Today I transferred to Kandy, Sri Lanka’s geographical, cultural and religious centre. Kandy was the capital of Sri Lanka from 1592 until 1815, when the last Sri Lankan kingdom was finally conquered by the British.
My first stop was the botanical gardens, located a little outside of the centre of town. They are some of the best gardens in Asia and I was pleasantly surprised that for once, it was not raining. The gardeners seemed to like planting impressive long alleys of straight, tall trees……
….or in some cases, not so straight trees.
Some corners of the gardens had a huge populations of fruit bats. Enterprising garden workers would ask tourists for a few rupees, and would then shake the trees to unleash a crowd of screeching animals.
There was also an area for trees ceremonially planted by world rulers and celebrities visiting Sri Lanka, including many members of the British royal family, Yuri Gagarin and even Crown Prince Nicolay of Russia (who planted a tree a few years before he became the last Russian tsar).
My driver and I then went to my hotel but encountered a big traffic jam. It had an unusual cause – the road had been blocked for a procession of Sri Lankan drummers and three elephants. It was a practice procession for Kandy’s big religious festival called Esala Perahera, which celebrates the sacred Buddha tooth relic which is kept in Kandy. I knew that I would miss the main festival by a few days, so I jumped out of the car and ran to get some photos.
My lodging turned out to be a very nice boutique hotel located in the centre. I had a quick rest before heading out to a performance of Sri Lankan dance. It was rather touristy (unusually, there were more foreigners than Sri Lankans) but still entertaining and included many different forms of dance, following by fire eating and fire walking.
Next I started my visit to Kandy’s main attraction – the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. This shrine houses a tooth said to have been taken from Buddha’s funeral pyre and smuggled to Sri Lanka in 483 BCE. It was located in successive Sri Lankan capitals including Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa – before ending up in Kandy. The tooth was seized by the Portuguese in the 16th century and burnt, only for the Sri Lankans to reveal that the burnt tooth was a replica, and that the real one had been hidden for safe keeping. The complex was built over many years, from 1687 to 1782, and also housed the royal place.
Today the temple remains a very active centre of worship, and I made sure to visit at the time of evening Puja (prayers or offering). It was a very atmospheric experience, which lasted an hour and a half. I entered through an ornate doorway and brightly painted corridor, and then I waited with local worshippers and a few other tourist outside a shrine on the ground floor of the complex as drummers welcomed priests who entered and left an inner sanctum.
Then I queued to visit the tooth relic itself on the second floor. Worshippers filed past a small window, through which can be seen the silver caskets in which the tooth is housed (seven caskets of decreasing size, sitting inside each other like a Russian doll). They then retire behind a long table where they place offering of flowers.
After placing my offering, I strolled around the rest of the complex, including parts of the former royal palace. The night air was filled with the sound of services being started in the neighbouring temples, of which there are many. The air was pleasantly cool, with a smell of incense and flowers.
I continued my stroll back to my hotel and bought some take away vegetable dosas (an Indian dish a bit like a crepe) to eat on my balcony overlooking the city. It had been a very nice day, and in the hotel I enjoyed regaining some of my basic creature comforts – electricity, internet and hot water. Even better, it had not rained today!