Sri Lanka likes to show off its colonial heritage. But Sophie James was more impressed by the country's own ancient sensuality

I'm up-country in what used to be called Ceylon, standing on a tea-garden hill in Nuwara Eliya, listening to pukka chat from elderly British, Home Counties tourists.

I'm up-country in what used to be called Ceylon, standing on a tea-garden hill in Nuwara Eliya, listening to pukka chat from elderly British, Home Counties tourists. Colonial embellishments surround them: mock-Tudor buildings, square green lawns. It's the British standardisation of paradise, with Wimpey-like bungalow homes wrapped with corrugated iron like armour against the elements, standing frigidly in an irrepressible tropical landscape. It's the last thing I want to see in Sri Lanka.

If I sound severe, it's because I'm supposed to be in Serendip, the name given to this island when the ancient Greeks discovered her. It means, literally, "beauty discovered by chance". The tourist board, leaving nothing to chance, has got me here, keen to show off "little England" as well as (let me list them) the white beaches of the west coast and the urban nightlife in Colombo. Beauty should not be so prescriptive.

I'll admit immediately: it is beautiful. Diversely lovely. Compared with the debris in neighbouring India, a nice nugget of tourist fodder. There is less dust, few holy cows and hardly any beggars. There is a 92 per cent literacy rate and no sprawling urbanisation. Volvos, Lancias and the occasional Porsche flash along the well-maintained roads, upon which the jungle seems ever encroaching.

I've seen the sheen on new Colombo and I quite understand why the Sri Lankans want it compared with shiny-dollared Singapore or Malaysia rather than Pakistan. I know the Germans, size 14 and upwards, have been soaking up the sun on Sri Lanka's beaches for years. I know that it has every aesthetic and social right to claim to be the new Asian Majorca.

But. But this is a beautiful country whose own expectations seem to be stifling its spontaneous heart. Sri Lanka, you don't need to try so hard.

Tellingly, there are few budget travellers or hippie trails. With true backpacker radar, word has spread that paradise has sold out and, anyway, budget accommodation is now hard to find. I don't want to get so ethical about travel, but it's a give-and-take world in developing tourism, and right now, I could do with a backpacker flirt in the jungle and a spliff to take the edge off. A local guide has already tried to stop me buying peanuts from a street vendor ("No, not like that, buy them wrapped like your Waitrose") or photographing the sun-creased skins of tea-pickers ("No photo-stop, further down fresh young women").

I flew 12 hours to get here with a head full of poetic, cinematic images. This is where David Lean filmed Bridge on the River Kwai. So, here's the deal, Sri Lanka. Provoke my imagination; give me some drama and romance beyond the package, some beauty and madness inspired by tropical landscapes. Put some of the dirt back into paradise.

Let's begin again, in the jungle. Sri Lanka's great attraction is that it's roughly the size of Ireland: a manageable morsel. Bored with temples? Head for a beach. Sick of spice gardens? Visit an elephant orphanage. I chose three destinations encompassing sex, religion and a combination of the two – a jungle Trinity.

I go north through the jungle to fifth-century Sigiriya, an ancient palace perched on a huge rock jutting out of the rainforest, built by a megalomaniacal king called Kassapa. It's best known for its cave frescoes on a ledge 300ft up, the court harem wearing little more than enigmatic smiles, like Asian Mona Lisas. Discovered by the British in 1853, it is the backdrop for a brilliant photograph of the archaeological commissioner, H C P Bell, scaling the rock in 1853, suspended in a chair attached to a long rope and gazing at the frescoes. An academic in the face of porn.

The great rock arches above me. Weary package tourists tramp through on the approach to unending steps that will take them all the way to the citadel plateau or to the cave in the sky. I'm seeing it in the rain, a great warm sea of water running down the steps over my sandalled feet, the smell of wet jungle reminding me that whatever the weather, the frescoes have always been here, hidden or forgotten.

They look like Hindu goddesses, thick-hipped, with swollen breasts. They stand in couples, the courtesan and her maidservant, coloured orange with huge oval eyes, bedecked in frangipani, holding lotus blossom. One casually tweaks her nipple at me. I don't translate well in my wet linen and clumping Birkenstocks, and on a ledge this high with a view dropping down into the jungle, I experience the best response Sri Lanka can evoke: disorientation.

