Hanuman simply leaped across from the subcontinent and an entire army is said to have walked over on a line of stones, but even in our stale post-epic age, there’s something grand about going to Sri Lanka by sea. Traders have sailed here for thousands of years, and wealthy Europeans who took weeks to glide from west to east on luxury liners in the early 20th century stopped here to recharge.
In the afternoon glare, a line of darkness on the horizon resolves itself into a lighthouse, scattered boats and, very quickly, massive cranes, cargo ships and towers of containers as our ship, the MV Aquamarine, slips into the harbour.
It is the first cruise ship to stop here in long decades. There are hopes now that tourists will again sail to this green island, and our cruise from Kochi to Colombo was met with drummers and dancers and a red carpet on the docks. This is Louis Cruises’ inaugural route, Kochi-Colombo and back over four days. The ship leaves Kochi on Day 1 at 6pm and reaches Colombo about 4pm on Day 2. On Day 3 the ship leaves Colombo harbour at about 3pm and reaches Kochi at 11am on Day 4. The ship has a restaurant, a bistro and five bars. There is a small pool with a deep half and a wading half for children, a lounge, casino, gym, library and children’s play room. There is also a spa, a beauty salon and a well-stocked duty-free shop. Passengers can play basketball, cricket and table tennis. Group activities are organised mornings and evenings on board. After dinner there are night shows and passengers usually join in the cha-cha-cha.
Travellers on this cruise get less than 24 hours in Sri Lanka, but with careful planning it is possible to make those hours tell. The ship has an excursion desk that can sign you up for group tours: there are sports tours and shopping tours, city tours involving part sightseeing and part shopping, a tour that takes you to the elephant orphanage at Pinnawela and the Kelaniya Temple as well as an overnight tour to Kandy. For the best use of your time, hire a car from a private tour company such as Aitken Spence Travels (+94-2438023).
We decided to use our hours exploring Colombo. Close to Colombo’s harbour is the Fort area. There is no fort left, but some of the older landmarks of the city lie along a gritty but interesting walk, especially when continued to the narrow lanes towards the Dutch Museum and the Grand Mosque in the Pettah area.
Beira Lake lies south of these neighbourhoods, and around the lake are many of Colombo’s liveliest sights. The Gangaramaya Temple is its own teeming universe, which has received donations and help from the Japanese. The gates are guarded with sword-bearing Japanese warriors and hung with paper lanterns, and they lead into a bustling yet peaceful courtyard. The chief shrine contains a gigantic seated Buddha and every inch of the walls is painted with fine murals. From there visitors walk into a second courtyard. Beyond is a lovely wooden museum with numerous unlabelled figurines and another large Buddha image. Steps lead from here up to a plinth with a peepul tree, now thick with tender leaves that have just learned to stop blushing.
The National Museum, set in a tamarind-shaded garden shrieking with parakeets, and overlooked by a formidable statue of Queen Victoria, is a venerable, airy edifice that is a treat to wander in. There are ponderous monoliths on the lower level and the many artefacts of daily life on the upper level, a window to the various ages and dynasties of this island through their combs, drapery, jewel boxes and gems.
The scars of this island’s history are still visible in many places. Roads and footpaths are often awkwardly barricaded and many shop fronts are blank eyes of glass, but there are ready smiles even from the guards. And many more from the schoolchildren trooping through the tourist sites. At Independence Memorial Hall, they march up and around the massive pavilion to pool around the stone lions at the bottom of the steps. Beyond are spacious lawns and reflecting pools.
For a leisurely walk along the shore, most people head to the promenade at Galle Face Green. In the evening, families turn out in force and many venture into the sea for a swim. Even in the empty late mornings, there are tourists taking group photos. Fried prawns are being sold out of little wagons, and a woman walks around ready to read your palm for fifty rupees.
About 10km from the harbour and far from the city’s clamour, is the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara, a large and serene temple complex situated on rising ground. The Buddha is said to have actually visited this place and preached here. A white stupa looms behind the main shrines. The walls are thick with frescoes in vegetable colours. Under the shade of a magnificent peepul tree are four seated Buddha images. Cows and pigeons wander in the garden. Solitary devotees pray in various spots of their own choosing. Others sit in twos and threes, reading, chanting and meditating. Many carry bunches of lotus to offer at the shrines and some pause to light oil lamps in a pavilion. Fountains, a garden with a reflecting pool, a hexagonal lamp house, and a bell tower add to the charms of this site.
Back at the harbour, we have time for a relaxed meander through the stalls right alongside the ship selling everything from fridge magnets to inlay elephants, and carrying it all on board is easy. But better than that is the chance to gossip with the shopkeepers about what people are buying, whether people are coming and the promises of a rosy future for this island.
The tariff for the 3N/4D Kochi-Colombo cruise ranges from Rs 19,650 per passenger in an inside stateroom to Rs 49,350 in a royal suite, including meals at specified times but not including taxes. Tours range from Rs 1,000 for the city tour to Rs 3,600 for the Kandy tour. Louis Cruises also offers a 3N/4D Kochi-Maldives cruise and a 1N/2D Kochi cruise. Contact: 022-42224777, www.louiscruises.com.