A tribute to Sri Lanka’s arid landscapes

In the summer of ’79, my very pregnant mother was hoisted on to the back of an Enfield and taken on a road trip to Sri Lanka’s Northern Province. My father was born with a lust for the road which he had wanted to pass on to his firstborn, even in utero. And so, I was on a bumpy ride, even before I was born.

Sri Lanka’s Northern Province is also well accustomed to bumpy rides. A 30-year war doesn’t end without scars that can’t be healed and landscapes that remain forever marred by the fighting. But that was almost a decade ago and a new North slowly begins to rise, lifting the spirits of her inhabitants along with her. And sometimes, watching nature take back a once shell-shocked home, with weeds and leaves growing out of broken windows can be a beautiful thing to witness.

My mother was born and raised in Colombo; her idea of a holiday was determined by the comfort of a hotel room and the cleanliness of a toilet. The culturally rich, commercially rough-around-the-edges locale and terribly put together A9 of the late 70’s must have been a nasty sort of thing for someone who loved her comforts. Chaos, colour, chanting – needless to say, she never went back. But I did: over and over again.

30 something years later, the places my parents visited have a different face and bumpy journeys are replaced by 3-lane motorways. Much of the landscape has changed entirely, and yet, other aspects quite stubbornly remain the same. The ugliness of consumerism and concrete haven’t quite had their way here. New temples and structures have risen to replace their fallen counterparts; but not so many that old gods have been pushed to the fringes. There is an indescribable purity to the North. Life is a little simpler, the landscape arid and yet richer, just by being so entirely different to any other part of the country. Coconut trees are traded in for palmyra fronds and beach parties are abandoned for lonely beach strolls cradled by still ocean waters.Save for a few manicured hotels, a mall and 3D cinema, the North is largely unaffected by urban chaos, so visitors like my mum may find it hard to satisfy all their travel prerequisites. Things are local from the word go. The eccentricities, colour and curious ways come free of a price tag. How much will you pay for a Jaffna morning? One that awakens to birds silhouetting landscapes as the smell of fresh dosas and vadais waft out of vegan eateries, accompanied by tinny speakers playing devotional dawn-songs. This once great centre of culture and intellect still knows a thing or two about coming back to life, day after day.

There is a meditative pace to each town and hamlet in a way no wellness spa or yoga retreat can replicate. This is real awakening and where you come to know the meaning of resilience. Things here are old-school and charmingly so. For a region that lived with no electricity for a decade, things like the internet have come later than the rest of us. If there was one place you’d want to switch off devices and dig into the heart of things, it would be here.

The northern landscapes of my parents’ youth are long gone, but its spirit rises again. The manic construction you’re bound to witness will no doubt add to the idea of regeneration, but when I speak of rebirth, I mean something else entirely. Take a walk off the main roads from time to time, do as the locals do and see the land through their eyes – in fact, in the absence of an established tourist industry, you will have no other choice. But this can be a good thing. Mother North is no group-tour sort of destination: this is where you come one at a time – or two by two.

Here, paradise is personal.

Originally published in the March 2019 edition of The Fowler:

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