Upside Down in Sri Lanka
By Justine Hardy
As experiments in organic living go this one is absolutely nothing to do with mung beans, cheesecloth or patchouli oil.
Sri Lanka has always been a bit of a place of wonder, sitting just across the Gulf of Mannar from the rawness of India. And plopped right in the heartland of this country is one of those places that makes your average travel writer momentarily consider flinging the laptop to aside, girding a sarong and taking to the simple life. These are the kind of places that really should remain a secret. I should stop right now but I can't and I won't, so I'll just shoot my mouth off and probably live to regret it.
This particular travel writer's conundrum is called Ulpotha. It is a rural village that has been brought back to life by three idealists. I went there for two reasons, to see if the people behind it had managed to fulfil their plan to achieve what they describe as 'a sanctuary that is an experiment in bio-diverse organic living', and because they had a yoga teacher going out to teach a course. The eco-jargon was like a red rag to a bull. How can eco-tourism exist? After all, ecology is the relationship between living things and their natural environment. Tourists are the hordes that descend to check out the delicate balance before making the dash to the nearest hotel for a cold beer. That's a bit rich coming from a laptop lugging pariah of delicate environments but, moral hyperbole aside, I wanted to do a bit of yoga.
Part of the experiment at Ulpotha was to see whether the restoration and maintenance of the village could be subsidised by having a certain kind of visitor in to stay and pay, the kind who wanted to experience Sri Lankan village life in its most idealistic form. On this occasion we were the kind who also came with our yoga mats tucked under our arms.
The sanctuary is a three hour bump and grind from the airport in Columbo. But then the car stops and the silence falls down around you as Ulpotha takes over. palm trees, old buildings washed in Lacroix catwalk colours, a shaded courtyard of Anatolian blue next to a pavilion piled with bright cushions and draped with sculpted sleeping bodies. I wandered about tripping over palm roots and bumping into dusky maidens in my fit of jet-lag and bliss, before falling asleep among the other bodies and bright cushions.
As experiments in organic living go this one is absolutely nothing to do with mung beans, cheesecloth or patchouli oil. It is the work of the three partners and particularly the vision of one of them, a spiritual dream-of-a-man called Tennekoon. He was a big noise in the Marxist movement of the '50s, when Sri Lanka was called Ceylon. He had known the old manor house and village of Ulpotha as a boy. He had watched sadly as the life ebbed out it the place over the years. A few years ago he was given the chance to breathe life back into it and that is where this story starts. Tennekoon began to rebuild Ulpotha, the mud huts of the village, the small lake that supports it and the courtyards and columns of the manor house. Then he was joined by Viren Perera, a Sri Lankan investment banker, and Giles Scott, a property developer from London, both successful, glamorous characters looking for a way to live outside the daily grind. They sound like strange bedfellows, but all three wanted the same thing-to create a place that would be able to support itself through organic farming methods whilst providing a retreat where they could melt into the rhythm of the place among the cushions and the frangipani flowers. And that is what they have done.
As I ambled about I had the feeling that it was impossible for a place like Ulpotha to survive. How can it? How can you create an idyll and then keep the rest of the world at bay? Viren and Giles have their methods. They only open the sanctuary to visitors for 14 weeks of the year. That is where the yoga came in - I was part of a small group that was going to get in tune with the body while doing the Ulpotha melting thing at the same time.
The first evening I swam around in the fudge of time-zones in the ambalama, the brightly-cushioned pavilion, and watched a procession of silent men and women carrying in supper: piles of red rice on palm leaves, whole grain chapatis, rough-fired jugs of woodapple juice, chunks of papaya, small-fingered bunches of sweet bananas, steamed cassava (root vegetable), okra with ginger, beetroot with star anise, salads, pancakes filled with jaggery (unrefined cane sugar) and a great jug of cardamom tea.
There is no electricity at Ulpotha and you live in huts on the edge of the village where you are looked after by one or two people who are always around your hut, even watching over you at night. There are romantic flares and lanterns at night and a few bedrooms in the manor house for those who are not into wildlife. Ulpotha is not for those who want the five star bits and bobs on their holiday. It is a mixture of village life and sensual decadence of the lying around on bright cushions variety.
Life at Ulpotha is clean and wholesome. The local red rice sorts out the insides and there are countless possibilities for the outer body. There were various massage options and a fantastical variety of contact yoga called acrosage. The main location for the outer body is beside the flower petal-stained house in the treatment centre, the wedegedera. Here Tennekoon rubbed me down with a kind of basting technique prior to popping me into a vast horizontal dim sum basket for half an hour. Before serving me up to the blood-orange evening he washed me down with herbs, a recipe that apparently pre-dates even Ayurveda, the popular and very ancient form of South Indian naturopathy. As he poured the warm leafy water over my head he gave me a lesson in Sinhalese, sometimes called the language of flower petals. What more can there possibly be than to sit under a jackfruit tree while an angular ancient with a mysterious Marxist past teaches you to say 'my heart is like the lotus' in the language of flowers?
And so to the yoga. And so to the yoga. Just one point-to use a totally over-the-top analogy, when wide-eyed Westerners ask the Dalai Lama about whether they should convert to Buddhism he often replies 'I am a Tibetan Monk, Buddhism suits me, that does not mean that it will suit you.' I am certainly not claiming to be Tibetan, a monk or a yogi in any shape or form, but yoga does seem to suit me. It also makes me laugh. I haven't seem many people laughing on the lifecycle or in a step class.
My London yoga teacher, Liz Lark, had also come to Ulpotha. Her task was to guide us through a daily practice on a shaded platform while the water buffaloes and goats were herded back and forth to drink and butterflies the size of small birds flittered among the flowers. Lizzie's brand of yoga is very hard. It is called Astanga and in the States they call it Kick-Ass Yoga. It is the same variety used by Madonna and Co. to sculpt and hone their quatergenarian bodies. It is very hard to learn but once you start to get it life is never quite the same again. People look at you differently when they know you can just slip-slide into splits with a casual air. On the other hand, the spectacle of people with hanging around on a clay platform with their toes on their noses, surrounded by buffaloes and butterflies, has to be one of the most annoying things in the world But that is what yoga is all about, just getting over yourself and not worrying about what anyone else is doing. Then you can just get on with the rest of your life in a state of ordered bliss-perfect.
You just have to look at Lizzie to work that one out. When she was not easing us through the daily contortions you could find her doing a performance art dance routine on one of the verandas, in front of an audience of shiny Ulpotha village children, a mongrel dog that kept bearing its teeth when Lizzie's act bordered on the erotic and various members of our party feigning nonchalance but quietly rather seduced by the whole thing. We buried our noses in clever novels while pretending not to watch Lizzie. And towards the end of the two weeks, we did all start to join in.
On the night of the full moon we took flares down to the lake and floated them on the water, paddling after them on rafts. We hung over the edge and listened to voices speaking Ulpotha, because after a couple of weeks you begin to understand the language. But there's the rub: once you begin to understand the language you are right into flowers, butterflies and standing on your head and the rest of the world is looking a real nasty place.
It won't suit everyone - but then again, you could read that as being my protection codicil for Ulpotha.