The hidden delights at the heart of Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle
Words by: Ruwandi Perera
Habarana is known for its elephants, villages and cultivations – a must-stop locale, given that it is conveniently located in the Anuradhapura District, neighbouring the ancient Sigiriya rock fortress. Little is known about the historical significance of this ancient Ceylonese gem, except that it unveils splendours that must be walked through, seen, heard, inhaled and tasted.
From picturesque mountains, to adrenaline-boosting national parks… from sleepy villages, to the lair of ancient secrets and legends, Habarana is centrally located amid a range of exploratory destinations to discover, experience and enjoy.
Not far from Habarana town is Hiriwadunna, a quaint little village that is dependent on chena cultivations. It is where life spins around the waters of Hiriwadunna Lake. Visitors can sit back and enjoy a bullock cart ride, with its tinkling bells and oxen, while taking in the rural beauty and charm of village life.
Where the swaying ride ends, the trek through the shady jungle and chena cultivations begins. Spotting a bashful giant squirrel on a treetop, or a proud peacock strutting in all its feathered glory, is not uncommon in these environs. Tree houses are built in close proximity to where the action is, so that farmers can keep watch and chase away curious elephants and other wild animals that visit the chenas at night.
Entry to the village is in a catamaran that smoothly glides across the 1,200-year-old Hiriwadunna Lake, which is home to hundreds of white lotus flowers, and gigantic lily pads that are dotted with teals and other waterbirds.
After a ride in the sun, guests are warmly welcomed by smiling village families, to savour a delicious lunch of fresh vegetables and rice, grown and cultivated in their own gardens. Watching the graceful movements of Sri Lanka’s village women, clad in colourful traditional attire, as they hustle to prepare an array of spicy curries, is a surreal experience. What’s more, visitors can join in the cooking, too!
Lunch is served on traditional plates made of banana leaves, offering guests an authentic Sri Lankan culinary experience.
SRI LANKAN HALAPA
- ½ a coconut (grated)
- 100g sugar
- 250g kurakkan flour
- ¼ tsp ground cummin
- ½ a cup of water
- 15-20 washed and dried leaves of the Trincomaleewood tree (Halmilla)
- A pinch of salt
Leave a large pot of water on the fire to boil, and mix all the ingredients (except the water) until everything is mixed well with the grated coconut. Add the half a cup of water gradually, until the mixture becomes a semi-thick paste. Insert a heaping tablespoon of the paste into the middle of a Halmilla leaf and fold the leaf along its blade, so that it looks like a semi-circle. Ensure that the paste is spread evenly. Cover the simmering pot of water with a clean cloth, and place the uncooked halapa on the cloth for 15-20 minutes. Serve warm, with plain tea or a bael (beli flower) drink.
HABARANA JUMBO MIGRATION
The elephants roam all year round – from park to park – between the following trio
Hurulu Eco Park (February to July)
Minneriya National Park (August to November)
Kaudulla National Park (November to January)
WHAT YOU NEED
- Trusty 4×4 jeep – with a bold driver!
- Camera and gear
- Binoculars (for birdwatching)
- Sun hat
Hurulu Eco Park
Hurulu Eco Park is a lush green jungle with little hilly roads off the beaten track. Although it is not in the big league of Minneriya and Kaudulla National Parks, which are managed by the Wildlife Department, Hurulu Eco Park has been ranked No. 4 on TripAdvisor, among 11 attractions in Habarana.
The park isn’t a typical dry forest, as are its big league counterparts; but Hurulu Eco Park sports large expanses of tall grass (which the elephants love to feast on) and teak trees. Conquered and ruled by jumbos, the park has a few other mammals such as jackals, and exotic birds (including the changeable hawk-eagle and peacock).
With 15-20 pachyderms in a group, the elephant herds are relatively small. But they’re bold and aggressive, which testifies to their limited exposure to visitors. Jeeps can drive close enough, for visitors to hear the flap-flap of the jumbos’ ears… but stay far enough, to save your eardrums from the dominating trumpeting of the bull elephants.
LEGENDS AND HISTORY
- The art known as Uddwisha in the ancient days was named Angam Pora, during King Sena’s rule.
- The teachings of the art were passed on through ola leaf scripts, and kept secret among ancient warriors.
- The earliest evidence of Angam Pora dates back to King Ravana – an ardent fighter, himself – more than 5,000 years ago.
- Many kings, including Pandukabhaya and Dutugemunu, were trained in the martial art, in the Ritigala area.
