I stepped from the train to find the station in chaos. A throng of people were trying to force their way through the crowd towards the exit. We all spilled out on to the street barely having to use our legs to be propelled out to the pavement, finding the street in gridlock. Cars were parked bumper to bumper, their horns signalling angrily to each other as tuk-tuks manoeuvred through any available spaces and the drivers gestured at other vehicles to move out of the way. They didn’t have anywhere to go; at the other end of the street a blockade was obstructing their way. Solemn looking soldiers stood guard beside it, dripping with perspiration from the tropical humidity and the weight of their fatigues.
I wasn’t staying anywhere near the station. I had booked a small guesthouse up in the hills with a view over the city but looking at the traffic, I had no clue how I was going to get there. There was no way I could manage to haul my backpack the few kilometres up the sloping streets in this searing heat.
As if reading my thoughts, a tuk tuk driver appeared from nowhere. He wore baggy linen pants and a dishevelled white shirt, barely buttoned and open almost to his navel. Beads of sweat speckled his shaved head. He introduced himself as Kasun with a firm handshake and bundled me on to the back seat, squeezing my backpack beside me with a forcefull shove. I wasn’t going to argue; If he knew a way out, I was willing to trust him.
It was clear from the banner strewn lampposts that something big was happening. The majority of streets had been closed off to cars with only pedestrians and the most brazen of tuk tuk drivers passing through the barricades.
“Funeral parade,” Kasun gestured excitedly at the flags straddling the road and the metal railings being hastily erected at the curbside. “For the monk!”
Kandayans are well known for their Pageantry and Piety. It is no coincidence that Sri Lanka’s most important and exuberant religious festival, Esala Perahera, is held here. Each year an extravagant procession of music, dancers, and lavishly adorned elephants trample their way through the city to pay homage to the Sacred Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha. All of this pomp and ceremony was focused on one of the tiniest, yet holiest, relics in Buddhism – A single tooth, thought to be over two and a half thousand years old and the last remnant of Buddha. It remains in the city, protected by layers upon layers of steel casings and fortified within the Temple of the Tooth. Twice the Chinese tried to retrieve it, in 1284 and again 1407, but twice they failed. It is thought that whoever possesses the relic will hold control of the island so you can see why, when the British got their hands on it in the early 1800s, they quickly wrapped it in yet another layer of steel.
My accommodation for the night was Mount Haven, a beautiful colonial villa surrounded by high, whitewashed walls and a lush garden of exotic flowers and mango groves. The owner, Dr. Nimal, raised his head from his newspaper as I entered with a contorted, frustrated look on his face.
“There’s no power again,” he barked, possibly speaking to me but more than likely just grumbling into the abyss. “These politicians. The corruption!”
He eased himself up out of his chair and approached me with his hand held out, his anger fading to a friendly, apologetic look. Dr. Nimal and his wife Dammika are an elderly Sri Lankan couple, retired from medicine and now running this B&B in their beautiful home to fund their retirement. Dammika pottered through to the kitchen to fetch me a glass of juice while Dr. Nimal explained the lack of power and his frustration at the cause of it; Sri Lankan politics.
I questioned him on the road closures while sipping my surprisingly salty drink. It had the taste of the electrolyte sachets that are prescribed to people with severe stomach upset. Maybe Dammika was just hedging her bets, realising that foreigners in Sri Lanka are bound to get bowel troubles at some point and decided to solve the problem before it even reared its head. Dr. Nimal explained that Kandy’s most venerated Buddhist monk, Most Ven. Galagama Aththadassi Thero, had recently passed away and today was the day of his funeral. The streets were closed to allow a parade to weave through the city in the usual extravagant Kandayan style before ending in a ceremony at the Asgiriya International Cricket Stadium.
He urged me to follow him up to his rooftop to see if we could catch the parade playing out below us in the centre of the city. Although the ground floor of the house was immaculate, the upstairs was an empty shell which he was hoping to renovate in order to host more guests. I climbed the banister-less steps before edging my way around his also banister-less mezzanine, back to the wall, palms clinging on for dear life to avoid any risk of me tumbling down in to the living room and onto the top of Dammika as she sat reading the newspaper below.
