Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Kandy, Sri Lanka

Kandy in Sri Lanka is a town, not a city. There are no Starbucks, no McDonald's, no malls. There is a lake, and steep hills looming over the low-rise buildings. Even further away, shrouded in fog and jungle, is a promise of mountains, called the Knuckles for their anatomical resemblance.

Heat-suffocated Singaporeans are most impressed by the temperature in Kandy. Even in sunlit June it hovers around 27 degrees in the day time, the wind picking up a little towards nightfall. It gets colder when it rains, practically cardigan weather. The waters of the lake ripple in the breeze and the overhanging trees shake leaves onto the surface. Traffic is busy, but when a monk enfolded in orange robes wishes to cross, a policeman holds up his hand and the vehicles jam their brakes. Stray dogs seize the opportunity to follow, limping across to search out charitable packets of rice and vegetable curry tucked in the crevices of a whitewashed pedestrian bridge.

Women arrayed in white sarees and dresses pick their way down the pot-holed sidewalk, on their way to school or work or temple. The Sinhalese wear their sarees differently, with a girlish ruffle at the waist, and their freshly laundered cotton is plainer than most other South Asians', but I like them the better for it. The Kandians reserve colour for the town itself. After all, to borrow Diana Vreeland's over-quoted line: "Pink is the navy blue of India." Compared to the hot tones of its neighbour, Kandy pink is turned down to a lower volume. It's a shade found peeling on century-old Catholic churches, faded signboards and floor tiles. Kandy pink is endangered, giving way to red fume-choked buses, red and green auto-rickshaws and glowing neon signs ('DINA(blink)PALA') perched atop prosperous businesses.

Still, grey concrete seems to be the dominant theme of Kandy's buildings. Stained, smeared, weathered by rain, age and innumerable hands, objects and animals trailing over its uneven surface: the concrete has the look of ruins, archaeological finds for a future millennium. It's not always ugly, please understand. Sometimes it rises above the dust and dilapidation to achieve self-satisfied triumph: concrete over time, man over nature's laws. Then you round the corner and find a leaking pile of trash, a man in ragged clothing squatting on the ground, waiting.

Two days is more than enough for Kandy town itself. There's not much to do beyond touring Buddhist shrines and inspecting strands of pearls, gemstones and beads. I wish we could run up the mountains, check in at a decadent hill resort with rose petals in the tub and wild boars ambling past the front door, but we're here to attend a family wedding and the rest of our time is occupied. In the hot, stuffy cultural hall, where we stand on stage and watch the interminable sequences of Hindu marriage rites, I sway on my high heels dreaming of cold air, mist rolling down mountain summits, and the morning soundscape of the forest. One day.

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