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Just over 30 miles from the southern tip of India, across the narrow Palk Strait, lies the island nation of Sri Lanka. This small country is similar in size to Ireland, but with delightfully dissimilar weather (temperatures generally between 75 and 80 Fahrenheit year round). Formerly known as Ceylon, the island offers broad sandy beaches, astounding cultural and historic sites, stunning wildlife refuges, and misty hilltop tea plantations, all within relatively short and smooth-paved driving distances from each other.
LGBT rights in Sri Lanka
LGBT rights in Sri Lanka have mostly remained stagnant since the colonial era. The island’s legal framework lacks the concept of judical review, which means that the supreme court cannot create or repel law – at the most it can refuse to enforce law.
A 135 year old British law criminalizing gay sex remains on the books, however the law is not used and remains a dormant law. The US Department for Justice wrote that the police were “not actively arresting and prosecuting those who engaged in LGBT activity” and that the provisions have also reportedly not led to any convictions to date despite “complaints citing the provisions of the law [being] received by the police”. Transgender people have been allowed to change gender for a long period of time. The Supreme Court has also emphasised that Article 365A cannot be enforced by the Court and this would therefore de facto make the law dormant under the island’s constitution.
However, many sexual minorities do not fight against such discrimination as they may remain closeted due to homophobia they face in their personal lives, and this might lead them to hold a valid fear of being outed during the anti-discrimination process.
My trip, with a small group of gay friends, was organized by top-notch tour company Aitken Spence, which made our experience special from almost the moment we stepped off of the plane in Sri Lanka’s capital city, Colombo.
A quintet of traditional Ved dancers escorted us from the baggage claim to our motor coach, delighting everyone who happened to be in the parking lot that morning with the twirls, flips, and rat-a-tat drumbeats of a Buddhist ceremonial performance.
The five young men wore metal-ornamented headgear that jangled with their motions, white skirt-like dhotis, and elaborately beaded netting over bare, toned torsos.
This eye candy hailed from a town called Kandy, home of a major Buddhist worship site we would visit on the following day’s itinerary, and I was pleased to learn that their routine was not boysploitation for visiting gay Westerners, but a form of dance traditionally performed only by men.
The willingness of Sri Lanka-based Aitken Spence to bring gay tour groups to their country, and the company’s confidence that LGBT guests will be treated with the same warmth and respect Sri Lankans extend to any visitor (borne out by my experience), is a sign of slow attitudinal shifts toward the LGBT community throughout this primarily Buddhist country.
Same-sex relationships remain technically illegal, but there is little enforcement of the law in Colombo. The government has not interfered with small annual pride events, including film festivals and drag fashion shows that have taken place in the capitol for over a decade.
While not gay-specific, Sri Lanka even has its own highly informative national print and online edition of Time Out magazine (www.timeout.com/sri-lanka), with the same urbane, contemporary attitude that brand exudes worldwide.
Despite its small size Sri Lanka boasts of one of the highest rates of biological endemism in the world whether in plants or animals and is included among the top five biodiversity hotspots in the world. Of the ninety-one species of mammals found in Sri Lanka Asian elephants, sloth bear, leopards, sambar and wild buffaloes engages the majority of the attention of wildlife enthusiast. Yet the rarest mammals of Sri Lanka are the red slender Loris, Toque Macaque, and Purple-faced Langur, who according to IUCN clarifications are endangered due to habitat loss.
Meanwhile the ocean around Sri Lanka is home to large families of cetaceans including the mighty blue whales, sperm whales and lively dolphins. Altogether 26 species of cetaceans rule the waters surrounding the country, making it one of the best locations for whale and dolphin watching.
Despite the mighty elephants and rare amphibians found in the country birds are the glory of the Sri Lanka’s wildlife. Boasting nearly 433 bird species of which 233 are resident Sri Lanka holds 20 endemic species while another 80 species have developed distinct Sri Lankan races, compared to their cousins in Indian mainland.
Although less celebrated, Sri Lanka has one of the richest diversity of amphibians in the world, containing over 106 species of amphibians of over 90 of which are endemic. The country has long claimed to have the highest amphibian species density in the world with a high concentration in the Sinharaja rainforest.
With a population composed with many a races and religions, Sri Lanka is never short of festivals and celebrations. Every month brings a celebration either religious or cultural importance, making Sri Lanka one of the countries with highest number of celebrations and holidays.
The Sinhala-Tamil New year festival in April is the most important cultural festival in the country. The festival marks the beginning of the New Year and the end of harvesting season. A lengthy holiday and a table full of oily traditional delicacies like kokis, makes the New Year festival one of the long awaited festivals in the country.
The May full moon poya day or Vesak is the most important religious celebration in Sri Lanka, where Buddhists celebrate the nativity, enlightenment and passing away of Lord Buddha with many celebrations. Sri Lankans of every religion crowd the roads to enjoy Vesak decorations including pandals and lanterns and many a makeshift alm houses that line the roads offering every food item from beverages, dessert to main meals.
In August are the Esala festivals in Kandy and Kataragama. The Kataragama Esala Festival is a multi-religious festival where devotes use fire walking and extreme self-penance to shows their piety to Lord Kataragama. The Kandy Esala Perahera or the Dalanda Perahera is the largest cultural parade in the world and showcases the best of Sri Lankan dancing and music and the best of the domesticated tuskers in the country.
With a history expanding over 3000years, Sri Lanka holds some of world’s ancient cities including Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Digamadulla; their once glorious townships, palaces, temples, monasteries, hospitals and theaters intricately carved and modeled out of stone lay and abandoned and forgotten with time amidst the soaring jungles.
Of all the ancient cities of Lanka, the most famed and most exquisite is the Kingdom of Anuradhapura. Sri Lanka’s third and the longest serving capital and one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world is also one of the most sacred cities of World Buddhists. It was the capital of Sri Lanka from the Fourth Century BC up to the turn of the eleventh Century and was one of the most stable and durable centers of political power and urban life in South Asia.
Sigiriya, a fifth century AD fortress and a water garden displays some of the most futuristic elements of landscaping and some of the oldest murals recorded in the country.
Polonnaruwa, the second most ancient kingdom of the country boasts of Irrigation systems that are far superior to those of the and they still provide irrigation water to the farmers in and around Polonnaruwa.Digamadulla, the Eastern kingdom of Sri Lanka was the agricultural and spiritual capital of the country during the Anuradhapura kingdom.
Sri Lanka’s last kingdom the Kingdome of Kandy is a testament to the Sri Lankan’s ability to pick up and rise from ashes. After being burned and ravaged more than thrice by the invading Portuguese the Kandyan Kingdom still holds beautifully carved and built houses, palaces and temple preserved for nearly 500 years.
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