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Aurveda In Sri Lanka

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Sri Lanka has always been a place that refreshes not just the mind and body, but also the soul and spirit. And for thousands of years, the most popular method used to restore and rejuvenate tired bodies and weary souls has been Ayurveda- the oldest and most holistic medical system available in the world. Based on indigenous native and Indian medicine, it draws not only on a deep understanding of physiology, but also elements of philosophy, psychology and spirituality. It was so influential that traditional Tibetan Chinese medicine and Greek medicine embraced many of the concepts introduced by Ayurveda.

According to legends in the 6th century BC, the Prince Vijaya was banished from his Indian kingdom, sailed to Sri Lanka and become the island’s main ruler. He was skilled in the practice of Ayurveda and so, together with his personal physician, introduced the practice of Ayurveda to the island. Over the years, Ayurveda incorporated elements from similar indigenous Sri Lankan treatments to become the fusion of forms it is today.

More Ayurvedic practitioners than Western doctors

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In Sri Lanka’s villages, Ayurveda is not considered a special treatment as in urban areas but an everyday method of treating aches and pains. In fact, the number of trained Ayurvedic practitioners in the island exceeds that of Western doctors.

Even those familiar with traditional spa treatments in the West (like aromatherapy and shiatsu) will find Ayurveda a new experience. And it’s an experience that’s becoming increasingly sought after. Such seekers will find Sri Lanka a singular destination, for all that collective wisdom regarding Ayurveda can be experienced in stylish and refined spas, with some of the world’s best professional therapists – with that friendly and courteous Sri Lankan manner.

Ayurveda – “The Science of Life”

The name comes from ancient Sanskrit: Ayuh or “life” and Veda or “Science”. So Ayurveda translates as “The Science of Life,” a fitting name for a system that devotes itself to a truly holistic approach to the ways the body and mind can be treated.

At the heart of Ayurveda is the theory of the Tri Dosha or “The Three Vital Forces”: Vata (wind), Pita (fire) AND Kapha(earth). In each of us is a unique combination of these forces or Doshas that help define our nature. Vata people are thin and energetic; Pita people are more intense and goal-oriented, while those with a Kapha disposition are methodical and nurturing.

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When the Doshas are in harmony the body is in good health, but when equilibrium is affected, balance needs to be restored –Ayurveda provides the answer. Ayurvedic practitioners will initially meet you with the objective of getting to the root of whatever is ailing you. Details of your diet and lifestyle, your habits (good and bad), and your general environment, will be requested. The practitioners will also carry out a physical examination and find out details of your medical history.

Practitioners employ many of the medical herbs and plants native to Sri Lanka. They combine leaves, bark, berries, roots and flowers to created bespoke potions, oils and unguents tailor-made for the individual. Incidentally, in Ayurveda there is a belief that it’s not just people but also plants that can get sick – so only “healthy” plants are used.

Swedhana, Pizhichil & Shirodhara

Inside the tranquil settings of the spa, therapists will help you decide, which of the range of therapies to adopt.

In Swedhana you are placed in, or on, a wooden chest in which herbs are boiled and the resulting steam escaping through perforations embraces your body, helping to extricate impurities.

Pizhichil is somewhat different, consisting of a relaxing massage – sometimes using two therapists – in which soothing oils are rubbed into your joints.

Another treatment is Shirodhara (“Third Eye Drip”), in which oils and other liquids are gently poured from a special vessel onto the ‘third eye’ on your forehead for 30 minutes. Profoundly relaxing, this treatment is used for conditions such as headaches and mental tension.

Later you can indulge in a flower bath, in which you lie submerged in a warm pool of blossoms, scented with fragrant flowers and sandalwood – an experience designed to reset your body as it prepares to return to the real world.

Other treatments which can be added at the discretion of your therapist include:

  • Gandusha (herbal gargling)
  • Akshitarpana (eye-care)
  • Karnapurna (ear-care)
  • Shirovasthi (head oil treatment)
  • Kativasthi (back oil treatment)

Classification of food

Since Ayurveda is concerned with treating the inside as well as the outside of the human body, you can also try Sri Lanka’s delicious foods prepared in an Ayurvedic manner, which are grown in the field, freshly harvested, and prepared using authentic herbs and spices sourced locally.

