Habarana: A lodge, a hotel and much else besides


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Habarana Lodge
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Pidurangala and Sigiriya
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Minneriya elephants

Pix- Vidath Jayawardena Sanka Gallage

At the beginning of the last century, more than 75% of the land mass of this country was covered in natural forests. A sound understanding of the value of trees had ensured that this would be an emerald isle. One hundred years later the jewel has lost much of its lustre. Our leaders have unashamedly embraced a doctrine of development that is totally antithetical to our cultural sensibilities and a clearly benign and even reverential relationship with the natural world. Today what we have left is relatively small patches of virgin jungle, a dangerously fast depletion of biological diversity and leaders who are more than willing to bend over backwards to sell our natural resources to gene pirates and timber merchants, all in the name of "development" and "globalisation".

Profit-making, or the ethic of scraping off as much as one can as quickly as possible regardless of the cost to culture and environment, seems to be the name of the game. And now, those who can’t suffer long periods of suffocation in the urban jungle have to travel far to breathe freely, enjoy silences and the music of the wild. Terrorist threats have resulted in further diminishing the verdant acres of our beautiful island.

Among the dwindling number of locations for relaxation and rejuvenation is one which has over the years carefully built a reputation for being the most environmental friendly place for local and foreign travellers to stop by and absorb the less hectic pace of the earth’s numerous cycles and its infinite capacity to cure mankind of its most pernicious psychopathic trait, arrogance. Habarana.

Recently I met a wonderful person called Jagath Marasinghe, revolutionary, author, film critic, and professional astrologer. He described the validity associated with his science this way: "I can say that there are elephants in the jungles of Habarana. In fact right now as we speak there are elephants in the Habarana jungle. But if you were to go there tomorrow it is quite possible you may not see even one elephant. Astrology is like that."

It so happened that the very next week I got to go to Habarana along with several colleagues from the Divaina, all of whom were high spirited, fun loving individuals who were quite serious in taking life easy, Bulitha, Sanka and Vidath, and we spent a wonderful weekend, operating from one of the most scenic and environmentally friendly holiday resorts in Sri Lanka, the Habarana Lodge.

Geographically, Habarana is the most convenient and central location for those who want to visit the archaeological sites in Anuradhapura, Polonnnaruwa, Dambulla and Sigiriya. Tourists, both local and foreign, therefore use the twin hotels operated by Keells Hotel Management Services Ltd., as a kind of operational hub. Not surprisingly, those who focus on the better known and highly publicised touristy sites, do not have the time to soak in the many wonders in and around Habarana.

Habarana is surrounded by a number of solitary rocks and hills, all of which are enveloped in legend and mentioned in historical narrative. On the north there is Ritigala, famous for its medicinal plants, ancient forest hermitage and as a place of refuge for royalty. On the south there is Sigiriya, Dambulla and the lesser known and visited Pidurangala.

The Dambulu Oya, which carries water from the Mahaweli to Huruluwewa, first fills the smaller Habarana Wewa. An extended drought plus the releasing of water in order to repair the tank bund had resulted in a virtually dry tank bed. We were told that when there is water, a herd of elephants visit this place every evening. The Habarana Lodge and the Habarana Village are situated just outside the wev-thavulla of Habarana Wewa, clearly an ideal location for a hotel.

I remembered the protests over Kandalama Hotel some years ago. The tourist industry is certainly a boon to a strapped economy, but it can cause havoc with local culture and social discourse. The Habarana Village was set up in 1973 between the tank and the imposing Habarana Rock, from the top of which one could survey the surrounding terrain and the scrub jungle for miles in all directions.

From the beginning there had been an emphasis to design and maintain a holiday resort that blended with the surrounding environment. The key element of this plan was to design it along the lines of a traditional village. Thus there are no large building, just a set of separate units spread over 12 acres. Habarana Lodge which was set up in the early eighties is a slightly up-scale hotel, but adhering to the same environmentalist ethic. Spread over 29 acres, the landscaping has been directly derived from the aranya tradition, especially from Ritigala.

Care had been taken to leave intact as many trees as possible and to complement the existing tree cover with trees transported from the tank bed of the Maduru Oya reservoir. Apparently, from the air, it is not possible to believe that a spacious and well maintained hotel complex existed beneath the canopy of trees, such is the commitment made by the architects and landscape designers to the notion of living in harmony with nature.

This is not to say that the place lacks any of the modern facilities commonly available in high class tourist hotels. There are swimming pools, recreational space, and even an Ayurvedic healing centre where a full time staff of practitioners attend on the guests. The concern for the environment is not just seen in the extensive gardens, but follows the guests into their bedrooms and toilets, where there are countless suggestions for saving water and electricity. In fact the management has installed a recycling plant and a water purification system in order to impinge as little as possible on the environment which gives the hotel its special character. The vegetable garden is fertilized almost totally through this system. No wonder that the Habarana Lodge happens to be the only hotel in Sri Lanka to be accredited with the prestigious ISO 14001 certification.

According to the General Manager, Srilal Mendis, the best and most worthwhile "certification" has come from the birds. One hundred and twenty eight different bird species have been counted in the 51 acres that make up the complex. A number of these happen to be endemic to Sri Lanka while others are migratory. The hotel has a "bird trail" and bird lovers are taken through it by a knowledgeable guide.

For those who enjoy cycling, the management has designed several bicycle trails, ranging from 12 to 30 kilometers in distance. All these routes takes one through villages and over tank bunds. It is backbreaking stuff for those not used to exercise of that sort, but even the shortest route helps one get a sense of the terrain and the lifestyles of the people.

Naturally, this is a happy hunting ground for any wildlife enthusiast. Upon request, jeep safaris to Minneriya and Kaudulla can be arranged. The drivers are usually from the area and are expert trackers on their own right. We chose to go to Minneriya and Shantha, who drove the jeep, regaled us with countless stories of King Mahasen, known in the area as Minneriya Deiyo, and Kalu Bandara Deiyo. We saw over 120 elephants in two separate groups as well as many others in smaller groups.

No place can be "obtained" through a description. One can never describe bird song, the shade, or a stillness punctuated only by night sounds. Such places abound in this country blessed with so much natural wealth. Each place has a signature and a charm that is not found elsewhere. Some are more conveniently located than others. Some specialise in certain aspects. Few offer a wide range of activities and access to wonderful places of historical and aesthetic worth. Among them, Habarana must stand out as an example of what a tourist operation ought to be, for both the foreigner and the discerning and nature-loving local.