Tea, Nature and Spirituality in Sri Lanka

A few years ago, I was exceptionally fortunate to travel with Silversea as a lecturer and natural history guide on an expedition voyage that essentially circumnavigated the Bay of Bengal clockwise. To this day, it is one of the most memorable travel adventures I have ever experienced. We began in Sri Lanka, sailed north to India and continued clockwise spending time in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia before I disembarked in Bali. We even had the good fortune to spend some time on the tropical Andaman Islands. While each country has its own cultural identity differing from its neighbors, within each country there is much diversity as well. However, of all the places we visited during that voyage, Sri Lanka stands out in my mind for so many reasons.

Due to its size and geographical proximity, India often overshadows Sri Lanka in the collective imagination. If you’ve spent any time in India, no doubt you’ve experienced one of its hallmark characteristics: how incredibly diverse the country is. Sri Lanka shares this quality. When one spends a bit of time there, especially on a Silversea voyage, whether a Classic or Expedition, one gets much more of a flavor for the unique culture, beautiful landscape and wonderful history of this enthralling country. You begin to dig deeper and get beneath that superficial stimulus and really begin to experience the country and its incredible diversity. The variety of natural, spiritual, and cultural history of Sri Lanka weaves its way through beautiful and majestic landscapes, the busy cities and the people themselves.

Tea Time in Sri Lanka

So, if you haven’t been, are you intrigued yet? I was like a child in a candy store when I first began to research for my expedition. Perhaps when you sit down to do that exploratory research for your dream trip to Sri Lanka, you’d sit down with a nice warm cup of tea, and perhaps that tea would be “Ceylon tea”. Well, that might be your first connection to Sri Lanka as it was known by this name until 1972, even though “Ceylon” gained independence from the British in 1948.

Tea tasting session near the small village of Akuressa, in southern Sri Lanka/David Jaffe

It was 124 years earlier, in 1824, the British brought the first tea plant from China to Ceylon. It was planted in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kandy and is considered the first non-commercial tea crop ever grown in the country. From this humble start, tea production in Sri Lanka has grown to become one of the largest tea producers in the world, employing over 1 million Sri Lankans directly or indirectly, and producing on average more than 300 million kg annually.

The tea plantation we visited is almost 100 miles south of Kandy, near the small village of Akuressa. It was the only organic tea plantation in southern Sri Lanka. Hearing about the production of tea from the Head Planter, seeing the operation and being able to interact with the local women picking the tea was truly fascinating. Now, when I say ‘interact’, what I really mean is that the eye contact we made and the smiles we exchanged were rich experiences. It was one of those intimate connections made that transcends words. Very sincere and heartfelt.

Then, of course, we had the opportunity to partake in a tea tasting session. As the Head Planter explained the subtle nuances of the various teas, I thought, ‘Wow, I had no idea!’ It wasn’t simply that I had no idea about the subtleties, but it was more about how much went into putting the tea in my cup on my table. From the women on the plantation hand-picking the tea, to the process of sorting through the leaves, and eventually drying the leaves was a much more involved process than I could have ever imagined. Seeing the process from start to finish was quite educational and inspiring. Knowing what I know now, I definitely do not take for granted every single time I enjoy a cup of tea.

The other piece of the picture that is noteworthy regarding why Sri Lanka makes a such great place for tea production is the climate of the central highlands that have cool temperatures, sufficient rainfall and appropriate humidity to favor tea production. But, these conditions also favor incredible forested landscapes and the beautiful birds that inhabit these lush landscapes. While touring the plantation, I was fortunate to spot some jewels of the forest including the purple-rumped sunbird, the Loten’s sunbird, and the small minivet. I guess I’ll have to return for the white-browed fantail and some other Sri Lankan specialties!

The Great Outdoors

While there may be over 150,000 hectares of tea plantation on the island currently, the Departments of Forest Conservation and Wildlife Conservation protect over 1.7 million hectares of “National Protected Areas”. In all, over 25% of the total land area in Sri Lanka is protected. This is a greater percentage than many other countries and it’s inspiring to me to think about what is possible regarding ecosystem preservation and how Sri Lanka can serve as a role model for other countries.  

