Tea-Time in Sri Lanka

Discovering old-world charm and a sense of antiquity, Mark Chipperfield is bewitched by Sri Lanka.
July 2021

“This is the throne of King Kashyapa,” says my guide Shantha Perera, pointing to a wide seat carved into the ancient rock. “From here he could watch his concubines frolicking in the swimming pool or dancing for his delight.”

We are standing on the summit of Sigiriya, a massive rock column that the fun-loving monarch, who ruled Sri Lanka in the 5th Century AD, transformed into an impregnable fortress, complete with its own hydraulic water system, market gardens and fearsome defence systems.

“I think Kashyapa was something of a playboy,” admits Shantha coyly. “He had no children of his own.”

By all accounts Sri Lanka’s bachelor king was a thoroughly nasty piece of work – a combination of Rasputin and Attila the Hun – who stole the throne by usurping both his father and brother; Kashyapa had the old king entombed in a wall while still alive.

tea-time-sri-lanka-news-inset1.jpg#asset:86407

Sigiriya Rock, located near the town of Dambulla and packed with erotic frescoes and rock carvings, is therefore Kashyapa’s greatest legacy and a site that continues to attract archaeologists and travellers alike.

Reaching the summit of this Uluru-like monolith is not for the squeamish. Visitors must clamber up a series of spiral staircases hammered into the rock, walk along a narrow passageway and then tackle another set of flimsy stairs to the upper plateau where Kashyapa and his concubines waited for the arrival of his many enemies.

Apart from several huge boulders which could have rolled down on an approaching army, the increasingly paranoid playboy king ordered lookouts to occupy a series of caves located high up on the 200-metre high rock.

“But as you see these caves are very narrow,” explains Shantha. “So if the lookout falls asleep he will hurtle down the rock and fall to his death on the ground below.”

While Sigiriya, or Lion Rock, generates enormous interest because of the murals of bare breasted maidens and its celebrated mirrored wall, the fortress is actually part of a much larger complex that includes canals, decorative ponds, terraced gardens and fountains.

tea-time-sri-lanka-news-inset6.jpg#asset:86402

For anyone whose image of Sri Lanka is based entirely around cricket, surf beaches and colonial forts, a few days spent in the Cultural Triangle, which includes Sigiriya, Kandy and the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, provides a fascinating introduction to the country’s complex and intriguing political, ethnic and religious history.

My 14-day tour of Sri Lanka with Abercrombie & Kent includes ample time to explore some of the jewels of ancient Ceylon, including the magnificent Dambulla Cave Temple and the ruined imperial city of Polonnaruwa, which has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

tea-time-sri-lanka-news-inset3.jpg#asset:86405

In terms of sheer size, archaeological richness and cultural significance The Cultural Triangle, located in the island’s dry northern plains, can only be compared to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. The two locations exude the same sense of mystery, antiquity and Buddhist devotion.

At dawn one day Shantha, my guide, driver and companion, and I join early morning pilgrims at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth in Kandy to see one of Buddhism’s most celebrated, if incongruous, relics; the venerated molar is said to have been smuggled from India in the hairdo of a princess 1700 years ago.

We see bleary-eyed toddlers, women in colourful saris and old men in crumpled sarongs queuing for a glimpse of the relic, which is kept in a gilded inner sanctum. A group of drummers and clarinettists keep up a cacophony as worshippers lay garlands of flowers outside the shrine.

Afterwards, watching the mist rise from the placid waters of Lake Kandy, I marvel at how traditional Sinhalese culture has been able to both withstand and absorb 400 years of colonial influence – first under the Portuguese, who cultivated cinnamon and Catholicism, then the Dutch, who brought global trade, and the British who blessed the inhabitants of this lush island with tea and cricket.

tea-time-sri-lanka-news-inset2.jpg#asset:86406

I’m delighted that our busy itinerary includes a couple of days in the hill country around Hatton, famous for its tea estates, mock Tudor architecture and adherence to all things British; on our tour of the Norwood Estate, which makes the Yorkshire Tea brand, I notice that production records are still handwritten in a leather bound ledger.

These well-run, labour intensive tea plantations have changed little since Sri Lanka gained its independence in 1948. The estates still bear their original British names like Dunkeld, Somerset and Brookfield and most of the mechanical crushers, shredders and dryers are fairly antique looking.

Ironically, the British had planned to grow coffee in the highlands but turned to tea when a fungal disease destroyed the original coffee crop. James Taylor, a Scotsman, planted Ceylon’s first commercial tea in 1867 and the cool misty valleys around Nuwara Eliya proved ideal for tea cultivation.

tea-time-sri-lanka-news-inset5.jpg#asset:86403

Today, Sri Lanka is the world’s fourth largest producer of tea, with exports worth around US$1.5 billion a year and employing over 1 million people.

But high-quality loose-leaf Ceylon tea from places such as Norwood Estate now faces stiff competition from other Asian countries and a growing shortage of Tamil pickers.

“Profits from tea are not what they once were,” says Shantha, a commercial tea buyer for many years. “And it is harder to find enough pickers, which is why some fields are not being replanted. It has become a huge issue.”

For the moment, however, this curiously old-fashioned rural enterprise continues on its familiar path. The steep emerald hills are dotted with lady pickers, the leaves carefully weighed out in the fields and transported by ageing tractor to huge factories clad in corrugated iron.

One morning I explore the tea fields around Camellia Hills, my colonial-style bungalow, ending up in the local village, which consists of barrack-like housing, a small general store, a kindergarten and two well-attended state schools.

I spot an elderly man having his unruly moustache trimmed by the village barber in the backyard of his modest house and ask to take his picture. He agrees, provided that I tip the barber – which I do.

tea-time-sri-lanka-news-inset4.jpg#asset:86404

Sitting on the terrace of my bungalow that evening sipping a gin and tonic it’s not difficult to transport oneself back 150 years and imagine the rewards – and challenges – of life as a tea planter in British Ceylon. The little stone churches, red post boxes and rattling country trains are constant reminders of those romantic, far-off days.

When I first visited Sri Lanka a decade ago, the country was rebuilding after the Boxing Day Tsunami which had inundated the south coast. There were still troops, roadblocks and sandbags on the streets of Colombo as the long-running civil war entered its final chapter.

Modern Sri Lanka is more stable, confident and prosperous. An elaborate freeway system is under construction and foreign investment is evident in both Colombo and Galle – the Dutch fort is now a popular destination for European hipsters and Aussie surfers.

Indeed, the coastline south of Galle is unrecognisable from the one I drove along back in 2005. The shattered villages, broken bridges and washed out roads have all been repaired. Visitors will now find upscale hotels, smart waterfront eateries and a brace of new surf schools.

tea-time-sri-lanka-news-inset7.jpg#asset:86410

Galle itself is a symbol of the island’s resilience and continuity. The famous cricket ground, inundated by the tsunami, has been restored to its former glory (thanks, in part, to the efforts of Shane Warne) and the picturesque streets are packed with trendy cafés, day spas, fashionable boutiques and ultra-posh restaurants.

Despite this onward rush to embrace modernity, Sri Lanka still retains much of the old-school charm, languid pace of life and sense of antiquity – qualities which have long charmed visitors to this tear-drop shaped Indian Ocean island.

Sri Lanka has never been more vibrant, cosmopolitan and outward looking but the traveller is still likely to be bewitched by a water meadow wreathed in mist, a line of elephants crossing a rice field or the sound of young cricketers playing in the dying light of a tropical evening.