We emerged into the beating midday sun and stifling humidity of his roof terrace. The tops of the mango trees were level with our feet and I could see the monkeys swinging acrobatically in their branches. The view was stunning. To the north I could see the Knuckles mountain range, it’s rocky joints peeking above the treeline, to the south was Bahiravokanda Vihara, the huge, chalk-white Buddha statue that sits, legs crossed, high above the city keeping watch. Far below us the city seemed peaceful despite the pomp and ceremony currently taking place.
Kandayans have always referred to this place as Mahu Navara; The Great City. Now after centuries of expansion into the surrounding hills it finally lived up to that description, if just in size more than anything else. Second only to Colombo in terms of population, it is now a dense convergence of roads, railways and ramshackle buildings in its centre that disseminate like arteries towards its forested outskirts. 2 million people now call this city home, helping it spread into the surrounding mountains where its wealthier residents cling to the forested slopes in their villas and estates.
It wasn’t always this way, For centuries Kandy was the last stronghold of the Sinhalese Kings. As the Europeans took the rest of the island, they had managed to keep them from the doors of Mahu Navara, holing up here in 1592 and managing to hold on to the city until it finally fell 222 years later. Sri Vikrama Rajasini, the last king of Kandy, set about making the city his masterpiece. He flooded the valley, creating the lake that is now the city’s focal point. He built vast temple complexes and the royal palace. By the time he was done he had drained all of Kandy’s wealth. Without any money he lost all authority and wasn’t to last much longer. In a matter of years Kandy would join the rest of the island under British rule.
I wanted to see more of the city and hopefully catch some of the parade. Dr. Nimal called a driver, insisting that a tuk-tuk tour would be the ideal way to take in the sights in just few hours. To my surprise I was met at the gate by Kasun, a huge grin on his face at the serendipity of it all. In reality he had probably slipped Dammika a business card when he had dropped me off an hour earlier. “The parade has finished now,” he informed me, his unwavering smirk spreading “but I will show you something.” We bounced down the side roads at breakneck speed, eventually reaching the foot of the Bahiravokanda Vihara Buddha, its 88 foot high frame towering over us. Perched on the top of Bahirava Kanda, literally meaning Devil’s Hill in Sinhalese, the construction of this concrete deity was ordered by President Premedasa. Premedasa was a religiously minded leader who built, as well as this, the ornate golden covering over The Temple of The Tooth. He eventually met his end in 1993, blown up by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber, his pious acts doing little to protect him from the separatist group.
At the top of the staircase a crowd was gathering. Orange robed trainee monks were jostling for position at the temple’s edge, attempting to thrust their shaved heads over the bordering wall to catch glimpse of something below. Their teachers had deserted the temple to attend the ceremony. Down in the valley I could just make out the stadium, its terraces brimming with well-wishers hoping to pay their last respects to Galagama Aththadassi Thero. The children didn’t have the sombre look that I was expecting to be greeted with. They laughed and joked as they pushed each other aside, wrestled and soaked in the spectacle of it all. I suppose that when you believe that vijñāna, a persons consciousness, exists in a continuum, constantly undergoing rebirth through any one of many possible forms of sentient life, death can seem a little trivial.
Kasun led me through the temple and around to the back of the vast Buddha, eventually pulling a small metal gate aside and crouching hands cupped in front of him at knee height. He wanted to give me a boost up and onto the lap of the sitting deity. I held out my hands and instinctively shook my head. Surely clambering over a depiction of Lord Buddha is frowned upon. “It’s fine,” Kasun assured me “I’m a Buddhist and I don’t mind” before clumsily pulling himself up onto the statue, flopping onto Buddhas waiting knees. I followed cautiously, edging my way around the perimeter of the plinth rather than sitting on the actual effigy.
The whole of Kandy was spread before me; the loop of the mighty Mahaveli river and the surrounding peaks that managed to keep the British at bay for so long. At the centre of it all was Kiri Muhuda, or Milk Sea in Sinhalese. It was Sri Vikrama Rajasini’s vast man made lake, built during the height of his delusions of grandeur. Considered a huge folly at the time of its construction, Sri Vikrama Rajasini would not hear a word said against it, murdering anyone who disagreed with his vision by impaling them with stakes on its bed. Kandy was spent. The king had squandered the kingdoms wealth on his pagodas, parapets and watery white elephants. A revolt rose up and Sri Vikrama Rajasini responded in his characteristically horrific way by impaling the rebels on stakes. When the leader of the revolt could not be found, his children were decapitated and his wife drowned in the Milk Sea. This was the final straw for the people of Kandy. The king’s courtiers abandoned him, colluded with the British and allowed them to enter the city to overthrow him.