So there was sex in paradise. And there were moonstones, too, uniquely Sri Lankan, to counteract the desires, a stone crescent moon chiselled with different animals to represent the Buddhist perils of birth, desire, age and death. The moonstones are everywhere in the 12th-century monastic ruins of Polonnaruwa, east of the orange maidens. They are rather like welcome doormats, hiding from you down jungle paths, until at the last moment you find yourself wiping your feet on them. At the Gal Vihara, three Buddhas transfix you. The most remarkable is a recumbent 50ft rock figure, flat out on the grass, head on a pillow, as if he has just lain down for a nap. He's entering nirvana.

Pye-dogs lie in front of him in the dust; dragonflies drone around: Buddha surrounded by a local menagerie of exotic, couldn't-give-a-damn beasts. We've just seen a wild elephant from the road, and snakes pose an invisible threat. Monkeys laze on the rocks opposite, next to a soldier standing guard, one of the few reminders of Tamil troubles. The backpackers would love it here.

Ten kilometres inland from the west coast Bentota beaches, along twisting jungle roads, lies an old rubber plantation transformed into a garden of erotic sculpture and art. It's name is Brief. I'm told most tourists never see it.

It is the work of Sri Lanka's most famous artist, writer and bon vivant, Bevis Bawa. Though he died in 1992, he is still famously "old Ceylon", his long sensuous face a mix of Sinhalese, Portuguese, Dutch and Scottish. He was the inheritor of all that I've seen so far. And he was, less famously, homosexual.

His life – and his garden – twist together the threads of modern Sri Lanka. The mix of blood, the hidden desires, the art, the references to ancient myth and the jungle landscape. He is the antidote to Buddha, yet quite compatible. The garden is a personal vision of desire and counter-desire, flourishing urns, fountains, mosaics, abstract and mythological sculpture among its twisting paths. When a Buddhist moonstone makes a provocative appearance at the beginning of an immaculate terrace, which in turns leads to wanton, homoerotic art, seemingly mocking your first response to it, I'm no longer surprised. Not yet packaged, this is beauty by chance. Bawa's homosexuality is never overtly mentioned. No one will offer to take you to see the huge stone phallus placed down an overgrown path, its tip stencilled with the anonymous features of a male lover. People keep smiling, slightly abashed, and say things like: "Well, you've guessed what's going on here, then?"

It's a marvellous moment for the traveller: sad, erotic, a miniature kingdom, already a relic, a paradise within a paradise, reclaimed by the jungle, the stone statues already moss-eaten. Like the orange cave maidens at Sigiriya, and the rock-cut jungle Buddha, this is a triumph of vision through and with nature.

I'm terrified that the tourist board will get here and start to package it up, put it on a stamp or a card, and post it back to Tunbridge Wells. And yet here I am writing about it, because you really have to see it. I can't help thinking how much the backpackers would love it, mind-struck between the moonstones and the phalli.

The Facts

Getting there

Sophie James travelled to Sri Lanka with Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces (0800 282 699; www.tajhotels.com) and Tropical Places (0800 083 6662; www.tropicalplaces.co.uk). Tropical Places offers seven days in Sri Lanka for £942 per person, based on two sharing, until 21 March 2002, including return flights and transfers. Sophie flew with Sri Lankan Airlines (020-8538 2000; www.airlanka.com), which offers return flights for £512.40, including tax, until 23 March. Trailfinders (020-7938 3939; www.trailfinders.com) offers return flights with Kuwait Airlines for £362 until 15 March, including tax.

Being there

Sophie stayed at The Taj Exotica, Bentota, one of the Taj Group's beachfront hotels, overlooking Bentota Beach; the Taj Samudra, Colombo, in the city with views over the Indian Ocean; Sigiriya Village Hotel; Mahaweli Reach Hotel and the Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya. For reservations, call Taj Hotels.

Further information

The visit to The Brief Garden was organised by The Taj Exotica.

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