Parts of Sri Lanka are well and truly on the tourist trail. However there are areas which are well worth a detour, even at the expense of more well publicised destinations.
The Nallur Festival, or to give it it’s full name, the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil Festival, is an annual 25 day event held in August / September. Dates vary according to a complex calendar system. This is the largest Hindu festival in Sri Lanka, and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors from Sri Lanka, India, and across the Tamil diaspora worldwide.
In honour of Lord Murugan, It starts with a flag raising ceremony and continues with different events and chariot parades each day. The climax is Ther Day, the 24th day, where the major chariots are paraded to a backdrop of crowds dressed in their finest, fire stick wielders, costumed trance dancers, horse dancers, and assorted others. The day following sees a parade of devotees performing various penances in thanks for a boon received. Often involving multiple piercings the most spectacular hang suspended from bouncing platforms built on top of tractors. These tractors drive to the temple grounds accompanied by friends & family, and make obeisance at the inner doorways to the main temple.
Each day of this spectacular event is different, and it is worth multiple visits. Most events happen in the morning and the evening of each day. Even the final day, when things are winding down, is interesting as the main chariot is returned to it’s shed in the temple grounds, and the bottom walls bricked up for another 12 months, under the supervision of temple priests.
The Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil is a ‘shirt off’ temple for men, like many in Tamil Nadu. You are welcome to enter the inner temple at any time, given the usual respectful attire. No photos inside the main temple. Some accounts make a lot of the enormous crowd – however if you’ve experienced Indian temples during pilgrimage season, or even Indian railway stations, there’s nothing to worry about in the slightest. Everyone is exceptionally joyful, friendly, and the event is well organised, right down to the fleets of autos waiting in ranks outside to ferry people to and from the centre of town & various hotels. On the other hand the scarcity of non Sri Lankan & Indian tourists (I think in four days we saw less than 20 other tourists like ourselves) means you will be an object of interest. Families will want to chat & take selfies, even local media may approach you for an interview, but this is just part & parcel of this participatory event.
I’d recommend booking accommodation and train tickets well in advance, as people do come from everywhere. In many ways it’s also a huge family catch up time for expatriate Tamils.
The Tea Country
While Kandy is firmly on most visitor's lists, the high country around, Ella, Haputale, and the Horton Plains is some of Sri Lanka's most scenic. A combination of tea plantations, forestry plantations, high altitude grasslands, and waterfalls it makes for a very refreshing stop. And it is significantly cooler there. Despite the negative effects of historical coffee, then tea plantations, there is a large range of bird life, and some distinctly different animals. Not to mention the views.
The main small towns can be accessed by train, but a car is really necessary to get between sights, or to some of the better accommodation choices in the area.
The Cultural Triangle
It might seem odd to mention this area of the country, which basically takes in the northern plains, from Dambulla to Sigiriya, then up to Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, given its' regular billing in the tourist literature. None are difficult to get to, though again a car is needed to get to, and around the extensive sights. And it can be bakingly hot at times. Yet comparatively few people seem to make the effort, despite some significant treasures.
Very much a tourist hot spot, but still a charming little town. It's well worth staying inside the Fort walls to appreciate it when the day trippers have left.