Sri Lanka: Land of Serendipity

By David Eckel

In 1754, the English essayist Horace Walpole coined the term “serendipity” to refer to “a happy and unexpected discovery.” The source for his new word was a Persian story about three princes from Serendip, an island in the Indian Ocean that was known to Indian and Arab traders as “saran-dip” or the “island of refuge.” The modern name for that island is Sri Lanka. Horace Walpole did not know the history of his word and probably would not have cared, but he captured perfectly the experience of travelers in Sri Lanka today. It is an island of serendipity, of “fortunate happenstance” and “pleasant surprise.”

One reason for this is Sri Lanka’s location at the crossroads of Asia. Geographically it is located between the Indian subcontinent and the great landmass of Southeast Asia. It was a stopping point for Indian traders on their way to the “golden land” that lay to the east, for Arab traders in search of textiles and spices, and eventually for the Portuguese, Dutch, and British who followed them and competed for hegemony. All have left their mark on the multi-cultural society of Sri Lanka.

According to legend, Buddhist teaching was introduced to Sri Lanka in the third century B.C. From Sri Lanka, Theravada or “southern” Buddhism was introduced to Burma, Thailand and other countries of Southeast Asia. The saffron-robed monks on their morning begging rounds, the monumental pagodas with their serene images of the Buddha, and even the dramatic and colorful rituals of the Esala Perahera, when the sacred relic of the Buddha’s tooth is paraded through the streets of Kandy, all have their counterparts in other Southeast Asian countries. But Buddhism is not the only religious influence in contemporary Sri Lanka. For many centuries Buddhists have shared the island with a substantial Tamil Hindu minority. More recently important communities of Muslims and Christians have joined the mix. There is tension, of course, as in the bitter civil war that plagued the island for several decades after independence. But there also are many opportunities for “fortunate happenstances” and “pleasant surprises.” No matter how familiar a traveler may be with the cultures of India and Southeast Asia, the unique and diverse culture of Sri Lanka never loses its capacity to charm and surprise. After all, it is the original home of “serendipity.”

Travel to Sri Lanka and enjoy the yearly Esala Perahera, a centuries-old celebration of Sri Lankan Buddhism. As elephants process through the streets, they are accompanied by a cacophony of percussionists pounding traditional drums, dancers clanging finger cymbals and the rhythmic thumping of mock sword battles.