Part of Yala National Park is managed as a “Strict Nature Reserve”. Such areas are created and managed mainly for the purpose of research or to protect large, untouched areas of wilderness. As such, usage and visitation are strictly controlled. However, when such an area is combined with a national park, which does allow for visitation, the opportunity to experience a wild landscape and its inhabitants is truly remarkable. We made the most of this opportunity when we loaded into 4×4 Safari Jeeps to explore the wilderness of this incredible national park. As an ecologist by training and a naturalist and photographer by passion, I felt this experience in the park was truly one of the special experiences of the entire voyage.

Yala National Park is Sri Lanka’s most visited nature preserve/David Jaffe

Did I mention Yala has the world’s largest concentration of leopards? Although we didn’t see a leopard, the excitement and energy of the search was palpable. I searched as earnestly as the rest! However, I was not disappointed as we did see several of the other 43 mammals that occur in the park, including sambars and spotted deer. If you’re a keen birder, like me, one of the 215 bird species that occur in the area is the wild peacock. When was the last time (or first?!) you ever saw a peacock in the wild? In addition to the crocodiles and other wildlife we observed on our safari through Yala National Park, the close-up view of the bee-eater really stands out. It looks like an artist came to town with her palette and lavishly decorated this creature in bright reds, yellows, greens and blues.

Spiritual Sri Lanka

In addition to the rich history of land use for tea and the 25% of land set aside for protection, Sri Lanka boasts an amazing lineage of spirituality. Although there are four main religions in Sri Lanka, (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity) about 70% of the population are said to be Buddhist practitioners. In fact, it’s been the ‘official religion’ of Sri Lanka since 200 BC…which as you’ll recall is well before “Sri Lanka” was even known as Sri Lanka.

Buddhist monks in the Sacred City of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka/David Jaffe

One place the lineage of these teachings thrives is the Sacred City of Anuradhapura. The sacred city was established when a cutting from the ‘tree of enlightenment’, the Buddha’s fig tree, was brought to the site in the 3rd century B.C. Anuradhapura, flourished for 1,300 years, but was abandoned for many centuries after an invasion in 993. Apparently, the local population remained aware of the ruins. Hidden away in dense jungle for many years, excavation beginning in the 1880s has once again made this incredible and historic site, with its palaces, monasteries and monuments, accessible once again.

For me, personally, as a practicing Buddhist, this was another really special destination on the voyage. There are many holy pilgrimage sites on this planet, many in Asia and several in Sri Lanka. Anuradhapura was once a major center for early Buddhism and home to revered Buddhist philosophers. I was able to view incredible works of art including depictions of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Mercy and Compassion. Seeing this particular depiction holds a special place in my heart because His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama is considered to have been reincarnated over generations and historically has been venerated as an embodiment of Avalokiteshvara. As I stood in front of this artwork, thinking about his promotion of world peace and his nonviolent work against the oppression of the Tibetans, I again felt the inspiration of the Buddhist teachings and my aspiration to implement these teaching so that I may develop to be the best version of myself possible.

I left Anuradhapura feeling enriched for having had the opportunity to experience and learn about such an important place in the context of religious history of Sri Lanka, in general, and Buddhism specifically. In addition, seeing practitioners circumambulate stupas, make offerings and simply being able to explore the Sacred City truly touched my heart. 

With so much to see, learn about and experience in Sri Lanka, I have just touched the surface. There is a rich cultural and spiritual history in Sri Lanka that I believe has been supported by the incredible natural beauty and wonderful landscapes of the island. For me, it was beautiful, inspiring, engaging, educational…and more. So, how would I rate my experience in Sri Lanka? I wouldn’t trade it for all the tea in China!

The green bee-eater is one of the 215 bird species found in Yala National Park/David Jaffe