the lake as Sylvia, our friend, looks through her photos

We would have sat there in the raft for much longer had it not been for the blazing heat of the sun. When we got back to shore, we were surprised to find it was only around 7.30. So after a refreshing bath in the lake and a hearty breakfast of kiribath (milk rice) and katta sambola (a fiery onion salad), we were on our way to yet another watery adventure!

Thanks to Pokutu Aiya who did all the hard work so that we could relax and enjoy ourselves. Although his real name is Harry Dias, his nickname – stemming from the dreadlocks he had as a child – has stuck. His house is close to the campsite, so his entire family is involved in the smooth running of the camp. It was amusing to listen to Pokutu Aiya at the campsite shouting out instructions and continuing loud conversations with his family at home. The exchanges included “We’re out of sugar. Will you bring me some from the house?”, “Dad, I’m off to school!” and “Have a good day, son!” yelled across the lake. When the three kids aren’t in school they help make tea for guests or set up the tents on the rafts. Pokutu Aiya’s wife cooked all our delicious meals in her home and brought them to the camp. He is a persistent entrepreneur in his own right. In addition to the camp, he also grows spices, vegetables and rice and on occasion sets up orange juice stands in collaboration with his kids. All his efforts are for the benefit of his children, he said. “My greatest aspiration is that my kids receive the best education and are able to secure high places in life for themselves. What I have for myself is enough. I don’t want more money, land or a bigger house. All my hard work is to ensure my children get the best opportunities possible,” he said. His contentment with his own life is a refreshing trait to come by. If you want Pokutu Aiya to arrange a comfortable campsite for you, you can call him on +94 721 153 409

© The Magic-Bean Trippers
Prior written consent of the authors must be obtained to reproduce, copy, modify or adapt any part of this blog or any of its contents.