- King Dutugemunu’s famous giant-soldier Jayasena did not survive an epic Angam Pora fight atop the Ritigala Mountain, against fellow giant-soldier Gota–im–bara. Jayasena was defeated, when his head was cut off. But it was replaced by a backward-turned bear head, which. it is said, transformed the once-formidable warrior into mahasona, a dreaded creature from the spirit world, who is believed to haunt the villages in this region.
Ritigala Mountain and Monastery
The highest peak in northern Sri Lanka, Ritigala is a mountain range that is rich in biodiversity, rainfall and legends. Situated some 20 kilometres from Habarana, the mountain is believed to be protected by ancient yakkas (demons), and lies in the middle of the Ritigala Strict Nature Reserve. It is home to leopards, sloth bears and elephants – they are known to visit the nearby monastery and village, regularly.
Elevated higher than other dry-land mountains, Ritigala is believed to have many medicinal herbs at its crest, which are different to the flora in other regions of the island.
Home to an ancient and large monastery complex, Ritigala Mountain is also a prominent training ground for the ancient martial art of Angam Pora – the technique of Sri Lankan physical combat that is learned and practised by ancient villagers, which was sworn to serve the king (through combat, of course!) in an emergency.
Visitors are allowed to trek through the dense forest of the mountain, walking along the stone pavements of the monastery complex. The ascent begins from Banda Pokuna – an expansive bathing area, for pilgrims to cleanse themselves before stepping on holy ground.
At the top of the stairs, the complex is strewn with the haunting remains of stone bridges, meditation rooms, meeting areas, a fully equipped hospital and a library, atop a scenic rock that overlooks miles and miles of thick jungle.
While walking along the ancient stone steps and boulders, visitors find themselves standing on three large circular platforms, which are believed to have been where people washed their feet or practised Angam Pora, in a bygone era. Today, they serve as welcome resting areas for climbers.
In evidence here are the advanced methods of construction that were adopted in times gone by, and acid-based rock carvings, handmade clay roof tiles, sunken courtyards, decorated urinals and comprehensive drainage systems.
RITIGALA IN THE MAHAVAMSA
Legend has it that when medicinal herbs were being brought to Ceylon by Lord Hanuman from India, to cure Lord Rama’s brother, a chunk of a Himalayan mountain (which contained the herbs) was dropped in Ritigala. This is said to be the reason for the strange copse of vegetation at the mountain’s peak. It is also believed that, while flying back to India, Lord Hanuman leaped off the Ritigala Mountain, using it as a launching pad that helped him jump into South India. In fact, Ritigala is the highest peak between northern Sri Lanka and southern India.
Start your day with a chilled bottle of bubbly, by the mini lake at Cinnamon Lodge Habarana, while enjoying a spot of birdwatching early in the morning, as you tuck into a delicious breakfast spread. Tall glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice, juicy tropical fruits, steaming bread baskets that are accompanied by bacon and eggs cooked to order, and cups of delicious Ceylon Tea and coffee will give you the boost you will need for a day of exploring.
Where to stay
With its beautifully landscaped gardens, luxury cabanas and suites, Cinnamon Lodge Habarana is the perfect place to relax and be pampered, while spending the daylight hours exploring the wonders of Habarana. The hotel brims with a host of activities that range from boat rides, elephant safaris, butterfly garden tours, bicycle rides, birdwatching jungle treks and mouth-watering culinary experiences, all of which have guests spoilt for choice. Deciding how best to collect those treasured holiday memories may be your only headache!
For that romantic end to an exciting day, Cinnamon Lodge Habarana offers a treetop barbeque. Treat yourselves to a glass of red wine and candlelight dinner for two, atop a tree house, while chefs prepare a gastronomic spread of sumptuous meats and sides right below. From the first bite of the freshly made appetiser, to the last crumb of the perfectly delectable dessert, the experience of five-star dining beneath the stars, nestled on a tree, will be a memory that is hard to beat.
32 FLAVOURS OF ICE CREAM
Cinnamon Lodge Habarana is known for many firsts; but its creamy, delicious and all-natural home-made ice creams are simply luscious… brain-freezing! Made to perfection by Olympic medal-winning Chef Nimal, all the ice creams comprise ingredients sourced from local communities – they include seasonal fruits, fresh milk and enticing alcohol. Some of the more adventurous flavours are Kochchi, Palmyra, Sour-sup, Honey & Ginger, Summer Fruit, Durian, Brown-bread, Piña colada and Tiramisu.