Situated just a stone’s throw away from Dhanushkodi in Tamil Nadu, and dubbed the Serendib in Arabic and Ceylon by the colonists, Sri Lanka is a gem of a destination that remains vastly unexplored.
On a recent road trip across this historical island, I ascended the misty slopes of its Central Province, in search of sacred realms. And, one such search brought me to a region commonly called the Highlands, famous for its kovils, Ceylon tea and bio-diverse jungles.
The Bhaktha Hanuman Kovil was my first stop in this quest. Located inside the Chinmaya Mission premises at Ramboda and perched at 3200 feet, this temple is home to a 16 ft tall granite Hanuman idol worshipped by the local people.
“ This is the place where Hanuman first set foot in Sri Lanka '', says Shivalingam , an office bearer at Chinmaya Mission, as I pay a visit to the office enclosure. “ We’ve built a temple at the very spot”.
A hamlet nestled in the folds of rolling tea-plantations of Central Highlands in Sri Lanka, Ramboda is a mere 35 km away from the popular colonial hill-city of Nuwara Eliya, home to a large Tamil population working as tea-plantation workers for generations.
It is widely believed that Ramboda is the place where Hanuman had first touched down, on his visit to Sri Lanka, in order to rescue Sita devi in the epic Ramayana. He is said to have rested here and meditated. Indeed, the serene climes of Ramboda is the ultimate place to seek divinity, and I could imagine why Hanuman must have chosen this spot to meditate, in the name of Shree Ramachandra.
But this hamlet isn’t the only place related to Hanuman or the Ramayana in this region.
Blessed with plentiful mist-kissed mountains, gurgling streams, gushing waterfalls, luxurious flora and fauna, and dotted with vibrant kovils, the whole of Central Highlands is steeped in the legend and lore of Ramayana.
While giving a tour of the Chinmaya Mission premises, Shivalingam showed me a mountain range opposite the Kovil. “ It is known as Ravanaboda”, he says. “ Ravanaboda is where Ravana’s army was stationed during the war in Ramayana, while Rama's army along with the vanara sena was on Ramboda”.
I saw that the two mountain ranges were separated by the Mahaweli Ganga river, flowing majestically in the valley down below. It is here that the epic battle between Rama and Ravana happened and the triumph of adharma over dharma, facilitated by the might of Hanuman and the vanara sena.
Local people believe that the presence of Hanuman still lingers over these mountains. They have nicknamed the peak line of Ravanaboda as ‘Sleeping Hanuman’, as it closely resembles a reclined Hanuman. Looking keenly, I couldn't help but accept that it indeed did look like a figure of him sleeping with his hands close to his chest !
Every rock, tree and stream, from the inanimate to the animate, in this land seemed to be waiting to narrate its own tale associated with the epic. And, the Hindu gods and goddesses that I so revered came alive in these mountains that were blanketed by an energetic vibe.
Although I couldn’t visit the other places associated with the epic, I made sure to pay my obeisance at the Seetha Amman temple, located on the outskirts of Nuwara Eliya, nearby Ashoka Vatika, as instructed by ShivaLingam.
“Sita Eliya has the only temple in Sri Lanka dedicated to Sita ma, and you should visit it”, Shivalingam had reminded me, as I relished the ‘prasadam’ lunch served inside the Chinmaya Mission premises [thoughtfully booked by my friend Jude, in advance] before bidding good-bye to Ramboda.
And, what a beautiful visit it turned out to be!
Built abutting the fringes of the mist-kissed verdant forests of the historical Ashoka Vatika, beside a burbling stream meandering its way through the woods, the Seethai Amman kovil at Sita Eliya brings forth the bygone Ramayana alive.
Local people believe that Sita devi used to bathe in this stream, descending the slopes of the enigmatic Ashoka Vatika where she was held captive by Ravana. Just adjacent to the stream, on the boulders are brobdingnagian imprints, believed to be of Lord Hanuman who is said to have introduced himself to Sita Devi at this very spot, on his first ever interaction with her.
This event from the Ramayana has been immortalized through the statue of Sita Devi blessing Hanuman, with details engraved on a plaque at the historical spot.
Legend goes that the stream’s water loses its taste around this spot, and that it regains its taste a little further downstream. Also, three black-granite idols of Rama-Sita-Lakshmana were unearthed from the Ashoka Vatika a few years back, and since then it has been installed inside the Seetha Amman kovil.
The kovil built by local people is colourful with a fresh coat of paint and resembles the temples of Tamil Nadu, with a Dravidian temple architecture. An old shrine dedicated to Lord Hanuman still exists on the sides of the stream nearby.
Recently, a Sri Lankan delegation led by their high commissioner to India, Milinda Moragoda, visited Ayodhya and offered a shila (sacred stone) from this Ashok Vatika for the Ram temple.
Well, it is no secret that Sri Lanka is an integral part of the Ramayana epic that comprises 24,000 verses divided into seven volumes or kanda. While the Sundara Kanda has fleeting mentions of the island and introduces Ashoka Vatika, the Yuddha Kanda almost brings Sri Lanka to life.
However, what is widely unknown is that the people of this island nation also consider Rama as a revered figure; while the temples, caves and mountains associated with the events in Ramayana are considered sacred.
In fact, pilgrims and travellers from India, often visit places in the Ramayana-trail circuit when on a trip to Sri Lanka, as do the local populace. And, Ramboda and Sita Eliya top this pilgrimage trail.
So, the next time you are travelling to Sri Lanka, explore the island beyond its white-sandy beaches for a few days. I guarantee that it would be good fuel for the soul!(Meenakshi J is a family traveller with a penchant for art, doors, architecture, heritage and historical sites, and symmetry, that often gets translated into words on her blog: PolkaJunction)