A short distance from Kiri Muhuda the stadium was now full of mourners; monks, politicians and devoted members of the public. A faint sound of Sinhalese crackled from the PA system and drifted up the valley. I could just make out the procession which had now found its way onto the pitch. At the centre of it all was what I can only assume was Galagama Aththadassi Thero’s remains. There was a hum from the sky as a helicopter buzzed across the city, slowing and lowering itself over the pitch to release its cargo of thousands of flowers that rained down on the cortège, showering them in colour and fragrance.
The Temple of the Tooth
Kasun left me beside the lake and I walked its banks in the cool evening air. The great bath house that the king had built for his queens still remained but now stood empty, as did the lake. A cluster of rowing boats and swan shaped pedalos were moored at the jetty but no one was taking them for a ride. Not today. The lake feels like the centre of everything in Kandy and holds the city under its spell. It holds the memories of a brutal past. Kandayans have a saying that ‘the lake is hungry‘ but I have no idea what this means. To me the lake felt magical. Blossom trees bloomed bright pinks around its perimeter, flocks of birds danced above the water and fruit bats were beginning to unfurl in the trees, readying themselves for the evening ahead.
I followed the crowds of pilgrims towards the temple complex, through the vast gates large enough to accommodate even the largest of tuskers. Looming ahead was the Pattiripuva, a huge octagonal pagoda and behind it the palle vahala which was once the kings harem but is now, surprisingly, the National Museum. Across the complex was the royal palace, stood on a wide plinth to protect it from marauding elephants, its walls glowing pink in the evening sun. I can only imagine was this would have been like in Sri Vikrama Rajasini’s ascendency. He had dubbed himself ‘the greatest prince in the whole world’ and had a royal court to match the claims; a menagerie of women, the finest jewels in all of Sri Lanka and exquisite garments daubed with gems. Acrobats, musicians, drummers and magicians all once wandered these grounds and the kings behest, referring to him as Dewo, God.
Vendors had set themselves up at the temple entrance, selling flowers and incense as offerings to Buddha. I watched as people queued on the terraces to light fragrant batons and candles before standing, palms together and looking up to the sky in prayer. Sweet smelling smoke filled the air along side the sounds of mumbled prayer.
Each morning and evening devotees gather for Puja, in which drumming and music precedes a ceremony, mostly hidden from the public, focused on the Tooth. The Tooth Relic chamber remains off limits but the worshippers are permitted to file past, glancing at the gold case but not seeing what is inside. I approached the chamber. Dozens of pilgrims knelt in a horseshoe around the digge, or housing of the tooth, their legs flat against the floor from their knees to their dorsum, their bellies outstretched against the floor in front of them. When you see the reverence that people hold this object in, you can see why so many kingdoms have tried to claim it as their own throughout history. I walked past and gave the chest a glance before wandering out of the other end of the room to avoid disrupting the worship. There was not much to see. In the past pilgrims had been able to peer inside at what has been described in some writings as either ‘a large canine’ or a ‘tooth more crocodile than man.’
Back outside the fruit bats began their nightly acrobatics overhead while monkeys picked at the left over flowers that failed to be chosen as offerings. Pilgrims were drifting back to their homes and hotels, leaving their incense to continue burning, wisps of fragrant smoke filling the courtyard. The power had finally returned and now the 8 sides of the Pattiripuva were illuminated in sodium yellow. Dr Nimal would be in a much cheerier mood tonight.
Reverence is something that Kandy does well and nowhere else in Sri Lanka are people as pious as here. Whether to a king or a relic, devotion seems to be at the heart of this place. Despite the sprawl and suburbs or modern Kandy, the idea that this is Mahu Navara still remains. The thrum of traffic and city life seems unable to cut through the spirituality and serenity of this place. Although the days of kings and courtiers are gone, the history feels palpable. I may have been caught up in the sense of occasion, but Kandy left me, like many others throughout history, spellbound.
Like it? Pin it!