There was something about former Sri Lankan cricket captain Arjuna Ranatunga that endeared him to my family. Maybe, it was his portly frame and easy approach to the sport. When Sri Lanka played against India, often an uncle or aunt or grandparent would shake his head from side to side, eyes closed, in a manner reserved for Carnatic music appreciation when the TV cameras focussed on Ranatunga running in a most ungainly manner, and say, “Tcha, he’s a very good man.” Muttiah Muralitharan, on the other hand, inspired fear. “Ayyo, he is here,” someone would say when he took over bowling. Like many others in India, cricket was my introduction to Sri Lanka, a country that felt so much like home on my first visit a few months ago.
Driving from Colombo, the capital city on the southwestern coast, all the way up to Trincomalee, the port city on the northeastern coast, is a lot like a drive from say, Kochi to Ernakulam. Grey apartment blocks are left behind for tiled roof houses and coconut palms, banana trees and paddy fields that line either side of the road. So similar are the two landscapes that the Mani Ratnam-directed film Kannathil Muthamittal, whose plot unfolds in Sri Lanka, was shot in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and few could tell that it wasn’t set in Sri Lanka. But if you were in Trincomalee or Trinco, as it is known locally, the brilliant emerald waters are a dead giveaway — there is no such beach in India and there may never be one.
Trinco is slowly recovering from the 30-year civil war, whose scars are still visible on buildings that we drive past, and the more recent tsunami of 2004. Hotels such as Trinco Blu by Cinnamon, which was set up in the 1960s and refurbished in 2010, have been working closely with the local fishing community. Some 2,000 fishermen and their families, all of who are Sri Lankan Tamils, live around the hotel. Some of them ferry the hotel’s guests into the sea to spot dolphins or even whales if the tourists are lucky. “Our homes were all washed away,” says one of the fishermen pointing to the waterline that is still visible from when the waters rose 12 years ago, “But nothing happened to our Mariamman temple.”
Faith is the other road where Indian and Sri Lankan paths converge. Shiva, the mythical god of destruction, Rama, an avatar of Vishnu and part of the Hindu trinity of gods that Shiva too belongs to, Murugan, one of Vishnu’s two sons and Mariamman, a Hindu goddess who is an avatar of Durga believed to be the mother goddess in Hinduism, are all worshipped in Sri Lanka. The Konneswaram temple or the temple of 1,000 pillars in Trinco has a 33 foot statue of Shiva that is visible even when you’re out at sea. Ravana, who ruled Sri Lanka according to the Ramayana, was a great devotee of Shiva, and the legend goes that he built the temple (buying into this theory, history books have conveniently recorded that the temple was renovated during the Chola rule in 205 BC) and it has turned into a popular tourist spot. It also features on the Ramayana trail that several Indians sign up for. “Every month, 5,000 tourists fly out of Mumbai alone to Sri Lanka,” says Rohit Nambisan, senior executive, sales, Sri Lankan Airlines.
Chefs maybe reluctant to admit it, but Sri Lankan food too is not too far off the culinary map from the cuisine of Kerala and there are two reasons why this is immediately apparent: the love for coconut and red rice. “We have some 130 uses for coconut trees and some five varieties of red rice,” says chef Mendes of Cinnamon Trinco Blue. Some of their desserts such as kokis are similar to the Goan rose de coque or rose cookies, and dodol, another Goan delicacy made with rice flour, coconut milk and jaggery that is famous in Sri Lanka by the same name. “We make kokis specially during the New Year,” says sous chef KHSP Ariyaratne of Nuga Gama restaurant at Cinnamon Grand, Colombo. The recipes crossed the seas when the Portuguese invaded Sri Lanka in the late 16th century, some eight decades after their conquest of Goa.
Hoppers or appams as Malayalis know them, made using rice batter, and pittu made of steamed rice flour and coconut, known as puttu in Kerala, are also a ubiquitous part of breakfasts in Sri Lanka. They love their kithul, the smoky treacle made of coconut palm sap, which is sold in earthen pots along the highways, as much as Bengalis love their nolen gur made from date palm. At snack time, hot masala wades are a favourite. Deep fried to a crisp, these are just like the masala vadais made back home with split pea, onion and green chillies. But the Sri Lankans also have the isso wades, a genius stroke as far as wades go since these are topped with fresh prawns and fried. Much like in Kerala, sea food is right on top of the food pyramid here.
Ministry of Crab, which was voted one of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants this year in San Pellegrino’s annual list has recently brought the country’s superlative seafood into the news again. Sharing some of the spotlight are former cricket stars Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene. Both of them set up the restaurant in Colombo’s 400-year-old heritage landmark, Old Dutch Hospital, along with chef Dharshan Munidasa. Both former captains could be ambassadors for FitBit or any one of those calorie counting gadgets that people wear around their wrists nowadays. If only Ranatunga were in the picture, my grandmother, a staunch vegetarian, would have nodded her head in approval and may have even stepped into the restaurant in the hope that she could meet him.