A monumental migration
Under the full brunt of Sri Lanka’s July heat, the waters within the ancient central reservoir of the Minneriya National Park begin to recede, giving rise to a broad expanse of lush vegetation. This sequence of events sets in motion a phenomenon known simply as The Gathering, which annually attracts droves of foreign visitors to the park.
The Gathering sees the congregation of hundreds of the country’s renowned Asian elephants, who feed on the reservoir’s fresh offspring of greenery and bathe and frolic in its waters. This mass migration has been occurring for centuries, ever since King Mahasen first erected the reservoir, which resiliently clutches its water supply throughout the dry season (July to early November) as all nearby water sources run dry.
The assembled herds feature elephants of all manner of sizes and shapes, including hefty males sporting long and lethal tusks and protective females with capricious calves in tow.
With scores of Asian elephants killed annually by unscrupulous poachers pursuing them for the precious ivory derived from their tusks, the population of this unique species is being driven ever lower. Sri Lanka is one of the world’s few established refuges for these majestic behemoths, with their numbers resting in the region of 8000. This makes it an essential destination for travelers seeking a close encounter with these trundling giants of the jungle and has garnered The Gathering a firm international billing as one of the wild’s great spectacles.
Furthermore, the reservoir also plays host to a collection of other species of wildlife, such as a variety of exotic birds who descend upon the reservoir’s waters to feast upon its abundant shoals of fish.
Guests at Uga Escapes’ two east coast hotels – Uga Bay in Passikudah and Jungle Beach in Kuchchaveli- are just a short journey away from the Minneriya National Park. Due to this close proximity, both properties feature a trip to the park on their excursions list, offering guests an opportunity to commune with nature and witness true marvels like The Gathering.
Sri Lanka’s east coast experience
From the shallow turquoise waters off Passikudah’s pristine coast to their more forceful counterparts straddling Trincomalee’s golden shores, Sri Lanka’s east coast is a veritable hotbed for beach side havens. Over the years its reputation has steadily swelled and, with the region poised to hit its seasonal peak in popularity, droves of tourists are already queuing up to immerse themselves in the east coast experience.
Aside from the slow pace at which life seems to unwind in the coastal towns that make up this diverse region, the east coast also affords visitors a chance to engage in a host of activities that are uncommon to most other beach side hot spots.
Take whale watching for instance. Renowned globally for being one of the few sites in the world where blue and humpback whales regularly assemble, Sri Lanka houses a number of vantage points from which to gain access to these remarkable creatures. Trincomaleeis one such location and between the months of May and October it acts as the ideal departure point for excursions to the ocean abodes of the world’s largest living mammals.
Jungle Beach, the luxury boutique hotel of Sri Lankan leisure industry group Uga Escapes, nestled in the coastal town of Kuchchaveli within Trincomalee, regularly facilitates these unique rendezvous. The prospect of these excursions, together with the comfort and luxury available at the hotel, makes it the perfect choice for travelers heading east.
Its sister hotel, Uga Bay, located in the Batticaloa District’s coastal hub of Passikudah, offers a similarly rare meeting with another behemoth of the big blue sea. This one, though, is entirely mechanical in its nature.
Buried deep beneath the bordering ocean’s currents, the HMS Hermes – a British aircraft carrier which Japanese planes sunk during World War 2 – serves as a hub for amateur and elite divers alike.
The HMS Hermes was the world’s first purpose-designed aircraft carrier, which presents a unique proposition for enthusiastic divers seeking a technical challenge while simultaneously exploring the recesses of a rare structure.
It is also one of the few World War 2 shipwrecks located so close to the coast, making it easily accessible to diving enthusiasts. Sweetening the experience for these divers is the diverse marine life which this aged edifice also shelters.
However, the HMS Hermes is not the only wreck housed within the vicinity of Passikudah’s pristine coast. The others, although not as renowned, are certainly enjoyable dives for those who frequent the region’s waters. They were also inaccessible in the past due to the country’s civil war, meaning that they are still relatively unexplored.
In addition to these wrecks, avid divers also have the option of examining a multitude of coral reefs which line several stretches near the coast.
Indeed, Sri Lanka’s eastern coast houses many distinct and alluring geographical features. These, combined with its cultural diversity,create a number of reasons for tourists to visit the region. And its beauty and solitude, as abundant as the waves that lap its shores, keep them coming back year after year.
