The Cultural Triangle--More than Three Sides

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
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Trip End Ongoing


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Flag of Sri Lanka  ,
Monday, May 28, 2007

As I sat in a local Kandy "Meals" restaurant, the hiccoughs started, again.

To date, some of the foods in Sri Lanka rate as the most spicy yet. I sat hiccoughing next to locals wondering if I was eating chilis with some vegetables or vegetables with chilis.

Until I traveled to Asia, Chili Hiccough Syndrome had never afflicted me, despite eating extremely spicy southern chicken wings, raw wasabi, and my dad's chili-laden dishes. Here, and in Sri Lanka in particular, this syndrome has afflicted me several times, when the chef goes bonkers with the red stuff.

Drying my tears, steadying my diaphragm, I walked outside into the busy streets of historical Kandy, beginning a look into the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka, which stretches north from Kandy.

In Kandy, the main cultural attraction was the Temple of the Tooth, where a sacred tooth of the Buddha is allegedly kept. In the mind of many Sri Lankan Buddhists, whoever possesses the tooth rules Sri Lanka and the incisor (or was it Buddha's wisdom tooth) is imbued with magical powers. The public is not shown the tooth; faith prevails that it is there, inside the Temple, guarded by the army, surrounded by tall steel fence.

The Tamil Tigers would love to destroy the tooth, it seems, as they tried in the past by bombing the temple (hence the high secutity). If they destroyed the tooth, after all, the Sinhalese would supposedly lose their power (or would they?).

I wondered what Buddha would think about his tooth.

On another mostly sunny humid day, in the Peredeniya Botanical Gardens six kilometers from town by public bus, I walked through the gardens under Flying Foxes, Breadfruit Trees, Sausage Trees, Cannonball Trees, Jak Trees, Crimson-fronted Barbets, orioles, flycatchers, and parakeets.

The main show for me were the hundreds of Flying Foxes--huge bats who look like hang gliding brown ferrets--dangling from trees cooling themselves in the heat by fanning their brown translucent membranous wings.

Hiding amongst the tall trees were young amorous couples embracing and talking of love on their day off. Unlike India, public displays of affection (which are still discreet or just holding hands, for example) do not lead to potential imprisonment or fines, as Richard Gere found out when he kissed Indian actress Shilpa Shetty on the cheek at an Indian AIDS awareness event (he could face three months in jail). The arrest warrents are out now.

Gere left India quickly after the incident, just before crowds burned him in effigy instead of for real.

One of the things I've found impressive in Sri Lanka is the abundance of bathroom wildlife. After another day on the cultural circuit, I found a small homestay near Sigiriya, the Lion Rock citadel famous for its women frescoes and views from the top of the vertical igneous rock plug. The toilet top in my bathroom was gone, exposing a full tank, which was also full of bathing tree frogs; I didn't dare flush the toilet.

At several other guesthouses, ants walked in a long line of thousands to and from the toilet bowl, taking a small drink of precious fresh water in the drier northern reaches of the country. Large spiders hid behind the toilet, coming out at night.

In most bathrooms, I've also found the Gecko, the one animal spanning all tropical lowland areas of my journey so far. The Gecko gives consistency to the trip, a familiar animal friend.

Another animal friend on this trip is the macaque monkey. At Dambulla, below the ancient cave meditational viharas, complete with painted reclining buddhas, ceilings, and stupas, I watched a monkey sprinting in my direction. I had never seen such running before--determined, fast. The monkey quickly passed a woman, reached out, and grabbed her plastic lunch bag--a perfect move. The macaque then ran to a nearby fence and ate the woman's meal.

Pollonaruwa, the capital of Sri Lanka for several hundred years beginning in the eleventh century, was also a playground for monkeys and the home of an old tooth temple, cremation stupas, an immense palace ruins, round viharas, Buddha statues, Hindu temples, spread over a wide area--evidence of an advanced civilization with many influences.

The capital was selected strategically as a defensive location in the face of invasions from the Chola Kingdom, the Tamils of India. Indeed, the Cholas ruled periodically from Pollonaruwa, before the Sinhalese fought back.

The Tamils were not the first invaders, however. Prior to the Tamils, the Sinhalese themselves colonized Sri Lanka, displacing or mixing with the native Sri Lankan people.

Legends also depict invasions from India. Rama, the north Indian hero of the pan-Asian epic Ramayana, invaded Sri Lanka. Instigating the invasion was the king of Lanka, Ravana, who had stolen Rama's wife Sita back to the cloud forests of Horton's Plains on his flying machine, the Pushpaka. Of course in this good versus evil tale, the Sri Lankan king is a terrible demon and Rama is an avatar of Vishnu, the creator.

Today, this story continues, as the Tamils live in the north parts of Sri Lanka, near India, and are fighting the Sinhalese, for their rights, for a part of that sacred tooth.

Now I just have to watch out for the Chili Hiccough Syndrome, Monkey Thieves, mythical UFOs, and flushing the toilet (I might kill some frogs or ants if I don't pay attention).
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