Spiritual heart of Sri Lanka

Central Market in downtown Kandy was opened in 1957.
Picture: Bonita Grima
Photo of Bonita Grima

 BONITA GRIMA has an enlightening visit to Buddhist landmarks.

Waiting for my tour guide in central Kandy, I stand with my back to the lake, facing the busy road. It’s morning rush hour and an elderly man suddenly falls from the open doorway of a packed bus.

 Shouts from passengers and pedestrians cause traffic to grind to a halt and people jump down to help the man who has narrowly missed going under the back wheel. Back on the bus, only his pride looks a little injured as he dusts himself off, chuckles and thanks those who have helped him. 

The bus starts up, traffic flows and life moves on. All this takes place in just under 15 seconds and it occurs to me that if I weren’t in a country as resilient as Sri Lanka, I might be a little shocked.

I ponder this as my local guide from Pepper Life appears. Rohana Dharmaranthe’s family history in Kandy stretches back over 400 years and today he will take me on a tour of what was once the heart of the last Sinhalese kingdom.

“Kandy was the last kingdom of Sri Lanka. When this city was taken by the British in 1815, it was the end of the independent monarchy and the country’s last king, Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe was sent to India,” says Rohana.

 He also tells me that Kandy Lake — the beautiful, shimmering expanse of water we are walking alongside — is in fact artificial, ordered to be built in 1807 by the same king. 

Following the pathway around we soon come to the Queens Hotel, named in honour of Queen Elizabeth II and her visit to Kandy in 1954.

 Originally the residence of the minister of the Kandyan king, this 300-year-old building was later converted to a mansion for the governor-general of Ceylon, before finally being transformed into the grand colonial-style hotel.

But we are on our way now to what is considered the real jewel in the crown in Kandy and its top attraction, The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, within the complex of the royal palace.

 This Buddhist temple, said to house the left canine of Lord Buddha is regarded as the most important Buddhist temple in the country, with locals believing that whoever holds the tooth, also holds power over the country and it is responsible for the city’s UNESCO World Heritage site status.

Each day thousands of devotees make their way to the temple and as we pass through the front gates and continue along the path, what starts as a trickle soon becomes a sea, with a mix of monks, pilgrims and tourists making their way towards the main entrance.

We stop at the stalls to the side of the temple, where rows of big pink lotus flowers, symbolising purity, can be purchased for the offering ritual. We then remove our shoes, pass through ticketing and security and walk up steps which lead to the temple’s magnificent entrance.

Following the sound of drumming and flute music, we move trance-like through a passageway of glittering gold, intricately carved stone and richly painted artwork that leads us into the bottom chamber. 

The sound is almost deafening.

 Temple musicians perform in the main space and the beat of the drum seems to set the pace for the procession of people weaving their way up a staircase that will lead them to the holy relic that rests within several gold caskets.

 “The music acts as a medium of conversation between human and god,” Rohana says, raising his voice above the noise. “It is an invitation for god to come into their lives.”

We make slow progress to the second floor where parents have brought babies to be blessed and where people place offerings in front of the open doorway to the small chamber where the closed jewelled casket containing the sacred tooth can be viewed.

“The tooth was brought to Sri Lanka by the king of India’s daughter, Princess Hemamali and her husband, Prince Dantha in the 4th century AD, after fears for its safety during times of war,” Rohana explains.

 “Other relics survived the Buddha’s cremation but this tooth is the only relic that can be viewed by the public.” 

The opening of the casket is rare, though, and Rohana proudly reveals he saw the tooth during the last casket opening in 2001.

We emerge from the temple to the full heat of the day and I'm glad our next stop is the Empire Cafe.

Conserved by the United Nations, this colonial-style building operated as a coffee factory for 110 years before becoming a hotel and eventually the restaurant where we sit, sipping iced tea. There’s a cool retro vibe going on with funky furniture and vintage travel posters against the hot pink walls. Known locally as having some of the best food in town, meals here are Western-lankan fusion.

Refreshed, I’m keen to hit the streets again and now we’re heading into downtown Kandy. Colombo Street takes us into the commercial heart to an area known as the Elephant Stables.

 This network of backstreets where elephants were once housed during the annual procession of the Festival of the Tooth, is now home to cafes, businesses, fruit stalls and shops selling various wholesale goods.

The smell of spice is overwhelming as we wander into Kandy’s Central Market.

 Opening in 1957, it’s a popular place for locals to shop for groceries, the variety of which surprises me. At one stall selling only rice, I learn Sri Lanka has about 500 types, while at the fruit sellers’ section, I marvel at fresh produce I’ve never seen before, let alone tasted.

Our tour concludes and after Rohana bids me farewell, I decide it fitting to end the day with a hike up a hillside to Bahiravokanda Vihara, the giant white Buddha.

 This 27m high statue sits at the top of the hill, looking out over the entire city and mountain range beyond and as I stand looking out over Sri Lanka’s last kingdom, I must admit to feeling a little more enlightened.

Fact File

For more on touring Sri Lanka, see here 

For more on the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, see here  


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