A gateway into Kattankudy’s past
The historical and cultural traditions of Kattankudy are as unique as they are deep. Renowned for being Sri Lanka’s most densely populated city, Kattankudy, located in the country’s eastern Batticaloa District, houses a predominantly Muslim population and a history dating back centuries. Until recently, most of the region’s historical artefacts and manuscripts lay scattered in the possession of various individuals and entities. However, that has all changed with the opening of Kattankudy’s Heritage Museum.
Resting in the centre of the city, the three-storey museum accommodates a long line of exhibits that pay homage to both Kattankudy’s rich Islamic history as well as to the traditional practices of its other ethnic communities. Some of these artefacts include ancient household items, weapons, tools, textiles and ceramics.
The Heritage Museum’s upper floor functions as a resource centre for those interested in delving into the myriad tomes chronicling the region’s cultural, political and social past. Adjacent to this centre is a compact auditorium equipped with a state-of-the-art multimedia system for visitors looking for a more interactive experience which goes beyond the covers of the books available in the library. Apart from its many items and informational material, the museum itself is a sight to behold with exquisite architecture that entices visitors to explore its many chambers.
Indeed there are numerous reasons for those living in or passing through Kattankudy to drop in at its new museum. The most compelling of these is that it is an institution which enshrines the origins of a remarkable city and people, who have stoically withstood war and natural disaster and continue to grow and thrive.
Uga Bay, Uga Escapes’ luxury boutique hotel situated in the Batticaloa District’s coastal town of Passikudah, offers its guests regular tours to the museum as part of its series of excursions in order to leave them with a profound appreciation of everything that makes Kattankudy and its people tick.
Ulagalla offers guests paddy cultivation experience
Dotted with ancient ruins and verdant paddy fields, the province of Anuradhapura in the South Asian island nation of Sri Lanka, has long been hailed as a bastion of its country’s rich heritage. Over time, this reverence has swelled well beyond local borders into the consciousness of numerous foreign visitors, who annually descend upon this remarkable destination to view its eclectic historical and cultural tapestry.
Ulagalla, a luxury boutique hotel which in the 19th Century served as an estate for local nobility, has over the six years of its operation, looked to imbue its guests with a deep appreciation of the many diverse traditions of this region. Recently it has taken its efforts several steps further by affording guests an opportunity to immerse themselves in one of the activities Anuradhapura is renowned for – rice cultivation.
“By allowing guests to participate in the rice cultivation and harvesting process which takes place at the 17 acres of paddy fields that are housed within Ulagalla’s premises, we are connecting them with an essential local practice which dates back centuries,” said Priyanjith Weerasooria, Managing Director of Uga Escapes, the leisure group which owns and operates Ulagalla.
“The experience we provide leaves them with a firm understanding of the entire rice cultivation process and its associated factors, comprising land preparation, planting, water management, soil fertility management, weed management, harvesting, drying, storage, milling and assessing seed quality.”
In essence, the entire paddy cultivation process is composed of seven major tasks – rice paddy cleaning, ploughing, bund repair, levelling, maintaining crop quality, seeding and harvesting. Ulagalla’s guests engage in the cultivation process at either the seeding or harvesting stages. When helping with seeding, which precedes harvesting by roughly three to four months, they will be placed right in the thick of things as they trudge through the muddy field planting rice.
Harvesting, although a lot less messy, is just as hands-on, with guests donning a traditional sarong and white shirt before directing their attention and sickles at the awaiting crop. Although this cutting process is commenced manually, it later becomes entirely mechanical with harvesters brought in to finish the job.
Before all this work begins though, guests have the opportunity to drink in the natural beauty inherent in the surrounding sea of paddy. As the harvesting period approaches, the field changes from a lush green hue to varying shades of brown and grows into a hotbed for a range of exotic bird species.
There is also a long line of traditions and stringently-observed ceremonies which has attached itself to paddy cultivation in Anuradhapura over the centuries. One of the most notable of these is the harvesting ceremony or ‘Wap Magula’ where a village elder leads all those gathered in prayer and other spiritual observances that convey the village’s gratitude for a successful harvest.
This event, along with the many other key activities attached to the entire rice cultivation process, creates a lens through which Ulagalla’s guests can gain a fair measure of the entire Anuradhapura experience. And this is something that is well worth a little labour in the field.