Terrorism, Tsunami – Now Greed

Sri Lanka could be paradise. Moon-shaped beaches. Azure waters rolling in over crusty white sand. Heavily laden palm trees casting their shadows on hot foreigners and cool locals. And inland: tropical hills and tea plantations bathing the landscape in a kaleidoscope of greens. Add gorgeous ruins of ancient cities and an Utopian image should emerge. For a moment you’ll even believe it; this could very well be the Eden where Adam first set foot on earth.

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…If it wasn’t for the civil war that eclipsed this island for thirty years. In a quest for an independent Muslim state in Northern Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers held the whole country under a terror spell with bombings, kidnappings and political murders. When the military reciprocated, more than one hundred thousand civilians lost their lives. Finally, in 2009, the president launched a terminal assault on the Tigers. The outcome was quite successful – the insurgents were eliminated (although another 40,000 innocent bystanders also lost their lives).

…If it wasn’t for the tsunami that crippled the country in 2004. Hitting the shores from all sides, the ten meter high wall of water killed 35,000 people and wiped out entire coastal communities. Suddenly ALL resorts were gone, and tourism came to a complete stop. There was nowhere to go.

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…If it wasn’t for the greed that in the few years of peace has blinded its citizens. While the restoration has been incredibly rapid, the prices have risen to almost European heights. The entrance fee to the ruins of Anuradhpura and Polonnaruwa costs a ridiculous $25 each. To climb a rock called Sigirya or walk uphill to Adam’s Peak relives you of an exorbitant $30. Compared to other world-class sites (Acropolis $16, Angkor Wat $20, Taj Mahal $14), the pricing strategy feels both naïve and downright rude. After all Sri Lanka has been through, shouldn’t they approach the tourism industry with a longer-term approach?

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Instead, Sri Lanka is getting a bad rap among travelers. Prices are too high, touts are too pushy and the heavenly beaches are too crowded. It’s a shame, because the locals you meet on a train, in a small town or on the street are really lovely. And kind. And smiling. And honest.

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But hope always floats. The island is far too beautiful to become a second thought. If only the greed is controlled, Sri Lanka could again become the paradise that was once blessed by Adam, Buddha, Mohammad and Shiva.

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Where the Wild Men Drink

Open a door to any local bar in Sri Lanka and you will see men drinking. Alone or in pairs, they stare deeply into their pint or bottle of arrak. The bars may not be the nicest, or even very clean, but in a small town like Kandy or Polonnaruwa where there’s nothing else to do, a cold beer on a hot afternoon is a good way to while away the boredom.

You sit down to nods and smiles. A lady is always welcome. Just as you start relaxing, you hear murmurs. Loud voices. You look around to see where the noise is coming from, but none of the men around you is speaking. Then you realize: the sounds are coming from downstairs.

Almost every bar has one – a tori-tori. It’s where the poorest, most alcoholic brothers get together to satisfy their thirst. Drinking god-knows-what from large plastic jugs, they sit on hard chairs, in row after row, gulping their pain away. And it’s not just any kind of plastic jug, it’s one of those big colored ones used for milk, or perhaps to measure flour. Is it because they might break a glass? Or just because no glass is big enough to hold what they are drinking?

Some tori-tori’s are slightly better. Instead of in the basement, the wild men are shown to the back room, away from the public eye. There they order quarter-full bottles or half-full bottles of cheap arrak, which they finish in minutes before getting on their motorbikes and speeding away.

The men in the front room laugh and shake their heads. As if saying; “I’m not there yet. I can still control my drinking.”

And still, they finish their large glasses of liquor in seconds. No, they’re not ready for the tori-tori.

 

Not yet.

Who Took Buddha’s Tooth?

Once upon a time, in the central region of Sri Lanka, a prince appeared holding a tooth.

“It’s the tooth of the Buddha!” he exclaimed.

His story was as incredible as it was awesome; nine hundred years ago someone had plucked a tooth from Buddha’s mouth as he was laying on his funeral pyre. What luck! Now this sacred tooth had been stolen and smuggled in from India, hidden in the hair of a Sinhalese princess.

Why people believed him is anyone’s guess. But perhaps in 4 AD, before carbon dating and Nigerian online scams, a story like this did not seem too good to be true. Imagine beholding an actual part of their spiritual leader. Sometimes faith is stronger than common sense.

The sacred tooth became an integral part of the culture in this Buddhist country. It was carried around the country, from one sacred site to another. Temples were built in Anuradhapura, in the capital Polonnaruwa, and wherever the power was held at the time. The king who owned the tooth automatically became the master of the island – it was a treasure beyond measure. The people prayed to it, meditated before it, adored it, bathed it with herbal concoctions.

In 1283, the Indians caught wind of the tooth. In their minds, the Buddha and any part of his divine body was theirs. Siddhartha Gautama became enlightened in India, he taught there, and finally he also died there. They had to have it back. The Indian army invaded Sri Lanka and so the tooth returned to its rightful home.

Not for long. The tooth was far too important to the Sinhalese. King Parakrambahu III resolutely traveled to India and successfully brought the sacred relic back. All was in order again. Until the Portuguese arrived. They didn’t care so much about the tooth, or perhaps didn’t believe the story, but they understood its importance. If they wanted to conquer Sri Lanka, the tooth had to go. So they stole it and burned it.

End of story.

Or not. The Sri Lankans were too clever for the pale Catholics.

“Ha ha ha!” they said. You only stole and burned a replica of the tooth. We still have the real one!”

The tooth again became the most important item in the country, and the Portuguese gave up. There was no way of telling which one was the real tooth.

Two hundred years later, the current Temple of the Sacred Tooth was built inside the Kandyan Royal Palace. Even today, Buddhists from all over the world make pilgrimages to see the tooth. Well, you can’t really see the tooth. You can only see the golden casket where it is held. And you can’t really see it close, because you are only allowed within three meters of the altar in the Vahahitina Maligawa shrine.

But who cares, the actual tooth of the Buddha is held there. (Or is it a replica?)

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