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Sri Lanka: A Land Like No Other (Part 7) Kandy

Sri Lanka —  7) Kandy

The Sinhalese name for this city is Maha Nuvara (Senkadagalapura), impossible for the British to pronounce so they just called it Kandy.  Located in the forested foothills of the central mountains, about 1500 feet above sea level, Kandy is appealing to Sri Lankans as well as to visitors.  The weather is cooler and less humid than on the coast, especially at night.  Kandy is the second largest city in Sri Lanka and the gateway to the Hill Country and Cultural Triangle, so there’s lots to see and do.  It’s easily accessible by road and train from Colombo, offering scenic journeys through coconut and rubber plantations and rice paddies.   I’ve visited Kandy four times and enjoyed each visit.

Like Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura before it, Kandy was a capitol city of the kingdoms of Sri Lanka, the last before British conquest.  It survived as an independent kingdom for centuries even after the Portuguese and Dutch controlled coastal areas of Sri Lanka but ultimately fell in 1815 to the British.  During WWII the South East Asia command was located in Kandy.

Modern day Kandy’s central core is appealing to tourists because it is compact and easy to explore on foot.  It’s centered around “Kandy Lake” (a rectangular reservoir) built 200 years ago by its last king.  Adjacent to the lake is the Temple of the Tooth Relic (Sri Dalada Maligawa) and the adjoining old Royal Palace.  The Temple of the Tooth is the most sacred Buddhist site in Sri Lanka and indeed among the most revered in all the world; one of Buddha’s teeth is enshrined here (removed from his body at the cremation site and smuggled to Ceylon in the sixth century A.D.).  The Temple is a site of Buddhist pilgrimage and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  When I first visited it in 1998 the temple exterior had just sustained significant damage during a Tamil terrorist attack (a car bomb; an alert attendant locked access to the central temple as the bomber approached, saving the heart of this precious site from the explosion).  The damage  has long since been fully restored.

The Palace today houses the National Museum Kandy which has an extensive collection of artifacts from the Kandy Kingdom and era of British colonial rule.

Things to see while in Kandy

Interior, Temple of the Tooth, Kandy

Interior, Temple of the Tooth, Kandy

1) Visit the Temple of the Tooth and Royal Palace Complex.  For this visit it’s advisable to hire a guide so you get more out of the experience.  There are dozens of guides waiting at the entrance who will try to hustle your business.  Pick the one who speaks your language best and seems knowledgeable.  Usually there is no set fee for this service and you pay whatever amount you want — depending on service about $5.00 should be adequate for a decent guided tour and more for exceptional service (don’t be conned by a look of great disappointment in their eye when you hand the guide your cash — that’s a good wage in Sri Lanka).  As you enter the complex you’ll pass the outer gates and a security checkpoint where you will be checked for weapons — generally just a formality.  Also make sure your legs and shoulders are covered as you enter or you won’t be allowed into the temple.

The current temple is about 250 years old and the central site where the Tooth relic is kept is one of worship and prayer among the locals.  Gifts of flowers are commonly left and if lucky you might even see some burly Buddhist monks open a small window allowing pilgrims to see the outer casket in which the tooth relic is stored (generally at 6 am, 10 am and 6 pm).  I saw this display on two occasions and it evokes an atmosphere of excitement…and reverence.  From what I could understand the tooth relic is stored within a set of 7 progressively smaller boxes (much like Matryoshka dolls) and almost no one gets to see it anymore.  Arthur C. Clarke told me during one of our chats that he was once given the honor of seeing the actual tooth relic — which is almost unheard of (he found the experience quite exciting and while a skeptic about many things, Arthur believed it had belonged to Buddha).

You can also visit a separate tower in the temple complex containing old palm leaf manuscripts (ola) .

2) If possible, visit Kandy during the Esala Perahera (“the Par-ah-hair-ah”) which is held during a 10 day period of the full moon during July to August.  It is the most spectacular event in Sri Lanka and one of the most famous in all of Asia.  I had the privilege of visiting Kandy once during the Perahera in 2000 (when I was with my family).  The city was crammed with thousands of local and international  tourists making it difficult to get around, so make sure you have a hotel reservation during the Perahera.  There are tickets for reserved view seats outside the Queens hotel for sale —  a good investment unless you want to wait for hours to see the parade (and probably not get a good view).  The Perahara’s highlight is a daily nighttime parade through the streets of Kandy lasting many hours, with thousands of traditional dancers and drummers, flag and torch bearers, performers who crack bull-whips, and dozens (50 or so) of elaborately decorated elephants.  The last tusker, usually the largest, bears one of the inner caskets which holds the tooth relic (a fake is used for the parade) .   The Perahera is at its peak during the last three days of the annual event.

3) Visit one of the city’s cultural shows, generally held around dusk or early evening.  Probably the best of these is at the Kandyan Art Association and Cultural Center.  These shows feature musicians and dancers in the traditional costumes of Sri Lanka performing regional dances.  Usually the shows end with a fire walker and fire eater demonstration.

Fire-eater at the Kandy Cultural Show

Fire-eater at the Kandy Cultural Show

4) Visit the Royal Botanical Garden in Peradeniya.  Located about 5 km west of the city center (in a suburb really), this is a remnant of the Royal Garden.  Today it’s the largest botanical garden in the country which attracts over a million visitors a year.  The park is beautifully landscaped and surrounded on three sides by the Mahaweli Ganga River.  Highlights include avenues of palms and a massive Javan fig tree.  A spice garden — common around Kandy — is part of the complex.  It is a favorite place for young Sri Lanka lovers to stroll.  The Botanical Garden was the site of Lord Mountbatten’s encampment during WWII (Mountbatten was the Supreme Allied Commander of the SE Asia theater).

Royal Perideniya Gardens, Kandy

Royal Perideniya Gardens, Kandy

5) The inner city adjoining the temple is a great place for a walk through a commercial and shopping area.  It’s a good place to browse for antiques, gems, handicrafts and souvenirs.   Restaurants and hotels are plentiful, as are banks.

6) If you don’t have time to thoroughly explore the Hill Country, take at least a few hours to drive the road from Kandy towards Nuwara Eliya to the high altitude tea plantations where the best tea in the world is grown.  More on this in my next post.  It is also a great place from which to venture into the cultural triangle, especially Dambulla and Sigiriya (both of which can be explored in a day trip from Kandy).

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