The sea sprays a generous sprinkle of salt water on my feet even as tiny fish wriggle in the clear current underneath. The wide canvas in front of me displays shades of blue I did not know existed; a lone ship at the horizon completes the perfect picture. As I stand at the edge of the land trying hard not to trip into the ocean, I can feel myself breaking into a wide grin.
It has taken me a car, a train, a bus and a ride on a salesman’s bike to get to Dondra head, the last point on Srilankan land. And, even though technically I am at the sea level, I cannot but feel on the top of the world. Funnily, until only 3 days ago I did not know a place like this existed. Places, however, have a way of calling you to them – like Dondra had called me.
I had landed in Sri Lanka with only one purpose: to do nothing. I had no itinerary and no agenda, and all I was doing was, well, nothing. It was during this doing nothing that I learnt about a quiet fishing town at the southernmost tip of the country and my impulse got the better of me. My journey to Dondra Head began the very next morning, starting in a car from Colombo, continuing in a local train from Galle and a town bus from Matara, and ending just a few minutes before, on a motorcycle from Dondra.
While Dondra is the last inhabited land in erstwhile Ceylone, my destination, a cape adorned with a 125-year-old lighthouse, is at the far end of the town. As I stand at the bus station, I realize there maybe no public transport in this tiny town to get me to Dondra Head. I also see a signboard marked with Lighthouse Road and decide follow it. Before I can reach the signboard though, I come across two things: a blue three-tired structure, and a bright yellow gate. The blue structure turns out to be an ancient Vishnu Temple, the yellow a Buddhist Vihara.
Much before Dondra got to be known for the southernmost point in Sri Lanka, it was a famous religious town inhabited by wealthy traders and sailors. This 13th century town, named Dewenduara at the time, was an important trade port and home to people of all religions. The city, it is said, was replete with ornate Hindu shrines and large Buddhist viharas and was one of the most prosperous settlements of the country. This changed when the invasions from the West began, and slowly the town was bereft of all its riches.
Inside the Vishnu temple complex now, I try to find traces of the lost riches. What I get instead is a plaque declaring that the badly damaged temple was rebuilt between 1946 and 1958. A mural of an ascetic smiles above. The Buddha temple next door is similar—a large yellow wall with white details, a simple shrine, and a tall Buddha. If there were any riches here, they are no signs of them any more. The place however reassuringly seems like another fishing town: tall palm trees, thatched low houses, small shops stocked with dry fish and rice, fruit and vegetable stalls with fresh produce and a small Clock Tower. The tower tells me 12:30 PM already. I walk ahead.
The square leads me onto a quiet narrow street lined with beautiful Art Deco bungalows and flowering shrubs. A deserted street in an unknown town would have intimidated me in another place, but here I enjoy the solitude. I am, however, unsure too: even after walking for over ten minutes there is no sign of the ocean or the lighthouse. While I contemplate walking on or going back, I spot a young man on a bike.
“Dondra has a significant place in Sri Lankan history.” I am now talking with Sanjeeva Kumara, the spice salesman who has offered to drop me to Dondra Head on his bike. “At one time”, says Sanjeeva, “the towers in Dondra were gilded in gold, silver, and brass, and their reflection was used to navigate the ocean.” We are still driving when the ocean in question appears out of nowhere; the lighthouse is there too, and just like that I am at the edge of the biggest subcontinent in the world.
For all its significance the place is devoid of any action. The waves are soundless; the breeze is soft, and the celebrated lighthouse, quiet. On the far end is a lagoon; on the near end is a manicured garden. I sit at the ledge taking in the peace and quiet, waiting for someone to open the lighthouse, but no one seems to be around. A bit dejected, I cross over the boundary and step on a smooth rock inside the ocean. As I stand at the rock, bathing in the tropical sunlight, looking at the horizon that extends almost 270 degrees, I try to picture myself on the map, and all I can imagine is a tiny blip, beyond which there is nothing but the ocean.