A small village in the remote heartland of tropical Sri Lanka is as distant from worries about millenium-bug computer problems as it would have been 2000 years ago. Ulpotha Village Sanctuary, at the foot of the Galgiriwiva mountains, has no computers. In fact, there is no electricity. There is a mobile telephone, but you have to climb a certain rock and stand in a specific spot to get a signal. I know this because, in January, I spent two wonderful weeks at Ulpotha. Ordinarily, it is a working village, but for a few weeks a year it is also fast becoming a popular holiday destination for those seeking a peaceful retreat.
Historical records of Ulpotha begin 2,500 years ago, when Buddhism was introduced in the country and monks started writing chronicles. Legend says that mendicants travelling from the foothills of the Himalayas believed they had found a sacred site there, associated with Lord Kataragama, an incarnation of the god-child Murugan and the son of Shiva.
A thriving farming village, Ulpotha had been abandoned for decades when, in 1994, Giles Scott – a London property developer – and Sri Lankans Viren Perera and Mudiyanse Tennekoon began restoring it. Their aim was to revive organic farming and reforestation, promote local crafts and preserve parts of Sri Lanka’s cultural heritage.
Crops are protected from pests using traditional and biological methods. Powdered neem seeds are mixed with water and used as a spray against insects, with other methods including crushed coconut shavings, sap from the jakfruit, cactus milk and riverbed sand. Buffalo are used for ploughing and threshing, instead of tractors. The biodiverse nature of the farming has encouraged other natural plants to grow. The mixture of trees and re-establishment of forest creepers is meant to be as close to virginal forest as possible.
During June and July and from mid-November to the end of March, Ulpotha welcomes guests to become part of the village. Visitors may join in yoga or t’ai chi classes in a specially built outdoor studio. They may try herbal steam baths and other traditional Sri Lankan ayurvedic treatments, swim in the lake next to the rebuilt manor house or explore the surrounding hills and slowly relax to the rhythm of village life. Although there are glorious Buddhist temples and ancient ruined cities to be visited in other parts of Sri Lanka, it is Ulpotha itself that I will remember and the feeling that, for a while, I was part of a small world so distant in every way from my own.
Ulpotha is only open to small groups of visitors for a few weeks in a year and revenue which comes from tourism is used to finance further environmental and cultural development. This summer, holiday weeks at Ulpotha will take place from June 5 to June 19, from June 26 to July 10 and from July 17 to July 31.