In Ayurveda, food is classified into six taste categories: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent.
Ayurvedic philosophy recommends you have these categories in every meal to achieve the proper nutritional balance. As important as the right mix of ingredients is the proportions: over-eating or eating before the previous meal has been digested is liable to cause an imbalance in the Doshas. Eating in moderation and at the correct time is central to the proper fulfillment of an Ayurvedic diet.

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Useful on day-to-day basis learning about various methods – nutritional, physical or spiritual – you can take home and adopt in your everyday life. After all, it would not be true to the holistic nature of Ayurveda if the benefits were to stop after your holiday ended.

Before your return, why not purchase some Ayurvedic products?

 Uduwarthana powder contains white sandalwood, turmeric and venivil leaves: when blended with milk it makes an excellent facial treatment.

Ksharabala, on the other hand, is oil used for treating nervous disorders from the entire babilaplant and over 40 additional medicinal herbs.

Many Sri Lankan Ayurvedic centres offer complementary therapies, such as yoga, reflexology and meditation, under the tuition of highly trained therapists. This will enable you to put together a bespoke treatment course. So a visit to an Ayurvedic spa may not just allow you to leave Sri Lanka feeling healthy and relaxed – but spiritually rejuvenated as well – truly a wonderful experience indeed.

What’s more, you can enjoy the pleasures of an Ayurvedic spa in some of the most tranquil and serene settings in Sri Lanka – on a golden south coast beach, near the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, the verdant hill country of Kandy, and even in a traditional village setting with no electricity, and mud huts for accommodation.

When you finally emerge from such exotic settings feeling refreshed and uplifted, you’ll understand you’ve learnt something truly profound through your experience with The Science of Life.

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Heritage

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Sri Lanka contains an astonishing seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Six cultural sites are testament to a civilization with over 2,000 years of recorded history, while a seventh natural site boasts some of the highest biodiversity found outside the Amazon basin.
From colossal ancient monuments and serene rock carvings in sprawling ruined cities, to a 5th c. AD king’s palace in the clouds, the World Heritage Sites showcase the island’s rich history and contribution to civilization. The largest and most archeologically dramatic are located in the UNESCO-designated Cultural Triangle, the area formed by linking the ancient capitals of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandy. It’s a living heritage, where the visitor will see Buddhist monks and reverent devotees and hear the hypnotic murmur of religious invocations – all of which bring the brick temples, granite statues and towering dagobas of Sri Lanka’s ancient cities to life.
Through the heritage sites the visitor can relive some of the seminal episodes in the island’s past – the introduction of Buddhism, which inspired kings to undertake astounding feats of engineering; the complex palace intrigues; the repeated invasions and conquests; and ultimately, the capitulation to the European colonial powers.
Experiencing Sri Lanka’s heritage sites takes you on a spiritual journey that will uplift and amaze, inspire and refresh. The island’s compact dimensions mean that it is possible to combine a visit to several of these marvels in the Cultural Triangle during even the briefest of visits.

Sacred City of Anuradhapura

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Located in the North Central Province, 206km from Colombo, the Sacred City of Anuradhapura is a magical place. Featuring some of the most ancient archaeological treasures in Sri Lanka, this vast heritage site is an impressive reminder of an ancient civilization.

Once one of the grandest monastic cities the world has ever seen, it was established in the 4th century BC, rising to prominence with the arrival of Buddhism, a pivotal event that saw the city transformed into a major centre of Buddhist pilgrimage and learning.

The great kings of Anuradhapura oversaw a golden age in the island’s history, building colossal dagobas that rivalled the pyramids of Egypt in scale. The city’s fame spread afar and features in writings from ancient Greece, Rome and China. But after enduring frequent invasions from South India, Anuradhapura eventually fell into decline in the 10th c. AD.

You feel overwhelmed at the scale of ancient Anuradhapura. At the centre of the ancient city is the Mahavihara, the oldest of the city’s monasteries. Worshippers still come to meditate here, drawn to the Sri Maha Bodhi, grown from the original tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment in Northern India. The Thuparama dagoba, erected in the 3rd c. BC, was the first Dagoba to be built in Sri Lanka and enshrines the Buddha’s right collarbone. Standing before the red-brick Jetavana Dagoba – once the third tallest structure in the world – is an awesome experience. The Abhayagiri Dagoba is still covered in earth and vegetation, while the more famous Ruvanvalisaya Dagoba, fully restored, is beautifully illuminated at night. The magnificentKuttamPokuna or “twin baths” with their stone steps are well preserved but all that remains of the Brazen Palace – once a nine-storey structure with 1,000 rooms – is 1,600 granite columns. The Isurumuniya rocktemple houses a famous 5th c AD Indian-style sculpture known as the lovers.

Anuradhapura is nestled between three vast reservoirs known as tanks – the Basawakkulama, the Tissa Wewa and the Nuwara Wewa. Part of a sophisticated irrigation system developed from the 4th c. BC onwards, these still carry life-giving water to the fields in the dry zone, living testament to the engineering skills of the ancient rulers. The raised bunds of the tanks are perfect for an evening stroll and some bird-watching, while also offering great views of the city’s dagobas.

Medieval Capital of Polonnaruwa

In the 12th c. AD, the medieval capital of Polonnaruwa was one of the great urban centres in South Asia. Today, the well preserved ruins give you the chance to experience the grandeur of this period and marvel at the artistry of the island’s early craftsmen.

Located 142km from Colombo, Polonnaruwa was the island’s second ancient capital. Many of the existing ruins owe their construction to Parakramabahu the Great, the last in a sequence of warrior-kings, who developed the city on a lavish scale. He is also credited with the massive artificial lake that lies to the west of the city, the Sea of Parakrama.

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At the heart of the ancient city are the remains of the Royal Palace and Council Chamber. Nearby is the vatadage or relic house, a beautifully decorated circular structure with an uncanny resemblance to Stonehenge. Among the other sites are the gal pota(stone book) – a 9m-long granite slab inscribed with the feats of a king – the Lankatilaka shrine and the supremely graceful Buddha statues at Gal Vihara, the pinnacle of Sri Lankan rock carving. The site also hosts many distinctly South Indian-style Hindu temples.

Polonnaruwa’s ancient splendor cannot fail to inspire. Set amongst gently undulating woodland, the monkeys, giant lizards and birdlife in abundance seem tamer than elsewhere in the island. Even 1980’s pop group Duran Duran were obviously impressed, featuring Polonnaruwa in their music video, Save a Prayer.

Cave Temples of Dambulla

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Hewninto a 160m granite outcrop are the remarkable cave temples of Dambulla. Located at the centre of the island, 148km from Colombo, and on the main route north to Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, the cave temples are masterpieces of Buddhist art. Each is filled with murals depicting scenes from the Buddha’s life, and glided statues of the Buddha in various poses.

In the 1st c. BC, the caves provided refuge to a king who fled a South Indian invasion. On reclaiming his throne, the grateful king had temples constructed in the caves that had sheltered him. These were embellished by subsequent rulers, especially during the Kandyan period in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Altogether, there are five caves, Cave 2, the Maharaja Vihara is the largest and most spectacular at over 50m long, 7m high and almost 25m deep. The spiritual energy at Dambulla is palpable and the Buddhist art on display is unparalleled in Sri Lanka. An added bonus is the majestic view from the top of the rock.

Sigiriya

Part hedonistic pleasure palace, part fortress and part sacred complex, Sigiriya is one of the island’s most awe-inspiring archaeological sites and a leading tourist attraction. In fact some consider it to be one of the oldest tourist attractions in the world with early visitors recording their impressions as graffiti on a wall described as the world’s first interactive book. Located north of Dambulla, 169km from Colombo, the site consists of a sheer rock that rises over 200m with the ruins of a palace on the top and a vast pleasure garden complex at the foot.

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For just two decades in the 5th c. AD, Sigiriya rose to prominence following a power struggle between two brothers, and an act of patricide that saw the then king walled-up alive by his son, Kasyapa. Fearful that his defeated brother would return from exile to extract vengeance, Kasyapa shifted the capital to Sigiriya.

The megalomaniac yet spiritual Kasyapa clearly had an eye for beauty. The pleasure gardens include a series of symmetric pools, channels and fountains that still spurt water after 1,500 years. Partway up the rock are the famous Sigiriya frescoes, featuring 21 bare-breasted damsels that may represent celestial nymphs, but were surely modeled on Kasyapa’s own consorts. Halfway you’ll encounter a pair of giant lion’s paws, part of the original entrance, which required visitors to pass through the open mouth of a lion. The summit yields a dramatic vista of the surrounding jungle and contains the foundations of the palace complex, replete with bathing pool. But all this was to be in vain.

Kasyapa descended from his palace in the clouds to face his brother astride an elephant, eventually taking his own life when facing certain defeat.

Royal City of Kandy

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Nestled amidst lush mountains in the north of the island’s hill country, the Royal City of Kandy, 116km from Colombo, was home to Sri Lanka’s last independent kingdom, surviving two centuries of colonial incursions by the Portuguese and the Dutch before falling to the British in 1815. The legacy of this proud tradition lives on today in the form of the city’s distinctive architecture, art and dance.

Home to the sacred relic of the tooth of the Buddha, a visit to the Dalada Maligawa or Temple of the Tooth, is an experience no tourist should miss. Said to have been snatched from the Buddha’s funeral pyre and smuggled to Sri Lanka in the hair of a princess, the tooth relic is of great spiritual significance. Each year in July or August is the Esala Perahera (perahera means “procession”), a spectacular display of medieval pageantry that includes caparisoned elephants, fire dancers and Kandyan drummers.

Stroll around the beautiful lake, the centerpiece of the town and explore the numerous temples perched on the hills – these are pleasant ways to spend your time in Kandy. Experiencing the pulsating drum rhythms and colourful traditional dances at a cultural show is another must, as is a ramble through the Royal Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya, 6km south of the city. Kandy is also the best place in Sri Lanka to study meditation.

Dutch Fort at Galle

The 17th c. Dutch Fort at Galle, close to the island’s southernmost point 173km from Colombo, has the distinction of being the best-preserved sea fort in South Asia. Enter through the imposing stone bastions that encircle the sea-facing promontory and step back in time. Inside the Fort you will find that it exudes old-world charm. The narrow streets are dotted with Dutch colonial villas and there’s a welcome absence of vehicular traffic. There are several museums and antique shops that display curiosities from the island’s colonial era. Of the many colonial buildings, perhaps the most absorbing is the Dutch Reformed Church, containing ornately carved memories to the city’s Dutch settlers. The Fort also hosts some of the island’s most exclusive boutique-style accommodation in former villas restored to their colonial glory.

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The Portuguese established the first fort in Galle. This was captured by the Dutch in 1640, after which the fortifications were expanded and the grid street system established. Further extensions were made during the British period. The passenger port gained importance, but with the construction of a breakwater at Colombo, Galle slipped into maritime decline.

Stroll along the massive ramparts at dusk. Experience the tranquil ambience of a bygone era yet see life as it proceeds: children flying kites, games of softball cricket, and couples canoodling behind the privacy of umbrellas. They all seem to enhance the magic of the Fort.

Sinharaja Forest Reserve

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Damp, mysterious and teeming with life, the Sinharaja Forest Reserve, situated 120km south-east of Colombo, is the last extensive stretch of virgin rainforest on the island. At just over 11,000 hectares, lying across the wet zone at the southern edge of the hill country, Sinharaja is an ecological treasure trove. Its staggering array of flora and fauna place it among the top biodiversity hotspots in the world.
Over 130 bird species are found here including many of the 33 species endemic to Sri Lanka. There is also a rich reptile population and myriads of insect species, many yet to be classified. Mammals seen here include the purple faced langur monkey and the giant squirrel. Sinharaja is also home to the elusive leopard.

It is preferable to explore Sinharaja on foot, which makes for a truly authentic jungle experience. Starting points for visits are Deniyaya to the east or Kudawa to the north.